Language shows the resurgence of being kechi


Nai sode wa furenai (無い袖は振れない)” was a phrase that an old man in my neighborhood used to say many, many years ago. Whenever anyone within hearing range complained about their lack of money, the cost of living or rising taxes, he pulled out this standby comment as a way of summing up the situation.

Literally translated, it means you can’t shake a sleeve that isn’t there — i.e., you can’t pay out what you don’t have. It originated in the Edo Period (1603-1867), when people who had fallen on hard times would pawn their futons, then their winter kimonos and finally, when reduced to nothing but the very thin kimonos clinging to their backs, they would disconnected the sleeves and sell them off. This was really licking the bottom of the barrel; without sleeves, that person had no place to stash loose change, keepsakes or secret hoards. It was a way of demonstrating one’s destitution to the world, of announcing one had nothing to shake out and nothing whatsoever to hide.

These days the phrase is becoming fashionable once more, reminding me of that ojisan long ago and his mixed expression of disgust and resignation as he uttered those words. In Japan, bad times trigger nostalgia and phrases that only 10 years ago were laughed at as shigo (死語 dead words) have been resurrected with enthusiasm. Setsuyaku (節約, scrimping and saving) is on everyone’s lips these days, not to mention that well-worn phrase mottainai (もったいない, waste not want not), which now appears in print more often as romanji or katakana as if it was some exotic imported word rather than something our grandmothers used to say, nay — holler at least 15 times a day.

Setsuyaku is compounded from the words sessei (節制, curbing expenditure and practicing restraint) and yakusoku (約束, promise, or contract) and was the lifelong zayū no mei (座右の銘, maxim to live by) of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became the first shogun to officially unify the country in 1603 and is the guy responsible for the next 270 years of taihei (太平, flat-out peace), and funky chonmage (ちょんまげ) hairstyles among other things. A man who held unprecedented power in his grasp, Ieyasu shunned most of its trappings and didn’t allow himself the luxury of tatami mats until he reached his 60s. His favorite meal consisted of yuzuke (湯づけ, hot water on cold rice). He liked women but made sure his sokushitsu (側室, concubines) were older, sober, secretarial types who made no demands on his wallet and helped with administrative work.

The Tokugawa reign had no political principles to speak of — Ieyasu climbed to the top by way of infinite patience and parsimony, and having got there, he continued to be as kechi (けち, stingy) as ever. His influence on the formulation of the postmedieval Japanese psyche is said to be vast, and it still endures today. One of the most visible influences is the way the Japanese deal with a lack of funds. People aren’t selling off their sleeves, but they’re now engaged in various forms of setsuyaku-no kufū (節約の工夫, creative scrimping and saving) in combating this mizou no fukyō (未曾有の不況, unprecedented recession), and far from being depressed or pessimistic, many of us here in Japan actually feel more energized.

For example, you’d be surprised at some of things that can be done with furushimbun (古新聞, old newspaper pages). They can be used as detergent?free window wipes. Newsprint contains glycerine and other oils great for getting rid of dust and grime. It also works wonders in preserving vegetables. Next time you want to save the end of your daikon, wrap it up in a copy of The Japan Times and it will last 10 days or more.

The older generation of Japanese like to fold the morning’s newpaper into small, portable trash containers and distribute them all over the house. These are used to deposit tissues, candy wrappers and fruit peelings — all the more oshare (お洒落, chic) if the print happens to be in English!

Oh, and how about the water left over from washing the rice? Called togijiru (研ぎ汁), it’s great as a hand salve, and it also works as an eco?friendly fertilizer on household plants. A solution made up of togijiru and baking powder is extremely effective for cleaning metal surfaces and air-conditioner filters. Ieyasu himself liked to heat up togijiru to drink when he wasn’t feeling well, and he frowned upon expensive medication.

There are more, but this is where I sign off, in the interests of shimen no setsuyaku (紙面の節約, saving newsprint space). Waste not, want not.