When a foreigner arrives in Boston, he or she faces a big hurdle right away, that is, finding housing. Houses in Boston are often over 100 years old and expensive. Even when compared to houses in London or Tokyo, they seem overvalued. In some the floor is curving, and one can hear the sounds of the upstairs neighbors as they walk. Laundry is often in a separate location on the basement floor, reminding me of my school days in the dorm.
Real estate agents may think it is wonderful that people enjoy old and storied accommodations, rich in history. However, as a visiting scholar coming from Japan I wasn’t eager to give up the modern, hi-tech apartments I was used to.
In a Japanese apartment, various functions can be easily controlled with the push of a button. Security systems include fingerprint authentication or voice identification. If a woman lives alone, she can switch her voice to a rich baritone through the speaker when talking with a stranger. A washlet (hi-tech toilet) is common in most Japanese households, with automatic opening, flushing, warming, and cleaning technology. It is normal for Japanese people to take a bath every day, and the bathroom is also highly developed. You can push a button in the kitchen while cooking dinner to automatically fill and heat the bathtub, with an announcement of “The bath is prepared” and accompanying music. Showers are designed for easy clean up, and people enjoy Jacuzzis and mist saunas even in very small bathrooms. Finally, of course, the structures of new houses in Japan are built to withstand earthquakes, activate sprinklers in case of fire, and heat floors for the winter.
However, if the housing in Boston stays less developed in its “hard” features, such as whether there is a washing machine, it has an advantage I appreciated in the “soft” ones – achieving an attitude toward your daily life that makes for a comfortable environment wherever you live.
The key to that is simplicity. And if among cities in the world Boston’s housing is kept old and ill-maintained in part because of its huge transient population cycling through short stays in the fields of academia, business, medicine, engineering, and art, that same population creates a rich flow of used furniture, bicycles, home appliances, and tableware. I came from Japan with only one suitcase, and I went back with no more than that, because of this flow. In Boston, items come to you from the excesses of others’ unneeded things, often with a cheap price.
Not everyone takes advantage of this; when I help friends move, I am surprised to see their numerous belongings, especially when I hear that they never use them. For myself, I welcome the opportunity that cutting down provides to understand my own preferences and habits in-depth. I love winnowing my wardrobe, clearing food stocks, and reducing cosmetics. These activities lead me to feel detoxed and refreshed. My ideal housing is a room in a hotel where there are only necessary and minimum things.
How should we maintain a comfortable surrounding? There are two keys. If you are single, or childless, I suggest that you choose only your favorite items in your closet, kitchen, and bookshelf. The standard by which you choose should be “whether it makes you feel excited or not.” You should not compromise to keep what you don’t like. Then, you will enjoy shopping in the confines of your own home by choosing your favorite items in your closet, kitchen, and bookshelf. And you will not resent their presence in your room.
If you have a big family, this method is impossible. Instead, you should observe the habits of all members, and measure the frequency of use of all things. Then, you must classify them into general groups, deciding the place for each belonging following the frequency, and design paths for easy access. Each family should remember places and recognize that everyone needs to return things to their “home”. After you know how many things you and your family own, you can manage supplies inside the house. At a glance, holding onto things, sometimes painfully, may look like a virtue; however, if you don’t use the items well, it is only wasteful and can become an obstacle to your well-being.
As for the high rent of the old houses here in Boston, well, I try to see the expense as also helping us keep our other purchases down.
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If in our apartments we like the modern and high-tech, in other realms of life we prefer the natural. But not the natural natural; we simply do not like to reveal the efforts behind the maintenance of our “naturalness.”
For example, hair-style is one of the most important things for Japanese women. We choose our hair color depending on individual skin tone, and repeat coloring to keep our black or brown hair looking young and free of split ends. For the maintenance of this beautiful and ‘natural’ hair, salon patrons, hair stylists, and colorists discuss new hair-styles by the millimeter every two months. Home appliance makers compete to supply new and semi-professional products such as “nano-ion” driers, hair steamers, and various curlers. Yet the other day while when a young student in Cambridge approached me and politely said, “Your hair is awfully cute!” I appreciated the kindness while in my heart I couldn’t help thinking, I wish he had complimented me on something that really was more myself, and not the product of so much time and money.
This “naturalness” is a value peculiar to Japan. For instance, in South Korea, approaches to beauty are far more pragmatic. If a woman can make herself attractive by any means, she is considered beautiful. It doesn’t matter whether this beauty was created by plastic surgery or due to natural gifts. Many of my friends introduce me to their favorite skin clinics every time I visit Seoul. Their husbands are proud of their wives’ beauty and youth, and even appear proud to pay for it.
In Japan, not only face and body, but also atmosphere and image are highly important and people hope to appear as if their beauty were effortless. “Healthy, clean, pure, modest, and decent” are seen as the main factors of beauty; conversely, “arrogant, rough, gruff, wild and gaudy” are viewed negatively. In actuality, we were not born with cleanliness or modesty. In order to acquire and maintain this beauty, Japanese women make numerous efforts, investing time and money behind the scenes to cultivate the appearance of “naturalness.”
As for the background of this phenomenon, traditional cultural values play a key role. In the world of Japanese culture, such as in tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arrangement), an artist should not show their preparation and effort to the audience. If their effort is obvious, it is not art. Zeami, who was an important performer of noh (classical Japanese drama), described the essence of Japanese beauty in Fushi Kaden (his book of noh theory), stating, “If it is hidden, it is the Flower. If it is not hidden, it is not the Flower (The Flowering Spirit).” “Flower” here means the impression that the audience receives from the stage. If they knew the secret, they would not be impressed. Even though art is nearly always effortful, if an artist shows this, it becomes unsophisticated.
Is my makeup too heavy? Do people think my fashion is like that of a “logo queen”? Is my nail color garish? Every morning women check themselves before going outside. We are not professional models or actresses. We are office ladies, students, and shop assistants. We fear people may discover our beauty intentions, yet we are addicted to the maintenance of this “natural beauty.”
Honestly speaking, I was worried that I would not be able to maintain beauty upkeep in Boston as well as in Tokyo. Many of the female students have a style that is truly more natural, and makes it seem they do not care about fashion. They carry heavy backpacks, wear hoodies with “Harvard” logos and sneakers, and put their hair up loosely.
But I wonder if I should not have worried so much. In contrast to when my hair got complimented, my happiest moments come when people mention unrecognized virtues. The other day while I was walking through town, a young Red Cross street fundraiser called out. “Hi, Miss, you dropped something.” When I turned around, he suddenly replied “…Your beautiful smile!” I was surprised by his words because there is no artifice to my smile; it’s actually natural. His own smile was brilliant, and I would have invited him to have coffee had I not been busy.
Even though the stone roads around Harvard Yard break my high heels every week, and even though it is difficult to find a good eye-lash extension salon here, sometimes I feel in fashion, too, Boston has its advantages.
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‘Cross-cultural communication’ seems like a thing that one should embrace, but sometimes culture itself gets in the way of communication.
People who are curious about Japan have invited me to many parties since I moved to Boston from my native Tokyo. I appreciate their consideration, and want to strike up a conversation, but I feel that to be polite I must be careful.
In East Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Korea, even upon first meeting someone, people often ask you, “How old are you?”, “Are you single or married?”, “Do you have children? If not, why? ”, “What is your ideal man / woman?”, “Where are your parents from?” and so on. These questions remind me of the passport control officers’, and I’ve learned to leave them at the airport.
But avoiding these personal questions and political arguments leaves topics like art, food, and sports. Of these food and food culture would seem the most popular and harmless. There is nobody on earth who does not eat food. However, things have gotten awkward several times already during my stay in the U.S.
For example, once at a party a guest said to me “Oh, are you from Japan? I heard Japanese food is healthy and delicious! ” I answered, “Absolutely. Sushi and sashimi are especially wonderful. For example, tuna is a wonderful fish because we can eat it from head to tail…” However, when I said this, the guest made an odd expression and then left. After the party, I found out that she is a vegetarian and supports the restriction of tuna fishing. At another party, I answered the same question by saying, “Yes, I would recommend eating Kobe beef and Kagoshima black pig when you come to Japan …” However, I did not realize that there were Hindu and Muslim people present.
Japanese society doesn’t have a national religion, so we treat religious dietary restrictions as a problem of “personal preference”. Eating everything on the table is considered a virtue in our homogeneous nation. Teachers educate students to appreciate all foods, farmers, fishermen, and chefs, and reject personal preferences toward food except in the case of allergy.
International students from India must often go from supermarket to supermarket in order to find a curry block without beef bouillon, and Egyptian businessmen sigh over salads with bacon crisp. In addition, waitresses never explain ingredients when ordering meals. Vegetarian tourists buying rice balls at convenience stores often need a translator to understand the complicated Japanese food labeling. While living in Japan, I took it for granted that other people also ate the same food as me.
The other day, I was surprised when I tried to buy canned soup in the supermarket. Allergy –provoking ingredients like peanuts or religious dietary restrictions such as beef and pork were written in bold font. Respecting various lifestyles means respecting not only the freedom to eat something but also the freedom to not eat something. I can see that, but as someone from Japan, I’m only now learning how to be sensitive to it: explaining Japanese food to a stranger feels a bit like playing Russian roulette.
However, I am not the only one who sometimes makes assumptions with regards to food culture. People occasionally say to me, “Are you Japanese? You must cook sushi! ” In fact, it takes over 10 years in order to become a professional sushi chef. We never ask Chinese people whether they can broil Peking duck. In the same way we never ask French people if they know how to poele (butter roast) foie gras (liver of goose).
Regarding characteristics of my own food culture, freshness is highly valued among Japanese people. The word chinmi, which means rare delicacy in Japanese, can refer to sea urchin, sea cucumber, puffer fish, shirako (milt of cod), anglerfish, and soft shell turtle, to name a few examples. Depending on one’s cultural background, though, foods like these may be considered not a delicacy, but disgusting. The cultivation of sophisticated taste is highly respected in Japan, and freshness is vital to this cultivation of taste.
In addition to chinmi, we eat hatsumono (the young, first fish, vegetables, and fruit at the beginning of every season) in accordance with the Chinese lunar calendar, because the Japanese people believe these brings health and a delicate sense of taste. These foods are often rare, delicate, and even dangerous; therefore, people who treat them are required to attain specific qualifications.
Japanese food culture, as with many other food cultures, can be difficult to understand. However—and this is the real point—as someone Japanese, I tend to see it is rude to correct people’s misunderstandings or make them uncomfortable. Gradually I have ventured to say less and less. Perhaps I have already written too much.
Photo: “Layers of Reflection” by Esther Weeks