Building bridges

Trends & Culture - May 16th, 1975

by Yurie Horiguchi

More questions and ans­wers. I am beginning to think this is perhaps the best formula for this column as people are apt to pop questions with answers too brief to merit a column-long answer.

Q. Why did the Empress and the Imperial prin­cesses wear Western-style evening dresses at the banquet honoring the Queen of England?

A. Because of Japanese court protocol, as establ­ished during the early day it the Emperor Meiji, when it was decreed that ladies should wear either decollete or “high-neck” (as designated on the invitation cards) at State functions. This meant all Japanese lady quests (and in the old days wives always accompained their husbands to such functions).

It is only since the war that ladies are allowed to wear formal Japanese kimono, or homongi, at court functions. But members of the Imperial family remain faithful to the traditional protocol, in particular when the State visitor is a reigning monarch, as this enables the Empress and the Imperial princesses to wear the ribbons and/or decorations that are generally conferred upon them by visiting royalty.

The famous Rokumeikan, or Hall of the Baying Stag, was built in 1883 for the specific purpose of entertaining foreign dignitaries, and was the scene of balls, soirees and charitable events at which ladies and gentlemen of international society could mingle with members of Japan’s elite. Evening dress for the ladies was al­ways Western style, as can be seen from old photographs and illustrations of the period. Also, one of the Rokumeikan‘s main func­tions was to give those Ja­panese a place to demonstr­ate their familiarity with European deportment, diversions and cuisine.

It was also a year later, in 1884, that a peerage of five ranks was created, in order lo place Japanese noblemen and leaders on an equal footing with their titled European counterparts. The five ranks were prince, marquis, count, viscount and baron—the last title going mainly to men who disting­uished themselves in busi­ness, laying the foundations for Japan’s future prosperity.

After 1920 or so, the Rokumeikan lost its popularity and was eventually sold to an insurance company. It is that small white building standing behind a huge courtyard (designed for the stationing of horse-drawn carriages) next to the Im­perial Hotel.

Q. I recently saw a Japa­nese typewriter for the first time. It looks so huge and unwieldy. Do ordinary people use them?

A. No. In the first place, there are 3,000 charac­ters on a full-size Japanese typewriter (there are some smaller ones with about 2,000 charac­ters only), including kata-kana and hini-gana, numerals and the Eng­lish alphabet. Only a trained typist can mani­pulate it, and of course “touch typing” is out of the question. It gene­rally takes about five times longer to type a letter than to write one by hand, so it is used mainly for official docu­ments. Every govern­ment office, as well as all leading firms have Japanese typists who re­ceive higher salaries than “ordinary” typists.

Perhaps the most silent newsrooms in the world are those of Japa­nese newspapers. Every­thing is written by hand, and it comes as shock to visiting journalists not to hear the mad clatter of typewriters in otherwise busy newsrooms.

Q. Why do so many Japa­nese trees have straw bound around their trunks? I especially notice this in winter. Is it to protect them from snow and cold?

A. No, it is to protect them from insects. When autumn sets in, insects like to hibernate in trees, where they lay their eggs and can be quite destructive. But when they find straw to nest in, they tend to stop and remain there. When spring comes, the straw binding are removed and and all.

Q. Why do Japanese school children wear those dreadful uniforms? I always feel sorry for the young girls in their long, heavy skirts—not to mention the black cotton stockings!

A. Japanese school children have been wearing uni­forms of some sort or another ever since the public school system was started in Japan in the Meiji Era. It was about 1920 that they abandon­ed the kimono-hakama geta uniform for “Mao-type” jackets, trousers, socks and shoes, while girls were decked out in sailor-blouses with Girl Guide-type scarves and pleated skirts.

After the Second World War, several at­tempts were made to do away with school uni­forms, and although in recent years university students have managed to got away with jeans and sweaters/sports shirts (although they all own a correct uniform for formal occasions), the idea was not wil­lingly accepted by the general public for pri­mary and secondary school children. One of the chief objections was that it would make too much of a distinction between the poor and the rich children.

Q. Which are the oldest foreign-style hotels in Japan? Which do you personally consider to be the best?

A. Contrary to general belief that the predeces­sor of the present Imperial Hotel was the oldest, it is the Seiyoken, built in 1871 in Tsukiji. The Grand Hotel in Yokohama has the distinction of being the second oldest, built in 1873, together with the predecessor of the pre­sent Nikko-Kanya Hotel, then called the Cottage Inn. The still beautiful Fujiya Hotel in Miyano-shita was built in 1878. The old Imperial Hotel came much later, al­though a predecessor to the one many of us knew and loved, was built in 1890. The Frank Lloyd Wright structure was completed in 1922.