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Nadeshiko — adorable till they die

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

“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.

  • Oyaji Gag Master

    The term “nadeshiko” is an anachronism– ‘they’ no longer exist; at least, that is what a middle-aged male Japanese civil servant lamented to me once. However, like other Japanese historical aesthetic values, ‘they’ have merely morphed into something new to reflect the modern quintessence: aidoru.

  • pervertt

    Traditional script please. Unless Japan has followed the mainland Chinese way of simplified writing, “kokka” or country should be written 國家, not 国家. The word “ka” (or “jia” in Chinese) literally means family, not house. “Kokka” therefore translates as “national family.”

    • 思德

      I have seen Japanese people use 国 all the time, so you are mistaken in insisting on its use. You are right about the Chinese meaning of 家 though.

    • jonathan

      Ummm…in Japan, it’s 国, not 國. The latter is considered an archaic, though still occasionally used, form. And in Japanese, 家 has both the meaning of family and of house. And as this article is about Japan and not China, I think that Ms. Shoji’s usage is fine.

    • syrup16g

      國 is 旧字体 and has not been used officially since the days of 大日本帝國. Japan to some extent uses simplified characters: they are sometimes more simplified than Taiwan/Hong Kong Chinese (會/会) but not as simple as Mainland China. Japan also uses katakana for many traditional chinese words (檸檬 レモン) 国家 does not mean national family.. It means nation, state, country. While jia means family in Chinese, the character usually means house in Japanese. When referring to a family it usually け like in 徳川家. There are many other meanings and readings for 家: いえ うち や か ち

    • jmdesp

      pervett, China has actually imported from Japan the 国 simplification of 國, as well as quite a few others. This can be linked to how many Chinese intellectuals, like for example Chiang Kai-shek, went to Japan at the start of XX century, deciding after the humiliating 1895 defeat that China just had no choice but to modernize and that the easiest way was to go find out what the Japanese had been able to learn so quickly from the west. This has later led to a strong influence of the Japanese simplification efforts in the Chinese character simplification, even if China decided to go much further than Japan.

  • debi chan

    “….the last and most infuriating trait of the Yamato nadeshiko is that she does not seek personal happiness.” So why are the laughing all the time? Doesn’t look faked to me …

    • YES/NO MUSIC

      Finding something funny doesn’t equate to seeking personal happiness.

  • EQ

    “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” – Really? Are you sure about that? Because what I see when I look around points to the contrary. In my opinion (I did not interview any ladies – as Ms. Shoji must have done before writing her article), it seems to me that Japanese women are making considerable efforts in generating romantic love. Perhaps so because they are not expecting the men will. Again, just a personal opinion…

  • KaiHarate

    “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”? ”

    most western men do not hold japanese women in such high regard. i noticed female japanese writers/bloggers will make silly statements as if majority of western men are drooling for toyo no hana. if 1,000 western men were gathered in an area with 1,000 japanese women, perhaps only about 10-20 would have have a japanese preference.

    as for “memoirs…”. it was an interview with Mineko Iwasaki, japan’s most famous geisha, and other geishas that was basis for book/movie. only after her identity came out did she change her mind about what she had said. the author wrote a novel based upon what an actual geisha told him. if it’s ridiculous..then it is the japanese geisha who are ridiculous. iwasaki-san also wrote her own book and told of a harsh life as japanese person and how western lifestyle would be much more agreeable for japanese if they would consider it.

    • Ain

      You’ve obviously never read BOTH of those books. I have. There are crucial differences between the two (for example, the virginity of the main character in “Memoirs” is auctioned off — which never happened to Iwasaki). Iwasaki’s book is the true story of a geisha’s life, and “Memoirs” is about 80% fiction. Trust me, the book and the movie are patently ridiculous.
      As for your second paragraph, I agree w you there.

      My advice to the writer of this article: state your position and set your tone from the get-go. Starting the name-calling at the end of the article just sounds snarky.

      • KaiHarate

        She was THE main interview for the author way before he had written anything concrete. And it was her stories and tales that influenced the author most (along with others he spoke with). He told her he was writing a story, not a biography of her or anyone. She complied if he agreed to keep her identity a secret. He did. She was accused by some in Japanese circles of speaking about things that never should be spoken about and eventually was outed by a Japanese person not the author. Before that happened she had no problem with the book and subsequent things. Once she was outed, she had to go into hiding (because of Japanese harsh criticism and very real and serious death threats). It was then she started to speak out against the author, book, etc.

        Many Japanese will do/say anything to get back in line if society judges them harshly. It can be scary to be out on a limb in Japan and nearly all are eager to get back into the group and not stand out. Endless videos are out there of some crying CEO, politician, actor doing the “beg for forgiveness” routine in order to simply get people off their back. The cliche “nailed back down” is true in Japan.

        Virginity was commonly sold off in that era…not just in the world of geisha. …so she likely told him a story or two she specifically knew about. But that still puts her at the source of how author included that rather than he just took liberties and made stuff up. The possibility exists that she lied about the author tricking her to get back into good graces with Japan by blasting “the bad gaijin”. The “true story” of geisha could have been simply written as a way to cleverly distance herself from what she really did say to the author. To assume her biography is complete truth is a bit naive given she only wrote it when Japan got angry with her (and threatened with death). It was Japan who ruined her life, not westerners. Japanese people did that to her so she could have huge motivations to basically go “he lied to me and changed all my stories!”. I did work in terms of getting intense heat of her back and that really was her main goal I would think. Many Japanese today who study that era think as many did in that day…that she was a wise-guy criticizing Japanese society and wishing that some western ways would move in. She likely thought she’d speak out in total anonymity so got a bit cocky in her critic of Japan. She clearly stated that many things about Japanese society was absurd and well behind times. That wasn’t gaijin talking, that was her.

        But getting back to my original point….some Japanese women (such as this one) always blame the westerner for creating a ridiculous idea of Japanese women. But often times Japan is complicit and perhaps even more so than gaijin. It’s a ridiculous notion that anyone living in the west believe they can have a Japanese doll doting on them. Do these women ever see the endless Japanese male fantasy of having a Japanese woman massage, bath, pamper, feed them? or how their super power will bring a Japanese women into quivering ecstasy? Is it possible some stereotype of Japanese women exists…because Japanese create it and not western men? I do know there are no throngs of western men thinking of Japanese women in the way this woman said. There are some but not anymore than the few who think Ukraine or Brazil is the oasis of “perfect women”. Western men are not so stupid to actually believe old world geisha still exist in Japan.

        My overall point was directed at her ridiculous observation that showed a striking ignorance of most western men. A debate can go on forever whether Ishikawa did or did not say this or that to the author. Only those two know and both stood by the stories til the end.