Meet Japan's Martha Stewart

Apron Strings

For Japanese housewives feeling the weight of daily drudgery, Harumi Kurihara is brimming with cheerful solutions.

Tired of feeling frumpy when dragging the garbage to the curb? One of Harumi's new aprons will have you looking like a runway model and impress the neighbors to boot. Don't feel like curried rice again? Pull out Harumi's "Beautiful Recipes" magazine and whip up an impressive meal with leftovers. While you're at it, shock the family by mismatching the everyday dinnerware in Harumi's winningly eclectic way.

Meet Martha Stewart, East. When Harumi Kurihara speaks, millions of Japanese women put down their chopsticks and listen - and sigh admiringly over the petite, bubbly woman whose unrelenting mission is to spice up a lifestyle more associated with narrow routine than whimsical unpredictability.

"Harumi is just like an angel, suggesting how I do things in my life," breathes Keiko Namiki, a stylish housewife and mother of three, who is purchasing a set of Harumi plates. "I don't know anyone like her who has come out and said she was a housewife and enjoying her life."

The message apparently couldn't be more timely. Few men here have caught up with the late 20th-century notion that they can help with the garbage and occasionally put together a plate of sushi. Most husbands leave early for work and are still at their desks or winding down with colleagues at 9 p.m. That leaves their wives at home with long hours of child care and household duties - and all the more receptive to someone who says this can actually be fun.

That sense of lightheartedness has millions of women tracking Harumi any way they can.

She's everywhere

Her segment on a weekly television program, which started three years ago after her cooking class became a wild success, has top ratings and is sparking talk of expansion.

Harumi's quarterly magazine, "Beautiful Recipes," has doubled its circulation to 1.2 million in just a year, with women eagerly waiting to read about her globe-trotting and seasonal decorating ideas. Women travel from all over Japan and queue up for an hour each day to eat at her restaurant, which serves a fixed menu in a relaxed, homey atmosphere.

As a result, Harumi's opinion can move markets. A green light from her on a particular cosmetic or kitchen utensil clears the item off store shelves. Women snap up her aprons - which are more Donna Karan than June Cleaver - through mail-order catalogues.

To Harumi, a longtime housewife and mother of two grown children, the sudden fame is a bit startling - especially because it started with her decision to design a more stylish apron than the 1950s-issue that Japanese women typically wear around the house.

"We older women tend to dress differently inside and outside the house. And I thought, why don't I make it so I can confidently walk down the street and take out the garbage without changing?" she says. The neighbors in her fashionable Tokyo neighborhood noticed - and history was made.

But while her products drip with style and cutting-edge fashion, the message is one of simplicity. No raising your own silkworms or making holiday centerpieces out of floppy disks. Harumi focuses instead on the details of daily life: tossing in a little color, jazzing up a meal, or better organizing the day.

Women hang on her words because she acts like a caring friend - and because she's one of them.

"There are many other cooking and interior experts who can make everything so fancy, and yet that's not what many women are looking for," says Hiroko Hara, a professor at the Institute for Gender Studies at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo. "Harumi always thinks and acts as a housewife, and she offers the type of encouragement that they don't hear elsewhere."

Harumi acknowledges her gift for the common touch. "I have a special way of doing what's normal. I'm just a housewife, but people take notes when I talk. I want to tell them that they are creating a life during motherhood and also after raising children," she says.

Of course, she's not your average housewife. She never worked outside the home until recently, it's true. But she has traveled far from the role model of her mother, who still rises in the wee hours of the morning to prepare food and makes most traditional Japanese staples from scratch.

Harumi insists - repeatedly - that she still cleans the tubs and washes windows. But there the resemblance ends. For one thing, her husband - former TV anchor Reiji Kurihara who, she notes with a laugh, always wanted a working wife - is now her partner in business.

They garden together, building a thriving herb and flower collection on the back patio. They collaborate on decorating ideas, right down to the nameplate on their whimsical entry hall - an area, Harumi notes with exasperation, that few Japanese give more than cursory attention.

Whistle while you work

Those details - the caring husband, the clever design twist, the low-cost approach - are what women like to hear, Harumi says. And her attitude is key.

"I am hard-working and positive," she says, adding with a giggle that women feel at ease with her because she is "short, not too pretty, but very friendly." Her work is not just about making the perfect miso soup. "I preach a philosophy - how to enjoy life."

She has raised some eyebrows by encouraging women to find joy in their daily lives as housewives. In a rapidly changing society, the pitch can seem very traditional.

But her message cuts across the working divide, says Ms. Hara, because she eschews the superwoman ideal. "She simply presents a nice and comfortable life with some new ideas. What's so appealing to many women is the fact that she isn't battling with her life. She isn't struggling to beat out all the other men and women in the office. She simply lives who she is."

Harumi's Carrot and Tuna Salad

2 to 3 medium-sized carrots

1/4 medium onion

1 6-oz. can tuna, drained

1 teaspoon finely cut garlic

1 tablespoon salad oil

1 tablespoon grain mustard

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

Soy sauce

Salt

Pepper

Julienne the carrots. Finely chop the onion. Put carrots and onion in a heat-resistant, non-metal container; mix in garlic and salad oil, and microwave for about one minute. Add tuna to carrot mixture; Mix throughly along with mustard, vinegar, soy, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 2.

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