Sunday, December 8, 2013

Memories of Japan: Wearing an Apron

Traditional Japanese apron
called kappogi.  I never had
one, but my mother-in-law
wore these when she wore a
kimono at home.
Today is Sunday, December 8, 2013.

Before going to Japan for the first time, I got a lot of incredibly useful advice from some of the Japanese women that I had made friends with in the Twin Cities.  I had already learned how to speak Japanese at a basic level, since I had majored in linguistics, and I had chosen Japanese for my "major" language.  Yes, I was married to a Japanese, but it's funny about dual language couples.  The language you speak in when you first meet is the language you stick with, in the vast majority of cases.  My husband's English wasn't that great, but it was better than my Japanese, so I didn't learn that much Japanese from him.  As well, a distinguishing feature of the Japanese language is that it has male and female speech, as well as distinct social registers.  Women who learn from their husbands invariably start talking like a man. I heard several Japanese people comment disapprovingly that so-and-so (foreign wife) was not very "ladylike" because she talked just like her husband.  I was determined to avoid this; I sought out as many Japanese women friends as I could and copied their speech patterns.  This was one of the better decisions I have ever made.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, I made it a point to hang around a place known as the Japanese Cultural Center.  I'm sure it's not there anymore, but it was a wonderful place for me to keep up my Japanese language skills and pick up invaluable advice from the ladies who gathered there.  They say that women have a much better grasp than men of the unwritten rules of culture, and I have found that to be true.  It's not that men don't notice when an unwritten rule has been violated.  They just can't articulate it very well.  

Kappogi pattern - front.
I remember asking how I should dress while in Japan, and I was given this advice: "Just remember that you are somebody's wife."  In other words, what you wear reflects on your husband.  Fair enough, I knew what that meant, and I did not take any jeans with me on my first visit to Japan. 

One older  woman told me about some of the things that young wives are expected to do, and her advice stood me in very good stead for years.  She told me that it was the job of the youngest adult female in the household to serve the rice and keep the rice bowls filled.  It was also her job to make sure that a guest's shoes were turned around and pointed toward the door in the entryway (genkan), and if there was any mud on the guest's shoes, to clean and polish the shoes.  (I did this once for my father-in-law and he raved about what a good wife I was.)  

It was the wife's job to drain the water from the o-furo (Japanese bathtub), scrub the walls of the tub, re-fill it, and heat the water for the nightly bath.  It was her job to hang the futon mattresses from the balcony railing in the morning and beat them with a bamboo stick, then take them in, fold them like a stick of gum, and put them in the closet for the day.  It was also her job, naturally, to put the futon mattresses out at night. 

Kappogi pattern - back.
This woman, bless her heart, also told me that I would be expected to behave like a guest for only a day or two, but then I would be expected to pitch in and help out with the housework, which is why I was so happy to have my exact duties explained beforehand.   The most surprising thing that she told me was that the family would present me with a gift when we first met, and that the gift would be an apron.  

Why an apron?  

It means that you are a wife, and you are expected to behave like one.  You wear an apron to do the housework.  All the housework, not just the cooking.  

And guess what?  My husband's family did just exactly that!  They presented me with an apron the first day I was there.  Fortunately, I knew what it meant!  The apron was a modern style one, the type that men sometimes wear when they barbecue outdoors here in the U.S.  It has a loop strap around the neck, it covers the whole front of the body, and ties around the waist in back.  (Modern aprons are not called kappogi.  That word is only used for the traditional style. For modern aprons, the English word "apron" is used, except that it's pronounced in about four syllables: a-pu-ro-n.)

Modern apron
You put your apron on in the morning and hang out the bedding, then you do your dusting and vacuuming, including sweeping out the entryway and the sidewalk just outside the door.  While the housework is being done, you open up the windows and the doors for some fresh air, and you start the laundry.  Since the washers are tiny, you do several loads, and this ends up taking hours.  (I'll write more about that in a future post.)  As each load is finished, you hang the laundry on a bamboo pole to dry. (Almost nobody has a dryer.) 

You bring in the bedding and put it away and close up the house around noon, then you make lunch.  After lunch, you start draining the tub, which takes at least 20 minutes because the tub is deep, and you scrub down the sides and bottom of the tub, then let it fill up.  Meanwhile, you check to see if your laundry is dry yet.  When the tub is full, you put a cover over it to keep the water clean, and you get ready to go to the market.  You can take your apron off for this, but some women don't.

Modern "Hello Kitty" apron.  They had "Hello Kity" products in Japan back in the 1970s. 
The "Hello Kitty" items were first produced by Sanrio in 1974 and brought to the U.S. in 1976.


The market is never far away, and you can either walk or take your little bicycle.  You always bring a bag with you, because they don't have plastic bags.  (At the vegetable and fruit stands, they are likely to wrap your purchases in newspaper.)  Since Japanese refrigerators don't have very large freezers, food is bought and served fresh each day, and you only buy what you can eat in the next day or so.  

When you get home from the market, it's time to take the laundry in (after putting your apron on again), fold it up and put it away.  Then you can start heating the bathtub, which takes a couple of hours.  You do this by going outside and lighting a gas water heater that is connected to a heating element in the back wall of the tub.  Every so often, you have to take the cover off the bathtub and check the water temperature, stirring the water a bit to even out the temperature.  

My (ex) husband asking a local
woman for directions in Kyoto.
While the bath is heating, you make dinner, which always involves the time-consuming task of chopping up fresh vegetables.  By this time, your kids are home from school, if you have any, so you supervise homework while you finish dinner preparations.  If your kids are fairly young, you feed them dinner and let them watch TV before bed.  If the kids are older, they may attend a "juku" or "cram" school in the evening.  

Your husband will return from work – if he hasn't been asked to go drinking by his boss (and you never say no to the boss) – around 6, but possibly as late as 8 or 10 p.m.  If your kids are little , you may bathe them and put them to bed.  Otherwise, people wait until the man of the house gets home from work.  If your aged parents are living with you, your father-in-law may bathe first, then your mother in law.  You wait until your husband has had his bath before you can get in the tub.  (The youngest adult female of the house bathes last.)   

While everyone else is bathing, you clean up the kitchen from dinner and get the bedding out and spread it on the floor.  Then you can take your apron off.   Well, a lot of wives actually take theirs off a bit earlier in the day, but it's supposedly traditional to keep it on all day.

When you are done bathing, you turn off the heat.  If your husband or father-in-law is watching TV, you offer him a beer.  Before you go to bed, you make sure your husband's shoes (and everyone else's) are pointing toward the door and ready to wear in the morning.  Then you can go to bed.  

My (ex) sister-in-law with her husband and
son, then 3.  She's wearing an apron, and
from the lack of light coming from the back
door, I can tell it's evening.
When my husband and I moved to Japan to live, we first lived with the family of one of his sisters.  Then we moved into our own apartment, and I made friends with my neighbor across the hall, Mrs. Tanaka, who gave me much sage advice as the years passed.  

I remember a young couple moved into the apartment next door to ours, and I noticed that the young wife never took off her apron until late at night.  I asked Mrs. Tanaka why the new bride kept her apron on all day.  That's when I learned that this was traditional behavior.  I asked her why Japanese wives always wore aprons while doing housework, and I have never forgotten her answer:  "It's her badge of office."

Mrs. Tanaka told me that the young wife would eventually get tired of "playing wife" like everybody else, and then she would only use her apron in the morning and early afternoon. I learned from experience, though, that the role of "somebody's wife" is an important one.  A young female is on the absolute bottom rung of the societal ladder in Japan.  She comes up a notch when she marries, and people begin to speak more politely to her, referring to her as okusan, which literally translates to "honorable interior of the house."  

A woman comes up another notch when she has a child, and still another notch when she has her first boy-child.  These increases in value are by no means all in the mind. They are very powerful, very palpable concepts.  People actually behave differently toward married women and mothers.  

The crown jewel in a woman's social status comes when her oldest son marries.  The oldest son's wife is expected not only to take care of her husband and children, but it goes without saying that she will also be the primary caretaker of his parents when they are too old to take care of themselves.  The mother-in-law becomes the de-facto boss of the house, and she can tell her daughter-in-law to do anything.  

When I got that fist apron, my husband's family was investing me into a social niche.  My apron defined my place in society and my place in the family.  A badge of office, indeed.  There were a lot of expectations attached to that apron.

What a lot of cultural baggage for a simple piece of clothing! :-)

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