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Friday, Nov. 2, 2001


Words of wisdom -- why grandma knows best

It seems that times have never been so bad, at least during the last half century. But my 82-year-old grandmother says times are always bad, and it's just a matter of to what degree. Jita-bata shitemo shoganai (Struggling is useless), she says, and carries on chopping daikon, hanging a futon out to air, watering her plants or whatever it is she's doing.

During the war, she lived in a relative's house, where all day long no one sat down except to eat sparse meals. Every night she was woken by air-raid sirens, and every night she felt certain that the house, herself and everyone else would be blown to bits. Even so (or because of this), she made it a point to polish the floors and clean the bathroom top to bottom, every single day. "If I was going to die, I at least wanted to die with all the chores done," is her way of summing it up. The house burned down, but she survived.

Women of her generation with that astonishing resilience are referred to by modern Japanese as the senzen-ha (prewar faction). The term is used to describe the ceiling of endurance; the stiff upper lip; the spirit of straitened economy; and other bitoku (virtues) that postwar generations never bothered to cultivate. And now, 56 years after the surrender, senzen has become so far away it actually feels exotic, like a house of horrors in an amusement park.

Those were the days when a father was free to sell his children to pay off gambling debts; marriages were arranged and it was tough luck if your spouse was an abusive idiot; women were told to walk with their heads bowed deep whenever they were passing a policeman or other figures of authority, and they could not complain if such people chose to spit in their direction.

It's no wonder that the collective Japanese reaction to that era is: Yeeeyew. In other words, Never again, thanks very much. But the obachan (grandmas) who lived through those times are the possessors of a wisdom that eludes those of us who have always had plenty to eat and roofs over our heads.

One of their favorite maxims is: Kafuku wa azanaeru nawano gotoshi (The good and the bad are intertwined like rope), which roughly means that good times and bad times come in turns. Sometimes, these elders display their I Ching-like knowledge (which was no doubt drummed into them during the war) with: Onore wo shiri, teki wo shireba hyakusen ayaukarazu (If you know yourself and you know your enemy, you can fight 100 battles.)

Grandmas can also be utterly pragmatic. Doku wo motte doku wo seisu (Poison is the most effective in stamping out poison), they're likely to say. If you go to them with problems of love, they're wont to proffer: Horeta hareta wa ittoki no koto, oya to okane wa issho no koto (Lovey-dovey is temporary, but issues of money and in-laws will follow you the rest of your life).

As well, if you listen to them long enough, they will bestow upon you traditional medicinal knowledge that elsewhere in the world would make them qualified doctors.

For upset stomachs, try umeboshi (dried plums) in hot bancha (coarse tea). For headaches, steep ginger in hot water and sip slowly. If you have a chill, soak your feet in a basin of hot water, changing it every 15 minutes until your whole body feels warm. For summer colds, sip cooled-off hot water, then eat spoonfuls of honey. For winter colds, throw yuzu (winter citrus fruits) in your bathwater. If you have a fishbone stuck in your throat, swallow spoonfuls of rice without chewing. If you're hungover, try miso soup with clams. If a baby is crying, give it a piggyback ride. If the weather is cold and damp, eat fresh fish. If it's hot and humid, eat grilled eel. If you're feeling annoyed, do the laundry. If you're feeling boastful, clean the windows.

And if your commitment-phobic boyfriend ditches you . . . Sorry, haven't asked her that one yet.

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