“France for food, Japan for wives.” That was basically the conclusion made by French journalist/novelist Pierre Loti, who dropped by our shores in 1885 and wrote a book about his stay called “Madame Chrysantheme.” Loti hadn’t exactly caught the Japan bug — he was critical of many facets of Japanese society, weather and men. Of the Yamato nadeshiko (大和撫子, the born and bred, quintessential Japanese women) however, he sang praises.
Some 130 years later, the Yamato nadeshiko still has an allure that goes beyond mere sexuality. She exudes a subtle exoticism and quirky mystery. She also sports a steely resolve that comes with the conviction that romantic love — that all-important concept imported from the West — is vastly overrated. The Yamato nadeshiko lives for many things but she very rarely lives for romance. Maybe that’s why she makes an excellent wife.
So who is this exalted woman, long touted by seiyōjin (西洋人, people of the West) as the tōyō no hana (東洋の花, flower of the Orient), who prompted the making of such ridiculous Hollywood films as “Memoirs of a Geisha”? Actually, it’s hard to say. The original meaning refers to a woman who’s so adorable she makes you want to sit her down and naderu (撫でる, pat) her all day long. As my British friend Ian declares: “Even the most obnoxious of J-girls are adorable.”
From shōgakusei (小学生, grade schoolers) to onēchan (お姉ちゃん, literally “older sister” but also used for sexy young women) and even obāchan (おばあちゃん, grannies), the Yamato nadeshiko can wield a strange and irresistable charm. On the flip side, being a true-blue nadeshiko requires enormous shitsuke (躾, discipline) and meticulous jibun-migaki (自分磨き, polishing the self, including self care and maintenance) on a 24/7 basis — just in case you thought it came with the territory. Like most things on this shimaguni (島国, island nation), it entails the kind of endurance level on par with running a marathon. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
The Yamato nadeshiko is renowned for her bihada (美肌, beautiful skin), bihatsu (美髪, beautiful hair) and yanagigoshi (柳腰, willowy hips), not to mention a patented okuyukashisa (奥ゆかしさ, a deep and abiding modesty) that both defines her personality and adorns her being. She’s also about practicality. According to my own observations, 75 percent of the typical Yamato nadeshiko is made up of an unshakeable devotion to kaji (家事, household chores) — whether she’s married or not.
This isn’t to say she’s overjoyed about it. Throughout modern history, Japanese women have attempted to halt the eternal treadmill of housework without much success. With all the snazzy, state-of-the-art kaden (家電, electric appliances) out in any number of ōgata denkiten (大型電器店, large electronics stores), the average J-lady spends an average 2.5 hours a day cooking, cleaning and doing laundry (source: 総務省 Somusho, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications). For men, by the way, it’s 10 minutes. And if the woman has two or more kids, those hours could double or triple. Between polishing herself and polishing the windows, it’s a wonder the nadeshiko finds any time to rest. Which brings us to another prominent feature of the adorable Japanese woman: she doesn’t. Adding insult to injury, get this: according to a Nikkei Shimbun report, a year’s worth of housework roughly equates to a salary of ¥3.2 million before taxes. A sum no one has ever charged or been paid.
Kangaetemireba (考えてみれば, upon reflection), the Yamato nadeshiko has more political influence than anyone likes to admit. On the surface, Japan is entrenched in a fukenshakai (父権社会, patriarchal society), but if the nation’s women were to quit their chores en masse, the damage would be far more serious than any earthquake. This is probably why the kanji characters for state (国家, kokka) consist of kuni (国, country) and ie (家, house) and finances are often called daidokorojijyō (台所事情, kitchen circumstances). In order to continue its insular, sorry-ass ways, the Japanese government need legions of industrious, adorable and supportive nadeshiko tirelessly working their willowy butts off. Did anyone scream anything about a raw deal?
Speaking of which, another nadeshiko definition (or job description) is a genetic willingness to clean toilets and plunge her hands into a vat of smelly nuka (糠, fermented rice hulls) on a daily basis — though not necessarily in that order. The toilet thing has sexual connotations; Traditionally, it was said that the habakari (憚り, restroom) resembles female genitalia, and that a god resides in every single W.C. The nuka issue is another story — those rice hulls turn up in everything from skin lotions to aspirin, and they’re also absolutely necessary in the making of nukazuke (ぬか漬け, vegetables pickled in rice hulls). Both are impossible to automate and require hand labor, 365 days out of the year.
Is all this a small price to pay for being adorable until you’re 80? Heck no. But the last and most infuriating trait of the Yamato nadeshiko is that she does not seek personal happiness. I’m telling you, whoever thought this stuff up thought of everything.