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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005

BILINGUAL

Learning how to make the most of middle age


It's widely acknowledged that the Japanese not only tend to look younger than people in the West, some think and behave that way too. After all, this is a nation fostered on kodomo bunka (kiddie culture), visible in everything from fashion to architecture.

For many years, kodomorashisa (childlike-ness) was considered a very good thing, and the highest praise for a man (regardless of age) was shonen-poi (like a little boy) and mujyaki (guileless). For women of course, itsumademo shojyo no yo (forever like a girl) was a virtue that far exceeded mere beauty or intelligence, and the yonareta onna (woman familiar with the ways of the world) was shunned as having lost her mukuna kanji (air of innocence). Maturity was for ok for wine, antiques and jeans -- but the full-fledged Japanese adult was often made to feel taikutsu (boring), fukou (unhappy) and debu (fat).

In the past couple of years however, otona (adult) has become a sweeping marketing concept, especially among women. Otonappoi (adult-like), that once disdained phrase now heads the list of otokokara kikitai kotoba (words we want to hear from men) and the in-trend make-up technique has shifted from shojyogao (little girl face) to otonagao (adult face).

Females over 50, once described with the blanket term obachan (grandmas) are now referred to as sutekina otona (attractive adults) and increasingly, women say they value maturity in their male partners above all other traits. It looks like Japanese society is gearing up to face the oncoming koureika shakai (aged society) with an atypically pojitibu (positive) and otonappoi attitude. Good for us.

Personally, I welcome the whole trend, not just because I've reached the point where my mother calls me ii otona (old enough to know better) but also because Japanese society has never provided the kind of rosy childhood and youth so avidly depicted in popular culture: Anyone who has ever experienced their early teens in a public chuugaku (middle school) has experienced the suffocating sense of heisokukan (claustrophobia) that defines those three long years.

In high school, the imminent dark cloud of college entrance exams hangs in the air, and, though college can be raku (easy or fun), there's always the threat of shuushoku ronin (being unable to find a job immediately after graduation), as well as the fear that one will have to spend the rest of one's youth working the register in the neighborhood conbini (convenience store).

Many of us are secretly, hugely relieved that those years are over, that we made it over the hill and have now become free to reap the fruits of hard-earned adulthood. As my friend Tamami always likes to say: "Toshi totteru kara-tte naniyo. Wakai koro yoriwa iiyo! (So what if we're old? It's better than being young!)"

Indeed, there are many instances where the phrase otonani natte yokatta (I'm glad I'm grown up) seems highly appropriate. One of the greatest pleasures for the over-30 crowd is the practice of otona-gai (grown-up shopping). This can mean luxury brand shopping, buying a whole collection of something (like an entire set of Ryotaro Shiba historical novels, in limited edition hardcover) or that most otona of actions: making a purchase without inspecting the price tag.

There's also the otona no koi (grown-up love), including furin (extra-marital affairs) or relationships that don't set marriage as a goal, between adults who like to play it cool. Otona no deeto (grown-up dating) includes dining on low-calorie (a top priority for otona), high-priced fare in kakurega (hideaway) restaurants followed by romantic conversation over drinks in a hoteru no baa (hotel bar). All such experiences are tinged with otona no aji (grown-up flavor), the vaguely defined but enormously popular phrase which indicates sensations like nigasa (bitterness), honwakasa (subtle warmth) and osaeta amasa (restrained sweetness).

Interestingly, amid all this talk about what it means to be otona, the more burdensome aspects of adulthood such as sekinin (responsibility) and karada no otoroe (physical deterioration), never really come up. Perhaps the Japanese have a found a way to be adult with all the kinks out, or as one fashion magazine put it: "otona no oishii toko dake torou (let's just take the delicious parts of adulthood)!" Is it true? Can we have achieved Otona Niravana? Or is such optimism just an immature delusion?



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