For a long time I couldn’t pronounce the word otoko (男, man) without slightly blushing; I didn’t much like the word in English either, but in Japanese it sounded a little vulgar and what women of my grandmother’s generation would call hashitanai (はしたない, crude and ill-mannered).
In my family it was an unspoken taboo for female members to say otoko, and in situations where we had to refer to men, we were expected to call them otokonohito (男の人, male person) or dansei (男性, male). This probably had a lot to do with the fact that in traditional Tokyo shitamachi (下町, downtown) dialect, any woman enunciating the word otoko was referring to a lover or boyfriend or someone she wasn’t married to, but having sexual relations (gasp!).
Men, on the other hand, seemed to have less trouble saying onna (女, woman), though my father was always careful to refer to them as josei (女性, female) or fujin (婦人, lady). My brothers and male cousins had a simple solution; they called young women joshi (女子, schoolgirl) and any woman over the age of 25 became obasan (おばさん, middle-aged woman) and this simplified things for them considerably. Under their influence, I began to refer to young men as danshi (男子, schoolboy) well into the late 20s and was grateful how this reference freed me from discomfort and even called up nostalgic memories of grade school and junior high. Time passed, we all reached the ages of obasan and ojisan (おじさん, middle-aged man), but during family get togethers we would privately call each other joshi and danshi and recall the golden days of school and seishun (青春, blue spring, or youth).
In the past year or so however, joshi and danshi has become the new, cool way of referring to men and women and the good news is, it’s now safe to do so until the late 40s. (Even former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi is calling herself chūnen joshi — 中年女子, middle-aged schoolgirl — and delighting her fans.) In this new scheme of gender language politics, there are certain rules and regulations.
First off, joshi is not to be confused with onnanoko (女の子, girl, or girlie), nor danshi with otokonoko (男の子, boy, or guy). Though it’s possible for practiced men and women to switch back and forth between the two modes — these are completely different creatures and the river that separates joshi from onnanoko is especially wide and deep.
Joshi refers to the woman who reads books, is interested in the arts, knows how to use keigo (敬語, polite Japanese) and has perhaps, been a girl scout and can cook rice over an open fire. She’s adventurous, spirited and athletic.
The danshi is pretty much the same — this is the boy who’s honorable, strives to be the captain of the yakyūbu (野球部, school baseball team), who thinks there’s something dasai (ださい, tacky) and disgraceful about hanging out with girls. He’d rather die than be caught shopping with his mother, but at home he’s a good son, occasionally washing the dishes without being told 56 times. He’s fascinated by bugs and dinosaurs and thinks of becoming a konchūgakusha (昆虫学社, entomologist) and at some point during his school years, went by the nickname of hakase (博士, professor). He will go for days, even weeks, without speaking to that lovely joshi sitting several desks ahead of his, because he’s convinced that talking to her outright is “chō kakkowarui (超かっこわるい, ultra uncool).” And the Japanese male has an unshakable conviction that every danshi is his own hero. Ore, danshi dakara (俺、男子だから, I’m a danshi) has now become the self-explanatory line that excuses an unwillingness to commit to a relationship or a preferance for solitary weekend bike rides, leaving the wife and children to fend for themselves.
By now you’ve probably caught on that joshi and danshi are asexual beings, existing in an idyllic school environment where things like team spirit, physical and academic excellence are valued above all else. By referring to each other as joshi and danshi, the Japanese are in fact, freeing themselves up from the complications of love, stepping back from the frontlines of the relationship war, giving each other a break. It’s not bad.