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Saturday, Sept. 9, 2009

BILINGUAL

A soft spot for the good old/bad old Showa days


One vice I can't rid myself of is listening in on conversations between JK (an abbreviation for joshikōsei, 女子高生, or high school girls) on commuter trains. This has become easier these days due to the introduction of joseisenyōsharyō (女性専用車両, women-only cars) on almost every major commuter train.

My radar tuned in recently when a conversation between three JKs turned to what they did on dates with their boyfriends. News flash: They all used rabuho (ラブホ, love hotels) — not so much for sex as, as a hangout. And because of recession-time allowance cuts, they were forced to use the sōchōwaribiki (早朝割引, early morning discount rates between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.). They would take the shihatsu (始発, first train), check in, nap, cuddle or do homework and have breakfast (corner store munchies purchased the night before), before reporting for school.

Call me old fashioned, but where's the romance? I had to fight the urge to tell these girls to head for Yoyogi Park after school like we all did back in a time known as the Showa Era. What's adolescent love without fighting off mosquitoes and creepy insects while lying on the grass, inwardly calculating the time it takes to pick oneself up, clean one's skirt of weed stalks and then sprint to Harajuku Station to catch the train home in time to make the mongen (門限, curfew). Oh, the heady excitement of it all!

Friends tell me this desire to lecture the young about how it was done in the old days is typical of the "Showa Genjin (昭和原人 Showa Caveman)" psyche. Many Japanese look back on the Showa (昭和) Era (1926-1989) as six solid decades of blood-curdling, adrenaline-pumping excitement, as opposed to the safe, digitalized and ultimately taikutsu (退屈, boring) Heisei (平成) Era (1989~).

The first 20 years of Showa were marked by war, darkness and destruction. The next 25 were marked by frenetic devotion to work, company and organization. And then there was that infamously glorious period known as baburu (バブル, bubble), which subsequently burst with much mess and huge inconvenience to the nation's economy, then known as Nihon Kabushikikaisha (日本株式会社, Japan Inc.). The whole era defies being labeled as good or bad; for many Japanese it just felt like one long roller coaster ride.

During the many ups and downs of the Showa Era, the fifth decade (1975-1980) — or the '50s — was a relatively good time to grow up. In Tokyo, there were still such things as roji (路地, alleyways), where tiny houses crowded against each other, kids played marbles and adults grew flowers in small earthenware pots. No one bothered to lock their doors, and everyone looked out for each other. On the other hand, sanitary standards on the streets weren't always up to scratch — pipes overflowed after big rainstorms, huge splotches of vomit dotted pavements like avant-garde art installations, carcasses of dead rats and cats often greeted one on the walk to school, and stray dogs with skin disease lurked behind trash cans. Kimochiwarui, demo omoshiroi! (気持ち悪い、でもおもしろい, Yucky, but interesting!)

No discussion of Showa is complete without reminiscences of the time when the JR (Japan Railways) was called Kokutetsu (国鉄, Japan National Railway), and instead of jidōkaisatsu (自動改札, automated ticket booths), there were professional kippukiri (切符切り, ticket cutters) who manned every entrance and exit booth across the nation. Stations often closed during when annual shunto (春闘, labor offensives) led to strikes — liberating passengers from having to go to work or school. Kokutetsu stations were behemoths of noise, grime and people — and unlike the station lavatories of today, the kōsh?benjo (公衆便所, public toilets) in those places looked and smelled like something the Japanese Army probably used in Burma, 1945. Men routinely chain smoked and spat on the platforms and walking in big terminal stations like Shinjuku required skilled navigation. At least you could say that waiting for trains was never dull.

Back then it was OK to be repressed and nonindividualistic — the bijinesuman (ビジネスマン, businessman) of today were strictly sarariiman (サラリーマン, salaryman), women in the office were OLs (office ladies) and were expected to ochakumi (お茶汲み, make and pour tea), and the joshikōsei were just jimi (地味, plain) young girls in depressing school uniforms, but with principles to uphold regarding things like sex and applying makeup on the train. Oh, well. Showa cavemen have a bad habit of romanticizing the past, even though we know the past was dasai (ダサイ, tacky), shoboi (ショボイ, pathetic or shabby) and kakkowarui (カッコ悪い, unchic). Oh, and that it had dirty toilets too.



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