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Friday, March 9, 2001


Unpure cross-gender mixing and other taboos

All the talk about violently criminal 17-year-olds has led people to give teenage boys a wide berth. In trains, at bus stops and in the lines at burger shops, you're likely to see a curious space around groups of young boys -- an invisible barrier separating them from the rest of the law-abiding world. This sudden fear of 17-year-olds perplexes people like myself who have always looked upon 17-year-olds, not to mention the 16- and 18- and some of the bigger kids among the 14-year-olds, with absolute terror. Of course they're scary. So what else is new?

The fear stems from an early adolescent experience common to many Japanese: The experience of donning a chugakusei (junior high school student) uniform for the first time and setting foot inside the dark, dingy building known as school. Within a few days, a child realizes that fear will become a prevailing factor in his or her life, that violence is a clear and present danger, that there's no one to rely on and that only the shrewdest of survival tactics will get one through the next three years (and in cases where the junior high merges with high school, six whole years).

OK, these opinions are biased, seeing as how my school was an infamous areta gakko (wild and ungoverned school), rife with konai boryoku (in-school violence), attended by furyo (good-for-nothing kids) and instructed by taibatsu kyoshi (teachers who believe in physical punishment). To display their furyo-dom, half the boys in my class wore their hair in a riizento (regent, or hair that is permed and slicked back with a kilo of gel) and the other half had patsukin (dyed or bleached spiked hair). The girls hitched up their school skirts to the shortest possible length, but in the evenings appeared in their lon-tais (long, narrow skirts with long, narrow slits). They were "lon-tai babies" and had boyfriends in the zoku (motorbike gangs), which meant you messed with them at very high risk.

Cigarettes were called moku and so common that a carton of Luckies stashed in a desk never even raised eyebrows. The more adventurous experimented with ganja (hash), and the totally itchatteru (crossed over to the other side) ones claimed to have tried shabu (speed). These were the kids who habitually carried yappa (blades) and knew someone in their neighborhood who owned a real hajiki (gun), likely as not refurbished from a model gun purchased in Ueno. Their every second sentence had the words yabai (dangerous, or bad) and mappo (police) in it.

Despite all this, every one of us knew that the teachers were worse than the students they were forever trying to repress. Convinced that the only way to correct irate youth was through pain, the teachers doled it out as if they had never heard of the word gyakutai (abuse). The most familiar taibatsu was the binta (hard slap), followed by the ofuku binta (hard slap on both cheeks), and finally the genkotsu (punch to the head). And woe to anyone who got in trouble with the judo or kendo teachers, because they thought nothing of hurling kids across the floor or chasing them down with a shinai (bamboo sword).

The students got their own back on graduation day, when chosen hated teachers were ganged up on and beaten in what's called a fukuro (dead-end fight) -- a time-honored tradition in our school. It got to the point where students showed up for graduation ceremonies with their knuckles taped and teachers stood in the halls armed with long sticks. Take it from me, such memories last a lifetime.

Much of the problem stemmed from the antiquated regulations imposed by the school and a student body for whom these regulations carried no conviction or, more to the point, made no sense. In the long, long list of must-nots stipulated in the seito-techo (student rule book), there were fantastically ridiculous taboos, such as those forbidding kids to wear red in their personal clothing or to drink straight from a soda can and walk down the street at the same time (you had to find a secluded corner, then sip). The big cause for guffaws was the ban on fujun isei-koyu (unpure cross-gender mixing) -- a phrase that was nothing but a joke even to the littlest kid in seventh grade.

Oh, and boys were told to cut their hair at 5 cm, and girls had to plait theirs once it grew past shoulder-length and tie it with nothing other than black rubber bands. Anyone on the streets after 9 p.m. who did not have a valid excuse like juku (cram school) or bukatsu (extra-curricular activities) were warned they would be arrested, no excuse me, put under hodo (reprimanded and taken into custody at the nearest police box).

Looking back, it's no wonder that during my teens I was always, as in this most up-to-date furyo lingo, majigire ippun-mae (one minute before completely losing it).

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