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Saturday, March 8, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The Diaper Lady makes stink over stamp


Each month my house is the site of a battle.

Call it what you will -- East against West, old against new, the "stamp" of authority against the voice of dissent, or whatever -- it is still a battle I can never win.

On one side stands me: fairly bald, fairly dumpy, fairly young at heart and altogether Western.

On the other side stands the Diaper Lady: 70-ish and with more wrinkles than I have hairs. She also wears glasses as thick as pickle jar bottoms and a smile I cannot wipe off. Maybe her head reaches to my sternum, maybe not. Of course she is Japanese.

I call her the Diaper Lady because, thanks to a city program that gives work to senior citizens, she delivers disposable diapers to our house each month.

The diapers are courtesy of another city program that supports my wife's elderly mother, who has been bedridden for over three years.

The battle zone is our house entranceway, to which the little old Diaper Lady will lug a month's supply of industrial-strength diapers from her idling automobile out front.

But she will not let these out of her age-spotted hands until she receives one thing: our family stamp ("hanko") on her collection pad.

"Uh," I tell her, "I don't know where it is. I think my wife took it to work today. Can't I just sign for it?"

For a second her smile almost leaves. "No," she says, and then trembles as if I had just asked for a Shylocky pound of her flesh. "I need your stamp."

Admittedly, I am not the brightest guy in town, or even in my house (unless, that is, I'm alone). Yet even I understand that policy is policy. If she needs our stamp, she needs our stamp.

And that was OK.

That is, for the first 20 times or so.

But these days when she comes, my Western obstinacy flares up inside my chest like last night's meat sauce.

"I don't have the family stamp," I almost yell. Nor, I tell her, do I have any of our other, unregistered stamps, which she has always made me hunt for before. "Just let me sign for it!"

"No. I need your stamp."

And the battle is on . . .

"Look. These are diapers. Not precious jewels. They're made of cheap paper and they're doomed for messy consumption. Who cares about the blasted stamp?"

To this, she blinks. Then says: "I need your stamp. For identification."

"But how many times have you come here? It's me! The same guy as always! Can't you tell?"

Or does she believe I might be some villain in disguise, out to hijack the city's diapers?

But all this earns is a pause. Then she stretches her smile. "I need the stamp."

"And I need the diapers."

Grandma's room is right next to the entrance, and a warm odor should tell the lady the diapers have an immediate purpose. I have no intention of reselling her stock on the black market or throwing wild diaper parties or forcing their usage on the innocent.

"Can't I just sign for them?"

"Any stamp is OK," she answers. "It need not be your official one."

This makes me claw at what's left of my hair. For if any stamp will do, then why not a signature?

"I don't know where they are," I tell her.

Not true. We have more family stamps than we have silverware. If I rummage around, one is sure to turn up.

"But you have always found one before."

"Yeah, but I think we burned them all. Besides, what's this?"

I hold up a pen that we keep for just such deliveries. Unlike in years gone by, when almost everyone required our stamp, these days a mere scribble will do. Yet the Diaper Lady clings to the past.

"I don't mind waiting. Why don't you go hunt?"

I ignore her and say: "See! It works!"

On my palm I have scrawled my signature, at which the Diaper Lady peers as if trying to read the future around the ink. Somewhere between my life line and love line she finds her answer.

"Um . . . I really need your stamp."

Suddenly I am filled with an urge to grab the Diaper Lady and stamp her gray head every which way I can.

But at this point she smiles even wider and fires her best shot.

"I can't go until I get the stamp."

Thus motivated, I retire to our living room, where I locate the stamp in 20 seconds. Yet I rattle drawers and shuffle papers for five minutes more, just to make her wait.

At night when I tell the story, my wife lays down the law.

"Don't you dare give that woman a hard time. She's too sweet. Just stamp her pad and be done with it."

"Oh, but I'm allowed some protest, aren't I? After all, they're just diapers!"

"And it's just a stamp!"

"But doesn't it add up to more than that? Isn't this bureaucratic poppycock? Administrative hooey? Isn't this," and I fix her in the eye, "Japan?"

She doesn't answer, just glowers. And then I tell her I feel like writing a letter of complaint to City Hall. Will she sign too?

She swallows my remarks and then raises her brows in a victory that would make the Diaper Lady proud.

"No, but if it's politely written, maybe -- just maybe -- I'll affix my stamp."

So . . . once more I have been routed.

Leaving me to sulk in defeat for yet another month . . .

When the battle will be joined again.



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