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Saturday, Oct. 6, 2001


The joy of being old, tough and 'hugly'

If life was a construction site, Japan's "obaachans" would be the steamrollers. These old ladies have the ability and authority to conquer anything in their paths.

Anyone who has ever been cut off by an obaachan running for an empty seat on the train knows what I'm talking about. You can spot these "obattalion" (a loanword from the zombie movie "Battalion") as they wait on the platform for the doors to open: the head drops, the elbows flare, the doors open, and they plow forward.

But you have to admire their will and determination. They're tough and don't give up easily. In a disaster, they would the ones pulling you out of the rubble.

I've been observing obaachans for a while and think I have discovered some of their secrets. You may wonder, for example, how at their advanced age they have so much energy. The answer is: They've got motors inside.

Here are some more obaachan secrets:

1. Obaachan clubs Obaachans find their strength in numbers and thus have formed obaachan clubs. Their lives are meticulously planned, starting with steamroller meetings where they distribute seating charts for trains, unofficially reserve the seats for themselves, then plan for defensive props such as umbrellas and canes. They feel they should have squatter's rights on trains, since they have been around longer than anyone else.

The clubs also monitor bicycle traffic flow, so as to know when to use get-ahead strategies such as employing their squeally brakes, a sure way to send pedestrians scattering in all directions.

2. Obaachan fashion Obaachans are empowered by obaachan fashion, best described as "the unfashionable made fashionable." Plaid button-down shirts matched with drab flower-pattern polyester slacks are de rigueur. It makes you wonder what they wore when they were young -- upholstery? God forbid they discover paisley!

Their fashion is practical and durable. Comfort is the priority. They choose shoes they can waddle in, usually padded beige shoes with rubber soles and laces with gold metal thingies on the ends.

Since obaachan fashion is central to the membership in the obaachan clubs, there are plenty of clothing shops catering to such tastes. The dull colors and deliberate mismatching of patterns would be called ugly by some, but "ugly" seems like too disparaging a word. So I'll employ one of the wonders of the English language: euphemisms. I prefer to call the obaachans' clothes "hugly."

3. Obaachan charm Despite their steamroller activities, obaachans are charming inside. After cutting you off to get that empty seat on the train, they'll think nothing of reaching into their hugly shopping bags and producing a traditional sweet or some green tea for you, a complete stranger, to take home. They'll strike up conversations with you and laugh harder than anyone else.

I saw a tour group of obaachans walking down the street the other day, all melding into one bobbing line of gray, like static on a TV screen. They were having the time of their lives. Indeed, their demeanor is so enviable that you can see middle-aged women waiting in the wings in their flashy gold-threaded clothes, waiting out the last fashion stage before hugly.

Some are stooped over and some use canes, yet many are still younger than today's average 30-year-old. Obaachans are a symbol of strength and power. They're Japan's steamrollers.

So don't mess with them -- get out of their way and let 'em roll.

Contact Amy Chavez by e-mail at amychavez@excite.com. "Japan Lite" -- Japan's Best Humor by Amy Chavez, from The Japan Times. To subscribe for free, go to www.amychavez.com.

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