Japanese tidying and organizing guru Marie Kondo (aka Konmari) has a new Netflix show out where she helps people around the United States unclutter their spaces and, potentially, their lives. Predictably, the series has generated mixed opinions, as those who love having “stuff” are resistant to the notion that throwing things out could lead to happiness. One particular point of contention comes from Konmari’s core idea that we should only keep things that “spark joy.” This has been especially controversial among book lovers, as the notion that one should only keep books that “spark joy” is viewed as antithetical to the purpose of books.
This actually isn’t the first time this backlash has occurred. Back when Kondo’s book first came out in English, it was received with similar skepticism.
However, is sparking joy—that is to say, “create a feeling of comfort and placidity—really what Konmari is trying to say? What I’ve found is that the phrase “spark joy” is a somewhat narrow translation of the original Japanese. Instead, in the original language, Konmari uses the terms tokimeki and tokimeku (the meanings of which I’ll explain below), and knowing this can potentially change how one views her Konmari Method.
(Note that this is not meant to be a scathing criticism of the book’s English translation so much as it is a lesson in the difficulties of translation and localization that are inherent to the whole process).
Tokimeki in Japanese means “throbbing” or “palpitation,” but is probably better translated as “heart-pounding excitement.” If you follow Japanese anime, manga, and video games, you might see the term pop up quite often: Tokimeki Memorial, Tokimeki Tonight, etc. Tokimeku is a verb form of this—”to induce heart-pounding excitement.” While that overlaps somewhat with “sparking joy,” the two can carry very different meanings, and tokimeki doesn’t necessarily hinge on a sense of bliss or unabashed happiness that the word “joy” can imply. Things, including books, can disturb and perturb and still create excitement.
In fact, the Japanese title of her first book (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in English) translates literally to Life’s Heart-Pounding Cleaning Magic. In other words, tokimeki is a part of the title itself.
Personally speaking, I can’t go all in on the Konmari Method, as I love collecting things, on top of also believing in having a strong library for both reference purposes and personal satisfaction. However, when it comes to books in particular, I’ve recently thought over how I view books and their importance. The purpose of a book is to be read, and whenever I finish a book, I find myself wondering, “Is this book better off on my shelf within arm’s reach, or being out there in the world for someone else to find?” There’s never a consistent answer, but I find it’s an important question to ask myself. Those who think letting go of their books is an inherent problem might consider how books that don’t excite them might find a home with someone else.
Thanks for this post. I suspected that ‘spark joy’ was an imperfect translation, but I don’t know enough Japanese to figure out the nuances of ‘tokimeku’ myself, so I’m glad you wrote this post.
Also, someone on the internet has commented (I don’t want to take the time to look up who said this, sorry for lack of attribution!) that Marie Kondo’s book itself is an example of a book which ‘disturbs’ people like Anakana Schofield, and the way they react to a book which actually is challenging their worldview is very ironic for people who claim to value having their worldviews challenged.
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