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Saturday, July 20, 2002

JAPAN LITE

Comparing how American and Asian kids sponge


Americans are known for being "kechi" or frugal. We don't like to spend money and often fuss over small change. We seek out the cheapest product before buying it and then return it if we are not completely satisfied.

We always comparison shop. "A penny saved is a penny earned," my mother says.

Americans inherit our frugality from our parents, who kick us out of the house when we turn 18 years old, the legal age for adulthood. You get the feeling that months before your 18th birthday, perhaps even years before, your parents have been calculating the savings of adulthood: Twenty cents a day saved on orange juice, $5 a year saved on shower water, $10 a month saved on electricity to your bedroom.

They give us the parental boot while thinking, "Enough of you, you sponge! For years, all we have done is give, give, give. Give to the telephone company, give to the electricity company, give to the waterworks. Now we'll be rich! Ha-ha-ha!"

And the whole time the child is thinking: "What did I do to deserve this? I just turned 18 an hour ago." Not only are parents released from the financial burden of their children, they may also retire from other parental duties. "Wash your own dirty socks and buy your own underwear! I'm leaving for the Caribbean!"

The American way is surely the most direct route to independence. This feeling that you cannot go back to the womb, especially with dirty socks, is apparent when Americans come to Japan and are requested to write their permanent address on all official forms. "Your home town," the authorities say, as if you were a complete dolt not to know where your furusato is. In Asia, where home is always where the heart is, kids can live with their parents forever. And they do. These adult children are called parasite singles. And they don't play tennis. As a matter of fact, they don't do much at all except sit around the house and watch TV. Occasionally they may go shopping for brand-name goods or take a trip abroad with their fellow tapeworms. As hosts, the parents perpetuate the condition by giving the parasites an allowance for food and daily activities. If the worms work, they still may get free room and board. Their parents continue to cook for them everyday, make their obento and clean up after them. And most Japanese parents don't have the heart to use pest control measures to at least scare the children away. Instead, Japanese parents hope that someday their children will get married and have a spouse to take care of them. Maybe arranged marriage is really a form of adult adoption. In Japan, the legal age for adulthood is 20 years old. There is even an elaborate en masse coming-of-age ceremony, as if this is a major turning point in their lives. In actuality, they will just go home after the ceremony, take off that rented kimono or suit their parents paid for and wonder what mom is making for dinner that night. A few days later, a woman will pick up the coming-of-age ceremony pictures that her parents paid a few hundred thousand yen for so she'll have a formal photo, in kimono, for her arranged adoption. If we had coming of age ceremonies in the United States, it would be the parents celebrating, not the children. There would be a mass exodus from childhood and the streets would be jammed in a collective "Grapes of Wrath."

As the youths packed their used Fords with every baseball glove, teddy bear and memento from childhood, the parents would be sitting at the kitchen table searching the classifieds for a smaller, more affordable house or that long-awaited trip to Hawaii.

It would be the busiest day of the year for realtors and travel agents. In the end, it's hard to say which is better: The American route to independence or the Asian route to dependence. The only problem I can see with the Asian way is that the next big thing in Japan is likely to be parasite doubles. And they won't be playing tennis, either.



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