Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Advantages of Living in a Small Space

We don't feel crowded living in Tokyo because we don't know anything else. We see pictures of Wyoming and wonder how people could be happy living on the moon. Of course, it requires a certain discipline to live so close together, but we were born into a disciplined world so it is hard for us to imagine living any other way. Besides, there are advantages.

For one, it's less expensive to live in a small space, so money which might be spent on an extravagant house with a rolling lawn can be used to enrich the soul. The thought of a backyard pool is absurd and anyway there is no backyard. If you live in a small space, you can't buy things just for the fun of acquiring them because you have no place to put them. What things you do buy--books, for instance--must be very carefully chosen, which is a useful exercise in itself. Pictures to hang on the wall must be small, which is a whole exquisite aesthetic. In Tokyo, an extensive wine cellar is six bottles. We are forced to be discriminating.

Your refrigerator and oven and dishwasher and washing machine, if you have them, will be as small as a crate of beer and your automobile, scooter, and even bicycle will be on the same scale, but of course Japanese manufacturers are practiced at the art of  miniaturization and the cost of their products is in line with their size. (Japanese small cars, called k-jidosha, are the best in the world but there is no call for them abroad simply because most foreigners are too lanky to fit into them.) Very unfortunately, consumers in foreign countries rarely see the results of this Japanese small-scale thinking as they disdain products noticeably smaller than they are used to. Outside Japan, big is OK and small is somehow suspect. In Japan, the reverse is true.

If you don't have a kitchen at all, like many small apartments, you don't need kitchen appliances or plates or wine glasses and you'll always eat out, thus ensuring that you'll be in daily communication with your neighbors living a similarly simplified life and also that the neighborhood is well supplied with cheap, congenial places to eat where everybody knows everyone. Similarly, if your apartment doesn't have a bath, in the evening you'll adjourn to the local sento, the public bath, where again the community gathers, naked, to scrub itself. The tendency for newer small apartments to squeeze in a bath just big enough to sit down in is decried by those who think  Japan's sense of community is thus threatened. They think it essential for national unity that children grow up thinking the only way to really get clean is to submerge oneself in hot water up to the chin at the neighborhood sento. (The government evidently thinks so too, as it subsidizes the entrance to sento.)  

If you live on tatami mats, you don't need a full-size table or any chairs, and your bed can be folded up and put away to create an open space. Once you get used to living this way, western-style rooms seem cluttered. Small rooms are easy to heat and in the summer easier to keep cool with any of the hundreds of models of electric fans of all sizes, beginning with fans the size of an alarm clock, provided each summer by Japanese manufacturers. 

There's no room to let newspapers and magazines accumulate, so everything must be read carefully and put in a pile to be disposed of on the first Newspaper-and-Magazine Disposal Day. No drowsy reading allowed.

Because we live so close together, we must talk softly and move gently, which is why Japanese traveling abroad often find their new surroundings jarring. Because there is no retreat from living close together short of moving to a hut in the mountains, Japanese families, who must eat together around one low table, and sleep together in the same room, are wonderfully cohesive and sharing everything--TV, computer, printer--comes naturally.

One of the great advantages of living together so closely is that there is little "size envy," little unhappiness that your neighbor's house is bigger than yours, simply because in Tokyo it is unlikely to be. In Tokyo, we have the concept of shakkei, "borrowed scenery," which is the idea that anyone can look at a beautiful garden such as the splendid Rikugi-en in Bunkyo-ku or Hamarikyu-onshi-teien in Chuo-ku and to that extent it is theirs. They don't have to own it. It belongs to everybody. Somehow, it is not possible to feel this way about Central Park in New York.

- Natasha Nakamura

Friday, January 25, 2013

Good morning, everyone.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A look back at kamishibai

Kamishibai are small-scale, informal, intimate theatrical performances put on in the old days in the street for passersby, particularly for children. These days there's no telling where and when you might run across a kamishibai in the street, although certainly your chances are better in the more traditional neighborhoods like Ueno.

You will be attracted by one or two fluttering banners, the rhythmic clapping together of two pieces of wood, and the ritual bawled-out announcement to the passing crowd that "The kamishibai is about to begin!" Sometimes there will be other attempts to attract a crowd, such as a familiar tune on an unfamiliar instrument like a clarinet, a juggler, a magician, or a contortionist.

A rug will be laid down for the kids, who may be offered a piece of candy to come and make themselves comfortable. (In the old days, the kids would have to buy their candy for a few yen and this would entitle them to a front seat.)

Kamishibai stories are narrated using a series of emphatic illustrations on boards the size of the screen of a small TV. The narrator uses different voices for the different characters and the children are drawn into the story: "Should the squirrel run away and hide or should he stand and fight?" And the story will go the way the children suggest.

There will be stories of an evil Santa Claus, of the adventures of a peanut that can jump very high and change colors, of a team of bumbling robbers who of course get caught, of floods and of fires. There might be the story about a boy with a great curiosity about everything who sneaks aboard a sailing ship and climbs to the top of the mast--dangerous--and there is a storm and he has to jump off into the ocean--SPLASH--where he is rescued by kindly fishermen who tell him it is a fine thing to be curious but he must be careful and not cause other people trouble.

A kamishibai story takes maybe ten minutes. There will be maybe twenty pictures and a dozen different voices.

Kamishibai these days evoke nostalgia for the immensely popular street kamishibai of the past, which were performed by professionals, that is, people who lived off what they did. Most present-day kamishibai are aimed at adults and are not held on the street but in small halls, where they can be illuminated and microphones can amplify the sound. They recall rakugo monologists without pictures. Not the same thing.


Friday, January 18, 2013

The board game of shogi, which is different from chess in that you can use yourself any piece you capture--which makes the game considerably more complex than chess. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

East/West Marriage Contretemps

He was born there, she here. His gut language is English, hers Japanese. They understand each other well enough, but the 7 o'clock NHK Evening News divides them. (NHK translates its Evening News into 27 different languages.)

She prefers to listen in English as she is amused by the wooden straightness of NHK's take on the language. He, unamused by the English version, prefers to listen in the original Japanese, which while not at all elegant at least seems authentic.

And so over time they have devised their own language to use between them, bits of Japanese and bits of English, like an imaginatively flavored omelette.

--Rick Kennedy 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Monday, January 7, 2013


Holiday double whammy

Tokyo celebrates Christmas as frenetically as New York. The stores, hung with wreaths and with a winkling pine tree in every lobby, are jammed with people searching for gifts for the kids. The sales staff is decked out with red caps trimmed with white fur and with a white fluffy ball on the top. Bearded Santas roam the aisles ho ho ho. There are spectacular lighting displays in all stores confident their Christmas sales will pay for it all.

After dinner on Christmas day, most families will put on the table an elaborate Christmas cake. Oh! Ah!

Then a few days later comes Oshogatsu, a three-day celebration of the dawn of the New Year, requiring an exchange of New Year's card to keep the Post Office busy and a meal geared to taking three days to eat. Children are ritually given envelopes containing money.

When Christmas, then Shogatsu is finally over, there is a general collapse and people are happy to resume the quiet, regulated regime of work.

Western holidays began appearing on Japanese calendars when Japanese businessmen went abroad and saw that special occasions were recognized by everyone at certain times of the year. These days, everyone's birthday is recognized whereas before only the Emperor's Birthday was a special day. On Valentine's Day, men give chocolates to their women friends. On Halloween, Japanese kids dress up as witches and skeletons. Predictably, some pubs celebrate St. Patrick's Day. 

So now, there are two sets of holidays in Japan - Western holidays and 
traditional Japanese holidays such as seijin no hi (when those who have just turned 20 dress in kimono and go for a walk around town), setsubun (to mark the beginning of Spring on February 3), obon (a festival to commemorate members of the family who have died), keiro no hi (respect for the aged day), and bunka no hi (Culture Day, when we give thanks for having the arts to play with).

And so it is that the Japanese calendar is sprinkled with more holidays than any other country.

- Natasha Nakamura

Thursday, January 3, 2013