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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

BILINGUAL

Ensnared in the office, dads increasingly remote


There is this enduring stereotype of the Nippon no otosan (Japanese Dad). It emerged sometime during the 1970s and remains, to this day, the most common and recognizable model for fatherhood in Japan.

The Japanese Dad is far from the hearty, friendly type we normally associate with dads from, say, the United States; kids can't really talk to him about their problems and they certainly don't count on him to show up and holler at soccer games too often, simply because he's ensnared in the workings of the kaisha (company) and unaccustomed to associating with the family to any great extent.

Japanese Dads have always leaned toward the dasai (unsophisticated), shoboi (shabby) and oyaji-kusai (middle-aged uncoolness), making it easier for kids to regard his perpetual absence as a matter of course.

As for Japanese Moms, they weretaught by their own mothers that once a woman was married and ensconced in parenthood, it was better that her husband was tassha de rusu (alive, well and absent from the home).

For Japanese parents, too many hours spent in each other's company invariably led to relationship analysis and the surfacing of discontent. To maintain peace in the household, better to limit things to the innocuous, like a simple exchange of greetings.

The husband as wallet

Teishu wa o-saifu (my husband is my wallet) became a popular phrase, and one that revealed how the Japanese Dad, uninvolved in home life, had also relinquished the financial reins to his wife. But don't get him wrong: the Japanese Dad isn't ignored and belittled per se; it is simply that 30 years ago he eased himself into a particular groove and now finds it hard to get out.

It wasn't always like this: Japanese Dads were once both feared and revered as the ikka no cho (the head of the household), whose influence was absolute and whose every word held an authoritative ring.

He could be an erai (esteemed and respected) member of society, or he could be the shafu (rickshaw puller) around the corner; it didn't matter, for he was otosan and, as such, had powers of decision-making that fathers of today could only dream about. Also known as the ikka no daikokubashira (the main pillar supporting the house), the otosan of yore was allowed liberties, like the freedom to be a cantankerous, unreasonable pain in the lower extremities, not to mention a nyobo nakase (the chief cause of his wife's tears).

Whether from siding with his mother when the two women had an argument, or because his visits to the kanrakugai (brothel district) were too frequent, the okasan (Moms) of days gone by were destined to weep into the hem of their aprons.

To his children, otosan was most often a strict disciplinarian, especially severe on his daughters, reasoning that girls had to be molded into future ryosaikenbo (good wives/wise mothers) in someone else's family whereas sons were his personal heirs.

Last of the old guard

But when one of the children got on his nerves, otosan was free to pull the famed chabudai o hikkurikaesu (upturning the collapsible dining room table) stunt, often in the very middle of a meal, so that bowls and bits of rice had to be retrieved off the tatami and Mom had to run to the kitchen for wet towels. All such acts were endured.

Otosan was expected to be tempestuous, unpredictable, unfathomable. He was, after all, a nippondanji (a Japanese male), designed by the gods to be feared by every fragile synapse in the female body.

A prime example of the last of the old guard of otosan is an anime character called Ittetsu Hoshi (from the TV series "Kyojin no Hoshi"). Losing his wife to illness, Ittetsu brought up his two children single-handedly, and decided that his only son must become the greatest pitcher in the history of Japanese baseball. Ittetsu drove the poor boy nearly insane, first by putting him through incredible exercise regimes and then by pitting him against ever-stronger rivals.

Ittetsu also had a penchant for the upturning of the chabudai: it was a mystery how the family ever got any nourishment since meals were constantly flying off the collapsible table and scattering over the tatami.

For most Japanese born after 1960, Ittetsu is a father figure we both hate and adore: the last truly strong otosan to lord over the pop-culture scene. And then otosan became milder, less demanding, tired . . . and much more remote. In short, he became the Japanese Dad.



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