Two years ago, a mysterious 20-second video clip triggered some unexpected buzz on the Web site YouTube. In the segment, an ordinary-looking housewife draws an invisible line across the chest of a shirt with her finger. Then she pinches the shirt under the armpit and at the shoulder, does a quick flipping motion, and then presents the audience with a perfectly folded shirt. People were baffled.

Commenters raved about the so-called “revolutionary” ninja trick, and viewers starting making copycat videos showing the “Japanese way of folding a T-shirt” in English. The video was so simple — one woman, one shirt, one swift move — but what it accomplished was profound. For many of the millions who viewed that video, it was their first time seeing an urawaza in action.

Urawaza means “secret trick” in Japanese, and the display was a glimpse into the treasure trove of household hints and life “hacks” that are an integral part of Japanese culture.

The term was made popular by video game hackers in the 1980s after developers accidentally left shortcuts from when they were testing the software in the game, and hardcore players shared notes about how and where to find them. Flimsy magazines with titles such as The Complete Super Mario Urawaza Guide were sold side by side with the actual cartridges at toy stores. But the concept of using neat little tricks that make a specific aspect of life just a bit easier dates back to the beginning of time.

Saving money by using everyday objects for cooking and cleaning was especially relevant in the post-World War II era. Most Japanese cities were burned to a crisp in repeated air raids and the war stripped the economy of all its resources, so basic provisions such as food and cleaning supplies were hard to come by. When the United States mandated that Japan become a peace-loving, nonaggressive, economically motivated nation, everyone got to work trying to figure out what they could contribute to save money and add growth.

Engineers and researchers in newly formed companies such as Sony and Sanyo experimented with electronics. Housewives tried to figure out how to do the most number of things possible with the least amount of supplies and money. Fictional characters such as Astro Boy rocked television sets and bookshelves with his friendly nuclear superpowers, inspiring everyone to keep on moving toward a bright and challenging future.

Even today, urban Japanese families often live in small homes with no room for bulky appliances or pantries full of cleaning supplies. Services such as dry cleaning and beauty maintenance are expensive. These realities, teamed with a penchant for innovation nurtured by Japanese society, has resulted in an urawaza culture.

When Hiroshi Murao is not at work, he runs a Tokyo-based nonprofit called Obachan no Chiebukuro no Kai (The Association of Grandma’s Bag of Wisdom). The group was started 15 years ago by three housewives, a salaryman and a freelance writer, determined to preserve spoken urawaza traditions that they feared may be lost with time.

“It would be a waste to lose these nuggets of wisdom that have been passed down from a long time ago,” says Murao, who was brought in later to create the group’s Web site, www.chiebukuro -net.com . “So they said, ‘Let’s continue to tell these stories to the next generation.’ ”

For centuries, urawaza were shared by word of mouth. Many Japanese live with their parents and grandparents even into adulthood and, as a result, passing down useful household tricks happens much more frequently and organically. Today, there are dozens of books, magazines and Web sites dedicated to lifestyle urawaza.

Lifestyle urawaza first became a pop-culture phenomenon when Nippon Television launched “Ito-ke no Shokutaku (The Ito Family Dinner Table),” a weekly series showcasing tips and tricks submitted by viewers nationwide. “Ito-ke” aired for 10 consecutive years before closing it doors; at its peak it had 29 percent viewership nationwide. The tricks featured on the show were quirky and inventive — blowing up a beach float using a trash bag and a drinking straw, for example, or using the tip of an iron to perfect a bowling throw (see sidebar).

“It was great that these wisdoms were communicated through the mass media this way,” says Murao.

The 52-year-old businessman roughly divides conventional urawaza into five categories: cleaning, health, cooking, kitchen and beauty. He also points out that the urawaza don’t all have to be so fancy. Tricks such as putting seven herbs in rice porridge to make nanakusagayu (a New Year’s dish eaten on Jan. 7) and stuffing newspaper inside shoes to absorb moisture and prevent them from stinking up are simple but effective.

“These tricks are intended to rejuvenate our lives,” he says.

Of course, urawaza are by no means strictly a Japanese thing. It’s common knowledge in every culture that vinegar and baking soda get rid of bad smells, and that herbs such as echinacea and zinc can boost your immune system. In the United States, Texas-born media personality Heloise has spread the word about useful household hints. Her daily column is published in more than 500 newspapers worldwide, and she has authored 11 books over nearly three decades, including “Help! From Heloise” and “Heloise Conquers Stinks and Stains.”

Lifestyle shortcuts don’t just pertain to analog household uses. With technology taking the place of many things we used to do manually, a whole new genre of tricks has become relevant. O’Reilly Media’s Make and Craft magazines in the United Statesteach do-it-yourself types how to make everything from taffy machines to LED bracelets. The DIY Network is a U.S. cable show that teaches viewers everything from how to make your own gifts to how to build a tool shed. These days, it’s not just economical to do things yourself without buying expensive products and goods — it’s trendy.

In the computer age, people are encountering new kinds of problems — how to make e-mail more efficient, for example, or how to avoid annoying pop-up ads on Web browsers.

Gina Trapani started Lifehacker.com, an online collection of tips and tricks for the tech-savvy in 2005. The site now has more than 24-million page views a month and was voted the Best Computer Technology blog at the 2008 Weblog Awards in Austin, Texas.

“Lifehacker encourages readers to examine their habits, figure out places where they can save time, set up systems to get or do what they need in a better way,” says Trapani. “We all want to know how to do things better.

“Our readers are software connoisseurs, so they love posts on how to do more with their favorite Web applications or desktop software, like integrating their Google Calendar into their Gmail inbox.”

Urawaza change with the times, yet the human inclination to do things better and faster is timeless. It’s this innovative, creative way of thinking that makes us human and makes our lives a little bit more interesting.

Helpful tips from Lisa’s list of urawaza

Dilemma — You are at the beach for your kid’s birthday, and there are a gazillion little beach balls and floats waiting to be blown up. You have to think of a way to do this without passing out from lack of oxygen.

Solution — Hold a medium-size garbage bag open and wave it around to fill it with air. Stick one end of a drinking straw into the tube tip of the float and wrap the opening of the garbage bag around the other end, then slowly deflate the garbage bag.

Dilemma — The company bowling tournament is coming up, and the winner gets an extra grand in his or her bonus this year. You want it — bad — but right now you can barely keep the ball out of the gutter.

Solution — Take an iron — yep, the one you use to press your shirts — to the bowling alley and practice pointing the end of it at the second arrow from the right on the lane as you make your approach.

Why this works — This angle positions you perfectly for a dead-center throw. When you repeat this motion with the ball, you get the angle down pat before you factor in the weight and awkwardness of the ball.

Dilemma — The roads are slippery with rain, but you want to wear Prada pumps to work.

Solution — Apply two Band-Aids to the sole of each shoe — one on the ball and one on the heel — and your fancy kicks will be as sure footed as rubber boots.

Why this works — Rainy-day slipperiness happens when water gets between the soles of your shoes and the ground’s surface. The gauze patches of a bandage absorb water and greatly improve traction.

Lisa Katayama is the author of Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan (Chronicle Books; 2008; 143 pp.; ¥1,903).

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