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The way we were, or reflections for the new year

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

In the dusky light of ōmisoka (大晦日, Dec. 31), I spotted something that’s become a rarity on Tokyo streets: a dead animal. Actually it was a yamabato (山鳩, turtle dove) — and its feathers were tragically strewn among the blood and gore like a terrible crime scene. Some tsūkōnin (通行人, passersby) who had gathered to inspect it, said that the poor bird was most likely the victim of karasu no shūgeki (からすの襲撃, crow attack), and added that mukashi-wa yoku atta koto (昔はよくあったこと, in the old days, we used to see this stuff all the time).

This is true — 25 years ago, things were positively chūsei (中世, medieval) compared to how they are today, despite the fact that Japan’s timeline had officially shifted from the dark Showa to the bright and modernized Heisei. In the early morning hours on the way to school, you often witnessed the mangled corpses of noraneko (野良猫, street cats), rats, bats and even snakes — all within the supposedly urbanized nijyūsanku (23区, 23 wards) area of Tokyo. During the tsuyu (梅雨, rainy season), huge, bloated gamagaeru (ガマガエル, toads) crawled along the asphalt and the streets themselves flooded whenever the rains got heavy.

From train windows, you looked out across the rows and rows of concrete buildings to spot some astounding kanban (看板, store sign). There were those that had the single hiragana: ぢ (ji), meaning hemorrhoids. Another that said seibyō (性病, venereal disease). Still another that had these two characters: 肛門 (kōmon) — meaning anus. The Japanese were obviously not shy about broadcasting issues involving the lower extremities. Another notable fact was that these kanban were always written in bold, thick, calligraphic strokes.

Of course there were no sumaho (スマホ, smartphones) back then though in a couple of years NTT would start a personal answering service that enabled you to call and leave a message for your boyfriend without your parents knowing about it. The absence of convenient digital devices actually bolstered everyone’s need for intimacy. There was a lot of making out in parks and at the far end of station platforms, and on weekends, cheap labuho (ラブホ, love hotels) in Shinjuku and Shibuya were packed to the gills with couples already engaged in the act or waiting out in the lobby to do so.

Showa boys were much more gira-gira shiteiru (ぎらぎらしている, ambitious and hungry) than the pale, well-behaved Heisei males. They were arappoi (荒っぽい, rough) and ijiwarui (意地悪, mean) and never paid a girl a compliment if they could help it, but were on the whole shinyō dekiru yatsura (信用できるやつら, trustworthy guys). They also took fewer showers than the excessively clean men of today and emitted that particular Showa boy smell, made up of cigarettes, locker rooms and baseball gloves. It seemed that every Japanese male over 16 smoked on a regular basis and one of the marks of the oshare-na otoko (おしゃれな男, stylish man) was a personalized cigarette case. (A popular one was the recycled Altoid tin.)

As for the women of a quarter of a century ago, they had much less jiyū (自由, freedom) than today and entrenched in the values of the ie (家, the patriarchal family). In spite of the Danjyo Koyō Kikai Kintōhō (男女雇用機会均等法, Equal Employment Opportunity Law) kicking off in 1986, it was still a very daring woman who worked after the age of 29, or became a working mom. Sengyō-shufu (専業主婦, housewives) were the norm. Unlike today when women could count on sympathy and understanding from their husbands (if not aggressive aid), household drudgery was strictly onna-no ryōiki (女の領域, the woman’s domain) and who cared how she felt about it?

Every female member of my family secretly abhorred the arrival of toshi no se (年の瀬, end of the year) and oshōgatsu (お正月, New Year’s) — it meant endless hours of cooking and cleaning and prepping for social events. My mother’s hands were always red and raw this time of year, as were the hands of my aunts and grandmothers. The payoff was lousy: they worked themselves to the bone for stuff that the kids weren’t that crazy about. For many young Japanese, the osechi (お節, traditional New Year’s cuisine) was jimi (地味, low-key), tanpaku (淡白, plain) and … medieval. Besides, every year there’d be a news item about how some elderly person choked on the mochi and died right there at the table. Not very festive.

Things have changed, in many ways beyond recognition. Women’s hands are well-cared for and manicured. There are no animal remains on the streets. When people have hemorrhoids, they go to a proper hospital. Couples don’t grope each other on station platforms, they text and have a polite dinner. Overall, living out the Japanese existence has become a lot less stressful. At the same time, there’s something to be said for the creepy excitement of the Dark Ages.