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Friday, Jan. 25, 2002


Artist boxing clever to reveal Japanese personality traits

The Japanese koin rokka (coin locker) is a great urban invention: the smallest private space you can rent and call your own, for anywhere between one hour to one month. After that, some uniformed coin-locker authority will come with a set of keys to open the unclaimed locker space and find . . . well, the stories are varied and endless. Body parts, newborn babies, a shopping bag with enough hard cash to buy a fleet of Ferraris, nude photographs of a current film star, precious metals, hazardous chemicals, suicide notes (very common), underwear (even more common) and, in one wacked-out case at Asagaya Station, 37 opened cans of tuna, laid neatly in rows and smelling awful.

So interesting is the interior world of the coin locker that we had rather ignored its outer shell. Until Hisanori Aizawa, a graduate student at Hosei University unleashed an art project to change that. His work was on display at Daikanyama Station in a coin-locker installation that gave personality to each and every one of those little steel cubes of space.

Each locker door had a red circle with a slash in the middle, like a no-smoking sign, only instead of a cigarette in the center, Aizawa had written character traits familiar to the Japanese.

For example, there was a door marked futoppara (fat stomach), meaning a generous, laid-back attitude. Next to that was shinpai-sho (worry-wart), and above this was yutosei (good grades and teacher's pet).

There were 45 lockers in all, and 45 different character traits that explained common types of the Japanese psyche more eloquently than a 1,000-page sociology treatise. Aizawa-san was careful to avoid anything complex, perhaps because such phrases don't fit on a coin-locker door but more likely because the Japanese tend to dislike complicated personalities. Like "Delusions of Grandeur With a Dash of Insecurity." Simply not on the lockers, sorry. And "Trouble With Women Due to Latent Oedipus Complex." That's missing, too.

Instead, people gathered around the locker that read fudebusho (bad with the brush), which means a person who tends to put off writing letters and thank-you notes. Ooh, exciting. Another one said: uchibenkei -- loud and brash only among family and loved ones. Then there was everyone's favorite: zennin, which is "good soul."

There were lots of fun ones. Jigokumimi (ears from hell) refers to someone who's always the first to get the juiciest gossip. Happobijin (beautiful in eight directions) is used to describe an all-round yes-man. Iyashi-kei (the healer) is now the most popular type of woman among men, and chuseiteki (androgynous) is the most popular type of woman among women. Nimaime (the second page) is a handsome stud, and sanmaime (the third page) is the comedian. A menkui (face-eater) cares only about other people's looks, and a shinshi is a gentleman. Bonjin (ordinary bloke) is how eight out of 10 Japanese over the age of 30 choose to describe themselves, and yujufudan (wishy-washyness) is considered the Japanese national character flaw.

Older people got a kick out of anachronisms like tora no io karu kitsune (the fox disguised in the furs of the tiger) and ishiatama (stone head), referring to a stubborn person with zero brain circulation. Kanazuchi means "hammer," but most of the younger generation didn't know this also means "person who can't swim." And those who knew what taikobo (person who fishes all day long, or a true philosopher) meant, certainly knew their Chinese history. Only five lockers used English phrases, and it's interesting to note Aizawa-san's choices: "cool," "shy," "slow-starter," "mood-maker" and "heavy smoker."

Character traits (and flaws) on the outside, personal secrets within. Leave it to the Japanese to put all this into a small, square box.

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