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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
THE ZEIT GIST
One more time — with Charisma
Charles Lewis looks back at the Charisma Man phenomenon and wonders: Where are they now?
By CHARLES LEWIS
Hide the booze and lock up your daughters: Charisma Man is back. The lovable loser who was constantly broke, dateless and swilling rotgut at home is back in Japan, with a pocket full of folding money, a girl on each arm and a chilled glass of first-class sake in his hand.
Who is he, this mystery man, this lothario? Where does he get the dose of kryptonite that transforms him from a pathetic bungler into a suave and debonair man of the world?
Perhaps the origins of Charisma Man can be traced back to the late '80s and early '90s, when emasculated Japanese males known as ashi-kun (guys used for their cars) and meshi-kun (guys who would fork out for fancy meals), and hapless foreign eigo-kun (guys exploited for their English) were supposedly being taken advantage of by women here in Japan. It was around this time that young Western men could be seen in major urban centers strutting about in suits and ties to impress the girls on a night out.
Big English conversation schools, which had been expanding rapidly for a number of years, were bringing in large numbers of young people from English-speaking countries to teach all those classes. While there were plenty of women among the intrepid pedagogues making the journey to Japan, the majority were men. It's not surprising that a surge in the number of young foreign males in Japan led to a spike in cross-cultural liaisons.
Freed from whatever social constraints they may have had to put up with back home — cliques, bullies, small-town life, and so on — these guys could relax and enjoy being themselves in Japan. And many of them took full advantage of the opportunities that came knocking.
The girls who hooked up with all those Charisma Men had come of age during the bubble economy of the '80s. Image was everything, and having a handsome foreigner for a boyfriend was trendy. There was a period of time when fancy restaurants and expensive hotels were booked up years in advance on Christmas Eve, because that was what a real date was supposed to be like on that special day — with a nice present thrown in, of course. Society celebrated the superficial and shallow.
Learning English was popular at the time, and eikaiwa school ads abounded, constantly airing on TV, displayed on walls and poles, just about everywhere. Posters on trains featured handsome young bucks grinning at their students through sets of pearly-white teeth. What better way to enjoy speaking English than with a Charisma Man?
There was a kind of sexual revolution going on during the '90s. If you believed the media hype, women were becoming more assertive about choosing the boyfriend they wanted. The stereotype of the shy office lady giving chocolate to the man she liked on Valentine's Day — and hoping he would ask her out — was becoming a thing of the past, we were told. Women had begun earning higher salaries and were more independent, and they knew what they wanted and how to get it.
So what became of the Charisma Men of yore?
Eric is a former Charisma Man who gave up all the glamour and now leads a life of mundane domesticity, changing diapers, getting the bills paid and attending events at kindergartens.
His face lights up when he reminisces about his salad days.
"In the mid-90s, Charisma Man groupies would hang out at Metropolitan Plaza Park near Ikebukuro Station on Friday and Saturday nights. They gathered in small groups so I used to go over there with a couple of buddies. The girls in Shibuya were too young, the ones in Shinjuku too loose, but the ones in Ikebukuro were just right."
Mike, too, lived the Charisma Man dream to the fullest. He brushes a tear out of the corner of his eye as he pines for a bygone age.
"I remember the hard looks I used to get from my neighbors at my old apartment. I'm sure they hated me because of the parade of sweet young things that would regularly troop to my front door. Now the only issues I have with neighbors are about smoke from my barbecue or my kids kicking a ball against somebody's wall."
Some guys have refused to let go, and make vain efforts to keep the good times rolling. Deep into middle age, these Charisma Men — past their prime, with expanding stomachs and graying hair — spend most of their time reliving their glory days. Resembling over-the-hill alpha male gorillas, they sit with beers in their hands in front of dwindling, aging harems as the new generation of Charisma Men stroll proudly by with the cream of the crop.
Of course, not all foreign men in Japan are — or ever were — Charisma Men. Some are exactly the gawky, bumbling nerds that Western Woman sees them as — guys who wouldn't have much luck with the ladies no matter where they were. These are the guys struggling to keep their cell phones stocked with numbers and their calendars full. International parties and "friendship sites" that cater to this crowd do a brisk business. Then there are the sprawling big-city bars and clubs that draw an international clientele, full of unaccompanied foreign men sullenly talking to one another as they slowly sip their drinks on a Friday night.
Times have changed, but surely there are still some Charisma Men out there. Their ranks have no doubt been thinned by the implosion of a couple of large English schools and a stagnant economy, but to the true Charisma Man that can mean only one thing: less competition.