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Monday, Oct. 8, 2012

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Daily chores: If only the Yamato nadeshiko (classic Japanese woman) of days-gone-by had had morning TV dramas to get them through the day. ROB OECHSLE COLLECTION

BILINGUAL

Our daily motivational pep session


Special to The Japan Times

The other day, a girlfriend of mine (an American hailing from Washington, D.C., recently divorced and going through a career change) was telling her hard-luck story to an older Japanese woman at a Sunday brunch party. The Japanese woman listened politely for about 10 minutes, then excused herself gracefully and walked away. My girlfriend was miffed: "Couldn't she understand what I was going through?"

At that point, I had to set her straight. Precious few Western women under 70 could hope to impress their Japanese counterparts with kuroubanashi (苦労話, stories of hard work and suffering), for the simple reason that when it comes to that particular department, the average Japanese woman will come out on top 99 times out of 100.

Kurou (苦労, hard work and suffering) has been the oiegei (お家芸, the particular skill and mode of existence) of the Yamato nadeshiko (大和撫子, classic Japanese woman) for about a millennium as they have worked themselves to the bone with little or no guarantee of appreciation or compensation.

That said, I've never been proud of this "oiegei" and I've struggled to free myself from the shackles of tradition since day one. Most Japanese women born between 1956, which marks the official end of the post-war era known as sengo (戦後) and 1990, which marks the collapse of the baburu (バブル, bubble) economy, are familiar with this struggle.

We swore not to follow in the footsteps of our sengyoshufu (専業主婦, housewife) mothers. We plunged ourselves into the vortex of juku (塾, cram school) and bukatsu (部活, extra-curricular sports activities) and okeikogoto (お稽古ごと, lessons in calligraphy and music and other stuff to better ourselves) to ensure that the future was as different from our mothers' as humanly possible. I personally made a vow never to make osechi (お節, New Year's food) and to go AWOL after Christmas.

And then I turned into an otona (大人, grown-up) and couldn't turn myself back into the teen who would rather go hungry than work in the kitchen. Zannen na kotoni (残念なことに, unfortunately) it happens to the most rebellious of us. There I was on Dec. 30, standing at the sink with my posse of female relatives, working from dawn until about 10 p.m. and starting again on ōmisoka (大晦日, the last day of the year) until every dish was washed and the last sake-infused guest finally left the house.

On occasion, I feebly suggested that for the following year we get the depāto osechi (デパートお節, osechi food reserved at the department store a month in advance and then picked up on ōmisoka) to save us all the trouble. The older women in the family would not hear of it. Oshōgtasu (お正月, New Year's) is a time of heavy labor for Japanese women, and adhering to tradition was the only way to atone for our sins of the past year. Nanisore? (何それ, huh?)

Needless to say, it's not just New Year's. All the Showa no onna (昭和の女, women of the Showa Era) I knew pretty much worked like maniacs throughout the year, whether they were holding down jobs outside the home or not. They never gave themselves a break and what's worse, the men in their lives hardly seemed to notice. Interestingly, the daughters of these Showa no onna — for all their vows and promises, eventually caved in.

My girlfriend Mina who used to be a model, is now the mother of three and is on her feet 18 hours a day, fully engaged in kaji ikuji (家事育児, household chores and raising kids). She has her bad days, but says: "Okāsan ga yatte kureta kotowo jibunno kodomonimo yatte agetai (お母さんがやってくれたことを自分の子供にもやってあげたい, I want to do for my children what my mother did for me)."

Where do the Yamato nadeshiko get the willpower, the mochibēshon (モチベーション, motivation) to keep doing what they are doing? The secret for many is the ritual of the asadora (朝ドラ, NHK TV's morning drama). This is a 15-minute nugget of wisdom, love and labor, that has geared generations of Japanese women to face another day of endless work.

The first asadora, titled "Musume to Watashi (娘と私, My Daughter and I)," was aired in 1961. Since then, 86 asadora titles have kept the flame burning in the collective soul of the Yamato nadeshiko. Asadora always feature heroines who are without exception, hatarakimono (働き者, industrious), kenage (健気, self-sacrificing and devoted), tsuyoi (強い, strong) and altogether set wondrous examples of womanhood.

The asadora kinjitou (金字塔, golden monument) would have to be "Oshin" (おしん) aired in 1983, which is the saga of a little girl who left home at the age of 7 so her family could save money on her food, then matures into a kurounin (苦労人, a person who has known a lot of suffering) entrepreneur.

Wondrous, right? But what if the asadora is a sly and systematic form of brainwashing to keep the Japanese woman on the work-chore treadmill? It's a question worth pondering.



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