Japanese-English holds key to Japan


I sleep with a purple hippo, a cow, and a dog. And now, Japan is finally making sense to me. For years this country had eluded me with its cute characters and mascots made to resemble animal-like something or others, and creative blobs with eyes and fuzzy ears representing new species of thingamajigs. But I am no longer in the dark. Because the other day I went to buy new bed linens.

The linen package informed me, “Bed linen for your amuse space.” Aha! The bed is supposed to be amusing! And now that I know this, my bed gets more amusing by the day.

You see, I have been looking for the perfect pillow for a long time. In Japan the big thing now is pillows shaped like animals. Being that you have to buy a few and try them out to find the perfect one, I’m guessing I am not the only one out there with a purple hippo, a cow and a dog in her bed.

After buying the bed linens for my amuse space, I shopped in a store called “Green Label Relaxing.” My God, even labels relax these days!

This got me to thinking seriously about the meaning of “relax” in Japan. It seems to be more of a feeling than an action, more an adjective than a verb. And it is momentary: a daydream here, a green label there, relationships with cute little thingamajigs. Even the new Starbucks bags advertise their azuki frappucino with, “Taste the day dream.” When I think about it, these animal pillows were probably not made for beds at all. They were made for Japanese who like to sleep at their desks in their offices. These are desk pillows. For daydreaming.

To me, the meaning of “relax” is a bit more drawn out, such as sitting on the front porch enjoying a cool summer evening. Shorter things, such as daydreaming at your desk or having a frappucino are moments taken to refresh yourself. But people in Japan rarely sit outside and enjoy a summer evening.

“Enjoyable outdoor life” says my beer cooler on the permanent label affixed to the lid, reminding me that this cooler is for camping. Because in Japan you clearly have two lives, one indoors and one outdoors. Kind of like what cats have.

In Japan, you must be either inside or outside and not somewhere in between, such as the porch. It’s not like the Japanese to push these boundaries with things like balconies, screened in porches, or patio furniture. Why, that would just encourage people to spend more time outside. And then people would start doing it in public and soon they’d start demanding public benches, picnic tables and public waste bins.

You don’t see many convertible cars in Japan either — no way! How would you keep in the air con? Mottainai!

Even Japanese gardens are made to be viewed from indoors, looking out onto the garden, which is walled in. (I wonder how the garden feels about that, being stared at all the time.)

Even something as simple as walking out onto someone’s veranda where the laundry is hung requires a slipper change.

And you’ll never find a mud room in a Japanese house, that room where you leave your muddy shoes, your jacket and hat. This would be blurring the distinction of inside and outside — far too challenging for the Japanese concept of organized space. In Japan, you walk into the genkan, a spotlessly clean space with a scroll and ikebana arrangement, a space just big enough to leave your shoes. And leave your shoes you must, because they belong to your outdoor life.

The other day I saw a sign on a beauty parlor: “hair communication space.” Do you think you have to put on hair slippers when you enter?

As for me, I’m still working on my amuse space. And with this new elephant pillow I’ve bought, I’m definitely going to need a larger bed.