My preconceived notions of typical Japanese domestic life have shifted after living with Mika and her family. The Japanese gender roles hold true in their lives but the family is far from the meek and soft-spoken people associated with tradition. Particularly, the Japanese housewife image of an overworked and silent women was overhauled. In Japan, housewives hold a deep sense of responsibility and commitment towards household maintenance and childcare.
During the day, Mika's precious seven and a nine year old are the only two people present in her vicinity, yet, household responsibilities only begin with the kids. Cleaning and tidying take up a large portion of the day. With the recent popularity of Marie Kondo’s 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Organizing and Decluttering, which my mother bought in an instant after I pointed to it, I unconsciously paid attention to Mika’s clearing and cleaning habits.
Like many other Japanese art forms, decluttering is performed with effortlessness. The house is simple, bare almost, but its contents hold meaning that make it a home. Besides a few hand-drawn portraits of her kids hung on the kitchen-living room divider, the walls are mostly bare. No bookcases, no lamp stands, no side tables, only the bare-necessities. Simple or minimalist could be used to describe the scene, but as Jeffrey K. Mann writes in his book about Zen and martial arts, "minimalism does not mean, simply, having little stuff. In architecture, décor, conduct and endeavour, the plainness and effortlessness involved demand great skill". Mika's conduct and endeavour reflects unflinching calm in the face of Azu chan's incessant needy spells. Similarly, while Mika voices disdain towards the tornado effect Azu chan has on any space, mother and child move on and can be seen making rice balls the next minute.
A depth of field runs through the entire feel of the house. It is to be lived in, and inhabited. Time spent and beers drunk with others, TV watched and food savoured, all effortlessly. To create a space that reflects and reinforces the clarity of mind in the present requires proficiency in navigating the body’s relationship with space.
As a martial artist executes throw after throw effortlessly, the homemaker executes the daily cycle with ease. Dedication and consistent focus enable habituation, leading to ease of practice over time. Cleaning plates and putting away leftovers are only small cogs in the larger array of moving parts. Other things like planning meals and timing dinner for the husband’s return from work while keeping the kids satiated are daily mammoth multitasking challenges. However, such layered responsibilities paradoxically require not the ability to concurrently manage tasks, but the ability to intensely focus on a task while aware of other occurrences. With culinary expertise and diplomatic skills, she times dinner with the return of her husband while managing fighting kids. In her, an imperturbable prime shines its grace through welcoming eyes.
Her approach towards domestic stewardship underscores many practices in Zen meditation, particularly zazen, seated mediation. Practitioner sit in various forms of poses with upright posture and have their eyes half-open. They are not focused on any particular thing nor are they removed from their surroundings. I find this ability to perceive and acknowledge things occurring, but not respond impulsively akin to the presence of mind required in a martial arts partnership. Even after an attack or defense manouver, they have to retain focus and move forward, never dwelling upon a recently completed counter-attack or defense. Developing such abilities to partake in presently unfolding attacks effortlessly is required for the Japanese householder as well. The wife has to navigate the contours of child psychology while keeping a firm head on domestic upkeep. Flexibility is a key value in effective decision making and negotiations. While the husband has to deal with people his own age at work, the wife has to correspond with both husband and children in ways that keep both satisfied. The house is an incubator for contentment, and much like Kondo’s book suggests, the decluttered home is life-changing. Mika's kids would often showcase many signs of maturity, they would excuse themselves from the dining table, take their dishes up to the sink and play. They would move onto a task, finish it, and then start another.
It was a pleasure and delight to have spent time with the Fuchimoto family. I felt oddly understood even if I didn't hold the same determination towards washing my towel after each use. Often, Mika would ask me a question as I was thinking of the answer. “Would you like another beer?”, “How’d you know?”, “You just finished cooking your okonomiyaki, so you will want another beer to go with it.”