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Holiday Entertaining Issue | Cover Story

Demure Ambition

Harumi Kurihara Says She's Just An Ordinary Japanese Housewife, But Her Cookbook, Magazine and Housewares Empire Speaks Millions. And the Comparisons to Martha Stewart Won't Stop.

November 11, 2001|MARK MAGNIER

Harumi Kurihara's publishing debut offered a hint of things to come.

Her 1992 cookbook, "I Want To Hear People Say, 'It's Delicious,' " was a runaway bestseller in Japan. Since then, Kurihara has written dozens more blockbuster cookbooks with collective sales in excess of 10 million copies. She writes most of the articles and recipes in a glossy quarterly magazine and oversees four restaurants and 14 shops marketing her signature housewares products. She's highly sought after for television appearances and product endorsements, and she recently teamed up with Procter & Gamble to headline a lifestyle Web site.

When the Japanese lifestyle maven opened a restaurant and housewares shop in Kobe last November, 10,000 women mobbed the site, a few so overcome by emotion that they started crying.

It's no wonder she's been compared to Martha Stewart.

While Kurihara and Stewart share many of the same interests, however, their backgrounds and approaches are very different. Stewart was inspired by a messy divorce, Kurihara by a picture-perfect marriage. The strong, confident--even intimidating--Stewart has built her empire by advising people how to live their lives. Kurihara, 54, leads by example and studiously avoids telling others what to do, all the while maintaining a cheerful, reassuring style.

Los Angeles Times Sunday November 25, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Magazine--In "Demure Ambition" (Holiday Entertaining Issue, Nov. 11), the photographer for the portrait of Harumi Kurihara was misidentified. The photograph was taken by Mika Takagi.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 2001 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In "Demure Ambition" (Holiday Entertaining Issue, Nov. 11), the photographer for the portrait of Harumi Kurihara was misidentified. The photograph was taken by Mika Takagi.

"Kurihara is accessible," says Toshiko Tsunada, author of several books on Japanese food. "Everyone feels they can be like her."

Kurihara is self-taught--she never graduated from college, never attended cooking school. She spent decades doing dishes and laundry--a career path that rings true with many of her stay-at-home housewife fans. She eschews complicated recipes in favor of everyday dishes with a modest flair.

Her followers range in age from their teens to their 80s, but the heart of her appeal is with women in their 40s and 50s. A big part of Kurihara's success among that group is her ability to share their world view and reassure them of their worth in Japan's male-dominated society. More than a dozen times during a two-hour meeting, she repeats her mantra: "I'm just an ordinary shufu," the Japanese word for housewife.

Of course, she's anything but that these days. Her kitchen is larger than many Japanese apartments. Her husband of three decades helps with housework, has encouraged her career and shuns late-night drinking sessions in favor of quality time at home, all relative rarities among men of his generation. Kurihara's 6-year-old company--Yutori No Kukan, with annual revenues of about $10 million last year, up 67% from 1999--has given her enormous satisfaction and an outlet for her talents, with her every suggestion copied by millions of Japanese women.

Nonetheless, she is demure about her success and ambition. Asked about the changing role of Japanese women, she retreats to the details of her own life. Queried on the comparison to Martha Stewart, she downplays her budding empire and says she could never be as dynamic or good at business as Stewart. "I'm not nearly so confident," she says.

Asked about her many accomplishments, she insists she's nobody special.

These can be very appealing messages in a nation where modesty, patience and the deflecting of praise onto others are considered great strengths, particularly in women. But Kurihara has another underlying message for her constituents: You can wield great control within your own four walls, something you may not be able to do outside the front door.

While many of her core home values would make American women blanch, Kurihara lives in a nation where housewife is not a dirty word. "If my husband told me to stay home, I'd just say yes and follow. I'm a shufu from beginning to end. I could quit my business today and still enjoy housework."

Among some of the tips she considers important to her own marriage: Have a hot breakfast waiting for your husband when he wakes up. Greet his first waking moment with hot green tea and he'll smile all day. Don't take out your frustrations on your family. Instead, reward yourself--when you can--with a bath or cup of milk tea. Rather than complaining when he comes home from work late, precook his dinner 80% and finish it off when he walks in so it's fresh and delicious no matter what the hour.

At the same time, Kurihara offers some appealing shortcuts in a land where people are taught from a young age to work hard and strive for perfection. It's all right to prepare fish with a spoon rather than a fish knife. Don't worry if the vegetables aren't cut perfectly. It's fine to serve leftovers. You don't need fancy gadgets to enjoy cooking. For Americans, it all smacks of common sense. For many Japanese housewives, it's the sound of liberation.

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