Site icon I went to Japan in 1976….

Didn’t your mother ever teach you to do laundry?

That was the question my homestay mother would ask each time I needed to do laundry. And I was at a loss to explain to her how different her sentakki was from what I used in the United States.

Doing laundry in that house was a big production from my point of view. You had to take a hose from the sink, connect it to the sentakki and fill the machine with mizu from that sink faucet. I was not allowed to touch the yuwakashiki at the sink, so I washed my clothes in cold water. My homestay mother had attempted to teach me how to turn on this tank-less gas water heater safely, but it had too many steps and directions for me, and we’d both given up. The washing machine looked nothing like machines in the United States, and it had two different compartments.

The smaller compartment was the spinner.

You’d load your laundry into one barrel along with the senzai to agitate it. You’d set a timer for how ever long you wanted to wash it. When it was done, you’d move the soapy wet clothing into the smaller barrel next to it which was the spinner. After placing what looked like a strainer on top of it, you’d spin it for about three minutes, and then move it back into the wash barrel to rinse it. Then after that was done, you’d give it another good spin. It worked quite well. When one-barrel washing machines first came out, many housewives were not impressed and said the two-barrel ones worked better. And, I agree! There were no kansōki in Japan back then, and even now many people hang their laundry outside to dry. So after washing my clothes, I’d take them outside and hop off the beranda to the very small yard to our multi-tiered clothes line.

It was not a line, but rather bamboo poles. Trucks would go around the neighborhood selling laundry poles, which were then mostly made of aluminum rather than bamboo. You’d use a fork like tool to lift them down from the tiers. The highest tier was about fifteen feet from the ground, and thus in view of the neighbors. You’d load up the pole and then hoist it back up. My homestay mother was shocked one day when I thoughtlessly hung my shitagi on the highest tier for all the neighbors to see. She gave a stock comment that I heard from her quite often.

My homestay family had a three-tiered bamboo pole set-up just like this one.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you to [hang laundry properly?”]

This family was slated to spend a year at Amherst College in the future, and I could not wait for her to find out why I didn’t know some of the things that she took for granted that any capable young woman would know. We also struggled with language since she spoke very little Eigo and my Nihongo wasn’t yet up to speed. I was never able to explain myself to her.

One day she said to me, “You’re Jewish. Explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me.” She’d get me every time. I couldn’t even explain that one in English, let alone Japanese. Again, I felt like a dummy.

At the end of our first semester in Japan we had the option of leaving our homestay families and finding different living situations. It was no coincidence that all the young women chose to move out, and all the men were happy to stay. Being men, their homestay mothers did their sentaku for them and they weren’t asked to do any kaji. This was the difference between being a son and a daughter at that time in Japan. And maybe, still.

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