I was talking to a joshikōsei (女子高生, high school girl) friend of mine (yes, I’m fully aware of this exalted position) and she told me that these days in sociology class, Japanese teens are taught that by the time they start paying taxes, the ratio of college grad workers to nenkinzoku (年金族, pension plan tribe) will be 1 to 3.5. This means my friend must carry the equivalent of 3.5 persons over 65 on her frail shoulders, with her taxes, until she herself retires. Currently, the ratio is 1 to 1.5.
I looked at her stricken as she went on to say that at the tender age of 17, she has decided to start a rōgo chokin (老後貯金, old-age savings account). I reflected on my own, clueless, reckless ōbaka (大バカ, super dumb) three years in high school and could only bow my head in shame. “Gomenasai! (ごめんなさい, I’m sorry). Gomenasai for getting old in this shōshi kōrei jidai (少子高齢時代, era of too few kids and too many oldies)!”
Japan wasn’t always so old and gray and genki ga nai (元気がない, without energy) as it is today, racking up the government deficit and medical bills like there was no tomorrow. Back in the days when this society was young, crass and ruthless, and generally contemptuous of anyone not capable of pulling his or her weight.
Consider the custom of ubasute (姥捨, abandoning elderly women in the mountains and leaving them to die) that reputedly remained operative well into the 20th century. Consider the kanji character for shūtome (姑, mother-in-law) consisting of onna (女, woman) and furui (古い, old). Shūto (舅, fathers-in-law) don’t fare a whole lot better; the upper half of that kanji character bears a strong resemblance to nezumi (鼠, rat), and the bottom half is otoko (男, man). No compliments wasted on either of them.
But then a concept such as keirō (敬老, respecting the elderly) is a relatively new phenomenon and certainly the fashionable notion of inochi wo taisetsu ni (命を大切に, pro-life) or kizuna (絆, human bonding) kicked in post 3/11. For decades after World War II, the Japanese labored under the impression that unless you worked 12 hours a day at a soul-crushing job, you were mukachi (無価値, worthless). As recently as the late 1990s, commuters openly frowned at women boarding the train with small children or babies. Elderly persons were expected to stay home, mind their mago (孫, grandchildren) and leave the shirubā shīto (シルバーシート, silver seats, or designated seating spaces for elderly or disabled people) spots open for use by tired salarymen. As for fun, everyone had to get in line to have that, most often on special occasions.
According to a research study by advertising giant Dentsu, the scale of Japanese ibento (イベント, holiday and special events) have significantly diminished over the years. In 1999 the average price tag on a Christmas gift from a man to a woman was a hefty ¥40,000. Now it’s more like ¥19,000. Kekkon kinenbi (結婚記念日, wedding anniversaries) used to involve diamonds in some form or another, but now husbands prefer to take their wives to a restaurant and leave it at that. My friend Kano complains that for her 10th anniversary, her husband took her and their two kids to a famiresu (ファミレス, family restaurant) and called it a purezento (プレゼント, gift). Kano has decided to retaliate by skipping Valentine’s Day altogether.
Which brings us to the rather worn-out custom of Barentain (バレンタイン, Valentine’s Day). Millennials know it’s a muriyari (無理矢理, enforced) commercial ritual that benefits chocolate-makers but can burn a hole through a woman’s wallet faster than you can pronounce “Teuscher.” Sure enough, the main segment of the populace thronging the counters of depa-chika (デパ地下, department store food sections, usually located in the basement) are well-heeled chūkōnen (中高年, middle-aged and older folk) who can afford such niceties or recall a bygone era when everyone got on the V-Day wagon.
Now those in their 20s and early 30s would rather pool their resources for real necessities, like jyūtaku shikin (住宅資金, money for a house) and rōgo no sonae (老後の備え, providing for old age). How responsible could they get? Issun saki wa yami (一寸先は闇, one step ahead lies pitch darkness) used to be a cliched maxim among the otoshiyori (お年寄り, respected elderly) — now mini-skirted OLs (office ladies) of 23 make such statements over lunch.
Actually, many men are hotto shiteiru (ホットしている, relieved) that the ibento fever has cooled down. Says newly married 42-yea-old Masahiko: “Barentain nante atode takaku tsukukara iranai.” (「バレンタインなんてあとで高くつかからいらない」, “All Valentine’s means is that I’ll be paying for it later).” A month after Valentines Day, on March 14, men are expected to okaeshi (お返し, reciprocate) their V-Day chocolates with Howaito Dē (ホワイトデー, White Day) gifts, if only to avoid looking like ingrate creeps. Chotto kawaisō (ちょっとかわいそう, you have to feel a bit sorry for them).