by Yurie Horiguchi
In France they call this time of the year “la rentree,” when everyone returns to the cities from their holidays, schools and shops reopen and the bulk of tourists fly back to their respective lands.
In Tokyo, it is both a “rentree” and an “entre” as newcomers settle down to coping with the myriad problems of living amongst us so-called unscrutable people, in the world’s most expensive city.
One of the first questions newcomers ask concerns maids—their availability and the care and handling of.
Last year I made a survey on the subject through interviews with both “live-in” and “daily” help, and the general picture has not changed much since then, except that fees have risen and good maids are becoming ever more scarce.
I never realized until recently that acquiring a maid can be quite a frightening experience for someone who has never had one in the home before, either in childhood or adult life.
This friend was quite jittery about having taken the fatal step of applying for one and asked me what she should say during the initial interview.
The sad fact of the matter is that today most maids do the interviewing while the lady of the house sits back with a sick grin, trying to give the right answers.
Maids are getting so scarce that demand exceeds supply giving them all the leeway necessary to pick and choose the family for which they will condescend to work. Some, even, will only go to a family recommended by another maid or by a former mistress.
It is, of course, impossible to give generalized answers on queries concerning maids, and how to keep them once acquired, but the foremost consensus is that unless there is a mutually harmonious rapport between mistress and maid, the latter will up and leave on the slightest, or even no, pretext.
This rapport is a state of mind and is not something that can be induced. In other words, if the maid likes you and/or your children and/or your pets, she will put with certain of your idiosyneracies.
If the rapport does not exist but the pay is generous and the house comfortable, she will put up with a few of your idiosyneracies, but will not be too responsive.
This sounds as though I have a horribly cynical attitude toward maids, but I am really only reporting what some have told me.
Devotion to a family in which one works is a matter individual sentiment. In the old days, among the Japanese, the devotion was total because servants were considered to be the responsibility of the family for whom they worked, and were very often young girls—country girls in the main—related to an older servant, or at least presented to the family through mutual friends.
Today, the turnover in foreign families in Japan is so frequent—an average of every two years—that an experienced maid tries not to get emotionally involved, even though she may dote on the children.
Maids like to be told what to do and how you expect it to be done from the start. They like to have a schedule to follow in the beginning, and once they know what is expected of them they will generally continue under their own steam.
They like to be told at the time that something is not being done the right way, and not be reproached for it at the end of a tiring day.
“Dailies” like to be told what they may take from the refrigerator at lunch-time if the mistress intends to be absent. Most new maids are shy about opening refrigerators, not knowing what is being “kept specially,” and I have heard of one who went hungry the whole day, then quit without notice.
If you set out a can of soup or frozen or canned food for the maid’s lunch, it would be helpful for you to explain how to use them. Though most maids working for foreigners speak and understand some English, not all can read instructions written in English on a package.
If you leave a dish to be warmed up in the oven for lunch, please show the maid how your oven works. It is surprising how many mistresses forget this small detail, as well as forgetting to show how to use gadgets with which the maid is unfamiliar.
Having a maid is such euphoria for some once-harried young mothers that they sometimes go off for the whole day without any indication of the time of their return.
Always tell your maid what time you expect to be back, and if there are babies or young children in the house, give her a telephone number where you can be reached. Another good telephone number to provide her with is that of your husband’s office in case of emergency.
Maids are not very fond or respectful of mistresses who are over-friendly. They know their place and they would like you to keep yours. Also, few will put up with an overbearing person who never once says “thank you.”
In particular, please do not introduce your maid to your guests at a dinner party, for instance, especially if some of the guests are Japanese. I have seen this happen several times and it is difficult to know who is more embarrassed—the maid or the Japanese guests.
An old family retainer or a governess are the exceptions.
“Dailies,” even when paid by the month, do not generally expect twice yearly bonuses. Live-in maids, however, may sometimes have it written into their contracts, or make a verbal agreement at the time of their hiring.
There are two major gift-giving seasons in Japan. The first is in the middle of June, called chugen, and the other in the middle of of December, called seibo. A “daily” would appreciate a gift, either monetary (in an envelope) or a present, at those times.
However, the Japanese are quite aware that Christmas is the foreigner’s main gift-giving season, and would like to be remembered at that time. Depending on the nationality of the household, they often prefer something from your own country than a locally bought gift.
Many maids also appreciate good quality hand-me-downs. Some “dailies” are married women with children. Find out the latter’s ages and if you too have children of about the same age the maid will probably be happy to receive outgrown clothing.
A maid hates to tell a mistress to her face that she wants to quit, so she makes up stories about a sick mother or father and leaves with no intention of returning, even if she forfeits some pay.
Finally, in the waiting rooms of domestic agencies, maids exchange opinions and experiences, and there is an unwritten blacklist of unpopular mistresses and uncomfortable houses.