Traffic: The "Umeboshi" Mind
July - August 2014
Reminiscing my student days in Kyoto, I was, then, working on a research about influences of Japanese culture on product design. I had to sit down with my professor to discuss my dissertation. I talked to him about my observations on apparent aspects of Japanese culture: minimalism, miniaturization, compactness, isolation, and others. On the last element, my professor crossed his thick eyebrows, “Isolation?” he asked. “Give me an example.” I said, “Sensei, what do you think about the obento (lunch box) with the red, round umeboshi (pickled dried plum) in the middle of pure, white rice? It’s called the hinomaru bento, isn’t it, taken from the rising sun image of the Japanese flag?” My professor started to smile. I continued, “Sensei, do you think that is just obento art or a symbol of isolation of the Japanese, just as it is symbolized in the Japanese flag?” My professor threw me a wide grin, almost laughing. “Umeboshi kaa…kimi, omoshiroi naa…” (in Kyoto dialect “Pickled dried plum huh….you’re interesting, aren’t you…”) I never got a definite answer.
Okay, maybe I imagined too much. But, if you scrutinize deeply into such visual symbolisms, you would understand how things we see, touch, and feel around us are hidden subconscious symbols of Japanese cultural behavior.
We can feel isolation in language as well. There is no coincidence between Japan’s isolation period (Sakoku) from the rest of the world for about 250 years during the Edo period and the manner by which the society is culturally isolated by language. Take the “half-Japanese.” Being “half” in Japan sometimes injects identity complex. “I may look Japanese, behave like Japanese, and speak perfect Japanese, so why do they still speak Japanese slowly to me?” I met a half-American Japanese who has been living in Japan for over fifteen years, who looks Japanese “enough,” and speaks excellent Japanese. He has a foreign first name and a Japanese last name, but he said he could never come at equal rank with “native” Japanese, because Japanese do not know how to relate to and accept him. “He looks Japanese, acts and speaks like a Japanese, but he can’t be one of us, can he?”
You can be a “hen na gaijin” (strange foreigner) in two ways: for speaking Japanese with an odd use of words and expressions; or speaking “too perfect“ Japanese when you are not Japanese. That just doesn’t make sense to them! It would be like you are trying to blend too much to their blood when you cannot!
Day in and day out, we walk past ancient temples, tempting sushi bars, corner soba noodle shops, noisy electronic stores, and multiples and multiples of congested pedestrian crossings, unmindful of the hundreds of symbols around baring themselves to us.
Miniaturization, for example, is a widely known symbol in Japanese culture—seen in the bonsai, in the obento box, in tiny trinkets hanging from teenagers’ bags, or in food condiments. This mentality arises from the Zen teaching of “small but powerful”—the compactness of rooms, toilets, or traditional oshire closets that fit exactly the width of futons—are they all just adjustments to limited space?
The traditional Japanese home has historically been built on a concept of communal living wherein families occupy a single room utilized for all purposes. We find the low kotatsu (low table with built-in heating underneath it) sitting in the middle of the tatami mat room where everyday life circulates. Here, the family gathers around eating mikan oranges while watching television. Here, the child works on his homework. Here, the family eats their meals together. Here, the husband sits to read his newspaper. Here, the wife folds the laundry. Here, guests are entertained. And, at the end of the day, here, the table is set aside, and the space is replaced with futons where the family sleeps together. This compact living makes no room for privacy and independency, yet psychologically provides a safe mental niche for security and a sense of belongingness, even if its un-isolated structure ironically creates a subconscious isolation that sets the Japanese apart from everything that exists outside those wooden walls.
The capsule hotel is another explicit sample of Japanese miniaturization and compact culture. First introduced in Osaka around the late 1960s, the concept of a tight “livable” glass enclosure, measuring roughly 1.25m x 2m, perfectly accommodated busy Japanese salary men who commute from city to city, and must survive on a budgeted income. Usually priced at around 2,000 to 4,000 yen, the capsule room has just enough space from head to foot to sleep in, in an almost coffin like box equipped with a television, wireless Internet connection, mirror, and clock. Toilets and showers are shared, and only men are allowed in the hotel. A travelling foreign businessman, equally busy as the Japanese salary man, may also be crossing cities on trains everyday, but would he choose to sleep in a tight, claustrophobic glass box void of any possible leisurely movement, even for just a night? Is this just about isolation or perseverance?
In fact, we are all pitiful victims of cold isolation and miniaturization in this digital era, wherein our supposedly simple and proactive life has been compartmentalized in a tiny, super mega techno rectangle: the smart phone. If that is not pure isolation from the rustic breath of organic life and nature, what else could it be?
And, speaking of umeboshi on your obento, while we are immersed in the heat of summer, don’t forget it is the season of preserving and pickling umeboshi. The plums, maybe over a hundred of them, if not more, are dried and soaked in salt, vinegar and red perilla herbs akajiso, tightly packed in one huge glass jar, and preserved for months. That is A LOT of umeboshi minds, encapsulated in one enormous and fragile world.
Enjoy the Sweet Summer!