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Japanese women staying in touch with their inner virgin

by Kaori Shoji

What with the rise of the strong and professional Japanese woman, it may have escaped your notice. But the nation is currently undergoing a quiet boom in otome (innocent young girl) culture, to which a large number of aforementioned strong professionals are addicted.

Not that this is anything new. The fad has been around for the past 1,000 years or so and is probably stamped on our DNA. We can’t escape it. Scratch the surface of most Japanese women and you’ll find a wannabe otome buried in there somewhere — although one hesitates to vouch for Makiko Tanaka.

So what, exactly, is otome culture? Before elaborating, let me set the record straight once and for all: Otome are radically different from the more popular gyaru (gal) and the once popular burriko (playing the innocent when, in fact, hard as nails ), though these three types may on occasion share physical characteristics, such as youth.

Gyaru-hood ends at 24 and burikko is impossible after 29, but otome can pretty much go on forever. The word originally meant virgin, but has evolved to embrace what Japanese females intuitively sense to have virginal connotations. It’s a state of mind, one that treasures such concepts as stoicism and purity, chicness and style.

It abhors conflict, conspicuousness, overconfidence and overt sexuality. Suffice to say, otome will rank Audrey Hepburn over Marilyn Monroe; Matisse over Picasso; Enya over Madonna; Godard over Rivette; Francoise Sagan over Simone de Beauvoir; and France over the United States (but the U.S. over Russia).

Here’s where it gets trickier. Otome prize Dick Bruna’s Miffy over Hello Kitty; Alice in Wonderland over Winnie the Pooh — but Winnie the Pooh over Mickey Mouse. Oh, and also ennui over joy; headaches over indigestion; and cuts over sprains.

True otome also carry ironed handkerchiefs (most likely hand-embroidered), are able to make a perfect quiche Lorraine and know the exact flavor of a first-flush Darjeeling tea. Being modest and cool, the otome will never brag of these accomplishments in public.

So much of it, though, is subjective, sensory and self-indulgent: An otome will spend hours searching for the perfect shade of eggshell white to redo her bedroom walls but will refuse to engage in a heavily political discussion about Israel. Her interests are introverted and personal for the very reason that she finds arguments futile. She would rather . . . contemplate the light that falls on her potted fern (you know what I mean).

She’s also the type of person who goes into raptures over sunsets, running brooks and strawberries in a wicker basket. The sight of a chic grandmother will make her smile, a rude guy at the hardware store can make her cry.

So is the otome that dreaded Japanese specimen who spews “kawaiii (cuuute)!” every five minutes; who owns 500 different cellphone straps; or who buys (or, worse, handcrafts) amazing and frilly things such as doorknob covers?

Tondemonai (Not on your life)! No, no, a hundred times, no!

Let me speak now of the original otome, the first to come out and say that the ability to discern certain sensory pleasures comprises the virginal psyche, regardless of age or, uh, physical condition. She is Sei Shonagon, author of “Makuranososhi (The Pillow Book),” which to the Japanese is the founding tome of otome literature and values.

“The Pillow Book” is featherweight fluff that waxes lyrical about why the best time of day in spring is dawn, the pleasures afforded by cloud patterns in a summer sky, and other inconsequential things that may comfort and console the mind but do very little else. It has no revolutionary mission, no hidden intent, no weighty philosophy. It simply asks the reader to absorb and be soothed for a few brief hours.

And here’s the truth about otome: So busy are they seeking solace in a crude and ruthless world that they don’t really want — or need — men in their lives. Men disturb the equilibrium, fog the vision, scramble up the power of the senses. If you push her, a genuine otome will confess (quietly) that it’s hard to reconcile dating and otome-hood.

Which could be why, generally speaking, love relationships in this country remain so unsatisfactory.