A Japanese Table
A table can tell you more than you expect about Japanese culture. When you sit on one of those low Japanese tables, you’re sitting on history. This table has a story. Let’s begin.
The idea of family dinners is not native to Japan. As bizarre as that sounds, keep in mind that family dinners only entered Western culture after the industrial revolution. Before that women and children were not allowed to sit for meals, just men. (And we are deeply sorry about that, ladies.) Certainly Japanese meals were social gatherings, but women were not permitted to eat in the same room as men because after a long day of severing heads, samurai just wanted some peace and quiet.
Since there was no family bonding at dinner time, tables weren’t used for eating. Instead people ate from trays placed on the tatami, a custom that endures in many restaurants today. While you will almost certainly eat at a table anywhere you go, a traditional Japanese restaurant will set your meal in front of you on a large lacquered tray.
Tables for eating were a part of the Meiji government’s social reforms aimed at creating katei, the western idea of a family-centered home. While many people think of Japan’s westernization as abandoning its traditional culture, in this case I think even the most ultra-national would agree that adopting a home structure focusing on the family was a good thing. Japanese homes, even their architecture, had previously been built around entertaining guests.
So since the Meiji government decided that “home” meant family and a ring of trays around the tatami took up too much room, the first Japanese dinner table, the chabudai, was invented. The Japanese weren’t quite ready to adopt full western-style tables yet, so the low-sitting chabudai was crafted in the early 20th century. Although it’s now considered the traditional Japanese-style table, ironically, those very same “traditional” tables were actually part of a governmental propaganda campaign to eliminate Japan’s traditional culture.
The Wood…And Spring
You might think that a country the size of California would import most of its wood, but the wood for that table (probably, it’s not mine) came from a Japanese forest. While Japanese poetry and gardens aim for a distinctively Japanese sense of harmony with nature–one too broad to go into. There are books about it–historically, the Japanese logging industry has been extremely exploitive of that very same nature.
In the last 300 years, Japan’s need for lumber caused massive deforestation. It was a regular environmental crises. Soil erosion, landslides, floods, and barren land became common as Japan cut down its forest for the sake of timber and agriculture. The forest from the animation Princess Mononoke is based on a real place, Yakushima island, whose forests saw extensive logging after the leader of the Nichiren Buddhist sect saw the destitution of the Yakushima locals and proposed logging its trees. Much of the current Yakushima island, and a good deal of Japan’s other forests, are replanted Japanese cedars.
The modern logging industry is quite good about replanting the forests it cuts down. The only problem is they do it with Japanese cedars. Japanese cedars are tall, long-lived and grow fast, but they also give a lot of the population allergies. While you can see Japanese wearing masks at any time of the year to prevent others from catching their colds, in spring it’s a good bet they’re wearing them for allergies. Starting around late February, allergy sufferers start wearing surgical masks and large glasses to keep the cedar pollen at bay. If you come to Japan in spring and immediately start sneezing, you can thank its lumber industry for your trouble.
From a Japanese Table
You can learn a lot from a Japanese table. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.