Japanese family relationships have never been simple.
For children, the first lesson in complications begins with the all-important question of what to call their parents.
Kids in other countries don’t seem to have that problem — in France, it’s “Papa” and “Maman,” and in America it’s “Dad” and “Mom,” without a whole lot of change or variation. But over on this Pacific archipelago, what to call your parents changes according to generation, gender and age group.
Currently, more than 60 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 45 call their parents “Otosan (father)” and “Okasan (mother),” while 32 percent go with “Papa” and “Mama.”
A female friend of mine professes that in the course of her lifetime, she’s addressed her parents three different ways:
Until she turned 14, it was “Papa” and “Mama.” But one day, “it became too embarrassing” to shout this in public, and so she changed it to the much more formal and Japanesey “Otosan” and “Okasan.”
When she hit 31, however, she decided that this, too, was hazukashii (embarrassing) and got her parents’ permission to call them by their given names.
Now it’s “Mamoru-san” for her father and “Noriko-san” for her mother — and her parents have told her that they finally feel liberated from the burden of child-rearing.
Interestingly however, they continue to call each other “Otosan” and “Okasan.” The reason? They say they can stop doing the parent thing, but that doesn’t mean they can go back to becoming an individual man and woman, especially not while they’re in the same house.
A male friend of mine (now 36) says he can recall perfectly the Sunday afternoon when his father faced him in the living room and said: “Korekara-wa Otosan to yobinasai (From now on, I want you to call me Otosan).” My friend had just turned 10 and had been doing the Papa/Mama thing since birth. “It was a bit of a shock,” he says. “It was as if he was telling me I was no longer a kid.”
My friend was so devastated, in fact, that he didn’t call his parents by any name for several weeks, and just said “Anoooo (Ummmm)” when he wanted to get their attention. On the other hand, his older sister had no such little talk, and to this day (she’s now 38) goes with “Papa” and “Mama,” a fact my friend secretly resents.
“Japan enforces this macho thing on the smallest, most insignificant details of life,” is how he describes it.
He’s worried that once he turns 40, his father will take him aside again and order him to change the names, this time to “Oyaji (Pop)” and “Ofukuro (literally, ‘reverent bag’)” — the traditional way middle-aged men address their parents.
He says he hasn’t the heart to call his mother by such a term. “Ofukuro to yobarete iiki no suru onna wa inai hazu (No woman can be called a bag and feel good about it),” says my friend, the ever-sensitive “koko-musuko (good son).”
The terms papa/mama have only been around for the last five decades or so, as they are one of the byproducts of “America-san minshushugi (American-imported democracy).” But as with everything else in Japan, they have been recast to suit particular societal/cultural needs.
So, although mama is “mother,” it can also be the way to address the woman proprietress or hostess at a bar. The sight of a grown man in a suit and tie calling a woman (often years younger than he) “Mama” is one of the weirder aspects of Japanese nightlife.
Unfortunately and increasingly, that same man will say “Mama” to any female acquaintance who is with a small child — which, for the record, is considered extremely offensive by many young women. One woman I know looked such a man full in the face and said: “Watashi wa anata-no Mama dewa arimasen (I’m not your Mama).” He was struck speechless.
However, though a lot of young mothers refuse to put up with the “Mama” thing from an older man, they’ll use the term freely in their own circle. Many women call each other “Mama,” with the child’s name stuck on the front for differentiation (“Yuki-chan Mama” or “Daisuke-kun Mama”).
Thankfully, the trend toward equality deems that this applies to papa, too, and in parks popular with young families you’ll hear all these adults calling each other “Papa” and “Mama” while their toddlers play in the sandbox.
And then the kids hit their teens and papas and mamas all turn into reverent fathers and mothers . . . and may eventually metamorphose into pops and bags.
Who says we have only one life?