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Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010


Vinyl forever — it really sticks (to your legs)

"Dozo, please take a seat," said the guy at the city hall. "Thank you," I said, not making a move. He rounded up some papers and came back to the table, "Dozo, please take a seat." But I just stood there, while he sat down.

For the man at the city hall, my behavior was nothing unusual. Japanese often don't make direct moves or respond after the first offer of something, apparently out of politeness.

Personally, I think it's more polite to do as you're told, but this is Japan. Hesitation exudes politeness.

It's like when you have Japanese people over to your house for dinner, you'll practically have to get out a whip to get them to start eating. It's the hesitation at the beginning that is hardest for me. Once they get going, they're pretty good.

As the hostess, I'm often still running in and out of the kitchen putting dishes on the table and may not get to sit down to start the meal. When I give them the sign to start eating, they'll acknowledge what I've said and then just sit there. This is also a time when they might start a new conversation with the others at the table.

Minutes will pass and no one will touch their food.

"Please," I insist, "eat while the food is hot." They politely nod their heads in unison and search for new conversation topics to bring up with others at the table.

Just when I'm about to force-feed them, ready to administer the food on a fork and do the airplane thing, someone will gingerly reach out with their chopsticks, tug lightly on a piece of food from one of the plates on the table, and bring a morsel over to their plate, where it then sits for another several minutes while someone brings up how extremely hot the summer has been. Only when the entire table is deep in debate about whether this is the hottest summer on record or not, will they pick up the nugget on their plate and nibble off a small piece.

The Japanese just don't hunker down and inhale as is the custom in my family. As a matter of fact, even when we had visitors to our house in the U.S., the first few minutes of dinner were often completely silent as everyone concentrated on eating. Chewing is a very serious matter.

So, while I'd like to say that in the city hall I was declining the offer to sit down out of politeness, that wasn't really the case. I didn't want to sit down because I have an aversion to that brown vinyl furniture found in the city hall and other offices throughout Japan.

You know the stuff that was the rage in your country 50 years ago? The stuff that sticks to your bare legs?

All offices in Japan, whether they be government or private, schools or even just ryokan, have these brown vinyl chairs and sofas. The only difference between the ones in Japan and the ones at home is that here they don't have melted holes from cigarettes in them. They do, however, have plastic doilies over the backs. I have developed such an abomination of doilies since I came to Japan that I practically start barking and threatening to attack each one I see.

I think the reason for the continued use of this furniture is that it is cheap, and especially governments want you to think they are barely scraping by with hardly a budget to spend on anything. They suffer through stark office furniture and sweaty afternoons with the air conditioning off and the windows open, all the while spending your retirement pension on unneeded public works projects. It's a vinyl coverup.

Either that or they set up a polyvinylchloride study group that found solid evidence that this furniture drives people away.

And of course, it is possible that this prehistoric furniture is allowed to still be sold in an attempt to protect the Japan Ugly Vinyl Furniture Makers. After all, you can hardly blame it on vinyl itself. These days you can get very attractive vinyl in various fun patterns such as cowhide, fish scales and even Hello Kitty. (God, did I say that?!).

To me, the most amazing thing about this brown vinyl furniture is that some employee hasn't gotten sick of it and thrown it all out the window.

Only problem is, it's such a good idea that soon you'd have chairs flying out of office windows all over Japan. Tokyo would become known as the Flying Chair City. Old ladies would clean up the streets and amass great doily collections.

Dream on.

Back at the city hall, I edged toward the vinyl chair with the doilies, took a big breath, suppressed my urge to bark and attack it, and sat down.

I was in and out of the city hall in 10 minutes. It was only after I had left the city hall through the big glass doors at the front that I felt something strange. That's when I noticed I had a large brown vinyl cushion stuck to the backs of my legs. I certainly did, eventually, take a seat.

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