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Thursday, June 2, 2005

BILINGUAL

Better left on the shelf than a downtrodden wife?


It used to be that unmarried, single women over the age of 25 were made to feel rather uncomfortable. The phrase "hari no mushiro (sitting on needles)" springs to mind.

Ideally, a Japanese woman graduated from college, went to work for a couple of years and then tied the knot at 24. Once past this birthday, she was in danger of becoming kurisumasu keki (Christmas cake), a popular reference to how Christmas cakes plummeted in value after Dec. 25.

Age 25 was also called o-hada no magarikado (the turning point of a woman's skin) or shomikigen-gire (past the sell-by date). How's that for chauvinism and excessive youth-worship?

Rather than succumb to the indignity of staying on the shelf longer than was absolutely necessary, the young women of Japan went out, hunted down would-be husbands with the best possible jyoken (prospects), and staged huge wedding bashes all over the nation (in 1990, couples were spending an average 7 million yen per wedding).

That done, the newlywed wives laid down their weapons and disappeared inside their new homes to become okusan (wives, or "back-of-the-house-person"). Never mind that okusan rarely had any fun; it was better than the stale Christmas cake thing.

That was then, this is now. In the space of a single decade, the average age for marriage has climbed to 33 for men and 30 for women and is higher in most major cities, particularly Tokyo. The range of options for single women over 25 has multiplied to such an extent they now find themselves picking and choosing from a variety of oishii (delicious) dating choices and lifestyles.

Besides regular boyfriends, there is, of course, furin (dating a married man), which, these days, is far from immoral; shumatsu dosei (living together on weekends); enkyori renai (long-distance relationship); or the safe and secure kusare-en (long-term bond that usually dates back to college and resurfaces during loneliness emergencies).

Any one of these could end in a peal of wedding bells, or a woman could simply choose to remain alone. And in the meantime the attractive, older single woman can invent a new persona for herself: the anego (big sister).

Anego, once widely used in the yakuza (gangster) world to describe the wives and mistresses of the bosses, now refers to mendomi ga ii (dependable and caring) mature women in general. An anego is both the hip, older sister and the agony aunt of the workplace: men and women alike will go to her for advice on relationship and office problems or even private family affairs.

She is constantly in demand during working hours, when her kohai (young proteges) will corner her in the kyuto shitsu (kitchenette) often in tears, exhorting her to listen to their problems. Back at her desk, the anego is inundated with e-mail messages from male co-workers and friends asking whether she can round up some of her prettiest kohai for a go-con (group blind date) with some parting comment as: "Tayorini shitemasu, anego! (We're depending on you, sis!)"

The anego will agree with some misgiving; despite her powerhouse status, she knows that at a go-con all the best-looking and eligible men will flock to the younger women and leave her to sip her bourbon at the far end of the sofa. In the world of the go-con, the-younger-the-better maxim still applies and even 27-year-olds are called chudoshima (semi-middle-aged).

Still, the anego is too much of a good sport to let a frown creep upon her face, and on occasion she will hit it off with a younger guy, in which case she may choose to omochikaeri (take-out) this young gentleman in a taxi when the nijikai (post-party party) karaoke session is over.

The unwritten agreement here is that an omochikaeri situation is never anything serious and should be treated as such. Both the anego and the ichiya no aite (one-night stand) will keep it under wraps and, if they happen to work together, behave as if nothing has happened. And then the anego may choose to repeat the process at the next go-con. Sounds like fun. Indeed, one veteran anego friend of mine says: "Anego no kairaku wo shittara mo kekkon wa dekinai (Once you've known the pleasures of being an anego, you can't get married)." Now she's telling me.

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