What is it that makes things ‘Japanese’?


The other day I walked along the road to the far side of the island. Kio-chan, who I hardly recognized without his trademark red Hawaiian shirt and red cap on, could be seen in the distance being walked by his dog. When I approached him, he was huffing and puffing. “Kio-chan,” I said, “I didn’t know you had a dog.”

“I don’t,” he gasped. “This is Man-chan’s dog,” he said referring to his best friend, who in a bit of role reversal, did not happen to be the dog. “I took the dog for him when he went into the hospital last year. I’ve still got it,” he said referring to the fact that Man-chan has been out of the hospital for over a year now.

Kio-chan was wiping sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief. Man-chan’s dog, more like a small vehicle, was tugging on Kio-chan’s arm stretching it until it was longer than time.

Suddenly, in one split second, Kio-chan was yanked out of my line of sight and was now standing 10 meters away in my peripheral vision. “Kio-chan, come back!” I yelled, but by the time I could yell out, the dog was in four-paw drive and Kio-chan was being towed along in a slow jog. He waved his handkerchief in the air as if to say goodbye in what looked more like a gesture of surrender.

Man-chan’s dog is a shiba-ken, a type of Japanese dog, but it doesn’t look very Japanese to me. This got me thinking about what it is that makes something Japanese. The other day, for example, I learned that cleaning in the morning is “distinctly Japanese.” Ehhhh?

Yep. I found this out when my neighbor Kazu-chan had some family visiting over O-bon. Early one morning, I was sweeping the path out in front of my house when one of the visiting family members poked her head outside the door and remarked, “Oh Amy, you are just like the Japanese. You clean in the morning.”

I would think that cleaning, at any time of the day, would have to be a natural human trait as opposed to a Japanese trait. And the morning? It’s just one of four times of the day you can clean. But who knows, perhaps the land of the rising sun has a patent on everything that happens in the morning.

I tried to repress bursting into the full karaoke version of the old children’s song we sang in kindergarten: “This is the way we wash our clothes, wash our clothes, wash our clothes, this is the way we wash our clothes, so early in the morning.” Then again, there was no refrain that said “this is the way we sweep the path so early in the morning.” So maybe sweeping the path in the morning is Japanese.

I would have thought that for it to be a distinctly Japanese act, you’d have to at least use one of those short Japanese brooms that requires you to bend over far enough to get a good look at the dirt before you sweep it away. I’ve never quite understood those short brooms. Makes you feel sorry for Japanese witches.

Kazu-chan, however, vacuums only in the mornings. I can hear the vacuum cleaner going for about 20 minutes at exactly 8 a.m. as if it is on a self-timer.

I never vacuum in the morning. It just doesn’t seem right. The morning is for listening to the birds singing, and watching the quacking ducks from the window as they patrol the port. Why try to compete with peace? The morning is the calmest part of the day before the boats start coming in and out of the port and people start their daily buzz.

I think since Kazu-chan never sees me vacuum in the mornings, she secretly harbors suspicions that I don’t vacuum at all. On the rare occasion that she is actually home when I vacuum in the afternoon, she invariably comes next door and says, “Expecting company?”

And although we often eat dinner together, if one of those nights we are barbecuing outside, she’ll say, “Expecting company?” And I’ll invariably smile and say, “Just you Kazu-chan.” Because while to us barbecuing is just another type of cooking, in Japan it is an event.

In English we have a saying: Good fences make good neighbors. But personally, I’d rather not be fenced in one way or the other.