Old practices, modern veneer

If there's one thing that charms many visitors to Japan, it's the cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of the very old and the new. Sparkling taxis with self-opening doors take you to the grounds of an ancient temple. A steely skyscraper casts its shadow over a venerable wooden home. A crowded evening express train lets passengers off near a vendor who is hawking hot sweet potatoes from a wooden cart.

It can seem incongruous, how easily the images of traditional and modern, high-tech and well-worn coexist. Yet the relationship isn't as simple as it might appear.

Bullet trains and tiny Walkman stereos have helped propel Japan into postwar modernity, but traditional social practices have been slower to yield their turf. Change is evident in individuals delaying marriage and in divorce rates rising, but people are still keenly aware of traditional - if unspoken - social expectations: what obligations are accorded to whom, what is acceptable, what is outlandish. They're undergirded by a language that leaves as much to interpretation and indirect cues as to forthright declaration.

That may help explain why Japan's wakaresaseya, or "breaker-uppers," are seeing business boom. (Story, right.) Their target audience is those hoping to slip the bond of a relationship, be it corporate or personal. Their appeal: the potential to spare someone the unpleasantness of confrontation in a society that highly values harmony.

In days gone by, one observer notes, others would have assumed this role, perhaps with more sensitivity. But in the 21st century, it is the wakaresaseya operating in the shadows, a traditional if grim go-between with an unusual modern twist.

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