The Pinnacle of Ordinary: ‘Futsuu’ as a Favored, Flexible Framework

Ordinarily, I would never have expected to write about the word “futsuu” (ordinary) three times in this column. And yet “futsuu” is a continuing conundrum for both myself and other researchers on Japan, as it marches into lots of areas in which it would not ordinarily go. It’s quite extraordinary.

Almost a decade ago, I described how the applied linguist Mari Noda had noted a trend of declaring food as “ordinarily tasty”(futsuu ni oishii) as a positive evaluation. Conversely, food that tasters considered to have an unexpected taste was less likely to be praised. Then, a little under two years ago I wrote about a marvelous obento I ate on the Tohoku Shinkansen that was labeled in the attached explanation of the contents as “Ordinary Tsugaru Makunouchi Bento,” and yet the earnestly detailed explanation of the 11 items comprising the meal belied the modest assertion.

The linguistic anthropologist Judit Kroo has recently made multiple studies of “futsuu” based on occurrences of the word in the public sphere as well as in the conversations of university students, with a somewhat darker take on the current prevalence of the word.

Kroo picks up three posters that showcase “futsuu” as their theme. In the first, a political poster for the Japanese Communist Party reads, “Toward a society in which if one works eight hours one can live ordinarily.”

In her next example, a public service poster in Aichi Prefecture shows a manga of Japanese children each pointing out their own and others’ distinctive features — being left-handed, wearing glasses and being short or fat — and coming to a realization that everyone is different. At the bottom, the poster states, “My ‘futsuu’ and your ‘futsuu’ are different. Let’s make that our ‘futsuu.’”

Kroo’s final “futsuu” specimen is the most poignant, an entry for an Advertising Council Japan poster contest that displays an illustration of a smartphone screen with a message from “Mom,” suggesting the recipient start to think about finding an ordinary (“futsuu”) person and getting married. To the side of the smartphone in large type the question “What is ‘futsuu’?” appears. Above it, in smaller type, four lines read: “Holding hands in the ordinary way;” “Falling in love in the ordinary way;” “Getting married in the ordinary way;” and “Just wanting to live happily in the ordinary way.” On the bottom left, the poster states that 5% of the population is LGBT and asks for understanding.

Kroo notes that a common thread among these three “futsuu” samples is that ordinariness is portrayed as aspirational. Rather than positioning “futsuu” as a pejorative, in the sense of “no better than ordinary,” the term is used in each to conjure up the happiness of arriving at an ordinary life. Kroo makes a distinction in her interpretation of “futsuu” with the presumed satisfied embrace of ordinary life seen in the writing of the sociologist Noritoshi Furuichi, who writes of the “small happinesses” of young people, for example, taking an overnight trip to Chiba and having a barbecue. Unlike Furuichi’s vision of contentment, Kroo views the current “futsuu” trend as a reflection of wishful yearning, not a celebration of already attained or easily attainable delights.

And yet, when Kroo analyzes naturally occurring data related to the use of “futsuu” among university students, things get decidedly weirder. The students use the adverbial “futsuu ni” to describe things which are typically not considered ordinary, as if defiantly co-opting the term to defend the unusual. In one conversation, one student, Kimiko, describes a mutual acquaintance who is two years older as quitting his full-time job “in the ordinary way.” While Yui, another student, concurs, observing that others have quit as well, the third conversation participant, Anna, pushes back on this use of “futsuu ni” in quitting, by asking in slight astonishment whether someone can “futsuu ni” enter a famous company, implying that if you can’t get a job in an ordinary way, then you can’t quit a job in an ordinary way, but the other two dismiss her comment, merely remarking that it wasn’t a famous company.

While Anna’s reaction would likely be deemed “futsuu” by many Japanese, who tend to view resigning, particularly after a relatively short time of employment, as atypical and undesirable, Kroo suggests that Kimiko’s characterization of the acquaintance’s action as ordinary seeks to assert that “some forms of job quitting are not marginalizing events, but occur in the process of an ordinary, well-ordered life.” “Futsuu” becomes a kind of magic wand that transforms the awkward into the non-problematic.

In another conversation in Kroo’s data, two other female students, Seina and Hana, who are cheerleaders, discuss their physical ability. Although they allude to the difference between themselves and typical girls, Seina talks about lifting 9-kg dumbbells “in the ordinary way” and Hana agrees that it is nothing special. Kroo posits that the students utilize “futsuu ni” to put forward a new type of femininity in which strength is positively valued but unremarkable. They’re not being humble in calling their accomplishments ordinary. To call their strength extraordinary would relegate their lived reality to the non-mainstream, a categorization they appear to resist.

In response to the poster’s question “What is ordinary?” Kroo’s students seem to proclaim that anything is or can be, most importantly perhaps those things most likely to be viewed as unusual, and that in the ordinary designation lies satisfaction and acceptance beyond anything “extraordinary” might potentially deliver.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.