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Buzzwords of love in Japan - with a sting

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1999



TOKYO

With Valentine's day ahead, you may be casting about for pretty phrases for your cards. If so, a word of advice: French might be the official language of l'amour, but when it comes to the Realpolitik of male-female relations, Japanese might just win your heart.

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Like all languages, Japanese is constantly evolving. People here love to patch new expressions together, cutting and pasting to create buzzwords that perfectly suit the idea of the moment. Nothing keeps these word wizards busier than romance - or a lamented lack of it.

Women seem to have cornered the market on the most colorful new expressions. A look at the newest phrases they're bandying about reveals as much about the state of love, Japanese style, as it does about Japan.

*Seinto barentainu dei: St. Valentine's Day has been around for awhile, but it's worth starting here to cover a basic truth that colors all male-female relations in Japan - traditionally, men come first. Imported by a confectionery industry desperate to boost sales after World War II, Valentine's Day in Japan is a male-dominated affair. Only men get chocolates.

Women give them, then have to wait until March 14, dubbed "White Day," to receive sweets from the men in their lives. That annoying, month-long wait could explain the language Japan's women are using these days.

*Kyukon-kun: These "bulb guys" can do nothing right. They are mama's boys in their 30s who are hapless with women and show no inclination to get married.

They've earned the name because they root themselves in their parents' homes, suck up nutrients, and slowly but steadily get larger. The women who complain about bulb guys aren't imagining things. About 80 percent of single men in their 30s don't feel any pressure to get married, according to a survey by OMG, a Tokyo-based dating service company. Not only that, many of them are reluctant to leave Mom's cooking behind: 78 percent say they don't want to get married because of the slump in their standard of living that's sure to follow.

*Kare-migake: When Japanese women find a beau who is worth the bother, they often start "boyfriend polishing." That means giving their significant others a head-to-toe makeover, having them buy new clothes, cut and sometimes dye their hair, even get their ears pierced. All that work seems to leave both sides too tired to contemplate any further effort, like a trip down the aisle.

The average age for first marriages here has climbed to a high of 28 for men and nearly 27 for women - three to four years older than their counterparts in the 1950s.

*Bekkyo kekkon: For those who do tie the knot, marriage doesn't always mean togetherness. "Living separately marriage" sounds catchier in Japanese, but the idea is clear. After the wedding party, these couples continue to live separately in their old apartments, meeting for dinner or outings. This new trend certainly won't do much for Japan's plummeting birthrate. The average family in 1950 had 3.65 kids, but by 1997 that number had fallen to 1.39 children, worrying government officials.

Bekkyo kekkon was common among upper classes in the 12th century. Its revival may be due to women's growing independence and dislike for the traditional housewife's life. Almost 88 percent of the women OMG surveyed last year said they want to keep their single lifestyles after marriage, while 28.5 percent said they hoped for a bekkyo kekkon. "More and more women don't want to give up their dreams and desires so easily," says Harumi Morita, of the marriage research firm Zwei, in a recent issue of Spa magazine. "That's what [bekkyo kekkon] shows. Women are simply being honest."

*Hiyowana otokotachi: Tart phrases like this explain why some men might prefer bekkyo kekkon. It means "weak-minded men" and describes the overall male image. It's a far cry from the old expression "earthquake-thunder-fire father," which captured the forceful authority that dads wielded at home.

Well, no more. Older Japanese tut-tut about weak-minded men when they hear about young male attitudes on marriage and family. In their day, people admired otokono kaisho, or a man's ability to support his wife and children.

The expression has fallen out of currency these days, and men are more likely to want to share that responsibility. "Why do men always have to support women?" asks a young man who works at Japan's construction ministry and doesn't want to be named. "That's not the way it should be. I want a 50-50 relationship."

*Okiraku rikon: Imagine that a bulb guy meets the right girl, she does some boyfriend polishing, and they agree to live happily ever after in a living separately marriage. Then one day, she realizes he's a weak-minded man and they're better off apart.

In today's Japan, they would stay friends and get an okiraku rikon, or an upbeat divorce. Divorce rates have been hitting record highs in the '90s and grew 7.6 percent in the first 10 months of 1998 alone.

As a result, the stigma that once marked the end of a marriage is fading. "[Okiraku rikon] is cheery and friendly instead of lots of tears and not eating for days," says Tokyo businesswoman and divorce Yasuyo Honjo. "It's about not taking it so seriously anymore."