Japan gripped by obsession with pure love

Kaori Shoji – The Japan Times

2004 was the year of jun-ai (pure love), epitomized by the huge popularity of Yon-sama (the reverential nickname for Bae Yong Joon, star of the hit Korean drama “Winter Sonata”) and a craze for sentimental love stories that gripped the nation from Hokkaido to the Okinawa.
So what exactly is a jun-ai relationship? Well, it should be platonic or, at most, include just one sexual encounter. A jun-ai couple should also be faced by many obstacles contrived to keep them apart and pining for a romantic reunion. Jun-ai quotient also rises if it’s a hatsukoi (first love) situation — a pair who fell in love when they were 15 and somehow managed to keep those nascent emotions intact in spite of the passage of time.
The Japanese set great store on the hatsukoi thing, being convinced that the purest love comes when one has never loved before. For this reason hatsukoi is considered sacrosanct, a treasure that will never be tarnished with petty problems that inevitably plague a relationship between seasoned lovers.
Ideally, one or the other of the hatuskoi couple will die (preferably in his/her teens) at the peak of their love, thereby preserving the memory of the relationship, in all its purity, beauty and fervor, forever. Which brings us to “Seka-chu” (short for “Sekai no Chushin de Ai wo Sakebu [Crying out Love in the Center of the World]”), the miniseries that rivaled “Fuyu-Sona” (short for “Fuyu no Sonata [Winter Sonata]) in terms of hankie-wringing. Even the Shibuya gals called out “Seka-chu mitaina koi ga shitai!” (I want to have a relationship like the one in ‘Seka-chu’!) and subsequently toned down their makeup in preparation for the pure, honmono no koi (genuine love).
Yes, the once-chic otegaru na kankei (casual affair) is out — along with burgers, konbini (convenience stores) and other evils of fast-food culture. Nothing is tackier than having a string of sefure (sex friends) but no real kareshi (boyfriend) with whom to take walks, dinners and enjoy long, meaningful conversations. The important thing (for women, anyway) is to get into rabu modo (love mode) before they throw themselves into a full-fledged relationship, to be ready for romance so that when the daarin (darling) does come along, he will spot the signs immediately. Then they can both launch into that most coveted of states: uru-uru na ai (starry-eyed love).
According to the numerous rabu ankeeto (surveys about love and relationships) printed in Japan’s myriad fashion magazines this time of year, young women long more for shinmitsusa (intimacy) over sex and enjoy the process of seduction far more than its consummation. For this, women polish their bodies and hydrate their skins (the effect is called rabu-hada, or skin that’s made for love) in order to appear jun (pure), shiawase (happy) and stress-free and emulate the lovely, almost-unattainable heroine in a jun-ai monogatari (story).
They also welcome a bit of pain, for what’s true love without a thin icing of setsunasa (sadness) over all the delicious sweetness? The phrase setsunai yo (I feel a little blue) has practically become a compliment when spoken between two lovers; it means they’re capable of finely nuanced emotions and that by sharing their depression they feel that their relationship could last a long time.
What a lot of women say, however, is that the young men of this country are too thick to understand this need for emotional drama. Twenty nine-year-old Minako says resignedly: “Kono kuni no otokowa fukami ga nakute nijigenteki sugiru” (The men in this country have no depth and are too two-dimensional).
The men, on the other hand, say that it’s enough to kokuru (confess their love) with commitment and sincerity; after that, where’s the need to discuss emotions? “Suki to ittandakara mou iiyo” (I said I love you, so that’s that) is a famed line spoken by the hero in one of the torendii dorama (trendy dramas) the networks churn out with regularity.
Men are also bound by tradition: For a long time, any Japanese male who spewed forth about kojinteki kanjyou (personal feelings) was considered a big-time wimp and a loser. However, recognizing society’s need for men to hone their verbal skills, many companies now encourage their male employees to participate in company-sponsored communications classes. Whether this new trend will transform them all into Japanified versions of “Yon-sama” remains to be seen.
And another, somewhat related piece, by Phil Brasor, another of my favorites at the JT:
Single thirtysomethings under the spotlight
Last weekend, Nihon TV broadcast a two-hour program based on Junko Sakai’s bestselling book “Makeinu no Toboe (The Howl of the Loser Dog),” a piece of nonfiction. The show, however, was a standard trendy drama, meaning long on ritzy real-estate and product placements, short on situations that resemble real life.
Thanks to Sakai, “makeinu” has become an everyday word that the media uses to describe a female thirtysomething who’s not married but wishes she were. In the book, however, the definition is narrower: women approaching 40 with insecure jobs and no marriage prospects in sight.
The drama took a predictably neutral view. The three makeinu represented three distinct types: One was a very successful businesswoman who longed for marriage and children but who found fulfillment in her professional responsibilities; another was a divorced, childless woman who didn’t see any point in going through marriage again; and the third was a ditzy fashion fatality who wanted to marry but only if the man had lots of money and she didn’t have to give up her frivolous lifestyle.
For balance, a kachiinu (winner dog) was written into the story, a housewife who once worked with the businesswoman but now finds satisfaction taking care of her husband and son full-time.
At some point in the drama, each character came to doubt the direction her life had taken, but, in the end, they all learned to appreciate what they had. The forced even-handedness was infuriating, but the show’s lukewarm attitude was a welcome corrective to the media’s more judgmental interpretation of the terms. As one character put it, “Makeinu and kachiinu are just words,” meaning they make it easy to stereotype women.
Stereotypes are easier to work with than complex issues, and makeinu has become a convenient buzz word in the escalating public debate about later marriages and declining birthrates.
The makeinu stereotype implies that responsibility for Japan’s birthrate crisis lies with unmarried women in their 30s. The weekly magazine Aera has been instrumental in promoting this view. In a recent issue, there was an article that focused on a 37-year-old man who makes about 7 million yen a year and owns a condominium in Tokyo but can’t find a woman who’s interested in him. He attends matchmaking parties but finds that single women his age are looking for someone with more money and a higher position.
Sakai, it should be noted, wrote in defense of makeinu and blamed men for the marriage stalemate, saying that single Japanese males in their 30s were immature and uninterested in “real women.” But the Aera article says the opposite, and supports its assertion with its own survey. Their most interesting finding is that 80 percent of the single male respondents said they would marry a woman who made more money than they did, while only 10 percent of the single women said they would marry a man who made less money than they did. Similarly, 60 percent of the men said they would gladly become househusbands, while an equal percentage of women said they would never want their spouses to be homemakers.
The upshot is that, contrary to popular belief, it is men who have become more open-minded about the economic aspects of marriage and not women. As one scholar in the Aera article put it, tradition says that in marriage women have the right not to have to make a living, while men have the right not to do housework. But as earning a living has become more difficult, housework has become easier. In the process, most men have decided to give up their privelege but most women haven’t.
To feminists and anyone who believes in equality, such a development is depressing, but one has to keep in mind that everything is discussed within the realm of matrimony, which is a limiting concept. Aera implies that makeinu are materially obsessed. They not only do not want to worsen their financial situation when they marry, but look upon a potential husband as less a partner than as something that “confirms” their worth as a human being.
In the new Jun Ichikawa movie, “Tony Takitani,” based on a story by Haruki Murakami about people devoid of endearing qualities, a character played by Rie Miyazawa epitomizes this idea when she says that she buys designer clothing because it “fills in the part of me that’s missing.”
Media pundits complain that such women are undermining Japanese society, but regardless of their implied “irresponsibility,” there is no turning back. Makeinu are a natural product of the consumerist ideals that have driven the Japanese economy for the past 40 years. They are blamed for the dropping birthrate because they see husbands as commodities, but maybe it’s the institution of marriage as an economic contract that needs to be reconsidered.
Several weeks ago the Mainichi Shimbun published the results of its own survey, which found that even married couples don’t want to have children until their lives are not just stable but affluent. It’s an understandable desire, but a very recent one. Only since the 1960s have people in the industrialized world had the luxury to put off having a family for whatever reason. Makeinu can’t be blamed for a process they have no control over.


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