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.