The Colors of Showa

I watched an interesting dokyumentorī on the NHK English channel. It’s a bit slow, but I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan. Some of it felt so incredibly natsukashii to me. The colors of the Showa Era in the 1970s were very distinctive and it reminded me once again of the ubiquitous karā bokkusu.

Color boxes were the best friend of any student trying to live cheaply. You could put them upright or on their side. They worked for books, as a pantry, clothes etc. They were yasui and came in a variety of sizes. Of course I had a green one. And an orange one. The colors were almost neon in their intensity.

The current asadora had a shot of a Showa room this morning that could have been my room. I could swear I had this very table.

Screenshot from the current asadora

Being a curious type, I tried to find out more about the color box. It first appeared on the scene in 1970 and came from a company called Kuroshio. Apparently it was one of the first pieces that required at-home construction with a screw driver. The chairman of the company saw colorful plastic goods in a depāto and thought it would be a nice change if furniture (mostly wood up until that time) could have those bright Showa colors as well. They had instant appeal among young women who thought they were kawaii.

Timing was everything here! They were a huge hit and eventually were sold around the world. With the current “Showa Boom” maybe the original iro are in again! Sorry, but those colors are still kind of hideous to me.

  • dokyumentorī – ドキュメンタリ documentary (the kind you see on tv)
  • natsukashii – 懐かしい nostalgic. This word gets a LOT of use in Japan.
  • karā bokkusu – カラーボックス color box (used for storage and favored by students)
  • yasui – 安い cheap (adjective)
  • asadora – 朝ドラ literally morning drama and refers to dramas that are broadcast in the morning (duh)
  • depāto – デパート department store
  • kawaii – 可愛い If you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan in reference to manga, Hello Kitty goods, etc.
  • iro – 色 color


They say that in the summer you should think of cold or scary things to keep you cool. Perhaps a ghost story to make you shiver deliciously. Or in these more modern times, you can try going to sleep with the sounds of water dashing down a mountain taki.

The waterfall at Kiyomizu Temple

To keep myself cool, I go back to the omoide of a very cold winter’s day in January. I’ve woken up and am already shivering in my small apartment which has no central heat and indeed no space heater either. And no hot shower or even a bath at all. It’s 1979 and I’m living at the foot of the mountains in northern Kyoto.

It’s the first week of January and my local sentō has odd hours due to the New Year’s holiday. This morning they have asaburo. This is a rare event since usually the sentō is open from around 3 PM until 11 PM. I’ve never done asaburo before but I’m desperate to warm up. But first I have to get there. I reluctantly crawl out of the futon and get dressed.

The area is rural and has some magnificent old farmhouses. No doubt they all have their own baths and the local sentō is quite a walk away. Snow had been falling and it’s a quiet morning. Peaceful and beautiful–and cold.

I walk out of my apartment building, turn right and head down our tiny street to the intersection of three tiny streets. One leads to Midorogaike. One leads to a bus stop, and the one I need to take leads to Kamigamo Jinja after meandering for some minutes. It’s still very quiet as I pass our tiny grocery that is good for milk and bread. They won’t be opening today since it is still the New Year’s holiday. The road is covered with snow, as are the trees and roofs. It’s a quiet winter wonderland and I’m the only one out.

After walking for about seven minutes, I come to the block that houses a few shops. I breathe in deeply as it seems the soba shop is preparing dashi. There is simply no smell like it. Even today, the smell of dashi brings me right back to this street. The buildings are all old here; I could be back in the Meiji Jidai with this scenery. Maybe even the Edo Jidai. The appearance of a samurai would not be at all jarring.

Soba shop

And after I walk past the soba shop, I’ve come to the bath. And… snap. As soon as I enter the changing area, I feel the warmth from the steamy water.

And I need to stop reminiscing right here because this is all about conjuring up COLD memories this morning. Oops.

  • taki – 滝 waterfall
  • omoide – 思い出 memory or memories. A word that is used very often in Japan as omoide are considered very precious.
  • sentō – 銭湯 public bath. I will probably talk a lot about it in this blog because it was my life for many many years.
  • asaburo – 朝風呂 a bath taken in the morning. Traditionally, baths are always in the evening. With the advent of shower heads, the idea of a morning shower was introduced… and at first seemed a little bold. Like, why would you need a morning shower if you had bathed at night? So, when the public bath had asaburo during the week of New Year’s it was very special and different.
  • Midorogaike – 深泥池 The name of a pond in Northern Kyoto, but also serves as the name of the area around it. It literally means ‘deep muddy pond.’ Rents were a bit lower there because it was a hangout for ghosts. Really. But it was a nice place to live!
  • Kamigamo Jinja – 上賀茂神社 A very famous shrine in the northern section of Kyoto. You could google it.
  • dashi – だし a Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own. If you walk through the streets early in the morning or right before dinner time, you can sometimes smell it cooking. There are so many kinds, but the smell evokes pure deliciousness for me.
  • Meiji Jidai – 明治時代 The Meiji Era (1868-1912) By the way, this is an utterly fascinating era since it is when Western culture started to be more prominent in Japan.
  • Edo Jidai – 江戸時代 The Edo Era (1603-1868)
  • samurai – 侍 I can’t even. You know this. Okay, warrior. Did you really not know this?!


In the late 1970’s, as is true now, gaikokujin came to Kyoto with specific goals in mind. I met Robert, studying to be a Zen priest at Daitokuji. My friend Pat was destined to become a Japanese art history professor. Those studying Chado were many. Japanese gardens? Oh, yes. Cooking? I didn’t know anyone doing that, but I think they do now. Have I forgotten martial arts? There are always those, though purists in karate would go to Okinawa. Textiles? Absolutely, be it the wearing, designing, dying etc. of kimono, that was another approved route.

Ippodo, a famous tea shop

So, what was my bag? (Or my groove, maybe?) Well, I didn’t exactly have one. Since nariyuki had brought me to Nihongo and then Japan, the only thing I really wanted to do was learn the darned Japanese language. Actually, I was determined to learn to read it and that meant memorizing kanji and then making my way through different books with three dictionaries at my side. And a cup of tea, of course.

It meant starting my day at a kissaten with the ubiquitous morning set–and grabbing a shinbun from the rack near the door to try and read.

Yes, I really do know these terms and how it all works!

I quickly found a fun topic. Just kidding. It wasn’t fun, but my visa sponsor got me to help him with his work for the anti-nuclear power movement. So there I was reading newspaper articles in Japanese on genshiryokuhatsuden and being a covert part of the hangenpatsu movement. Later I would go on to translate a book called Genpatsu Gypsy. Though I’m not sure what happened to my translation (it is rumored that it circulated in Australia) I did get to meet the author and slightly astounded him with my list of shitsumon which showed him how closely I’d read his book. There I was, in my early twenties, translating a book on nuclear power. Not exactly why most foreigners go to Kyoto.

This necessitated me learning how to say maverick in Japanese. I think I’ll use the word kawarimono for that!

Later I’d try dabbling in a few of the more traditional arts, but mostly I just left it to fate to determine what to tackle next. No regrets!

  • gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigners. This is the polite form. In Japan, the shorter the phrase gets the ore casual or even rude it is. Because of that, it isn’t exactly polite when this gets shortened to gaijin. But it very often is shortened to the dismay of some.
  • Chado – 茶道 The Art of Tea, or the way of tea, or the study of the tea ceremony
  • kimono – 着物 It is not a bathrobe! It literally means thing that you wear, but refers to a proper Japanese kimono.
  • nariyuki – なりゆき fate. Literally how it unfolds is how I go… or something like that. A sense of destiny beyond one’s control.
  • Nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop, but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Us old folks like this style much better. Hipsters do not. Yet.
  • shinbun – 新聞 newspaper
  • genshiryokuhatsuden 原子力発電 – nuclear power. It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Kind of fun to just casually reel off… 😉
  • hangenpatsu – 反原発 “against nuclear power.”
  • shitsumon – 質問 question
  • kawarimono – 変わり者 maverick, someone who is different

Cute Mice

Living with cats means sometimes living with mice. I live surrounded by fields and woods so it is inevitable that my indoor cats will sometimes, somehow, find them in my basement. Usually they bring them into my bedroom at night. Alive. (One of my cats gave me a look like, “Well, if you have a pet, why can’t I?” And even took a nap with his “pet.”)

Jack and his pet

Though I never saw any nezumi in my home in Japan, we sometimes heard noises in the ceiling above us. My husband would laugh and say “nezumi no undōkai.” It’s kind of cute to imagine it that way, isn’t it?

Curiously, it seems that there is not usually a distinction drawn between rats and mice in Japan. There’s one word—nezumi—that covers both of them. This used to baffle me. But, when I asked, people would just shrug and say that a rat was an ookī nezumi. For the record, I do not think rats are cute so it does make a difference for me and I’m glad we make that distinction in English!

When I had my daughter and began to collect ehon for her I found that kawaii mice were often featured. One of my favorites was a series featuring a kazoku of 14 mice. I was instantly charmed by the asagohan story. And I’m very happy these have been translated into English. I highly recommend them if you have a child in your life! The author is Kazuo Iwamura.

  • nezumi – ねずみ mouse or rat
  • nezumi no undōkai – ネズミの運動会 literally “a field day for mice” or a sports event for mice. Undōkai are a whole other topic and they happen in the fall, most popularly at the elementary school level.
  • ookī – 大きい big, adjective
  • ehon – 絵本 picture book
  • kawaii – 可愛い If you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan in reference to manga, Hello Kitty goods, etc.
  • kazoku – 家族 family
  • asagohan – 朝ご飯 breakfast

The Condom Lady

We lived just outside of the gate.

How’s that for a title? But I’m not making it up. In the early 1980’s I was living two stops outside of Fuchu City, outside the mon of an NEC kōjō. My husband was working there and we’d found a yasui and spacious apartment so close that he could walk to work.

The apartment building was small—just six apartments. There were two more small buildings like it right next to it. And soon after moving there I fell pregnant. Then my neighbor did. And one more. And a few months later the condom lady came calling to sell her wares.

Imagine her disappointment as she range door bell after door bell only to find a slew of ninpu answering the door. It just wasn’t her day. And the building next to ours had a similar situation. We had our own little baby būmu going on.

Miyako Harumi, a singer who just wanted to be a regular person after all.

I don’t suppose there is any condom lady anymore. We all had a big laugh imagining her surprise when she rang our bells. We had shinbun salesmen come around as well and you could negotiate with them for gifts. At the very least you’d get a towel. At the most, you might get tickets to a baseball game.

If you’re imaging the condom lady and what she may have been like I will tell you that to the best of my memory she was just a futsū no obasan—any woman in her forties that you’d see shopping at the supermarket or riding a mamacharin home. I wonder how she chose her profession and how she felt about being a condom lady. If I had a choice, I think I would have wanted to be a Yakult salesperson. But that’s a whole other story.

  • mon – 門 gate
  • kōjō – 工場 factory
  • yasui – 安い cheap (adjective)
  • ninpu – 妊婦 pregnant woman
  • būmu – ブーム boom
  • shinbun – 新聞 newspaper
  • futsū no obasan – 普通のおばさん “an average woman” This phrase was made popular by Miyako Harumi, a singer who retired because she just wanted a normal or average life.
  • mamachari – ママチャリ the kind of bicycle used by mothers for grocery shopping and transporting kids on either the front, back, or both.

It’s here

Just resign yourself to this

It feels almost trite to write about the rainy season in Japan. What could I say that 1000 other people haven’t said before me? Yet, it’s a whole freaking season so not to be ignored either. And friends in Kyoto tell me it has arrived.

Here’s what I can say. It isn’t the same every year. My first full year in Japan I got dire warnings about this season–that it would rain every single day, kabi would grow on my toothbrush, my shoes would never ever dry–and on and on and on. So, I had these expectations–and then… nothing. That is to say, my first few years in Japan the tsuyu were atypical and not bad at all. It took a few years for me to have the experience of a honkakuteki tsuyu. And then it really was rain every blasted day.

Products to fight mold during the rainy season

Mold did not grow on my toothbrush. But my kutsu were consistently damp no matter what. The biggest issues I had were sentaku and buses. I had no dryer and there was no way to hang laundry out to dry when the rain never stopped. You’d hang it inside, but even inside was damp and it could take days to dry.

The buses were torture for me because back then not all of them had air conditioning. And absolutely no nihonjin would open a window if even there was a remote possibility of a raindrop coming through the mado. It was like a steam bath and I couldn’t understand how people wearing suits weren’t sweating up a storm. Most of them looked serene.

I know what my homestay father would have said. He would have blustered out one of his “wareware nihonjin wa” statements where he’d explain the national character of the entire Japanese population. He’d often tell me what the otenki would be like for a given day and say smugly that only the Japanese could understand Japanese weather. (Personally, I thought it was more like he could understand the weather forecast and I could not.)

So, after experiencing a few of the more typical rainy seasons, I too began to steel myself for a month of rain. These days people have dryers or laundromats for their clothes, but I bet shoes still stay damp. I think that I do not miss tsuyu at all.

  • kabi – かび mold. You really do need to watch out for this during the rainy season. There used to be stories about how young mothers would find mold growing on their babies’ backs. I had trouble believing that ever really happened….
  • tsuyu – 梅雨 rainy season. The characters literally say “plum rain.” It sounds so poetic, doesn’t it. Ha!
  • honkakuteki – 本格的 genuine, the real thing
  • kutsu – 靴 shoes
  • sentaku – 洗濯 laundry
  • nihonjin – 日本人 Japanese person or people
  • mado – 窓 window
  • wareware nihonjin wa” – 我々日本人は “We Japanese.” It’s a pompous or slightly academic way to start a sentence when you are going to describe some national trait of the Japanese people.
  • otenki – お天気 the weather

Old men in the summer

As the weather starts to warm up, I start thinking about underwear. Particular underwear that ojīsan wore. When I landed in Kyoto for my second stay, it was hachigatsu of 1978. Hot and humid, as expected. And there seemed to be more fans than air conditioners. Doors and mado were open and when the evening came, many old men came out to sit in front of their shops after being indoors during the heat of the day.

And I remember walking past this one Chinese restaurant. The old man there would pull out a small stool and sit there in his ragged white drawers and undershirt, fanning himself with an uchiwa. It became a common site for me.

And darn, English Google! It seems to think that momohiki are a fashionable type of trousers. Maybe that wasn’t the word for them. More googling and I’m trying suteteko. Nope. I’m laughing. How our world does change! I need to try this search in Japanese. Okay… not much better at all. I add the word Showa to my search to give it a time period to try.

So that’s how hard it was for me to find shashin to show you.

This was what I always saw my giri otōsan wear on summer evenings in Fukui. And when he retired, it would be a summer day-wear for him, too. They seemed very comfortable and suzushī.

I wonder if old men in the rural areas of Japan are still wearing these. I bet they are….One of the less romantic signs of summer, but still… works for me!

But I’m weird that way!

  • ojīsan – お爺さん old man or grandfather
  • hachigatsu – 8月 August
  • mado – 窓 window
  • uchiwa – うちわ hand -held fan
  • momohiki – ももひき a kind of underwear
  • suteteko – ステテコ another kind of underwear
  • Showa – 昭和 era from 1926-1989. Most people are nostalgic about the last forty years of it, though those war years are not to be forgotten.
  • shashin – 写真 photograph(s)
  • giri otōsan – 義理お父さん father-in-law
  • suzushī – 涼しい cool. Note that there is a different word for cool to the touch or cool as in stand-offish. Suzushī is used for weather situations.


Here’s where we can find a generational divide. There’s a river called Kandagawa in Tokyo. I just did a google search (in English) and the word Kandagawa brings up some anime. Or a chef by that name. That is not my Kandagawa nor that of my generation. For us, it immediately brings up an uta and a certain seikatsu and seishun.

Kandagawa – a gritty city view of it

In 1973, the folk movement was flourishing in Japan and a group called Kaguyahime was singing Kandagawa. For many a binbō student, it resonated deeply as it described our lifestyle. And yes, it was my lifestyle as well at that time. I have surprised Japanese people during conversations by describing something as “very Kandagawa.” It might have been when talking about the public bath. Or a tatami room in a wooden building. I miss those days, inconvenient as they were. And I’m not alone. There is a huge nostalgia for the Showa style of lie that had fewer choices, but a simpler way of being. Here are the words of the song:

Maybe you've already forgotten
How we went to the public bath down the lane
With our red hand towels as mufflers
You said, "Let's go together" 
But you always made me wait 
My damp hair was frozen down to the roots 
I rattled the small soap 
You held me 
And said, "You're cold" 
When we were young, I wasn't afraid of anything 
Only your tenderness made me afraid 

Maybe you've already thrown away 
The drawing of me you made 
With the twenty-four-color set of pastel crayons you bought 
"Make it good," I said 
But it didn't look like me at all
 I can see the Kanda River from out the window 
Of my three-tatami room at the boarding house 
You looked at my fingertips 
And asked, "Are you sad?" 
When we were young, I wasn't afraid of anything 
Only your tenderness made me afraid 
A public bath in Kyoto circa 2016. Slowly they are becoming extinct….

For those of us who remember going to the public bath with a partner and separating as you entered the women’s side and he entered the side for men— and trying to coordinate leaving at the same time, it is particularly poignant. You’d finish bathing and step outside hoping that your partner had either finished a few seconds before you or would step out momentarily. In fuyu it meant the difference between staying warm and being cold again, which defeated some of the purpose. And you’d walk home together, perhaps stopping for some oden. But that’s another story.

The original version, though many singers have covered it since.
  • Kandagawa – 神田川 a river in Tokyo. Kanda is a part of Tokyo, and kawa means river. Very straightforward. If you’re riding a train through Tokyo you may see it from the window. Very urban. The Kanda area is where all the used bookstores are and was a favorite lodging place for students back in the day since it was cheaper to live there.
  • uta – 歌 song
  • seikatsu – 生活 life style
  • seishun – 青春 youth. Often combined with jidai, which means era or period to talk about younger days
  • binbō – 貧乏 poor. What did you think it would mean?!
  • Showa – 昭和 the period from from 1926-1989. Of course most people are nostalgic about the last forty years of it, though those war years are not to be forgotten.
  • fuyu – 冬 winter
  • oden – おでん a type of food that is sold by street venders and in bars (it practically cries out for beer) and now in 7-11 and other stores. It has an unmistakable smell to it due to the fish products it uses. A lot of non-Japanese fail to see the charm of it. But in the winter, before many homes had heat, it was a great way to warm up before returning to a stone cold room.

Nodo Jiman

Every Sunday I watch a terebi bangumi from the public tv station in Japan called NHK. I have been watching it on and off since 1976 when I was introduced to it by my homestay kazoku.

Back then if it was noon on nichiyōbi, almost everyone was watching it. It’s an amateur singing contest. Each week they go to a different locale in Japan and introduce the town and show what is special about it, followed by the introduction of two guest judges who are professional singers. And then the participants come on stage to sing and get judged with one chime, two chimes or a series of chimes telling them they’ve scored high enough to be in the final round of judging. At the end one tokubetsu shō is given and then the grand champion is announced from the six or seven who’ve gotten top marks. Simple, but addictive! I don’t think there is any better way to get a taste of real Japan.

Of course the format has changed some over the years. And during COVID it was cancelled entirely for a while. So it reflects genjitsu Japan as well. A few weeks ago there was an jishin just as the show was about to begin (it is broadcast live). And news pre-empted it.

I could probably write a book about Nodo Jiman, but for now I’ll stick with yesterday’s broadcast.

100 years old!

Everyone is always properly attentive when an otoshiyori comes on stage to sing, often accompanied by a mago. It isn’t unusual to have participants in their eighties and even nineties. But yesterday was very special because a gentleman who is 100 years old came on to sing. He wasn’t half bad. The announcer asked his usual questions.

"To what do you attribute your longevity?"
"I sing everyday!"

"And what goals do you have in your life right now?"
"I want to reach hyakutōban!"

And everyone laughed. Let me explain. 110 is the number that one calls for the police or in an emergency. It’s sort of Japan’s 911. So he made a great pun by saying that he wants to call the police or–in this case he wants to reach age 110. That’s probably possible in Japan.

And of course he was awarded the special prize. Nobody could top that one! Sasuga!

  • Nodo Jiman – のど自慢 song show. Please read the wikipedia entry here. I can’t explain it in a few sentences and do it justice.
  • terebi bangumi – テレビ番組 television + program
  • kazoku – 家族 family. Note that if you are asking someone about their family you want to put an honorific in front of it and say gokazoku
  • nichiyōbi – 日曜日 Sunday
  • tokubetsu shō – 特別賞 special + award
  • genjitsu – 現実 reality, actualities
  • jishin – 地震 earthquake
  • otoshiyori – お年寄り the elderly. Honorific o of course!
  • mago – 孫 grandchild
  • hyakutōban 110番- Number 110 – the police number you call in an emergency in Japan
  • sasuga – さすが “indeed!” or as you might have expected

Cotton Life

When you go to a foreign country, you expect to discover and learn new things. You find yourself changing in ways that you would have never predicted. Going 100% cotton was one of my adjustments.

I don’t think I ever thought all that much about the content of my yōfuku in America. I bought what looked nice or was well priced. A tee-shirt was a tee-shirt and jeans were jeans. That was the bulk of my wardrobe and still is today. But in Japan, I learned the value of cotton.

The simplest explanation is the otenki. Kyoto is just so darned atsui and mushiatsui that cotton was going to be the best option. And it was prefect for layering during the cold winters. And that was what I found in shops when I started cautiously delving into clothing. I say cautiously, because my size was so different from the typical Japanese women’s size back then. Until I was pregnant and really needed to shop, I didn’t. And then when I confided in my Japanese giri onēsan, she kindly sent me all of her maternity clothes! She was just as tall as me, and had some items that were surely tailor-made.

When my musume was born in 1984, nuno omutsu were still what most mother’s were using. My giri okāsan sewed 100 of them for me. One of the nicest gifts I’ve ever received. Cotton of course and I still have a few of them with blue puppies scampering across them. She had two granddaughters already and perhaps she was hoping for a grandson, but that wasn’t to be…yet.

Japanese diapers

My own parents sent baby clothing from America that had fire-retarding unknown content to me. It did not breathe. I stuck with the Japanese baby clothes—of course, all cotton. And on summer nights I’d religiously insert gauze hankies into her pajamas to absorb ase and change them out during the night every few hours. Yes, I really did those things. Cotton ruled!

And cotton held up well. Our washing machine only used cold water and I hung everything out to dry. The smell of cotton clothing imbued with sunshine and fresh air is always an upper to me!

Hanging laundry while pregnant in Tokyo….
  • yōfuku – 洋服 clothes. Western style clothes. There’s a different word for Japanese style clothing.
  • otenki – お天気 weather
  • atsui – 暑い hot
  • mushiatsui – 蒸し暑い humid
  • giri onēsan – 義理お姉さん (older) sister-in-law. If you put giri before mother, father, sister, brother etc. it turns it into an in-law
  • musume – 娘 daughter or young woman
  • nuno omutsu – 布おむつ cloth diapers (as opposed to disposable diapers which are kami omutsu)
  • giri okāsan – 義理お母さん mother-in-law. If you put giri before mother, father, sister, brother etc. it turns it into an in-law
  • ase – 汗 sweat