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The withered middle-aged guy becomes a hot item in Japan’s dating market

by Kaori Shoji

If you happen to be an over-45 male, looking a little tired, inclined to decline party invitations because you can’t stand the hassle, comfortable in your own company and not really caring what other people think — so, the news is ALL good, at least in urban Japan. You are, or are extremely close to, what is known as a kareta oyaji (枯れたオヤジ, withered middle-age guy) — currently the underground popular label on the dating market. These days, young women have shifted their preference from the wakai (若い, young), kakkoii (格好いい, good-looking) and okanemochi (お金持ち, rich) — extremely rare for all these traits to co-exist in one man anyway — to the genki nai ojisan (元気無いおじさん, middle-age guy with no energy). And the women who know how to love and appreciate such gents are called kare-sen (カレセン), short for kareta oyaji senmon (枯れたオヤジ専門, special penchant for withered middle-age guys) and the trend is boosting the morale of ojisan all over the nation.

Sceptics say the fever is temporary. After all, there were the waves of gai-sen (外専, short for gaijin senmon 外人専門, or penchant for gaijin), followed by the weird ota-sen (オタ専, otaku senmon オタク専門, or penchant for nerds) and the equally incomprehensible debu-sen (デブ専, debu senmon, デブ専門, or penchant for overweight men). It seemed like the domestic skinny single male didn’t stand much of a chance out there, and now this!

One of my male cousins, aged 31 and pining to get married, was complaining that the odds were dead set against futsū no otoko (普通の男, ordinary men) like him, whose outstanding trait is a fierce and blazing normality. Poor chap, his recent mantra (or wail) is: Ore no dokoga ikenaindayo! (俺のどこがいけないんだよ, What’s wrong with me?) I told him the kare-sen phenomenon will fizzle out in a few years — by which time the futsuu-sen trend will surely be on the horizon.

Back to the withered middle-age guy. There are certain requirements he must fulfill before setting the young ladies’ hearts on fire. According to case-hardened kare-sen gal Akiko-san, he must first be muyoku (無欲, having no desire). This doesn’t just apply to physical desire (性欲, seiyoku), as the true withered male must renounce the other two desires that make up the triangle of Japanese male needs: shusseyoku (出世欲, desire to succeed in the corporate world), and kinsenyoku (金銭欲, desire for money). As Akiko-san puts it, gatsu-gatsu shiteru hitoga ichiban iya (ガツガツしてる人が一番嫌, intense guys really put me off) and besides, the Japanese have always valued the process of decay and death, recognizing beauty in something from which the life force has left, or fallen away. Akiko-san, who takes tea ceremony lessons, says her preference for kareta oyaji links directly to her appreciation for the tea ceremony, antique matcha (抹茶, green tea) bowls and wabi-sabi (わびさび, the Japanese aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience). Naruhodone (なるほどね Ah, I see).

Where does the withered guy get his kicks? Since he’s freed from that accursed triangle, the withered guy has what other younger, more aggressive men don’t have: time. Time to duck into a side street and wander up and down picturesque alleyways, time to visit art-house theaters to see old Yasujiro Ozu (the director of choice for the discerning withered film buff) films, time to excavate a genuine kissaten (喫茶店, coffee shop, which must not be confused with the modern Tokyo cafe) where the walls are browned with nicotine and strains of Miles Davis come on over the speakers, to seat himself at a corner table and spend an hour over a tiny cup of coffee. He’ll be alone, apart from a well-thumbed bunko-bon (文庫本, Japanese pocket-size paper-back), most likely a detective novel by famed withered novelist Tetsuya Ayukawa.

He also has a favored neighborhood sentō (銭湯, public bath) for when he’s feeling nostalgic. And finally, he’ll have that most typical of all ojisan haunts: the ikitsukeno nomiya (行きつけの飲み屋, the hideaway drinking hole where he’s well known), where over the years, the withered guy has cultivated a friendly but carefully distanced relationship with the proprietor. Probably, the place is about the size of three tatami mats but spanking clean, offering a daunting selection of jizake (地酒, regional sake) and some really good tsukemono (漬け物, pickled vegetables).

The kare-sen woman’s greatest wish is to sit beside the withered guy in just such an establishment, and whine prettily about life while he sips and nods, occasionally patting her head to say that everything is going to be all right. Sigh. There’s something to be said for non-hormonal, withered romance.