Portrait of a traditional Japanese family

11:14, November 14, 2009      

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The Sekiguchi family lives in Fujioka, a semi-rural area on Japan's Honshu island, and their lives are sustained by the manufacturing business the family started 45 years ago.

Hidehiko Sekiguchi, 68, the head of the family, started the business, which produces plastic fixings for Toyota and Subaru cars in this suburb of Takasaki City, Gumma Prefecture, in Honshu's northwest Kanto plains.

The factory is a 10-minute walk from the house he shares with his wife Sachiko, 62, who takes care of the majority of the company's administrative duties.

Their eldest son, Ryo, 37, lives just across the road -- quite literally opposite to his parents' house -- with his wife, Makiko, and their two children, Taichi, 10, and Keita, 3.

Hidehiko remains active in the family business, but of late he's passing more responsibilities to his eldest son, who, when his father fully retires, will become the shacho (company president).

Before Taichi and Keita were born, the Sekiguchi family business enjoyed the successes of the post-war industrial boom that peaked in the sixties, but the nineties and the new millennium saw many competitors relocate or outsource their business to developing countries, where parts and labor were cheaper.

These are changing times for the Sekiguchis, a close-knit unit whose success, motivation and happiness is derived from the value they place on 'family' -- once a cultural norm in Japan where, until recently, it wasn't unusual for three or four generations of one family to live under the same roof and work for the family business.


Taichi and Keita spend as much time at their grandparents' house as they do at their own, to the delight of Hidehiko, who is a constant source of fun and entertainment for the children.

Sachiko is slightly more of an authority figure, making sure the boys' rambunctious games don't get out of hand, ensuring Taichi's completed all his homework before he loses himself in his Nintendo games and keeping an eye on Keita, who is permanently engrossed, along with his grandfather, in his train set, which is replete with stations, signals, level crossings for cars, miniature passengers and station masters and a series of wind-up trains.

Sachiko announces that dinner is ready and that the children are to wash their hands and sit at the table, which they duly do at lightening speed.

Palms are pressed together in a prayer-like gesture and a chorus of "itadakimasu!" (equivalent to the saying of grace in some Western countries) rings out in unison.

The meal consists of miso soup, sticky white rice, thin slices of raw fish with shredded radish, breaded deep-fried prawns, pickles and salad. And the TV set is switched off so as not to interfere with the family table talk.

"I have to make sure my classmates are collecting as many PET bottle caps as they can, not bringing plastic bags to school and using their own chopsticks at lunchtime, not the disposable wooden ones," says Taichi in response to his grandmother's question about his day and his role as class leader, which started at the beginning of the semester as a result of being elected by his peers.

"All fourth grade classes are collecting PET bottle caps and the class which collects the most will be declared 'eco-champion' and get a prize from the headmaster. And we're definitely going to win," he continues between mouthfuls of prawn.

It is no wonder Taichi, a mild-mannered and considerate young boy, was elected class leader. He's also a very bright spark, particularly when it comes to mathematics and science; he's also quite the comedian -- very quick-witted with a well-honed repertoire of catch phrases and gestures copied from his favorite TV comedians.

Hidehiko then quizzes his grandson as to exactly why his schoolis collecting PET bottle caps, and before Tachi answers, the front door opens and a booming "tadaima!" (I'm home) announces the arrival of Ryo and his wife Makiko, parents of Taichi and Keita.

Ryo picks up his youngest and swings him in the air, much to Keita's delight, as Makiko thanks her in-laws for taking care of and feeding the boys.

Sachiko quickly heats some more food for the latecomers and the table talk, which is entirely about the children and the food, carries on.

Dinner time for the Sekiguchis is a special time. The conversation flows and, for the most part, it's the two boys that hold the floor.

"Most people know they have to separate PET bottles for recycling," says Taichi in answer to his grandfather's earlier question, "but if you leave the cap on, it takes more energy for the bottle to be crushed and the idea is to be saving energy all the time," he continues.

"Also the plastic used for the cap is different from the bottle and if they're burned together it's really bad and that's why we're collecting the caps," he concludes, to the praise from the adults around him.
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