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Womanlike, manlike — beware what you ask for

by Kaori Shoji

Elsewhere in the world, social distinctions between men and women erode on a daily basis, but in Japan, they still endure. Women are expected to be “onna-rashii (womanly),” men must go by “otoko-rashii (manly)” codes of conduct, and to hell with political correctness. And you know something? We actually like it; or at least we’re well-aware that those endowed with surplus amounts of onna-rashisa (womanliness) and otoko-rashisa (manliness) are likely to get more respect.

The qualities that constitute onna-rashisa are pretty much standard fare: yawarakasa (softness or flexibility), yasashisa (kindness), karoyakasa (graceful lightness), kenkyosa (modesty). Add to that the traditional demands for women to be kawaii (cute), kirei (beautiful) and tsuru-tsuru (smooth-skinned) and you’ve got a nation of femmes all aspiring to be some character out of a Junichiro Tanizaki novel (refer to “The Makioka Sisters” for details).

Women’s magazines are perpetually coming up with new, and more detailed, definitions of onna-rashisa: lately, there’s been an emphasis on good health without the stigma of workouts and muscles (which ruin the onna-rashii body lines) and a lot of ink has been poured in describing preferred modes of womanly skin texture, bone structure, hair length and condition, the exact curve of the ideal onna-rashii waistline. Interestingly, none of these articles (most written by women) has any intention of promoting inequality, but stress how onna-rashisa will actually empower women and inspire self-respect. One headline in the ever-popular An-An magazine threatens: “Kebukai Onna wa Nani o Yattemo Umaku Ikanai (A Hairy Woman Will Not Succeed in Anything).” Scary, huh?

Men aren’t having such a good time either. Bound by the ancient ropes of otoko-rashisa (manliness) to the pillar of Bushido (the way of the samurai), men are valued for being kamoku (silent), goken (strong in mind and body), ippongi (uncompromisingly earnest and honest), yukan (courageous) and daitan (bold).

Visually, it helps if they’re kinnikushitsu (muscular) and kebukai (hairy) in the right places, like legs and wrists (for some reason, chest hair has always been a downer). Naturally, they’re expected to be messy, to abstain from vigorous washing, to not care about what they eat, and to drink themselves into oblivion without losing their male decorum. It goes without saying that they’re not supposed to whine or ask for sympathy. If they do either with excess, they’re referred to as onna no kusatta yona yatsu (a man who’s like a woman gone rotten), which I personally feel is one of the most discriminatory remarks in the language, but we’ll forget that for now.

The rashii school of thought extends to other segments of the populace, such as children. Kodomo-rashii (childlike) is a highly prized virtue even among adults, so imagine the effect and influence of a kodomo-rashii child. The traits include mujaki (guilelessness), akarusa (cheerfulness), tenshinranman (naturally innocent) and oyaomoi (loving toward parents). A kodomo-rashikunai (unchildlike) child is eyed with slight suspicion and is often labeled sureteiru (knowing the ways of the world), hinekureteiru (twisted), kurai (gloomy) and kawaikunai (not cute). No wonder so many kids these days are kireteiru (gone off the deep end).

Lately however, there are those who acknowledge that individuals can actually come in all shapes and sizes, each with unique personality traits. We even have a word for it: kosei (individuality) — and it can be used in praise or irony, depending on the situation. To the Japanese mind, a koseiteki na hito (a person with personality) can be entertaining, but they can also be downright weird and difficult to get along with. The threshold isn’t very high: A friend of mine, while out for dinner with her male colleagues, refused beer and then asked for a vegan dish. For weeks afterward, she was described as sugoku koseiteki (extremely individualistic), and the dinner invitation was never repeated.

Of course, male quirks are more tolerated than female ones and less likely to be categorized as wagamama (selfish), or fushigi (freaky). Besides, the onna-rashisa code requires that Japanese women be quiet, unassuming and kikijozu (good at listening to others, especially pontificating men), with an inherent dislike of anything conspicuous. So I’m always surprised when men complain that “Nihonjin no onna wa minna onaji de omoshirokunai (Japanese women are all the same and just not interesting).” Uh, hello? Whose fault is that?