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Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010
HAVE YOUR SAY
Of Charisma Men and Western Women
Readers offer celebratory, cautionary tales as the popular strip returns in a new book
Last month, The Japan Times invited readers to send in their thoughts on "Charisma Man," originally a comic strip that ran from 1998 in The Alien, a Nagoya-based magazine, but lately something of a byword for the stereotypical nerdy Western guy with the beautiful Japanese girlfriend.
The 10 readers whose contributions were chosen for publication win a copy of the new book "Charisma Man — The Even More Complete Collection" (see www.charismaman.com for details).
A Charisma Man is born
I enjoyed reading your recent articles on Charisma Man ("One more time — with Charisma" by Charles Lewis and Barbara Bayer, Zeit Gist, July 13). I have fond memories of reading the comic strip back in the late '90s when I lived in Tokyo. I thought the artwork was always excellent and the insightful situations in the strip always seemed to strike close to home.
In those days, I worked at a large eikaiwa school in Yokohama with English teachers from all over the world. We were truly an international melting pot, with several Americans, Canadians, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Irish of both genders and from all walks of life.
The international atmosphere contributed to lots of collegial joking and competition among us. The favorite sport at the time seemed to be the art of the pickup. The single male teachers, myself included, enjoyed the life of Charisma Men and basked in all of its undeserved glory. I remember how the Western women would openly lament how dire the dating scene was in Japan and give us guys the evil eye whenever we were spotted with our Japanese "fan club" out for drinks.
One memorable day, we were all teaching in a lounge-like setting. Each English teacher was at a small table with one to three Japanese students each.
There was a new teacher among us, an American named Todd. He was young, single, confident, and definitely interested in exploring the local dating scene. The three young ladies at his table stared at him in adoration and clung to his every word.
Because he was new to the school, he wasn't used to teaching in a crowded lounge setting, and as a result his voice was a bit too loud. One of the students asked him the usual "Why did you come to Japan?"
His response was suave and as smooth as velvet: "To meet you," he cooed. The three girls giggled in thrilled excitement.
An Australian girl who was teaching at the next table heard the whole thing, and in the middle of her lesson with a bald ojisan, groaned loudly and excused herself from the room. Shaking her head in disgust, she muttered "Oh my lord" several times on the way out.
We had all witnessed the birth of a new Charisma Man that day. Welcome to the club, Todd!
Good riddance to the CM era
What a wonderful essay ("One more time — with Charisma" by Barbara Bayer). It reminded me of my own experience arriving in Japan in 1984 and suddenly finding myself the center of attention in many social settings and an authority on "all sorts of topics" in the classroom.
Fortunately I never took myself very seriously during those heady days of the bubble economy. I was fairly well educated, well traveled and well read before I arrived in Japan, at least by American standards. But I never felt that I was a "Western guru," and my attempts to crack the "kanji code" proved to be depressingly futile.
I recall my first day in Japan. I was living in the Ibaraki city of Tsuchiura. I walked into a convenience store to buy a few food items and was stupefied. I could not read any of the labels on the packages. For the first time since perhaps age 7, I was faced with illiteracy. It was momentarily depressing.
I lived in Japan from that time until last September, when I finally pulled up my tent stakes and moved back to my home country. Those were some of the most wonderful years of my life. Not without frustration and stress from time to time, but I was fortunate to have met some very gracious and kind Japanese who made my life in Japan so very worthwhile and rewarding.
I recall, for example, being invited by one of my salarymen students to visit his family home in Mie Prefecture. He knew that I was interested in the life and poetry of haiku master Matsuo Basho and took me to visit the city of Ueno, Basho's hometown.
Another student, a woman of considerable learning and sophistication, invited me to visit Sakura in Chiba, and we toured one of Japan's finest history museums in that town not far from Tokyo. Such individuals are Japan's unsung national living treasures. Their kindness and hospitality will never be forgotten.
I am glad that the "Charisma Man" phase of Japan's cultural ties with the West has come to an end. It was all so silly! Those rather shallow Western men and women who allowed themselves to be taken in by all the fawning and adulation of that bygone era were often lacking in character and self-awareness. At the very least they were very naive. Many were simply ignorant, greedy and very ethnocentric. Their welcome in Japan didn't last much longer than the bubble economy itself. Time for everyone to move on.
I wrote earlier that Charisma Man might have made his first appearance in Japan back in the pre-Edo days — just a thought. In Kyushu, many Japanese of that era were very much taken with all things European, and this was reflected in some of the fashion and culture of the day. In the early Meiji Era there was also a brief time when Charisma Man made an appearance, but then again disappeared.
Last hurrah for meatheads
It's not too late for a "Charisma Man" comeback, for a couple of reasons. Despite the shrinking numbers, the phenomenon still persists — I worked recently with a proper gimp who was constantly on the trawl through bars and singles ads, and I'm sure there are J-girls in the market for a trophy gaijin, of whatever color is in vogue this season.
Second, the judgmental mentality underlying some aspects of the strip has never gone away. In her Japanzine scrawlings, Melissa Feineman decrees from her lofty perch that men are worthy of an attractive girlfriend only if they meet her standards of handsomeness, marking her as Western Woman incarnate.
Jocks will always think that geeks and nerds serve only as objects of mirth — so then why wouldn't they come to Japan, where geeky nerddom is accepted, even attractive?
The return of CM seems like a last hurrah for the meatheads, afraid of finally losing their hold over J-girls to men who, though geeky and nerdy, have more to offer by way of personality.
Nostalgic? Head to China
Thanks for writing in The Japan Times about "Charisma Man." I did not know about this strip, because I have never been to Japan. I suppose it was popular above all with foreigners living in Japan.
I started studying Japanese language and culture in Milan in 1984, 14 years before Charisma Man's first appearance in The Alien. These were the great years of the first Japanese culture boom in Europe. My generation, brought up with Hanna-Barbera comics and Walt Disney characters, went crazy for manga and anime. We university students were told that there was a big future waiting for us if we could speak Japanese.
In the second half of the '80s, after reading all Ron Dore's books, I was deeply convinced that only the Japanese organization of work in industrial plants could lead to great business success. I loved the way Japanese companies took care of their employees. This kind of mutual devotion in the employer- employee relationship, deeply rooted in history (the daimyo-samurai relationship), was totally fascinating to me and my classmates. My short essay about all the extra-economical factors behind Japanese companies' success read like a declaration of love.
In those years of deep involvement with studying Japanese culture, my Japanese language was not fluent (just to dream of becoming fluent, of course you have to live in Japan), but after five years I could speak and read a little, with the help of Nelson, the Japanese-English character dictionary I carried with me all day, which sat at night on my bedside table just in case I woke up suddenly with a doubt about a single kanji!
Like Charisma Man, during that time I experienced the great encouragement of all the Japanese people I met here in Italy. It was enough to say "konnichi wa" and "arigato" to be regarded like a genius.
Sometimes, when I tried a short conversation, their approval made me feel like Reinhold Messner on top of Everest. It was a funny situation; I had studied many other Western languages, but nobody had ever made me feel like a hero for that!
The "Charisma Men" I knew were a couple of Italian friends. The guy was sent to Japan in the '80s as a consultant in the baking industry. He and his wife, like Charisma Man, were average people, coming from a small, insignificant Italian village. However, in Japan they became celebrities and were hired as "typical Italians" and dressed in a "typical Italian style" for a TV commercial!
I dreamt of coming to this Amida's paradise for foreigners to experience the Japanese kindness I had just sampled in Milano, but after graduation an Italian magazine hired me to work here. This was the end of my dream of becoming a kind of Charisma Woman in Japan (at that time, I did not know that it was impossible!).
The economic crisis in the '90s was the final nail in the coffin. The Japanese system I so admired was not working anymore.
Let me give some advice to anybody who is nostalgic about the Charisma Man years: Go to China. A friend of mine was hired last year by a Western restaurant in Shanghai just because he was Italian — he has no idea about wines and cooking! Other Western male friends in Beijing are treated like Brad Pitt by Chinese girls. Men who have problems just inviting a woman for a drink here become Latin lovers in China.
So if Japan is no more Charisma Man's paradise, please think about China. The future is there, if you still want to be somebody's God.
Desperate Charisma Women
Since the JET Program brought thousands of young Western foreigners to these shores, a new phenomenon has burst onto the scene — Charisma Woman.
She's young, attractive and reasonably personable, but stuck in a mountain village in the middle of nowhere for most of the year, except for brief excursions to the closest big city.
It's her goal to "try out" as many of the local Japanese guys as possible, and their marital status doesn't seem to matter to her. She speaks pretty good Japanese (what else can she do to fill her time except study?), so it's fairly easy for her to ensnare one of the local chaps.
When she does leave her mountain village, she's an unstoppable force of nature. Japanese bar owners, taxi drivers and local foreign guys had better beware, because here she comes, and she's determined to have a good time!
However, since her JET contract ended she's been finding it a little harder to make ends meet. Her parents are starting to talk about biological clocks and grandchildren, her friends back home all have steady jobs with good career prospects, and her Japanese isn't quite good enough to land a plum marketing job in Tokyo. Maybe she and Charisma Man should team up to start their own English school.
Western Woman's dilemma
What's most tragic about Charisma Man and his ilk is not that they're a dying breed, but that they don't recognize that fact.
Not surprisingly, there are some in my circle of friends, and it's both amusing and sad to watch their bewilderment as they age and become sidelined. Over countless cups of drink-bar coffee, they recount tales of their "glory days" in Japan when, by their own accounts, they could attract sweet young things just by existing.
Even sadder is watching them lament as their professional lives wither in the same way. They just can't understand why plum company contracts and lucrative private English lessons no longer fall into their laps effortlessly. They know Japan is changing, but they don't know how to cope with the changes.
And what of his nemesis, Western Woman? Well, she's coming up on retirement herself and is now facing her own challenges. She likely never did find a Japanese man who was unmarried and sufficiently Westernized to take her on.
While Charisma Man was lusting after his underage students and bedding legions of office ladies (if he is to be believed), she was likely getting an advanced degree, doing research and growing professionally. Not that it matters! Her employment situation is only slightly better than Charisma Man's, in that both are falling victim to "younger and cheaper is better" hiring practices.
Like Charisma Man, she is also facing painful choices, such as whether to live out her days here in Japan, where she has spent most of her adult life, or to return to her home country to seek a spouse at this late date or care for aging relatives.
The only bright spot is that Western Woman was never crazed or desperate enough to actually marry and attempt to reform a Charisma Man — as if she could have distracted him from his never- ending quest to dally with Mariko, Ikuko, Emiko, Etsuko, Yukako and the rest of his unwitting victims.
Or could it be that he was actually the victim?
A WESTERN WOMAN
Real Charisma Man stands up
Charisma Man can only be understood by someone who has seen this phenomenon firsthand.
I have had the privilege of living this fantasy lifestyle that simply could not be understood by my friends back home in Canada.
Until I wake up from this dream, drinks are on me. Kampai!
Do I get a free book now?
Making women happy
Personally, when I run across one of these guys, I try to give him a lot of room. I know they don't have any use for me except as a stepping stone to boost their egos when they size me up and find me lacking.
I also consider that these guys from a social viewpoint have succeeded wildly in Japan. There's nothing wrong with these guys as they are succeeding in a manner that harms no one and often makes the Japanese women they couple with really happy. I just hope for honesty on both sides, not just an "atmospheric sense of charisma."
Lost in translation?
As a part-Japanese, part-Western woman, I find the Charisma Man and — most importantly — Western Woman comic strip hilarious, and so true. I enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of my position, being on the periphery, laughing at the situation and understanding both sides.
I hope that the comic strip gets a wider audience with the new book, and that its wit and satire are not lost on the general Japanese public (kind of like Westerners finding the movie "Lost in Translation" utterly hilarious and Japanese people not getting it).
ISABELLA K. BADENOCH
Contrast transforms geeks
I wonder whether Japanese women were fascinated with Charisma Man simply because of his exotic looks, or because he provided a stark contrast to Japanese men, who tend to be less attentive, affectionate or solicitous toward women.
My jaw still drops when I see Japanese women in painful high heels giving up their seats on the train for their boyfriends, who do not hesitate to take them.
So while Charisma Man may be a geek back in his home country, by virtue of the "contrast effect," he suddenly transforms into a woman magnet.
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