‘Iyashi’: relief for tired Japanese salarywomen


It’s widely assumed that whatever their station in life, most Japanese women over the age of 24 are tsukarete iru (tired). This has less to do with modern living than something ingrained in the Japanese tradition that tires women out before their time — namely, the emphasis on shigoto (work). Women are expected to work harder and longer than men, especially at menial tasks in the workplace and home. Why? They’re generally thought to have more energy reserves (true, they live longer) and much higher endurance. How often have I heard my grandfather remark, with a sort of grudging admiration as he watched his wife going about her never-ending round of household tasks: “Onna wa tairyoku ga arukarana (Women have such strength).” Obviously he didn’t choose to hear her sighs of fatigue or complaints about backaches. Most women I know can’t get through the week without popping vitamins or gulping energy drinks, and the phrase “Kattarui (I’m exhauuuuusted)!” has become more a salutation than a confession.

Consequently, the Japanese woman is always on the lookout for the latest iyashi (healing) opportunity, whether it’s a quick ashi momi (foot massage) in the building around the corner, a glimpse of SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi on TV (not fellow SMAPper Kimutaku — he makes women tense, you see), or surfing the Web for kawaii (cute) pet sites.

A new phonetic vocabulary to convey this thirst for iyashi has cropped up over the years — all the words pretty vague in meaning, but suggestive of certain images or sensations linked to solace. Whereas the ideal man was once described as gasshiri (sturdy) or honebuto (thick-boned), nowadays women are looking for the honwaka (warm and fuzzy) type, or as my girlfriend Megumi likes to say: makura ni nattekureru hito (someone you can curl up against like a pillow). It’s no coincidence that overweight men are enjoying a popularity unprecedented in the past five decades.

Other iyashi phrases include hono-bono (warm and glowing), honya-honya (soft), funwari (fluffy) and the more advanced powan (warm, hazy and insubstantial). The key sensation here is warmth, no doubt because many Japanese women are plagued by hiyesho (chilling).

The iyashi syndrome has permeated the markets as well, with food, clothing, cosmetics and travel packages all accompanied by tag lines including some kind of iyashi phonetics. Most prominent is the trend in cosmetics — three years ago, phrases like kukkiri (sharply defined) and ejji (edgy) were in vogue for describing lipstick (shade: bloody red), but now girls go for the sleepier tones, such as lavender and soft pink. Lip contours must be boyakete iru (blotted over) with less emphasis on boundaries, more attention to texture and sheer size (yes, the bigger the lips, the higher the iyashi factor).

Once women made themselves up to look sharper-witted, less forgiving and more unattainable. Now they’ve decided that the powered, shoulder-pads equivalent of makeup did nothing to alleviate stress and fatigue. Yasahii meiku (gentle makeup) has become a byword for cosmetics, hence the vast multitudes of women with puffy lips and pink cheeks. It’s a way of healing oneself while giving comfort to others.

Iyashi, however, is not a new phenomenon. As tired as the Japanese femme has always been, the methods of easing strain are rich and varied, passed down through generations and guarded as secrets. One quick and popular way to lessen tension is to shagamu (squat), with both feet firmly planted on the ground or floor. This helps circulation and renews contact with one’s body, thereby helping to soothe the nerves. What many women instinctively love to do is settle down for a two-minute squat with friends, before getting up again to go about their business.

Another is to make oneself a bowl of ochazuke (rice steeped in tea) after a hard day’s work, the all-time antidote for sorrow, bad temper and general malaise. Megumi says that after a run of bad days, pan-shoku (bread meals, or Western-style meals) become indigestible, making her pine for the iyashi meal consisting of atsu-atsu gohan (piping hot rice) and nihoncha (green tea).

Thus prepared, inside and out, the Japanese woman steps forth into what is increasingly being referred to as kono tsukareru yononaka (this tiring world). If you’re looking to offer a dose of iyashi, remember: no sharp edges. Think of yourself as the kyukuoku (ultimate), fuwa-fuwa (fluffy and downy) pillow and you can’t go wrong.