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Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001


Making space to swing a cat in a rabbit hutch

Blame for the consumer spending slump is usually pinned on widespread anxiety over an uncertain future. But another reason, one that isn't discussed as much, is that most citizens already have everything they want.

If you need proof, just walk into the average person's home. Likely, all their possessions will be in full view, because Japanese housing is famous for its lack of storage space. In Japan, the rich man is not the man with the Armani suit. The rich man is the man who has a closet in which he can hang the Armani suit.

Ever since the advent of the nuclear-family lifestyle, one measure of a Japanese housewife's homemaking expertise has been the way she uses the space that's available to her. Eventually, this sub-discipline of home economics gave birth to professional shuno (literally, "receiving") experts and "interior coordinators."

As the term implies, interior coordinating has a more practical purpose than interior decorating does in the West. It has less to do with making sure the drapes don't clash with the slip covers than with arranging the kitchen so that you can walk through it without tripping over the rice cooker.

TBS, which had always languished near the bottom of the ratings pile at midday, unable to come with a program that can stand up to the two kings of the time slot -- Fuji's comedy-variety show "Waratte ii Tomo" and NTV's lifestyle potpourri "Omoikkiri TV" -- finally hit paydirt by tapping into the shuno zeitgeist.

"Best Time" (11:25 a.m.-1:00 p.m.) is broadcast five days a week, but on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it devotes the bulk of its 85 minutes to home improvement, 90 percent of which has to do with creating storage space out of thin air.

Mondays are reserved for "Kaiteki Seikatsu G-Men (G-Men for Comfortable Living)," which stars "shuno charisma" queen Noriko Kondo, a professional "life-amenity adviser" with a genius for solving storage problems.

Kondo, who is now a certified daytime superstar, visits housewives in their homes and critiques their storage solutions, marking those points she likes with an "OK" sign, and those she doesn't with a "dame" sign. Needless to say, the "dame" signs always outnumber the "OK" ones. Then, she sets about correcting the problems in her inimitable way.

Inimitable meaning extremely cheap, because if you hired someone to do this for you you'd spend hundreds of thousands of yen. Kondo and the housewives work together, hammering and fitting and working electric drills. Kondo is also famous for buying many of her materials at 100 yen shops. She's particularly fond of "magic tape" (Velcro) and so-called color boxes (which are invariably white).

The stakes are higher on Wednesday with "Hissatsu Reform Keikaku (Revolutionary Reform to the Death)," which describes the tone of the show rather accurately. A TBS reporter and a professional designer visit a home and completely redo the interior. The husband always participates in the remodeling while the wife goes out for the day.

"Reform Keikaku" involves more than Velcro. In extreme cases, "reform" means knocking out a wall or removing the floor, but in any case it always means throwing out useless storage furnishings and building new systems using lumber and hardware. They shoot for a budget of 150,000 yen and usually hit it. The results are impressive, and the returning wife often breaks down into tears of joy.

These homes are owned by their residents, which means they are free to reform as they see fit. On Friday's "Room Make," the residences tend to be rentals, which means no holes in the walls, no permanent fixtures. Though the labor itself is less complicated, the fruit of this labor is no less breathtaking. Cluttered kitchens and living rooms are transformed into gleaming temples of domestic efficiency, and without having to throw anything away except the old storage equipment.

The show is always entertaining and enlightening, and in the end emphasizes the substandard quality of Japanese housing in general, something that even the requisitely cheerful announcers occasionally acknowledge. Given the time, energy and money these people put into making up for their homes' lack of basic amenities, one deduces that Japanese residences are built not for the comfort of inhabitants, but for the convenience of builders or landlords.

A recent installment of "Room Make" involved the subsidized apartment of a Diet member. There is perhaps no better illustration of Japan's bizarre housing situation than the fact that the nation's lawmakers and bureaucrats live in the swankiest areas of Tokyo (Shirokanedai, Aoyama, etc.) in public housing units that in any other world capital would be called slums.

One of the problems the designer had to solve was the absence of a sink in the bathroom. The politician who lived there had to brush her teeth in the kitchen, so the designer built a simple cabinet over the kitchen sink, and even installed a mirror. The politician acted as if she'd just moved into the Ritz.

Of course, she pays next to nothing for her hovel -- which may be part of the problem. Workers who receive benefits from their employers in the form of housing or housing allowances feel that they have to put up with what they get. Even people who don't receive such benefits feel that way. Until this kind of mind-set is eliminated, the quality of Japanese housing will never be commensurate with Japanese living standards.

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