“Tokimeku” Means So Much More Than “Spark Joy” in Japanese

updated Jan 9, 2020
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When you hear “Aha! Moment,” you think Oprah Winfrey. “Yas, Queen” screams Ilana Glazer. Now, who comes to mind when you think of “spark joy?” It’s a no-brainer, especially these days: Marie Kondo.

The two-word phrase associated with the decluttering guru is said to be the English translation of the Japanese word “tokimeku,” which Kondo uses in her celebrated guide “Jinsei ga Tokimeku Katazuke no Mahō” (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up“), as well as in her new Netflix show “Tidying Up.” However, contrary to what many of us believe, there is much more to “tokimeku” than “spark joy”—starting with the fact that it’s not actually the literal translation.

But first, here’s some necessary context.

This past month has been an explosion of what we’ve deemed as the Kondo Kraze. Since the fateful day Netflix released Kondo’s show, “spark joy” quickly climbed to the top of headlines and turned into the most-uttered phrase in our office. But when one of our commenters mentioned that the phrase “spark joy” is not the most accurate translation of “tokimeku,” I found myself wanting to know the full story behind this Japanese word. Could a phrase that holds such significant decision-making power amount to such a straight-forward meaning?

A quick answer by Google Translator led me to a surprising discovery—it said that tokimeku, or ときめく, had three definitions: flutter, throb, or palpitate. I needed to cross-reference with stronger sources (sorry, Google), so I fled to the New York Public Library for just that. I stumbled across Kenkyusha’s Japanese-English Dictionary and flipped through thousands of paper thin pages, finally coming to the verb “tokimeku” as well as its noun counterpart, “tokimeki.”

Tokimeku has two definitions:

  1. enjoy [be in] great prosperity; be prosperous; prosper; flourish; thrive; have one’s day; be powerful; be influential; be in power.
  2. throb; palpitate; pulsate; pulse; beat fast.

The second definition matched what I had previously found, which reassured me I was on the right path, yet I still had no idea where “spark joy” came from. So the only way to find out was to go back to where it originated in “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up” and ask the book’s professional translator Cathy Hirano, who essentially was responsible for bringing “spark joy” to life.

Going back to clarifying the Japanese term, Hirano said that “tokimeku” is another way of saying “your heart beats”—like when it’s dancing in anticipation of something or when you have a crush on somebody—hence the palpitate, throb, and pulse descriptions. When working on the book’s translation, Hirano checked in with various Japanese speakers on how they felt about the way Kondo uses “tokimeku” in the home. Although the natives mentioned they wouldn’t usually use the Japanese word in that context, they understood what Kondo meant by it. And that was enough for Hirano to start playing around with what the word could mean in English.

With this new sense of freedom, she sat and jotted down different possible meanings that she still has record of to this day:

  • Does this bring you joy?
  • Does this give you joy?
  • Does this inspire joy?
  • Does this spark joy?
  • Does this bring you pleasure?
  • Does this give you pleasure?
  • Do you feel a thrill of pleasure when you touch it?
  • Do you feel a thrill of joy when you touch it?
  • Does it speak to your heart?
  • Does it brighten your world?
  • Does it give you a thrill?
  • Does it make you happy?

“The one that really spoke to me after reading her book was ‘spark joy’ because it’s got that element of sudden flutter in your heart, or that feeling of inspiration if you’re anticipating something,” Hirano said. “It was very powerful for me, but I knew I did not want to use that all the time, because in English if you use a powerful phrase too often it then becomes mind-numbing.”

If you look through “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” you’ll notice that Hirano decided to include all of the examples above in her book. However, there was no doubt that “spark joy” stuck out for readers, especially when it was chosen as the English title of Kondo’s second book.

While “spark joy” isn’t the literal definition, Seigo Nakao, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Studies at Oakland University, agrees that the English meaning represents “tokimeku” in an accurate light. “There’s an inclusive feeling of love and happiness when we purchase new things, so I think ‘spark joy’ goes along with many situations,” Nakao said. The native Japanese speaker also mentioned that tokimeku means “my heart beats fast” and usually refers to when one is falling in love, but by extension can happen when you see your favorite things around you.

Although “tokimeku” has been understood as when your heart beats, the situation in which this takes place can depend on the person experiencing it. Interpreter and writer Marie Iida, who translated alongside Kondo on “Tidying Up,” talks about how it’s a personal experience for the individual, which is what Kondo intends for her clients as they try to understand how an object makes them feel.

“I think the point is that it’s such a personal experience for you, and I think that ties in very strongly with what Marie actually has you do when you’re going through her method,” Iida said. “It’s an intangible feeling, and it’s hard to express it into words. I would like to think that’s why Cathy chose the word ‘joy,’ to really help us understand what Marie was trying to get us to experience.”