“Does My Gaijin Husband Go Good With My Dress?” Mixed Marriage in France & Japan


One of the abiding myths that exist among the Japanese is that we are a single race nation. The school system teaches among other things, that no one, but absolutely no one, lives here except us Japanese-speaking, NHK-loving folk, firmly entrenched in samurai values and our ethical values personified in our being workaholics. Those who aren’t a member of this clan? Well they just happen to be here by accident, and should be tolerated without being truly welcomed. Facts like the systematic pillage/plunder of the Ainu race in Hokkaido, the enslavement of Koreans brought here during the late 16th century, the Chinese laborers who came via Okinawa during the country’s modernization process in the early 20th century – such things are swept under the futon and politely ignored.

The myth swells up like an unwieldy monster when it comes to marriage. Among many respectful families in the Kansai area, prospective brides are literally put under a hot lamp and examined minutely. Family lineage is a huge issue and woe to any young woman if there’s a record of a non-Japanese tarnishing her family tree. Never mind that Kobe has a sizable Indian population (the biggest in Japan) and in Osaka, 1.28 people out of every 100 are “zainichi,” or Japanese Korean (Source: todo-ran.com). Kansai families are renowned for their conservatism and adamant about protecting their blood. And on the rest of the archipelago, many Japanese women will date “gaijin” or foreign men, but only a fraction of those couples ever make it to the altar.

On the other hand, once you go out of the major cities and into the countryside, you’ll see that Japanese men have been willing to marry outside the Japanese bracket, for the past 30 years. As elsewhere in the world, young Japanese women refuse to marry into farms that translate immediately to a life of endless toil. Consequently, men in rural areas consider themselves lucky to marry women from the Phillippines, China and South America, claiming that foreign women are much more hardworking helpmates than their cold and calculating Japanese counterparts. As for the language barrier, it could be just be the glue to bind a lasting union. As Tokuo Miyake, a dairy farmer in Matsumoto City says of his Phillippinna wife: “I like it that we don’t speak each other’s language very much. We live with my mother, and my wife doesn’t understand it when my mom lashes out at her. Because we understand only the bare essentials about each other, there’s less to be annoyed or irritated about.”

Opening March 19 is a French movie about this very subject called “Serial Bad Weddings” – a hilarious and sometimes poignant observation of the merge between traditional values and foreign culture. The French sleeper hit of 2014, (one out of every five people in France saw it) it has finally reached our shores, just in time for the Abe Administration to contemplate opening the nation’s doors to refugees another couple of centimeters this year. (Editor’s note: That might allow a small child to slip in) 

Director/Co-writer Phillippe de Chauveron himself has been involved in an intense relationship with a Ghanian woman for the past decade and is now ready to tie the knot. “Speaking as a Frenchman, I think that my country can best be described as schizophrenic,” he said. “On the one hand, there are the ultra-rightists who want to crack down on foreigners and refugees, and then there are the liberals who are all for opening the gates. There is evidence of rampant racism but we try to take a stand on systematic discrimination and to help refugees start their lives anew. It’s very chaotic, but we’re always evolving.”

Intriguingly, France has the highest rate of mixed marriages in the EU – close to 20% of married couples are of differing nationalities. For the rest of Europe that number on average, is a paltry 3%. In Japan, mixed marriages have soared since 1965: one out of every 30 or so couples who got married between 2006 and 2013 fit that bill. 50 years ago, it was one out of every 230. (Source: nippon.com). De Chauveron says that the French are probably “more willing to experiment and try out things. Also, we are more likely to tire of relationships that go too smoothly. We thrive on arguments and passionate discussions and we love poking fun at each other’s racial foibles.” De Chauveron added that every mixed union is,  “fraught with disaster and laced with laughter. It’s a matter of finding the right balance.”

The story unfolds around the 4 daughters of the Verneuil Family, one of the most respected old names in the Loire Region. The dad (Christian Clavier) and mom (Chantal Lauby) are a little dismayed when their daughters (whom they brought up to be good French Catholics) all marry foreign men: an Arab, a Jew and a Chinese man. They pin their last hopes on their youngest daughter, but she commits the ultimate faux pas by getting engaged to an African. Chaos ensues. “The French are still struggling with the ills of our colonial legacy,” said De Chauveron. In his view though, “at least we are struggling, and very much aware of these issues.” That’s much more than we can say for how things are in Japan.

A niche manga about the life of a Japanese man and his French wife living in Tokyo
A niche manga about the life of a Japanese man and his French wife living in Tokyo

But there’s one Japanese chipping away at the mixed marriage ice, so to speak. That would be Manga artist Jean Paul Nishi (despite his pseudonym he’s a total Nippon male). He is the author of a manga series about living as a Japanese in Paris, finding the love of his life and then bringing her back to Tokyo where they are now raising a son. “I liked the movie a lot,” said Nishi who was at the press screening. “I especially identified with the dad. In real life, I’m one of the husbands you know, one of the guys who marry a French girl and tick off the family and all that. But I could really tell what was going on in the mind of the father, probably because I’m Japanese and conservatism is in my blood.” Nishi said that having lived in both countries, he’s become hyper aware of the cultural differences between Japan and Europe. “The Japanese think that being an an enlightened adult and a global citizen and all that, is to ignore the bad stuff, sweep all that aside and pretend like they can’t see the elephant in the room. The Europeans and particularly the French, are the opposite. They want to have it out and engage in deep discussions or fling insults at each other and then finally reach an understanding with each other. The Japanese think it’s a virtue not to say what’s on their minds but in Europe, not speaking up and or being dishonest about your feelings can lead to irreparable results. I think the Japanese have a 50-year lag compared to the French, in terms of interacting with others not from these shores.”

On an optimistic note, we could probably shave off at least 5 years from that lag, when we start admitting to certain historical facts about the country and our own bad legacies.

The Rise & Fall Of Japanese Xmas: Please Bring Back The Sex & Money & Carnal Pleasures

“Those were the days” is a phrase a woman must never utter once she hits 40 as it makes her seem unnecessarily outdated. But there are times when one is called upon to bend this golden rule, and state – clearly and plainly – that those WERE the days. Hell, yes.

Has the Sexy Spirit of Japanese Xmas Been Lost Forever? (At least you can still order appropriate attire).

One is referring to the Japanese Christmas, of course. Back in the day, or the 1990s to early 2000s to be exact, Christmas was drenched in two things: sex and money. In Tokyo especially, there were shopping couples sightings as early as the last week of October (Halloween wasn’t yet huge back then), browsing the aisles of Tiffany’s and Miu-Miu, the girls sighing in ecstasy over their wish list items while their dates nodded and inwardly did some calculations as to what all this was going to cost them. A quick round-up of the salient spending points: dinner in a swank restaurant followed by a night at a hotel, where the exchange of gifts will lead to carnal delights and a morning-after confirmation that yes! this girl was indeed going to be the official girlfriend. On average, the sum total ranged between 100,000 and 150,000 yen. I know of guy after guy who went into debt, just to splurge on a woman who was likely to ditch him before Valentines Day came around, not two months later. Of course, no one mentioned or was interested in the fact that Christmas marked the celebratory birth of a baby called Jesus, who spent his first night in this world swaddled in rags and laying in a manger.

Back in the day, or the 1990s to early 2000s to be exact, Christmas was drenched in two things: sex and money.

Okay, so the Japanese were clueless about the significance of western religious. Still, the fevered anticipation of it all, the sheer, heady delight of champagne and room service and red strap sandals elaborately wrapped in gorgeous chiffon paper! But don’t think the girls rested on their arses while the men worked overtime and scrambled for cash. Women had to spend too, on hair salons and lymph drainage treatments and pedicures, not to mention the all-important issue of the Christmas dress. Take the case of my friend Rika, whose most triumphant Christmas was in 2000 when she invested in a facial, a massage and a Chanel dress but skipped the lingerie entirely and squeezed four dates into a single Christmas Eve. This by the way, worked for her and a lot of others because in Japan, the 23rd is a holiday (the Emperor’s b-day) and that’s when most people do their Christmas thing, which makes everything extra hectic. C-Eve is a regular day – everyone has to show up for work so it’s quieter and easier to get reservations and space appointments.

After 2008 however, the Christmas-scape altered perceptibly and 3.11 changed it completely. People started talking about ‘kizuna (bonding)’ and ‘kazoku (family),’ two words which have since become embedded in the collective psychology – and they sure ain’t got nothing to do with doing naughty things in hotel rooms. The Christmas season is now pretty much about corporate drinking parties called “bonenkai,’ and otherwise rushing to get work done in time to take New Year’s off – a traditional Japanese event firmly entrenched in the family (again). The only people shopping at Miu Miu these days are those who speak Chinese. Ditto for people with reservations in four star hotels. As for fancy dinners, few Japanese could afford them anymore and the ones that do are not in couples – they’re co-workers in groups of three and four and mostly of the same sex.

Have we lost our capacity for ridiculousness, our carpe diem mentality and taste for sexual pleasures? One hates to admit it, but the answer seems to lean toward a loud ‘yes.’ A big problem is the aging thing. Japan is turning gray at breakneck speed and now everyone seems to be middle-aged or older – too mature to go overboard on just about anything. The remaining younger populace is far too worried about the future and saddled with pension funds and insurance payments to splurge on girlfriends, even if they existed. Women for their part, are wary of relationships that lead nowhere and with the emergence of the “sefure (sex friend),” there’s no excuse for spending a yen more than is absolutely necessary on what is after all, a moderately fun distraction. As a 20-something boy at work told me the other day, “Sex is such a chore. I’d just rather go to bed with my phone and play games until I fall asleep.”

Call me a patriot, because I broke down in tears. What is this nation coming to?

Ah yes, those were the days. To think that 25 year old women were once called “Christmas Cake,” because the cakes on sale after Christmas Eve were past it and over-the-hill and on the brink of eternal spinsterhood. Yes, it was rampant sexism but it was a fun, harmless brand of sexism compared to the stuff our current PM likes to peddle and which by the way, has turned things real sour between the men and women of Japan. And who does any dating these days? More Japanese women are forgoing the ritual completely, to tie the knot at 35 and older (that’s IF they decide marriage is on the agenda). Against this dismal backdrop, no one is likely to wear a Chanel dress with no underwear for Christmas.

So, join me in a wistful toast for the good old days.


The Girl’s Guide to Decluttering and Hunting (in that order)


Consider these 2 pictures. Before: Single, living alone in a 29 square meter apartment in Tokyo. The place is so filthy it’s a struggle every morning to shower, get dressed and get to the door. The toilet hasn’t been cleaned in 4 months and the tiny kitchen defies description. After: Living with a younger, handsome boyfriend in a new apartment twice the size of the old one. Clean hardwood floors and ample closet space. The bathroom decor features rose pink wallpaper and every household item is put away as soon as it’s used.

Needless to say, Japanese women toughing it out in the big city aspire to the “after” picture. Yet for many women trying to get by on this archipelago, reality edges ever close to “before” if not actually a precise duplicate.

Japanese women were once famed for being fanatical in their pursuit of cleanliness in the home and willing devotees at the altar of household chores. Now for many females, the mere thought of picking up clothes strewn on the floor, washing dishes piled in the sink and sorting combustible trash from the non-burnables and actually taking them out to designated spots on designated days of the week – all this is enough to bring on a mild case of eczema and/or insanity attack. We all have viable excuses to pull out at a moment’s notice: not enough time, not enough motivation, not enough cash left at the end of the month to buy cleaning products, not enough love during childhood, sibling troubles, boyfriend troubles…the list is enough to give Freud himself a nervous breakdown.

Enter the clutter consultants or chore specialists, all of whom comprise a huge chunk of the TK billion yen decluttering market. Among these, Marie Kondo or “Konmari” as she’s called in the US, has taken the concept out of the country and out into the big leagues. Time Magazine sited her among the “100 Most Influential People” alongside the other Japanese: Haruki Murakami. Apparently, a personage no less than Jamie Lee Curtis recommended that she make that list. Konmari’s book (US title: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) is a New York Times bestseller. There’s a rumor that Michelle Obama picked it up, read it and loved it. Her oft quoted advice about de-cluttering: “Don’t keep anything in the house that doesn’t spark joy.”

Over on the homefront though, Konmari is just one among many decluttering specialists who exhort Japanese women to take control over their lives by taking control of their stuff. It’s an interesting philosophical proposition: no god, man, ideology or diet is going to be that magic wand, but the will and strength to clear out one’s closet and scrub the toilet. Once you’ve made de-cluttering a habit, “everything in life will follow,” according to Konmari. Uh-huh. Kinda like “Field of Dreams” without the baseball. If you clean it, he (or romance) will come.

In this journey of de-cluttering, the Japanese woman will encounter two enemies: her possessions, and her mother. She wants to follow Konmari’s maxim of throwing out everything that doesn’t spark joy. She will start out with every intention of doing so. But every time she tries to trash her belongings (her high school year book, old boyfriend photos, clothes bought at bargain sales and never worn, shoes growing moldy in the cabinet, body shaping underwear, cosmetics, bags of rice from three years ago, exercise equipment galore are among the popular items) her resolve falters. She is after all, a Japanese woman who has the word “mottainai” stamped into her DNA. “This might come in handy someday,” is a refrain she’s heard since childhood – from her parents, from schoolteachers, from relatives and friends her boyfriend’s mother. Besides, it’s a huge hassle to sort out the trash. Better just let sleeping garbage lie around until the right man comes along and asks to stay over in her apartment. THAT’S when she’ll clean up. Really.

Often, her mother enables her in the task of clutter fossilization. Every Japanese mom over 50 is a sucker for stuff anyway and the older they get, the stronger their obsessions. Take the case of my grandmother, whom I revered in childhood as a cool old lady. She could speak a little French, she smoked a pack a day and quoted Spinoza when the mood hit her. But when she died, the entire family were dumbfounded to discover huge boxes of horded bottle caps (used) and disposable chopsticks (unused) pushed into a dark corner of her closet. Kimonos that she hadn’t worn in decades were rumpled into another box, every one of them black with mold. In the kitchen, she had 4 kettles that were never used and about 500 spoons pushed every which way in a huge drawer. We finally gave up trying to clean the place and hired an expert team that deals exclusively with dwellings of the elderly. They charged 200,000 yen for the first 6 hours, and 150,000 the next day. Her daughter (my mother) complained endlessly about the expense and my grandmother’s hording habits but she’s now exhibiting the very same behavior. Last month, I discovered a box full of unused disposable chopsticks and nearly had a panic attack. Et tu, Mom?

Indeed, every de-cluttering specialist warns about mothers, especially if you happen to live with her. De-cluttering specialist and blogger Mai Yururi lived with her mom and grandma in an old house in Sendai – when 3.11 hit, the house was left standing but the colossal amount of stuff, accumulated over the years, came down in an avalanche and nearly killed them. After that, the two older women finally agreed to throw out some things, but if not for the earthquake, Yururi writes: “I could have never convinced them to de-clutter.”

There’s no doubt about it, the path to a clean, spare room with things that only spark joy is not just littered with stuff no one wants anymore, it’s practically a hallucination glimpsed among the dunes in the Sahara Desert. Oh, for a bottle of water.

The 70 Year Fallout: A Lament for Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Editor’s note: This year it will be 70 years since the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What is not widely known is that Japan was working on building its own atomic bomb, and if they had been faster, many believe that Imperial Japan would have used it. It does not lesson the horror of what was done but it should be noted. War is a horrible thing and it seems like it would be a tragedy to ever see Japan take up the mantle of war again. And the spectre of nuclear energy unleashed by the bomb is something that haunts this country as well, something that maybe should be abandoned as well. For a perspective on what the bomb meant to Japan and the Japanese people, Kaori Shoji, writes on it eloquently. 


A baby born in in the year the Japanese surrendered in WWII – the same year two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaaki respectively – has turned 70 years old. During these 7 decades, the two cities had known starvation, struggle and the kind of recovery the majority of the Japanese thought was impossible.


On August 6th, 1945, above Hiroshima City, American bomber pilots first scattered flyers from their planes that warned all civilians to evacuate the area. The civilians – consisting mainly of hungry women, children and the elderly, picked up the flyers but couldn’t make out the words. For the past 6 years the Japanese military had banned all use of English words like “radio” and “milk” (not that the majority of the public had access to such luxuries) and drummed it into the Japanese public that the Americans and British were ogres or beasts.

A short while later, a huge mushroom cloud burst in the sky and in what seemed like a matter of seconds, the entire city went up in flames. Charred bodies were everywhere, but those who died instantly were better off than those that survived – suffering from horrendous burns and a raging thirst, they died in unspeakable agony within hours or days or weeks, depending on their exposure to flames and radiation.


It took some time for the news to travel up and down the archipelago. In Tokyo, people heard that a terrible mega-bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, but they were too busy running for their lives like cockroaches, under firebombs that exploded in the sky and razed entire districts in a matter of hours. My grandmother, who was in middle school at the time, said that 24 hours after the a-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, people were already whispering about it on the streets but “we were too desperate to pay much attention.” Three days later on August 9th, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 15th, the Emperor of Japan went on the radio and announced to his people that after years of everyone having to “endure the un-endurable,” the war had finally ended.


The baby is now 70, and s/he has turned into a grandparent. This baby has only a sketchy memory of the terrible years after the war. By the time this baby grew into a teenager and graduated from high school, s/he had enough to eat and clothes on their back. They could look forward to a solid if not a personally happy future, with job security and a house in the suburbs. Their lives were made infinitely easier than their parents,’ with appliances, gadgets and the all-important, sheerly reliable Japanese car. At the back of their minds however, lies a hard nugget of anxiety and a deep sense of sadness. Take for example, the case of Shizuko Ohnishi, whose father died in Hiroshima’s nuclear bomb attack 2 months before she was born. Her pregnant mother had been staying with relatives in the mountains, 20 kilometers from the city and subsequently been spared. “Or else I never would have been born,” said Ms. Ohnishi quietly. She still visits the city’s hospital – called the “Genbaku Byouin (Nuclear Bomb Hospital) that treats victims from 70 years ago. “I wasn’t born yet, but my mother was exposed to radiation and she died in her 50s from thyroid cancer. It follows that I would go the same way though I didn’t expect to outlive her this long. I consider the last 20 years as a bonus I don’t really deserve.”


Ms. Ohnishi’s words are in a way, typical of those who have been through “that day.” The Japanese feel they are to blame – for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for the over 800,000 civilian deaths, the misery and poverty during the postwar years. They wanted to sweep all the reminders of a past blackened by death and destruction, right under some heavy futons which is why not a whole lot of Japanese born between the 1930s, right up until the 1970s, are willing to discuss or dwell on that period – especially not with foreigners, not to mention Americans. During these 7 decades US-Japan relations have been a defining factor behind Japanese policy, economy and export industry. It has brought us among other things, the Peace Constitution and Tokyo Disneyland. So hey – better to pretend all that stuff just never happened, right? This logic is in the same ballpark with the logic that over the years, has banned manga and literature depicting the bomb attacks. The latest to come under restriction is the classic manga “Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen)” series by Keiji Nakazawa. Several school boards in Japan have taken it out of circulation, ostensibly because it contains “discriminatory language” including “kichigai (moron, or crazy person).” WTF, big time. Still, this sort of thing keeps happening, precisely because the victims say things like they don’t deserve to live until 70.


In the meantime, Hiroshima has moved on from becoming a blackened, barren land to a glittering urban epicenter, flush with money and guarded by Japan’s most efficient regional police force. The city’s symbol remains the Atomic Dome – the former “Industry Endorsement Center” built in the early 20th century. It was one of Hiroshima’s first western style buildings made of concrete, and equipped with a domed ceiling which most Japanese had never seen. In the aftermath of the a-bombing, 90% of the main facade was ripped apart by flames but the dome structure remained.


To the rest of the world, the dome became a symbol of mankind’s first deployment of the nuclear bomb. To the survivors in Hiroshima, it represented a mega-scar that wouldn’t go away. Months after the bombing, the more audacious types gathered at the dome, bared their torsoes to show their burn marks and posed next to grinning American Occupation soldiers who loved to take photos and send them back to their families. This brought them a few dollars and in those days, a few dollars was wealth. Others picked up bent, burned and twisted pieces of steel or rubble, human bones and the like, and sold them to the soldiers as souvenirs. But these people disappeared in the early 1950s as Hiroshima concentrated its efforts on looking forward and marching the march of the rapid growth economy. It was during this time too, that Hiroshima’s mayoral office debated on whether to keep the dome going or to tear it down. It brought back memories too terrible to contemplate, but on the other hand, Germany had turned Auschwitz into a museum. Shouldn’t they like, do the same?


In the midst of all this, the survivors in Nagasaki took second place. They were like the back-up chorus, always several feet from center stage. Hiroshima now has a world-wide repute but Nagasaki less so, and you can see it in the vastly differing ways the two cities have dealt with the past. Nagasaki has remained faithful to its illustrious roots as Japan’s one and only port open to the outside world (actually just mainland China, Korea and the Netherlands) during the Tokugawa Shogunate, and a safe haven for Japan’s “Secret Christians” who went into hiding for 3 centuries after Christianity was banned in the late 1500s. Until Japan officially opened her doors to the West in 1865, these people built clandestine altars and carved statues of the Virgin Mary, always in fear of being discovered, tortured and impaled on the end of a spear until dead, as mandated by law. When the bomb was dropped, it first struck the Nagasaki City Prison before spreading out over the entire city, and destroyed Nagasaki’s iconic Urakami Cathedral, among everything else. In the Cathedral neighborhood, there were an estimated 14,000 Catholic inhabitants. Over 8000 died from the bomb and Nagasaki considers the victims to be martyrs.


Today, Nagasaki remains somewhat provincial and markedly more laid-back than Hiroshima. Urakami Cathedral has been rebuilt and the city has maintained close ties with the Vatican. Apart from commemorating the a-bomb’s 70th year anniversary, Nagasaki is celebrating 150 years since the official revival of Christianity. There’s not much here in the way of industry, despite the fact that Nagasaki was the site of Japan’s very first trading company (Kameyama Shachu). The police and yakuza forces – so rampant in Hiroshima, just doesn’t have the same sway here. Everything about it feels retro and exotic, like the slabs of whale meat on display in the local markets as if no one here has heard of Greenpeace. The local celebrity is actor Masaharu Fukuyama and local legendary figures include Thomas Glover, reputed to be a masonic spy for the British government when he came over here in 1859.


Nagasaki’s Peace Park feels very different from Hiroshima’s – more formal and less a part of the daily fabric, though ice cream vendors call out to American military folks out for a jaunt in Nagasaki from the naval base in nearby Sasebo. “Gee, that’s sad,” said a blonde woman to her husband, as they looked over the bomb replica at the museum, and reading the story of a little boy who showed up at a crematorium with a dead baby strapped to his back. Over the years, surveys have consistently shown that over 50% of Americans think the bomb attacks were “necessary” and “not wrong.” No American in government has ever issued an apology.


The Dome in Hiroshima is undergoing major repairs, in time for the Olympics and an expected tidal wave of foreign visitors. It resides in the Peace Park, which is a pretty piece of urban greenery where gaijin tourist couples laugh and frolic and take selfies, right in front of the Dome. Local children scream and play while their mothers stand gossiping. Seventy years has gone by and the area surrounding the Dome has shifted from war atrocity memorial to a somewhat banal city park where a white construction sheet covers a small dome structure. It’s hard to say whether this is a good thing. It probably is, though that very thought clogs my throat like the ghost of a sobbing voice.

DSCF0386 DSCF0387

by Kaori Shoji

Book Review: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” (日本人はなぜ美しいのか) by Kaori Shoji


Amazon book link: http://amzn.to/1yxEKjj 

Here’s a question: why is it that everyone else in the world gets to wax eloquent about the virtues of their home country, but the minute a Japanese does the same thing, we get lambasted for (A) being an ultra nationalist rightist Imperialist and/or (B) having a Prime Minister who would dare visit the Yasukuni Shrine, whoever that Prime Minister happens to be at the moment.* (Editor’s note: It would help if the Prime Minister visited a different shrine, as former LDP bigwig Koga proposes and Japan stopped denying war atrocities and retracting apologies. Obviously, there is a lot Japan has to be proud of but definitely not the war. Just sayin’)

That’s okay. We’re Japanese: the most self-effacing, self-deprecating, self-loathing people on the planet. Needless to say the stress-factor involved with all this can be so damaging as to send the entire nation spinning into a black hole of depression. That depression is the driving force of the bad economy (no wonder it’s taking forever to recover) and now that the failure of Abenomics is official…oh, forget it.

Gentle cough.

Let’s turn our minds to this book: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful,” by Shunmyou Masuno (枡野 俊明) published earlier this year by Gentousha Shinsho (幻冬舎新書). Professional Zen gardener and one of the most influential Zen masters of our time, Masuno heads the Kenkouji Temple in Yokohama. For the past 6 years, he has written extensively on Zen and how to deploy it in our daily lives, but this is the first time he has linked Zen to the Japanese national identity. “We are beautiful,” Masuno writes, “because Zen resides at the very core of the Japanese existence.”

“Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” opens with a revealing (if self-congratulatory) episode about being commissioned by Mark Shuttleworth – the Cape Town wunderkind who founded investment company HBD and later flew to the International Space Station via Soyuz. Shuttleworth was building a botanical garden on the Isle of Man and was keen to put in a Zen garden. Masuno writes about how Shuttleworth picked him up in his private jet and flew with him to the Isle to start work on the garden. “When you stop to think about it,” writes Masuno, “many iconic IT billionaires are deeply influenced by Zen.”

Among them, Masuno cites Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who bought a villa on the grounds of Nanzenji in Kyoto. “There must be something about Zen that speaks to super successful people,” writes Masuno, and it’s probably true. Even on this archipelago, Nikkei Business magazine has consistently promoted Zen as a way of optimising work quality and achieving serenity. Zazen sessions have become a secret boom among young OLs and salarimen. Even Shinzo Abe goes to a temple in Yanaka, Tokyo once a month for Zazen and meditation.

Zen has its roots in India. It then crossed over to Chinese Buddhism before winding up in Japan. “Ours is the only Asian country that adopted the teaching with such earnestness, merging the country’s lifestyle to Zen philosophy,” writes Masuno. That merging, according to Masuno, is what makes the Japanese so distinctive and “beautiful.”


Zen actually resides in every facet of the Japanese mind,” writes Masuno, and the foremost example of that is seen in the way we work. “The dedication to craftsmanship and the reverence for precision and discipline is unparalleled.” He also points out the endearing peculiarities of the Japanese aesthetic, and how it revels in the flawed and incomplete. Evidence to that is seen in the imperfect, spontaneous energy of a Zen garden. Or how the Japanese refuse to throw out cracked bowls and plates, but will find a way to mend them with gold dust. Masuno writes, “Ruptures, cracks, creases and wrinkles — the Japanese will find beauty in these flaws because Zen is a philosophy that accepts and ultimately forgives everything.”

The book goes on to explain:
“Western aestheticism is about adding things. Its objective is to express and celebrate the self. Japanese aestheticism is about subtraction. The objective is to erase the self, in order to be at one with nature.”

No doubt about it – even a cursory reading will make you feel better about being Japanese, which is more than we can say about Asahi Shimbun. (Their goal seems to lie in crushing the Japanese spirit under the ghostly heel of a WWII military boot.) And Heaven knows we need this sort of boost; after all, no one else was going to stroke our egos if we didn’t do it ourselves.

Having said that, the book falls short of addressing the real and immediate problems among the Japanese today. Zen may be effective in achieving inner peace, but it’s not doing much to bridge the ever-widening generation and income gaps, the super-aging of a society where children are treated like rare and precious specimens or ruthlessly exploited, the deep and abiding discrimination against women, and so on.

The ills are still here, whether we’re beautiful or not. And on a bad day and standing in the Yamanote Line, I’m tempted to think the Japanese (including myself) are the saddest, least attractive people on the entire planet. Even if we were tapped into the beauty of a Zen garden, few of us have the time or inclination to sit on a rock to contemplate it.

Still, Masuno’s book is hugely inspiring, if only because it makes us realize the seeds of beauty are within. All we have to do is become aware of it, and from that moment something will have changed. It may be an inflection in the voice, or a change in the way one holds an umbrella, or yes – even the way one stands in the Yamanote line. Zen is the one method that beautifies the physique, as well as the way one perceives the world, free of charge.

So Mark Shuttleworth can keep his expensive Zen garden because the Japanese already have theirs – right in our own backyard. We only have to dig a little.


 “There is a simple way to become buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Do not seek anything else.”

“A fool sees himself as another, but a wise man sees others as himself.”

“Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home;
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;

But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.”

― Dōgen, Zen master, founder of Soto Zen Buddhism

Book Review: “The Bad-Mood Marriage” 不機嫌な主婦 なぜ女たちは「本能」を忘れたのか(朝日新書)

By Kaori Shoji

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 9.52.32 PMAs long as time immemorial, being a woman in Japan meant the rawest of deals. The long, long tradition of top-down patriarchy held that women were good for of either two things: sexual slavery or household drudgery. Once a woman got past her reproductive years, she was expected to control the younger women in the house, which mostly meant bullying the daughter-in-law and sowing a lot of ill-will in the family. By the time she hit her mid 40s, this woman had white hair and grandchildren. At 60, she was dead or getting there; her tiny body stooped so badly it appeared she was folded in two.

Zowie, it was this bad – or so Japanese women born after WWII were taught, offset by a brand new, American imported democracy. Women were told there was nothing remotely fine about being born in Japan. To the rest of the world, she represented the demure and docile geisha-equivalent while inside her own country, she was slated for a lifetime of toil and family bondage. The only way out of this awful spiral was to get an education, an office job, and marry well – preferably to an urbanized, liberal man whose mama lived far, far away.

But even that was no guarantee. My own mother went to an arts university and never had to deal with her husband’s mother and lived the modernized convenient life in Tokyo. She said over and over that marriage was a tombstone that marked the spiritual death of a woman and every child she had drove the nails further into her coffin. “Never get married,” she liked to say. “It’s the stupidest thing in the world.” My mother wasn’t a rabid feminist; she was simply echoing the conviction of many women of her generation who felt they had been cheated. Women born in the post-war years often feel like they were never given a chance – happiness always seemed to elude their grasp as husbands disappeared into their jobs and children departed for futures that rarely included a place for their mothers.

In the last 10 years, anthropologist and epidemiologist Chizuru Misago’s (三砂ちづる) works have turned the tables on the timeworn assumption that Japanese women have always been repressed and unhappy and will continue to be so unless she leaves the archipelago at her earliest opportunity. A highly accomplished academic whose resume includes a Ph.D from London University and a decade of fieldwork in Brazil, Misago holds that no good can come from over-educating the Japanese woman or copying western notions of feminism. In her 2004 breakthrough book “Onibabaka Suru Onnatachi” (Women Who Turn into She-Ogres), she discusses the virtues of the socio-political system in pre-modern Japan that actually protected women and their bodies, the benefits of squat toilets, and sex from an early age. She’s a strong advocate of marriage (whether it’s a love-match or family arranged) and sleeping with one’s spouse as often as possible. In short, Misago’s teachings flew right in the face of everything the post-war education system strove to encase in concrete and submerge in the ocean like a corpse killed by the yakuza.

Misago laid it out in black and white: the prime reason Japanese women turn bitchy or into she-ogres is because they’re not touched and cuddled enough. Never before had a woman academic come right out and said sex – not love – was crucial to women’s mental and physical well-being. Women sat up and paid attention, among them novelist Banana Yoshimoto who later wrote a book about the importance of skinship, childbirth, and healthy sexual relationships.


Unfortunately, Misago’s words weren’t enough to turn back the winds of our particular time, one in which an unprecedented number of women join the workforce, remain virgins past 25, and never marry. The divorce rate is up. Incidents of domestic violence and child neglect are up. The bottom line seems to be that sex and relationships are not only hard to get in Japan, they‘re on the endangered species list along with the whooping crane.

Dr. Misago’s 2012 work “Fukigenna Fufu” (The Bad-Mood Marriage) gets right to the heart of the matter. She lays bare the sorry state of Japanese coupledom in which man and wife sleep apart and hold conversations that sound like joyless office memos. Worst of all, they seem to have no idea how to love their children, which is at least partly responsible for an alarming soar in juvenile crime.

“One of the worst predicaments for a child,” she wrote, “is that their parents are not happy together as man and woman. Think how lonely it must be for the child. Think of the enormous pressure a child feels when confronted with the discontentment and unhappiness of his/her mother.”

If we are to fall in with Dr. Misago’s teachings, we owe it to our kids to kiss and cuddle with our spouses as often as possible. Never mind about falling salaries and the rising cost of living. Never mind about work and getting ahead. Children are young and impressionable for only so long. By the time they leave for college, the damage of a sour marriage will have left permanent marks on their personalities and outlooks.

Interestingly, Misago wrote that Japanese women in their 70s are apt to be the most selfish but unhappiest demographic. They were the first female generation to get college educations en masse but were also socially restricted from seeking jobs that matched their degrees. They often had no choice but to stay home, raise children, and wait for their husbands to come home. “These women often sought personal redemption by pushing their sons and daughters to be better at school, to be competitive, and to get ahead in life,” she wrote. “But actually, that’s not a very nice message. If you want to raise children to be loving human beings, you must first love them unconditionally and for who they are.”

Misago’s words have been a revelation for many Japanese women, raised by mothers who scolded and cajoled and coerced them to be better at everything, from having the right playmates to finding the most acceptable husbands with the highest incomes. Ugh. Surely we must scrap this legacy. It’s not too late to work on a good-mood marriage.


How the Japanese Went Under, and Stayed There


Tatsuru Uchida cares about Japan. Much like a favorite aunt who drops in “just to know what you’re up to,” bearing an edible gift. Uchida will then proceed to tell us exactly what’s wrong with us and why we can’t find a marriage partner. Tut, tut. Scold, scold. Professor of humanities, author of 42 books and currently Japan’s most popular philosopher, Tatsuru Uchida is genuinely concerned about our welfare. And just as with the auntie, part of us resents him for being so forthright. But oh, how we’ll miss him if he ever stops dropping in and nagging the hell out of us. I personally, will break down in tears.

Tatsuru Uchida was born in 1950, and his father had worked in Manchuria as an engineer during WWII. After the surrender, Uchida Sr. was active in trying to mend and revive post-war Sino-Japanese relations and this perhaps, accounts for Uchida’s broad liberal streak that has made him a champion for the rights of women, children, teenagers, unemployed and/or unattractive adults. If Japanese society was one big classroom, Uchida is the self-appointed teacher in charge of the misfits: the meek underachievers who just CANNOT get dates.

Twenty years ago, these people were a definite minority in the classroom but now it seems, they’ve taken over. According to Uchida’s hugely popular books that analyze the state of this nation, it’s the rich, beautiful and brilliant kids who are sparse and obscure. “These days, Japanese children refuse to study and young people refuse to work,” he wrote in the definitive bestseller of 2007 called “Karyuu Shikou (The Urge to Go Downstream).” This was a chilling (but amusing) portrayal of how the children and grandchildren of post-war baby boomers woke up, smelled the coffee and decided that effort – the driving concept behind Japan’s rise to the third largest economy in the world – just didn’t make sense anymore. This new breed of Japanese were fine with slacking off, with not dating or marrying, and going through life with their gears set to one, FOREVER. Who wanted to swim against the current when it was so much easier to relax the muscles and go downstream, even if it ultimately meant wallowing in mud and trash at the bottom?

Uchida himself is no stranger to failure, specifically in the realm of Japan’s intellectual elite. He was thrown out of high school, couldn’t get accepted to Kyoto University and was 20 years old by the time he got into Tokyo University. Unlike most academics of his generation, he never studied abroad and he quit midway on the path to getting a Ph.d. He became a professor at Kobe Women’s University, which in the eyes of Japan’s male-dominated academia was nice, but… SISSY. He also got divorced, raised his daughter single-handedly and later remarried one of his students (a Noh performance artist 20 years his junior) at the age of 60.

Uchida had lived his life completely outside the mold of the typical Japanese male in Japan’s heavily patriarchal society of the late 20th century. It couldn’t have been easy or lucrative and Uchida himself has written that it was “hard, uphill work all the way.” But now that traditional mores and values have all but withered away, Uchida’s outsider outlook is definitely paying off. The man who broke his back to pay the bills and raise a child, is the same man who understands how the young Japanese of today may want to throw earnestness and hard work right out the window. He also pointed out in “Karyuu Shikou” that unlike their elders, the young Japanese who hate the word effort are actually proud of their slacker lifestyles. “They’re proud of having made the choice and of being individuals,” wrote Uchida.

The culprit, according to “Karyuu Shikou,” is a blind, misguided trust in profit and individualism. “The driving factor behind Japan’s rise to success isn’t effort so much as a willingness to put in the work and be patient about the results. It’s the same with relationships and marriage. But now everyone wants immediate results and instant gratification. They want to see cash up front and when it’s not there, they lose interest.” Uchida concluded that the sooner we toss the idea of value for money, the faster we’ll get back on the track to becoming true and genuine human beings.

That thinking forms the pillar that supports Uchida’s philosophy. “Forget about money, because as soon as you start worrying about money, it will make you weak and miserable,” Uchida wrote in his book “Machiba no Kyodotairon (The Streetside View of Community Theory).” The first step to liberation is to stop thinking in terms of profit and gain. “The problem with Japanese education is that the students have been taught to convert their time in school to money values. They’re always thinking, ‘what’s in it for me? How much is this going to cost? And that’s a damning thought for any young mind. It has lead to the decay and destruction of the Japanese spirit.”

When he’s not theorizing, Uchida is a “budoka,” meaning he’s an Aikido master, and a formidable swordsman. He runs a dojo in Osaka called “Gaifukan” which, along with his incessant lecturing about the Japanese spirit, has lead many to believe he’s a rabid rightist. On the contrary, Uchida has consistenty indicted right-wingers, and has publicly denouced the policies of Osaka’s infamous governor Toru Hashimoto. As a matter of course, Uchida stands behind Article 9 (the peace clause) of the constitution, hates our current PM like poison and has accused him of “unforgivable dictatorship.”

Uchida’s speciality is throwing politics and philosophy, Aikido and women’s issues, the income gap and Japan’s slide into poverty, plus sex and relationship advice – all in one blender and made it palatable. The very people he has called “downstream tribe,” form the core of his fans and it’s no secret that women – young and otherwise – flock to his speaking events. “I know how to be with all sorts of people, which is what the typical Japanese male has never learned to do,” wrote Uchida in “Machiba no Kyoudaitairon.” He has also professed to be a “obasan (middle aged woman)” at heart, which gives him the energy and inclination to listen to people and be interested in their personal lives. Japanese men never like to waste time just chatting but Uchida says he can go on for hours. “People, particularly women, don’t want to be understood or be presented with a solution to a problem. They just want to be listened to,” he writes in his blog. “Remember that the next time you’re in the same room with an attractive lady.”

Coming from a man who’s a positive magnet when it comes to getting ladies into the same room, it’s probably best to pay attention. “I’m worried,” he wrote in “Shintaichi (Knowing Your Body)” which he co-authored with anthropologist Chizuru Misago. “I’m worried that young people in Japan aren’t using their bodies properly, and they’re just not having sex which means they’re not having babies. That’s just sad.”
See? I told you he cares about Japan.

Over-Educated, Under-Paid and Most Likely Single: Women in Japan’s Academia


If you happen to be a young Japanese woman considering a career in academia, read on, scream bloody murder and ask someone – anyone! – to chain you to a lamp post before choosing that path. As the three women authors of “Kogakureki Jyoshino Hinkon (The Poverty of Highly Educated Women)” point out, the rocky road to Japanese academic success is paved with thorns anyway. But to be female while navigating that road brings on among other things, a chronic case of no-money blues. All this, and yet in their book the three stress that higher education more often hinders instead of helps the modern Japanese woman attain personal and professional happiness.

猫娘 (Neko Musume) would hate Japanese academia. Fortunately, she is a 妖怪 (yokai) monster and doesn't have to deal with work-place sexism.
猫娘 (Neko Musume) would hate Japanese academia. Fortunately, she is a 妖怪 (yokai) monster and doesn’t have to deal with work-place sexism.

Poverty among Japanese women is topical, especially now that Abenomics has been revealed as the friend of the testosterone-fueled 1% and could care diddly squat about the rest of the Japanese populace, ESPECIALLY single women and/or single mothers. “To be born a woman in Japan means that the risk factor for life-long poverty is pushed much higher.” That’s one of the scary joint statements made by authors/academics Naoko Ohri, Ryuko Kurita and Sakiko Ohno. Between the three ladies, they’ve written a vault-full of academic papers, amassed multiple degrees from Japan’s top universities, published books and given more lectures than they can remember. All this, and yet in their book the three stress that higher education more often hinders instead of helps the modern Japanese woman attain personal and professional happiness. Plagued by gender discrimination that’s locked into the system, hampered by jealous (mostly male) colleagues and dispirited by salaries that barely cover the rent, women in academia are pushed into a dead-end alley and left to toil away, “while the world moves on and we grow older,” as Ohri writes in one line. Things were different when they were just starting out in their respective fields. The three authors agree that when they were young, brilliant students at their universities, the future looked full of promise and personal freedom: two things they just couldn’t see in corporate careers had they chosen to go in that direction.

Ohri and Kurita are in their mid-40s and are (understandably) mistrustful of the Japanese corporate world. After all, they were undergraduates when the nation took a nose dive into a recession that lasted over 20 years. Sakiko Ohno was born in 1959 which means she spent her formative years in the rapid growth era when women were expected to marry by 24, raise a family in the suburbs and stay with the same man until death. Rebelling against that fate, Ohno chose to become an artist and backed up her decision with a degree from the Tokyo University of the Arts – the nation’s finest and most competitive. After graduation she spent 20 years pursuing sculpture before throwing in the towel and turning to writing/blogging.

Domestic bliss is often not an option in the ivory towers.
Domestic bliss is often not an option in the ivory towers.

Of the three, only Ohno got married, to a teacher at a prep school for college entrance exams. The couple have no children and Ohno writes: “If I did have children, I wouldn’t have been able to work.” At the time of her marriage, Ohno was working part-time at an arts prep school but her salary was much less than her husband’s. That meant she had to bear the bulk of the housework, draining her energy and taking time away from her artistic endeavors. On the other hand, she had no worries about the rent. It was a compromise she couldn’t foresee as a university student but it’s common as rain among women – not only in academia but everywhere else in the workforce. Ohri and Kurita remained single (though Ohri is living with a boyfriend) and they’ve both come to the conclusion that an academic career does the Japanese woman no favors, EVEN if she’s at the top of her game. “Kogakureki…” hit bookstores in February, before the Haruko Obokata/STAP cell scandal broke. But the swift rise and subsequent crash/burn of a brilliant female researcher like Obokata is eerily predicted in the trio’s book.

All this, and yet in their book the three stress that higher education more often hinders instead of helps the modern Japanese woman attain personal and professional happiness.

“A woman can educate and polish herself until she shines like a meteor,” goes one line. “But the system is rigged to trip her up and make her fail.” The reasons are many and varied, but they ultimately lead to the same conclusion. If she hasn’t quit while she’s ahead, the highly educated woman will turn out to regret she ever enrolled in grad school. The book mentions, by the way, that Japanese academia itself view graduate schools as “hospitals,” and when a woman enters one, she has little hope of getting out with her health and sanity intact. According to the book, the difficulties surrounding the female academician can be traced to societal tradition and the curse of the gender. Indeed, in the foreword by Shodo Mizuki of the Chikushi Jogakuen University For Women, there’s a paragraph dedicated to the extreme busyness suffered among women academics in general and how their efforts go unrewarded, due to a system that refuses to acknowledge those efforts. Women in academia are expected to put in extra hours toward the day-to-day running and maintaining of laboratories and offices, assist professors in their research and other unseen, unpaid tasks. Not to mention their own work and research. Mizuki points out that this system leaves women no choice but to battle each other in the war for survival. In other words, the ladies’ room is always crowded and consequently women must resort to pushing and shoving, just to get a little breathing space. It’s disappointing however, when Mizuki describes the desperate tactics of women as “scary,” as if he’s turned off at the sight of a date without make-up.

The reality is that women have to work extra hard and extra long if they want to get anywhere in academia. Mihoko Harada, who is an assistant researcher at Tokyo Science University’s biochemistry department, says: “I rarely get to bed before 2AM. I’m working all the time, and on call 24-7. The last time I had a boyfriend was back in high school. Sometimes, I feel that it may be better to quit but where will that get me? I have no skills.” Harada who is 37, lives with her parents in Saitama prefecture and gets by on a monthly salary of 180,000 yen. The bottom line: avoid graduate school like the plague. Japan’s highly educated women are discovering that multiple Ph.Ds and personal fulfillment rarely have anything to do with each other. As for success, even if it did arrive – as in the case of Ms. Obokata – it’s no guarantee against an ever fluid future. “And even if we get to keep working into our 50s and 60s,” wrote Ohno, “the financial struggle never goes away.” The trio’s prose sometimes gives way to self-deprecation but they are never bitter and their tales have bursts of hilarity. Still, there’s no denying that a hard nugget of discontent forms the core of the book and it leaves the reader (who are mostly women anyway) full of sadness. Japanese academia is crowded with smart, talented women but it seems very few in this country have any idea how to welcome or deploy them.

What We Wear About When We Think About Clothes: Musings on Japanese Fashion

Back in the late 20th century, the word on the street about Japanese fashion was that it had the lowest f*ckability points in the world. “I wouldn’t want to bed a girl wearing Comme des Garcons.” A guy I used to date said that, but then he was a paeleolithic rugby player whose idea of womens’ clothing consisted of pink micro minis and white high heels. Don’t get me wrong: I loved him, truly I did. After we broke up, I made it a point to observe and listen to the fashion opinions of muscle-bound, healthy young men – they seemed to be on to something. My conclusion: the nation’s fashion designers may be a big deal in Paris and Milan, but they were inflicting heavy collateral damage on the nation’s dating scene. A girlfriend of mine who went on a date wearing her first, uber snazzed Yohji Yamamoto, came home crying because the guy had fingered her voluminous, many-layered long skirt and sighed in frustration: “and how the hell am I supposed to take this off?” Sad, isn’t it.

Rei Kawakubo's works for Comme des Garcons, Spring/Summer 1997. Her work is extensively featured in the Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion exhibit and book.
Rei Kawakubo’s works for Comme des Garcons, Spring/Summer 1997. Her work is extensively featured in the Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion exhibit and book.

On the other hand, this guy was playing right into Yamamoto’s scheme of what clothes should be about. You weren’t supposed to take the skirt off, because you weren’t supposed to look at women in that way. And women shouldn’t give in to anything as vapid and frivolous as dating, either. The idea behind Japanese fashion – from 1981 when Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons made their Paris Collection debuts – to about 2003 – was that clothes should make you think. Think and ponder, with hands behind the back, pacing to and fro or something. Like a monk or a philosopher, someone who was naturally quiet and rarely lustful, whose body broadcasted ideas, not physicality.

Strangely enough (or not strangely at all, depending on your point of view), Japanese designers always had Japanese womens’ best interests in mind. Yohji Yamamoto, whose creations defined Japanese fashion for a quarter of a century, said the starting point of his career was a deep and abiding wish to aid working women. His mother had raised him single-handedly with a tiny dressmaking business in Shinjuku (his father was called to serve in WWII, and killed 7 months before the surrender) and Yamamoto grew up watching her work to the very dregs of existence. “I wanted to ease the pressure on my mom, and working women in general,” he said. “I wanted to make their lives a little better. Whenever I see a woman on the street, looking tired or a little depressed, I want to run up to her and ask: ‘how can I help you?”

Having said that however, Yamamoto added that the sight of a woman in heels caused him to shudder, along with tightly cinched waists and shoulder pads – all iconic items of the professional woman (at least in the west). “Those women are out of my range,” he said. “They don’t need my vision.” Yamamoto’s clothing are famed for the “space of air” between the fabric and skin, and the way skirts and pants seemed to flow and form a silhouette of their own, while withholding any information about the body that wears them.

The wish to help Japanese women is the essence of modern Japanese design. From the Koshino sisters (Junko, Hiroko and MIchiko) and Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake to Isao Kaneko, iconic Japanese designers in the fevered heydeys of the late 1980s sought to liberate Japanese women from gender stereotypes, the shackles of tradition and mental slavery. All hailing from the same generation, and having observed how the patriarchal Japanese society had wreaked havoc on the nation and inflicted untold suffering on its women, Japanese designers worked toward the same ideal, that their clothing should enlighten and empower the girls.

Their notions of doing that however, differed vastly from those in the west. At around the same era, London-based Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett were emphasizing female sexuality in all its sexy splendor – big breasts, tiny waists and full hips were prominently featured, and models strode the runways in brutish spikey heels. In Japan, designers went the opposite route. Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons (“Like the Boys”) was about enveloping the female body in heavy folds of dark, forbidding colors (Kawakubo’s famed words: “I work with different shades of black” made headlines at the 1986 Paris Collection), accentuating faces that had on little or no make-up, with hairstyles that channeled those of labor camp victims. Anything excessive, superflous, or prettily feminine were hacked off and left to die on the cutting room floor.

Speaking of concentration camp, Issey Miyake made great waves in the early 90s when he came out with a striped ensemble that bore a striking resemblance to Auschwitz prison uniforms. Priced at no less than 60,000 yen, critics were divided between outright adoration and spluttering indignation. Miyake loved flaunting his bad-boy, who-gives-a-f*ck personality, and he had plenty of opportunities to do so. By this time, Japanese designers had become fashion celebrities on European runways, and it was rumored that Karl Lagerfeld knelt at the feet of Rei Kawakubo and got a freezing look for his trouble. Meantime on the archipelago, women paid exorbitant sums for clothes that made them look weird, maimed, homeless or all three, and left their men scratching heads in bewilderment. New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham remarked that Japanese designs of this period recalled something mysterious and medieval, as if the elaborate layers of fabric hid something fantastically secretive or horribly injured.

Now, Japanese fashion goes hand in hand with Japanese geek culture, and “kawaii” is the watchword. Philosophical, cerebral threads have become a thing of the past: Yohji Yamamoto declared bankruptcy three years ago, though his flagship shop in Aoyama continues to do business and his spirit is carried on by his daughter Limi (who has her own brand). Comme des Garcons has formed a snug little empire consisting of disciples like Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara, while branching out into the organic food line via a collaboration with the famed Rose Bakery in Paris. The Japanese have become much more relaxed about fashion, thanks mainly to the marketing ploys of Japan’s own, homegrown casual wear brand Uniqlo, which the young Japanese love as much as overseas discount brands like H&M and 21 Forever. As for Japanese fashion’s f*ckability points, they’ve gone up. Way up.

Still, many of us feel a twinge of longing for the days when we worked and saved for a single piece of wardobe from a Japanese “maison,” fully aware that our boyfriends would hate it but secretly reveling in the deconstruction of the lines and absolute absence of coquetry that was in itself, a statement that went beyond mere feminism. In a perfect world, said Yohji Yamamoto, women were so pure and devoid of worldly desires that to get close to them was an experience akin to praying in a temple on top of a lofty mountain. His words would probably make zero sense to an Akiba chick in a pink micro mini. But we have the legacy, and this legacy could perhaps, become a pointer to the way Japanese women see themselves in the future.

21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck (A Book Review) by Ms. Kaori Shoji

Usually I try to avoid self-help relationship books like Hepatitis B but the title to this is sort of catchy: 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck (なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか 21の理由)

So I picked it up, said yes to writing the review and then the truth sank in: never mind the sucking Japanese men, the book itself is a D.O.A. (Dead On Arrival)

Anything with “21” in the title tells you most of what you need to know about the author, starting with such fundamentals as: 1) He’s probably between 45 and 60 and a lot of his ideas are stuck in the 20th century. 2) He’s probably a he and not a she, so what does he know about how men suck? 3) In 1999, he probably deployed the phrase Y2K more than 500 times in public. Before even cracking open the spine, I feel acute embarassment trickling over me like a faulty showerhead – not just for the author Tomonori Morikawa but for myself, the Japanese publishing industry and the Japanese dating scene in general. If we had all pulled ourselves together before the arrival of the um, century 21, we wouldn’t be floating around in this mess of 21 reasons.

21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck/なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか-21の理由-
21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck/なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか-21の理由. Japanese women get blamed too.


On the other hand, Mr. Morikawa (58) undoubtedly means well. His good intentions ooze from the pages as does his impressive academic resume (ph.D in political science, graudate from Waseda University and post graduate stints at prestigious US universities etc.). Professor Morikawa now resides and teaches in Oregon. Judging by his back cover photo, he probably bicycles to work, shops organic and his “omiyage (coming-home gift)” of choice on the occasions he returns to Japan are packets of Stumptown coffee. Nice guy, really and most likely an ace political scientist, which is his special field. But when it comes to the relationship issue in post-3.11 Japan, I regret to have to say that the Professor is sadly uninformed and out of his depth. The book is divided into 3 chapters: “It’s the Fault of the Times,” “It’s the Fault of the Men,” and finally “It’s the Fault of the Women.” Clearly, Mr. Morikawa feels that someone or something should take the rap for this sorry state of affairs (no pun intended) but falls short of pointing a decisive finger. In another two decades, 60% of the men in this country could spend their entire lives solo, dying without ever having had a relationship, and Mr. Morikawa (for all his provocative title) doesn’t seem very upset about it. And if he’s waist high in bikini-ed women clamoring for his attention out there in Oregon, he’s certainly keep that under wraps.

“21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck” is written from the viewpoint of a Showa era (1925-1989) man, whose cultural and relationship reference points are mostly western. One of the salient points about “21 Reasons…” is the uncomfortable frequency of the phrase “in Europe and the US” – Mr. Morikawa obviously holds the western standard as sacrosanct, and ignores people like the Chinese, Indians and Africans – now a demographic and economic force to be reckoned with. Among the 21 reasons, he sites that the typical single Japanese male can’t kiss, smells bad and eats too much garlic. Elsewhere on the globe kissing is considered weird, disgusting and inappropriate, and many Turkish women for instance, actually prefer garlic breath. As for the male aroma issue, Mr. Morikawa should try riding on a Moscow subway in July.

The big problem with “21 Reasons…” is that, like a true Show-era “ojisan (uncle)” Mr. Morikawa tries to link a heavily political issue (Japan’s alarming birth rate decline) to the personal and intimate terrain of dating and sex. That such a pipeline does NOT work has been demonstrated by countless Japanese women being totally turned off by countless old-men politicans endorsing sex and pregnancy like it was the 1940s (one of the government slogans of that dark period was: “Bear children and multiply!”). None of those politicians including our present PM, never seem to get that it takes two to make babies and a lot of Japanese men are simply not interested, not ready or ill-equipped to make that sort of commitment. Mr. Morikawa at least, refrains from pinning the blame entirely on the women, but he does preach that once a woman hits 20, her marketability points go way down, along with her chances of encountering a non-smelly/good kisser who’s willing to get married and live happily ever after. According to Mr. Morikawa’s estimate, “Prince Charming on a white horse” comes around only once every 5000-plus new meet-ups. So if a woman had a blind date every single day for 14 years after her 20th birthday, she would be hitting the jackpot sometime after age 34? Gee, thanks for nothing.

The overall tone of “21 Reasons…” is pitched somewhere between midly condescending and mildly concerned – which could get intensely annoying after page 10. While professing to admonish the men by pulling his main conclusions exclusively from interviews with Japanese women locked in various stages of disappointment and frustration, Mr. Morikawa frequently slips on his own banana peels by strewing outdated stereotypical statements to explain the J-Men-Sucks phenomenon: “Japanese women just sit around and wait for a Prince Charming on a white horse to come along. Do they realize the odds of that ever happening?” “It’s imperative for Japanese men to get into good universities to ensure their futures. But it’s not so important for a Japanese woman to over-educate herself.” “Women need to play hard to get, in order to nab a desirable man. Look at the examples of Ginza bar hostesses.” In short, huge chunks of the book are not devoted to analyzing the problems proffered by the title, but given over to entitled, chauvinistic statements urging women to go out there and make themselves available.

Mr. Morikawa does make a sound observation, albeit not a very helpful one: that 10,000 years ago in the Jomon Period, Japanese couples got married at 14, had their first child at 15 and died off at 30. Even in the Edo Period, it was a huge deal if people lived past 45. Until the 1950s, he writes, couples were obligated to spend roughly 15 years together. Now the marriage years form a long, long stretch, compounded by the fact that the Japanese now live for a colossaly long time. “It’s impossible to keep loving the same man for so long,” he sighs. Duh.

So what to do? Make your body odor more acceptable and lay off the cheap booze, advises Mr. Morikawa. Otherwise, the professor doesn’t seem to have a clue.


Kaori Shoji writes about movies and movie-makers for The Japan Times and is also a writer for theInternational Herald Tribune and other publications. Well known for her sharp wit, some have likened her to “the Dorothy Parker of Japan.