Recently, I’ve got myself hooked on a popular home renovation programme which is on every Sunday night at eight on Asahi TV. Called Before/After , it’s a Japanese variation on all those fix-it shows that have been on for years in English-speaking countries (and probably others, but how would I know?). I learn things from it that the producers did not intend, and for that alone it’s worth checking out.
The programme follows a rigidly set formula (Japanese TV shows either meander pointlessly for hours or you can set your atomic clock by the predictability of their format – nothing in between). The programme uses the loan word “renewal”, which in Japanese usually means remodeling or renovation. More often than not, though,the houses on Before/After are simply gutted, leaving only the barest frame, which has a new house built around it. We are first introduced to a family who are living in cramped, unhappy quarters and are shown in uncomfortable detail the full crappiness of their lot (doing the laundry outside, then climbing onto the roof to hang out the wash; bathing in a tub the size of a sink, in a tiny, rotting bathroom; a front door opening out onto traffic, so that exits must be planned very carefully indeed; people literally climbing over piles of boxes because there is no storage space in the house – none; and on and on). They are then packed away, their home is quickly ripped up, and a new living space installed on the ashes of the old one; comparisons of before the renovation and after are made; the family is whisked back (minus, suspiciously, all the junk they were seen packing away in the beginning); gratitude (often tearful) is expressed to the designer, who personally shows them around their new home; finally, the happy family is seen having their first meal in the swanky new pad. Back in the studio, the host thanks the designer (renovator?) then he (or another member of the renovation team) is then assigned next week’s project.
The rule of the programme is that the architects have to work within the original dimensions of the house. Considering the size of a city lot in Japan, that’s (literally) not a lot of elbow room. Last week’s house was said to be 8 tsubo (坪,the traditional unit for measuring the area of land and floor space – it’s the size of 2 tatami mats, or 3.5m², or 38ft²). In other words, the entire house had the same amount of floor space as my apartment, roughly 43m² or 463ft²). I’m trying to imagine a family of three (with one on the way) functioning amiably in my apartment. I can’t. This programme tells you a lot about the assumptions of people here. And mine too, I suppose (incidentally, when I tell anyone Japanese the size of my flat, they invariably ask, “and you live alone…?” as if it were the penthouse suite at the Sheraton).
It must be said that some of the space-saving innovations shown on the programme are remarkable: drop-down fire-escape style staircases; drawers under beds that become night tables; intelligent shelving, which employs the height of the wall space but makes everything within reach with a simple crank; a real attic – which, remarkably, few Japanese houses have – at the top of the house; retractable counter-tops in the kitchen. Last week’s featured a brilliant ventilation idea to keep the house from heating up in the summer – so simple that you wonder why it never occurred to anyone before (it’s not as though Japanese houses don’t need it – they’re stiflingly hot in the doldrums of summer).
But it’s the early segments which are morbidly fascinating – the lengths to which people will go to keep up the middle class ideal of owning your own home. The families portrayed on Before/After are not destitute – a Japanese audience couldn’t or wouldn’t relate to them if they were (a programme which did this work as obvious charity would only inspire envy, which is no recipe for success here). Although the TV families have got it rough, there obviously has to be enough familiarity in the situation to spark some fellow feeling in the audience. So, although the average Japanese family might not live in something as squalid (the only word for it in many cases), they mustn’t be living in a situation too far removed.
A word comes to mind, one that is used ad nauseum here : gaman (我慢). It’s always defined as “endurance” in the dictionary, but really means something closer to “putting up with.” This is considered a great virtue in Japan (as it used to be in my country – how else would those prairie settlers have survived in the middle of ice-block nowhere?), but this programme shows, unwittingly, how even the greatest virtue can be taken to the silliest lengths unless, miraculously, like Mito Komon, the TV channel appears out of nowhere and fixes your life. Watch it if you can (NB: or if you can’t, look at some of these clips which someone posted on You Tube They tend to show more After than Before, but they’ll give you a good idea of what the show is like. Warning: if you watch too many, the theme song will be stuck in your head for days).