Harumi Kurihara insists she is just an ordinary housewife. Seated in the tastefully decorated living room of her central Tokyo house, she grants an interview as several assistants quietly prepare lunch. At precisely noon, Kurihara stands up, walks into her sunny kitchen, puts some finishing touches on each dish and voila: a mouthwatering feast including Thai-style noodle salad with plump shrimps, spicy deep-fried tofu and crisp, thinly sliced lotus root with seaweed. "This is the kind of meal we have every day," she says.
She certainly makes it look easy. No wonder Japanese women adore her. Kurihara, a svelte and youthful 54, is Japan's answer to Martha Stewart. Like the American lifestyle guru, she has a rapidly expanding publishing, retail and restaurant business, including her own glossy quarterly, Lovely Recipes. Her dozens of cookbooks have sold more than 10 million copies. The chain store Yutori no Kukan (Quality Space) carries tableware, aprons and gardening tools that she designed or selected. In the latest expansion of her empire, U.S. consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble signed her on as an adviser and last month launched a Japanese Web site, shufufufu.com (a combination of "shufu," or housewife, and "fufufu," a giggling sound), that features her tips, essays and recipes. Kurihara balks at the comparison to Stewart. "Martha-san is an important businesswoman," she says. "I'm not in her league."
Or is she? The two celebrities pitch similary elaborate homemaking fantasies. But Kurihara's underlying aim--to help housewives please their husbands--would probably make Stewart, a divorcee, cringe. Kurihara says Japanese husbands take their wives for granted. Instead of wasting time being unhappy about it, the wives should have fun with what they do. Says Kurihara, "Which is nicer for him: a wife grumbling as she gets up to make breakfast and see you off in her pajamas, or [a wife] going about it looking neat and tidy and with a smile on her face?" She doesn't mean to imply that wives should deprive themselves; on shufufufu.com they can find "reward recipes" for themselves, like a cup of spicy herb tea.
Japanese women love Kurihara's down-to-earth unpretentiousness. …