Saturday, December 14, 2013

Memories of Japan: Why Everybody Carries a Handkerchief

This is the kind of hankie I carried every time I left the
house.  I carried two: one for my hands and one for
my face.
Today is Saturday, December 14, 2013.

One thing you notice is that all Japanese seem to carry some kind of bag.  Sometimes it is a nice little shopping bag. Other times, for women, it's a tote bag or, for men, a black leather bag with a strap.  Why?  Well, if you've ever left your car at home and had to depend on public transportation, you will soon realize that it's more convenient if you carry certain things with you.  (I think Americans who drive don't even realize how much "stuff" they carry around with them in their cars.  They'd notice their stuff more if they had to carry it with them.)

In Japan, commuters, especially, like to have a book or newspaper with them to read on the train or during the lunch break.  As in the United States, people also like to carry with them a personal music player of some kind, and I'm sure nowadays smart phones and tablets must be popular, as well. 


A woman in the crosswalk on a hot day. Notice
that Japanese women also carry sun parasols.
But the one thing that you must never forget is your handkerchief. Preferably two, in the summer.  When hubby and the kids leave for work and school in the morning, the woman of the house always stands or kneels at the entrance (remember that the floor of a Japanese house is higher than the floor of the genkan, or entryway) while everyone is putting on their shoes.  She makes sure they all have their o-bento lunch boxes, the kids have their backpacks, the hubby has his briefcase, and everybody has their handkerchief.  Many Japanese grew up hearing their mom ask, "Hankachi o motta?"  (Did you take a hankie?) as they prepared to leave home each morning.  Naturally, it is the wife's duty to wash the darned things and iron them so that they will fit nicely into a suit pocket, and if a man doesn't have a clean handkerchief, it's the wife's fault.  


Japanese kids learn to carry hankies early in life.
One of the reasons you really do need a hankie in Japan is that public toilets rarely, if ever, have paper towels.  (Some of them don't have toilet paper, either, and people carry around small packets of folded toilet paper, as well, just in case they might need it.)  The other reason to carry a hankie – and the reason I carried two in the summertime – is to wipe the profuse sweat off your face and neck.  Japan experiences a humid, subtropical climate in the summer, with an average high temperature of 29˚C, or just over 84˚F.  This naturally results in a great deal of sweat.  To the Japanese way of thinking, sweat is good for you, and air conditioning is not good for you, which is why many Japanese homes don't have air conditioning, even if trains, stores, and office buildings do.  


If a married man doesn't have a
clean hankie, you just know he
is married to a "bad wife."
The say that in Meiji times, late 1800s and early 1900s, fancy Western-style  handkerchiefs with embroidery were first imported, but by the time I was there, the handkerchiefs were mostly made in Japan.  I was told that I wasn't really supposed to blow my nose on one.  Just use it for drying the hands after using the toilet or wiping the oily shine off my nose and forehead.  Some of my favorite hankies were made of a soft, finely-woven gauze material.  They seemed to be the most absorbent, and didn't seem to need ironing the way others did.  I still have a whole box of hankies that I have never really felt the need to use since returning to the United States.   Nowadays it's hard to fathom why I thought it was so important to have a hankie with me at all times, but I did.

Japanese art handkerchiefs
I noticed that paper tissues did seem to catch on in the 1980s, but there's really no substitute for a cloth hankie when it comes to drying your hands, so although Japanese people may blow their noses on Kleenex, they still carry a hankie.   Fortunately, with some of the new fabrics on the market, ironing hankies is a thing of the past, and there's an added reason for carrying cloth rather than paper: environmental sustainability. 

At the make-up counters in Japan I also noticed a product that I think may have been sold in the United States, as well, but which never really caught on among women: blotting papers.  The special little papers were oil absorbent, which was a godsend in the summer to avoid a shine. Some of them were coated lightly with face powder.  You would have to press the paper slightly into your skin to get the oil absorbed.  

Ladies doing "the Nose Ceremony"


A lot of young women seemed to want to use their handkerchiefs like oil papers, pressing their hankies gently on their noses, in ladylike fashion.  It wasn't just the nose that got blotted.  The cheeks, chin and forehead got the treatment as well. It wasn't a quick swipe, either.  They took time with it.  Even while riding the train.  Some American guys I knew loved to call this "the Nose Ceremony," because the girls seemed so serious about it, and their precise, careful motions as they blotted oil from their faces resembled the stylized motions of the traditional tea ceremony.  (Of course, American boys will make fun of anything they don't particularly like or understand.)

I liked using the blotting paper, too, and kept some with me when I came back.  I think I may have found them once in all the time I've been back, but they just aren't that popular here. I used the Papier Poudré, brand, which is actually made in the UK. Blotting papers came out in the early 1900s when powder compacts were not readily available. I have no idea why they caught on so well in Japan, except for the fact that a lot of Japanese young women seem to have very oily skin.  :-)


Blotting papers

1 comment:

kirika yuumura said...

I liked it alot thanks for the history lesson and notes.