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Friday, June 29, 2001


From women of the soil to women of the cactus

For a long time, women in Japan were divided into three categories. First, these were: 1. yujo (sexual professionals, or women one played with); 2. jionna (women of the soil, whom one married for their strength and willingness to work); and 3. baba (old women, who were self-explanatory).

Then someone decided it was time to update the material and the three categories became: 1. okusan (the wife); 2. mama-san (the woman who served you at the bar and with whom you had affairs); and 3. onnanoko (any young woman willing to fetch tea, make photocopies, sort the mail, etc.).

So it is a great joy to report that, in the last five years, language has finally caught up with the many kinds of women out there -- not completely, perhaps, but enough for us to realize the field is now wide open.

The pioneers were the oyaji-gyaru, a mutative species that was an interesting combination of the young woman and middle-aged man. These ladies were attractive and smart, but they didn't think twice about downing huge pitchers of beer, then throwing up onto the station platform after the last train rumbled away.

Then there were the ko-gyaru (little gals), who generated more news than two prime ministers put together, and were easily distinguished by their loose white socks and insistence on plastering their belongings with Hello Kitty stickers.

After them come the ranks of femmes slotted into unheard of categories like hatarakanai onna (women who refuse to get a job). But, though they don't want to work, they still want to live it up -- wear Chanel, crash parties, cuddle up to Hiromi Go. See the Kano sisters for more info.

In the same group are the bijuaru-kei (women who rely solely on visual effect). The bijuaru-kei will deign to show up for work, but since they and the world know that creating a visual effect is their operative theme, it's OK to be less than functional in terms of real work. The statement "Oh, she's a bijuaru" exonerates the woman from ordinary work standards.

On the other hand, there are people like Kommatta-chan (Little Miss Troublemaker) who delight in throwing wrenches into the works of any organization; this is now a national nickname for a certain foreign minister. And Fushigi-chan (Little Miss Spacey), who, if she's lucky, will succeed in convincing everyone that she's above the cares of daily toil, can communicate with aliens and is an expert at feng shui. Or she could fail and just come off as a major weirdo.

In the same league as Fushigi-chan but a lot sexier is the yurui onna (woman whose screws are a little loose), who is slow, easygoing and wears slinky outfits but is noticeably lacking in energy.

And then there's everyone's favorite: iyashi-kei (the healer), who is charming, undemanding, tolerant, relenting, kind, a great sport, even a doormat if called to be one.

A personal favorite is the saboten onna (cactus woman), who categorically refuses to cook, clean, sew or even maintain personal hygiene on occasion. The filth in her room will make you wish you were Zola, just to describe the utter chaos, the smell, the . . . Hey, are those mushrooms growing underneath that crumpled newspaper?!

Saboten onna's name was derived from her image as a woman who could keep a cactus plant alive but not much else. Lately, however, many argue that it is really a derivation of saboten made karasu onna (women whose presence even withers the cactus plant).

A girlfriend of mine takes this a step further: "You think we'd go out of our way to actually buy a cactus? Oh please." According to her, the correct saboten onna is a woman who just vegetates, period. Potted plants are just not in her life. Understandably, the statement "Saboten shiteru (I'm being a cactus)" means one is just lying there, among the ruins and rubble of domestic trash, watching TV and refusing to budge.

From jionna to cactus girls, Japanese women have come a long way. I suppose this is what they mean by progress.

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