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Friday, Aug. 31, 2001


Warning: A label to be avoided like the plague

In my young and tender years, the correct female response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" was: "gaijin -- preferably French."

Now we realize in our matured wisdom that this was the wrong answer. Much better to simply rephrase the question to: "What do you want to avoid becoming?" We can answer that in a flash: "Obasan (middle-aged woman)."

The obasan, though generally lumped together with the oyaji (middle-aged bloke), is a different creature altogether. Unlike her male counterpart, she never has it easy. She's never humored, cosseted or indulged by the younger members of society. Note that while there is such a thing as an oyaji-gyaru (a young woman who takes on the behavior patterns of an oyaji), an obasan-boi has yet to be seen.

This is because, in the Japanese frame of mind, obasan are considered a yuck, an eyesore, a blight on the national demographic.

The collective Japanese image of the obasan goes like this (top down): daibutsu hea (hair permed in short, tight curls like a Buddha statue), nijuago (double chin), sandanbara (three-tiered stomach), o-kyaku (bowlegged). She stands with her feet exactly 50 cm apart, supermarket carrier bags clutched in either hand.

Her main concerns have to do with the price of daikon (somehow, it's always daikon) and her son's grades in school. She is an avid and active member of the PTA. She has a passion for dispensing advice. She's tough and hardy and travels in packs. And she could swat a cockroach with one hand while mixing a batch of ramen noodles with the other.

Although we know this picture is largely fictitious, Japanese women live in fear that one fine day they will suddenly transform, as if by Lucas-like special effects: their hair bunching into curls, their feet swelling, and their arms thickening into two large hams, carrier bags sprouting from the ends. Kowaaaaai (Scaaary)!

It goes without saying that the adjectives obasan-poi (resembling an obasan) or the more advanced obasan-kusai (smelling like an obasan) are the most psychologically damaging insults one can dispense to a woman under 45, except, perhaps, for satsujinki (mass-murdering ogre).

It's a sad truth that many men will refer to their wives as futsu no obasan (ordinary obasan) when asked about the kind of woman they married. (Hey guys, while it's OK to be self-deprecating there's no need to carry it over to your spouse.) But it should nonetheless be noted that enka singer Harumi Miyako is famed for saying "Futsu no obasan ni naritai (I just want to be an ordinary obasan)" when she couldn't take the pressure of being a multibillion-yen celebrity.

For all the stigma attached to obasan the word still remains widely in use, partly because of its cozy and familiar image and partly because of a sexist society that values women who are younger, brighter, fresher and did I mention younger? This is drummed into us daily, from cosmetics mantras like "ohada no magarikado wa nijugo (your skin goes downhill after 25)" to retro songs that go "Inochi mijikashi koiseyo otome, sono kuchibiru no iro asenuma ni (A girl's life is short, so fall in love before the redness of the lips fades away)." Oh, the indignity!

If only one could bypass the obasan years and move on straight to the chic 70s. Because, as any young Japanese femme will tell you, the correct response to the question: "What do you want to be in the distant future?" is "Kawaii obachan (cute grandma)."

See you in the geriatric wing.

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