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Sunday, Jan. 18, 2004

MEDIA MIX

'Losing dog' believers are barking up the wrong tree


In last week's column I mentioned that the media now likes to divide people and things into winners and losers (kachigumi, makegumi). This device is mainly used for economic-related matters, but it has trickled down into other social spheres.

In the realm of romance, the winner-loser dichotomy is mostly a feminine concern. The "kachigumi" in this case are housewives who are married to men with good jobs and have had children. The "makegumi" are women who are approaching 40 with insecure jobs and no marriage prospects in sight.

This theory is advanced in a best-selling book by essayist Junko Sakai called "Makeinu no Toboe (The Howl of the Losing Dog)." In last week's issue of Aera, Sakai discussed her idea with feminist standard-bearer Chikako Ogura, who implies that Sakai, who is 37 and unmarried and identifies with the losers, contradicts her own theory by having written a successful book about it. Sakai obviously is independent and doing work that's fulfilling. Besides, women who marry successful men and have children aren't all happy, and unmarried women who work aren't all unhappy.

The author accepts Ogura's point, but elaborates: In today's society, it takes less psychic energy to say you are a loser and get on with your life than it does to "puff out your chest" and try to maintain that you are not a loser. "As long as the institution of marriage exists," she says. "There will be losers."

A society that still believes marriage is an ideal "but creates people like me is a failure," she adds.

As Sakai points out and Ogura acknowledges, Japanese women still buy the norm, even if statistics indicate that they are getting married much later in life. The government has a census category, shogai mikon-sha, meaning "lifelong unmarried people," for unmarried citizens when they hit 50, thus indicating that in terms of romance the Japanese have an expiration date. Something similar is happening in other developed countries, but there the equation is qualified by the fact that more and more women say they don't want to get married. In Japan, surveys cited by Ogura in her own new book, "The Condition of Marriage," state that 90 percent of women in Japan say that they "want to get married someday."

Not surprisingly, Ogura finds the whole makeinu situation laughable. Many other people do, too, but for different reasons. Ever since the advent of the "variety show" about a dozen years ago on commercial TV, the genre has featured a subset of female talent whose sales point has been their unmarriageability, a liability that's treated with levity.

A longtime member of this subset was Kiriko Isono, once part of comedy troupe whose name most people have forgotten, but later an object of ridicule for male comedians and one of pity or identification for women viewers because she was fast approaching 40 and unhitched.

Then, several months ago at the ripe old age of 39, Isono announced that she was getting married. Suddenly her TV kyara (character) changed from that of the motenai onna (unwanted woman) to that of the blushing future bride, and ever since she has played up her newfound happiness on whatever variety show she has appeared, sometimes at the expense of other motenai onna who happen to be appearing alongside her.

Isono is said to have betrayed female makeinu viewers who found solace in her unmarried status, despite the fact that it was basically all an act (apparently, she's been living with her fiancee, who also happens to be her personal manager, for several years). She has now joined the winning side, which means she herself can make fun of motenai onna.

But Isono's career is at risk. Aside from her kyara, she has little to recommend her. She is not particularly witty, nor is she a great conversationalist. For a while, she can coast on her soon-to-be-wed topicality, but that will end on her wedding day. Some people have speculated that since her future mother-in-law is a famous comedian herself the two will form a funny in-law combination that can then be sold as a unit.

The fact that Isono's engagement has attracted attention lends credence to Sakai's makeinu theory. The irony is that, as TV talent, motenai onna are guaranteed work. Gorgeous girls with big breasts are a dime a dozen, but motenai onna need time to develop as such, and so they are rarer and therefore more precious.

The best example is 44-year-old comedian Masami Hisamoto, who is invariably characterized as being homely and an eternal virgin. And while she puts on the desperate female act and slobbers over ike-men (young studs), she is also preternaturally cheerful, probably because in the media busu (ugly) women are expected to be agreeable to make up for their appearance.

But Hisamoto has a reason to be cheerful: She gets lots and lots of work. Last week, she was voted the most popular female TV personality of the year in NHK's annual viewer survey for the third year in a row, which just goes to show you can't underestimate the power of pity.

Still, even Hisamoto's career isn't guaranteed. Eventually, she will reach her sell-by date as a motenai onna, and as the Aera article suggests, the main reason working women want to get married at any cost is that, with or without a job, they don't think they can be economically secure without a husband. That may be why Hisamoto is rumored to be considering a run for public office. It's never too early to plan for the future.



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