I have spent nearly 40 years writing about Japan, virtually all of the time trying to show how Japanese people are really no different from other nationalities. But, by God, there is one aspect of Japanese life that makes this country unique. I defy any reader to name a society that has a custom like the one I am writing about today.

You are probably expecting me to describe that fabulous device called the incense clock (which admittedly sort of went out of fashion some 600 years ago). Nope, any self-respecting Chinese scholar will tell you: “Been there, done that.” What about the hallowed custom of noisily sucking in air when eating noodles? Sorry again. My own dad outdecibelled any Japanese on that hands down, and he wasn’t a bit Japanese. What about the hoary practice of bowing and shaking hands at the same time? No. The Prussians used to do that — and managed to click their heels to boot.

I tell you, if it weren’t for the unique social institution I am about to lay bare, the people of this country would be no better and certainly no worse than the rest of us.

Needless to say, I am talking about hesokurigane. The Sompo Japan DIY Life Insurance Co. defines this so-called bellybutton money (for he so can mean “bellybutton”) as “funds kept in secret from a husband.” That, though, is a misnomer, because husbands, albeit rarely, stash away bellybutton dough just as their wives do.

In June, Sompo Japan conducted a survey of households to find out how much money wives, in this case, are bellybuttoning away. The average age of surveyed wives was 39.7 years, and 55 percent of those who replied had hesokurigane.

Ups and downs

The surprising thing is that the average hesokurigane was found to be 3.3 million yen, up from 2.3 million yen last year. (Nearly 10 percent of the wives had 10 million yen or more hidden.) And, as any good wife knows, when something goes up, another thing goes down. In this case, the latter is the amount of spending money given to the husband — on average only 43,000 yen a month, although a miserly 14 percent of the wives were doling out 20,000 yen or less per month. Not much a guy can get up to on 20,000 yen a month.

Japan is still by and large a cash-driven society, and the cash flow is, in most cases, turned on and off by the wife, who is the head honcho at home. When asked by Sompo Japan what they planned to do with all that money, the wives listed a variety of things. In the category of “saving it up for a rainy day,” the factors were illness, cares about old age, “for my husband if he needs it” and “in case of divorce.” Women stashers are worried about their children’s education. Some are mulling over investments; and others long for “a life free of debt” or wish to indulge in hobbies and travel. Quite a number of the wives did allow themselves the occasional puchi-zeitaku (little luxury), the most common being “lunch at a restaurant.”

This business of bellybutton money is, however, more complex than meets the eye.

Japanese live in pretty small houses, so cramped that they were once dubbed “rabbit hutches”; and as anyone knows, there isn’t much scope for hiding money in a rabbit hutch. One common place, the survey found, is the getabako (shoe cupboard). But such bellybutton money is just waiting for a thief to pop in. He wouldn’t even have to take his shoes off to get his hands on it.

Other popular spots are behind picture frames and under the tatami. It’s always safe to put the money between the pages of your household encyclopedia, because you know your kids will never read it.

The real problem arises when the stealthy stasher forgets where she has secreted the money. In an “Asarichan” manga by Mayumi Muroyama, there is a story titled “Ah, the Ideal Family.”

“My mother is so easygoing,” says little Asari, as we see a happy-go-lucky mum gaily jumping about the house. “No sooner does she stash money away than she forgets where she put it.”

In another story, Asari bashes the wall in a fit of anger, and crisp 10,000 yen bills rain down on her from behind a picture frame. She takes this as manna from heaven and spends it all on herself.

In an episode from the manga “Life of Chibimaruko-chan” by Momoko Sakura, it is the father, Hiroshi, who is the closet cash collector. When the family members are going through the contents of an old wicker chest, they come across the loot. Hiroshi recalls that he hid it years before, but is too embarrassed to admit to his family that he was a bellybutton saver.

Anecdotal evidence

This business of stashing has its tragic side as well. There is only anecdotal evidence about the amount of cash lost in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, but it may well have run into billions of yen. When houses collapsed, it was not always possible to retrieve the cash stored in them, in some cases in secret boxes kept between walls. Of course, there is no way to prove to an insurance company that you had this money in the first place.

Burglaries of enormous amounts of cash from people’s houses are reported often in the media. Maybe when the interest rate for savings rises from its current near-zero point, people will transfer some of their hidden cash into a bank.

I suppose the Western equivalent of hesokurigane is separate bank accounts. (Comparisons with the proverbial cookie jar don’t wash: Anybody can get their slippery fingers into a cookie jar.) But somehow the separate bank account doesn’t really have the same implications as bellybutton money. After all, despite the odd little private luxury, the average Japanese wife is keeping her bellybutton money, in the main, not for herself but for her family. Being a thrifty shopper and saving money is a virtue. The custom that allows the woman in the household to control its finances has led to the practice of hesokurigane, and it has changed little over the years.

But actually, even the name hesokurigane itself is deceptive. Despite the orthography, the origin of the word heso is not “bellybutton.” Rather, this is money made and saved diligently by women spooling thread and spinning cloth — heso also being an archaic word for a type of cloth.

Much fun has been made of this thrifty practice. But it is truly a symbol of caring for family and securing its future. The rest of us, who spend a lot of time staring at our bellybuttons and wondering how to make ends meet, might do well to emulate the Japanese in this particular ancient custom.

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