Sunday, April 19, 2009

Japan Lite: Imagine no possessions

Everyone has heard how the Japanese have no furniture in their houses and how they sit on the floor and sleep on futons.

Many people have the image of the Japanese living a minimalist, Zen existence among simplicity and diaphanous shades of light, as portrayed in large coffee-table books on Japan.

Then there are the Japanese houses no one ever tells you about. The ones that are so full of junk they would never fit into even the largest coffee-table book. Those houses have newspapers and magazines stacked up to the ceiling, Hello Kitty paraphernalia hanging from door knobs, odds and ends occupying floor space and boxes of stuff piled high in the corner because there is nowhere else to put them.

The average Japanese house has no closets to hide things in and no cabinets to store things in, but this doesn't stop people from obtaining more stuff.

Stereos and TVs are stuffed into the tokonoma previously reserved for the display of Japanese art objects.

Genkan are lined with layers of shoes. And all around the house things are left out because there is no "in."

Face it, although Japanese people used to own very little, these days they want modern luxuries such as dental floss and nose hair clippers. But the houses have not changed to accommodate.

And this leads to stacking things. Once a pile of stuff gets so high it sways like a high-rise building, that's when the industrious Japanese put up a curtain to hide it. And this, I am sure, is just to make guests feel less like they'll have to make a run for it should the wall come down.

If you're the type who keeps your tools in a heated garage accessorized with an automatic garage door opener, then don't even think of coming to Japan. There's just not enough space here to share with space hogs. You really must use and appreciate every millimeter of space you have here.

John Lennon in his song "Imagine," said, "Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can." Well, I can. I also suspect John was under the influence of Yoko Ono. There are only so many possessions a space-challenged Japanese house can hold.

But the truth is, despite the lack of storage space, there are advantages to living in these small Japanese houses. For example, my Japanese house is so small, I can mentally picture everything in it. I know exactly what I have in my house should I ever have to fill out the details on an insurance claim form. No storage space means no stuff in cardboard boxes hiding their contents from me for years on end. No extra space means no wondering where I put this or that, or whether to keep or to toss. Everything is at hand.

This does not mean, however, that I don't have a lot of stuff. I do. I have boxes of stuff in my native country waiting for me to rejoin them someday. All I can say is: Don't get your hopes up, stuff. I consider my stuff more like possessions dispossessed.

But still.

Most foreigners have stuff in storage somewhere in their native countries on the off-chance that they might need it some day. What if there's a war or a famine and we have to move back home? Our stuff would greet us like a long lost friend. And we'd be very glad to see it too. So we continue to keep things in storage that we'll probably never use. And those things know that if they wait long enough, and with some luck, they may become possessions repossessed. And so it waits patiently in storage.

The definition of storage, for the benefit of our Japanese readers, is a dark place where stuff can hibernate for years on end uninterrupted. There's a reason storage places are dark: You don't want this stuff to wake up.

Every time I go home to my country to visit, I check on my stuff. I slowly open the door to the storage room, careful to only let in a small ray of light. I look, see that my stuff is still there, and quickly close the door. That's my stuff all right. There is something secure about knowing you have stuff just in case you might need it someday. Even though you know you won't.

Someday I'll get rid of all that stuff. I'll give it to somebody else. Somebody who doesn't have enough stuff. Someone who no longer wants to live a minimalist, Zen existence among simplicity and diaphanous shades of light.


froggy said...

YUP! Remembering revered George Carlins' brilliance and insight. His
routine on " stuff " (and soooo may others) IS brilliant. (Para
phrase) "You have your stuff. Other people just have a lot of crap".

Nelson said...

Good column Amy and so descriptive of 95% of the Japanese homes I have been in, except mine of course.
Well here is another suggestion for a column to go with the many suggestions I have sent in the past, which you never use by the way (-_-").
I used to like Sazae san just before I moved to Japan 6 years ago but by now, the cumulative effect of all of that cloying maudlin naivite (sp?) of that steaming tripe has succeeded in dulling my interest.
Remember how the original strip showed the immediate postwar Japan and it demonstrated how families lived at the time, the perils and tribulations and minor victories. For example they would show families saving midyear and end of year gifts and recycling them, until the gift would ultimately be returned to the original sender.
Anyway I propose that the series be completely rebooted and redrawn to reflect a late 40's Japan - I think the people would be interested in seeing that and it would promote discussion and interest in Showa Japan, my single favorite period.
Oh who am I kidding - the people won't care.

Cow Lady said...

Hi Nelson! thank you for your new year's card! Moooooooo! I used to like to watch Sazae-san too but I haven't watched it in a long, long time. I always appreciate suggestions for columns, its just that I seldom have the same experience in the topic as the person suggesting it does in order to write something intelligent. It doesn't mean they are not good suggestions however ;) Showa, Showa, Showa, now that's something I'll have to consider. Didn't you once write me about scrap metal? Someone said that would make a good column too. Moooooo!

Nelson said...

What a great memory Amy, yes I did write about scrap metal drives, about 5 years ago. Here are 3 ideas I had for columns:

1) the big black scary right-wing buses with loudspeakers, rising sun flags. These people are scary. Maybe you don't want to write about them; they will show up at your door with megaphones.

2) Japan scrap metal piles: We need to have a national scrap metal drive. I am tired of seeing the piles of rusty junk on corners, piles of abandoned cars, I have seen horrifying junkyards hidden in the mountains of Gifu Pref - used by construction companies - to park their junk bulldozers etc; with big signs, "NO PHOTOGRAPHS". I take photos anyway. Japan had scrap metal drives during and prior to WWII to build up their naval fleet. They took down iron fences, etc., they even melted down the bronze Shibuya station dog statue of Hachiko; it was replaced with a new statue after the war.

3) The elementary school 31 legged races. The kids race for better and better times, like from 9.12 seconds to 8.93 for example. I have seen a group of 30 kids fail to make a winning time, at a national meet, and they and their adult coach all burst into tears!! Holy cow - pardon the pun - I was surprised. Would an american 4th grade softball team start crying if they lost? These people invaded Manchuria and the Dutch East Indies? Anyway, I consider this to be unusual behavior.

Anyway maybe not individually worthy of a JL column but still interesting examples of life in Japan.

Cow Lady said...

Thanks Nelson. I could fit scrap metal into a column soon as I am going to try to get a movement up to clean up our island of all the unsightly cars sitting around rotting away! Big trash is a big problem on a small island like ours. I'll see what I can do!

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