Context: Written several weeks before my tenure in the JET Programme ended and I had to move out of my civil servant apartment
Originally published on June 17, 2013
A few weeks ago, the government employee apprenticing to inherit the job of “Supervisor of the Foreigners” from the current supervisor came to my apartment to go over leaving procedures. He put a red sticker on all the things I’m not allowed to take with me because they belong to the town (TV, fridge, washing machine, wooden flooring, etc.). He also explained that I would either have to do a deep-cleaning myself or hire a company to do it (or what? They’ll fire me?) and repair the shoji. “Wuzza shoji?” I asked.
It turns out that “shoji” is the word for the traditional sliding paper windows in the bedroom. I imagine they were designed when some ancient Japanese monarch posed a riddle to the royal interior designers, asking “What is the least practical material to make windows out of? The winning answer will henceforth be used until at least the 21st century, despite the tremendous advances in window technology that will no doubt be around by that point, and possibly for even longer than that.” The cleverest designer proposed paper, of course. Not normal, sturdy, A4 printer paper, but so-called rice paper, which rips if you graze it lightly with one finger. If you sneeze in its general direction. If you look at it funny. At least the stuff in my windows did. Maybe the choice of material is rooted in the “mono no aware” Japanese beauty aesthetic, which literally means “the impermanence of things.” This is why the country loves the cherry blossoms, which bloom for a week and are then gone.
I could sense the impending threat to my wallet, and considered trying to get out of it by claiming that the damage had already been done at the time of my arrival, but my own photographic evidence to the contrary convinced me to do the right thing. Over the past two years, a series of trips, falls, overly-aggressive window openings/shuttings, and flailings in bed were enough to put puncture wounds and gashes in about 25% of the mini panels within each shoji. All it takes is literally the slip of a finger. “So how do I repair them?” I asked. “You pay a company to do it.” Of course I do…
Government Employee left, and a few days later, my American friend mentioned that his cousins down in Tokyo repair their own shoji, so I made a mental note. Flash forward to yesterday, when I found myself with nothing to do and a hankering for some delicate manual labor. First I checked out the repair service, just in case it was actually price-competitive. They charge ~$30 per frame, and I had four to get done…so clearly I had no choice but to do it myself. I found the replacement paper, glue, and exacto-knife-ish tool easily enough at the DIY home goods store, and the bill came to ~$12.
And a few hours later, it was done. Figured it all out with trial-and-error. Well, no error, actually. Just one trial, because screwing up is for chumps.
So for anyone who anticipates having to do this someday, or anyone bored enough to read about something they will never have to do, here’s the procedure in 15 easy steps.
Materials: Old holey shoji, new shoji paper, special glue just for this job, box cutter, hair dryer, sticky tape, something to cover/protect the floor
1. Lay out some newspaper on the surface you’re going to work on, except where on earth do I get free newspaper? I just used some old musty sheets and towels left in the closet by multiple generations of former JET inhabitants.
2. Pop the shoji out of the window frames by lifting up, and pulling out from the bottom. You will probably puncture the paper in several places from breathing too heavily while doing this, but that’s okay because you have to fix it all anyway. It’s a good chance to practice though, because you’ll have to reinstall them without ripping anything in the end.
3. Place the shoji, pretty side down, on your newspaper/towels.
4. Spray the entirety of the old paper with a spray bottle, thoroughly soaking the lines along which it connects to the frame.
5. Rip it all off. If you’re filled with rage about having to do this in the first place, you can stand up the window and punch through the paper a few times before removing it all. Have a garbage receptacle nearby for all the damp paper.
6. There’s inevitably going to be paper/glue residue along the edges and beams of the frame, so spray it some more and slough it off like skin from a rotting corpse by rubbing with your fingers. Or you can wimp out and use some sort of plastic scraping tool. Or you can disappoint me forever and spend 400 yen on Glue-Be-Gone!: Old Shoji Paper Removal Fluid. It’s okay to have small, thin patches of wood/glue/paper pulp remaining, because that mélange actually creates a nice adhering surface once it’s all dry (as long as it’s not raised). What you want to watch out for are place where little tufts of old paper hang over the edges of the frame, because they’d be visible after attaching the new paper. Turn the frame over and view it from all angles to make sure you haven’t missed any of those.
7. Dry the frame. I used a combination of putting it out on the porch and blasting it with a hair dryer. The glue will obviously not adhere to wet surfaces very well, so this is important.
8. Get your roll of new paper, unroll it a bit, and tape a corner to the frame with scotch tape so that the paper is aligned with the central horizontal beam (covering it completely) and overlapping the vertical, side part of the frame by at least 1 centimeter. Roll it out to the bottom and tape that same side down there, too. The paper I got was too wide for my windows, so I used the box cutter to slice down the width. Then, tape the side you just cut at both the middle and bottom of the frame. Cut the paper to the appropriate length (again, at least 1 centimeter overhanging the bottom of the frame), freeing it from the larger roll. Place roll aside. *(I did each shoji panel with two pieces of paper, having them meet in the middle, because one long sheet would have gotten unruly)
9. Remove the tape from the bottom of the frame, freeing the paper to roll back up, as it is wont to do, settling at the middle. Use the actually-very-cleverly-designed glue dispenser (it has a notch that guides you along the straight edge) to lay a small line of glue along the very bottom edge of the frame. Slowly unroll the paper until the bottom edge lands directly on the line of glue. Lightly press down on the paper, following the path of the glue. For extra security, tape down those bottom corners (even though they’re now glued). Use the hair dryer (on “cool” setting) to speed up the glue-drying process.
10. Now remove the tape from the middle of the frame, once again allowing the paper to roll back up, this time towards the glued bottom edge. Work your way up the frame one section at a time. Lay down the glue on the next section of frame sides and crossbeams, and then slowly push the rolled up paper upward with one finger, along the central, vertical beam. When that’s stuck, do the sides. Finally, lightly press down along the crossbeam itself. Tape down the paper on each side at the point where it meets the crossbeam.
11. Repeat step 10 until you run out of paper. Lay glue, press down paper, tape, blow-dry. If you followed the procedure exactly and aren’t a klutz, there shouldn’t be any wrinkles, but whether there are or not, you can make the paper even tauter by spraying it (lightly!) with water at the end, and then allowing it to dry. It will shrink ever so slightly in the drying process, tightening it up.
12. Assuming you also decided to do each panel in halves the way I did, do the other half the exact same way.
13. Once everything is good and dry, remove all scotch tape and ever-so-carefully reinstall into the window. Better yet, store that thing in a closet until you leave so there’s no chance of ripping it because goddammit I do not want to have to go through this again. Repurpose the newspapers/towels from step 1 and nail them over your windows if you don’t want a 5:00 am awakening-by-sunlight.
14. Repeat steps 1-13 for all shoji panels.
15. When the weasel of a government employee comes to make his final check, casually mention that you repaired those things yourself and ask if he’s ever done it himself. He will answer “no.”