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First love no use when the last hope for Japan is the chance to marry

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Boy meets girl. They fall in love. What happens after that … well, it depends on the individuals, the mores of their generation and the availability of a few square meters of private space.

Back in 1968, a year after I arrived in Japan, I saw a movie that stunned me. It was Susumu Hani’s “Hatsukoi Jigokuhen (Nanami: The Inferno of First Love),” which the director co-scripted with radical playwright Shuji Terayama. Though it was the swinging sixties, even in Japan, this movie about teenage love shocked the public and outraged the country’s self-styled protectors of morals.

Shun, shy and inhibited, meets cute little nude model Nanami. Before long they are in a shabby love hotel and Nanami is disrobing in front of him. Fully naked, she sweetly says “Do whatever you want with me.”

Such a fine expression should be music to a man’s ears; but, alas, the only thing that awkward and inexperienced Shun could prick up was his ears. He managed to tickle her until she giggled, before the both of them left the hotel unfulfilled.

“Inferno of First Love” is a movie about the ups and downs — primarily the downs — of young infatuation.

Images from the film, seen so many years ago, kept popping into my mind as I read the results of two surveys done this year by Tokyo-based Lifenet Insurance Company. The results of the first survey, on hatsukoi (first love), were released in June. It posed questions online to 1,000 men and women age 20 to 59 throughout the country about when they first experienced love, who the objects of that love were and what transpired afterward.

I was astonished to learn that the average age of the respondents’ experience with first love was 10.4 years, with a full 27.7 percent of them falling in love when they were under 7. It’s fine to play doctors and nurses, but you should at least be old enough to know where to put the stethoscope. Ninety percent of those surveyed had been bitten by the love bug by age 16.

By far the overwhelming majority of respondents — three out of four — fell in love with their classmates, which I guess is natural, seeing as kids don’t really meet anyone else most of the time; while only 2.8 percent were swept off their booties by “a teacher at school or kindergarten.” Surprisingly, only 1.6 percent were struck down by a celebrity or idol, and a miniscule 0.6 percent by an anime or manga character. The good news is that a mere 0.3 percent were severely entranced by someone they met on the Internet, showing that the Net may not be a truly effective trap in capturing young victims. Only one in 100 respondents ended up marrying their “first love.”

It’s obvious from the results of this survey that the hatsukoi envisaged in it is far different from that portrayed in Hani’s movie of the late 1960s.

Lifenet’s second survey, conducted online during the first week of September, turned to attitudes on lifestyle choices and marriage.

They posed questions to 450 single men in their 20s, for one group. Of those, 22.9 percent have a girlfriend, while 50.4 percent don’t have one and 26.7 percent never have. When it came to tying the knot, 27.8 percent want to and believe they eventually can, while 36.9 percent desire marriage but don’t think they can pull it off. Add to this latter figure the 35.3 percent who don’t want to get married and you have a clear message to anyone in the wedding business in this country: Find a new calling as quickly as you can.

The main reasons for not wanting to marry are connected with the financial burden of maintaining a household.

But there is a ray of hope emanating from this survey.

Approximately 9 out of 10 single men in their twenties professed positive sentiments about involving themselves in raising children. This is a major turnaround from the past, when Japanese men’s involvement in their children’s upbringing consisted in producing a few sublingual grunts over the top of the morning newspaper when asked about it. That young Japanese men are now eager to take part in the caring of a child is certainly a welcome change. The trouble is, though, that you can’t have a child in the first place by playing with your handheld game console, however sleek it may be.

Among those who didn’t want to get married, the lowest number of respondents — only 22 percent — gave their reason as “because I don’t think marriage and having a family will make me happy.” In other words, the vast majority of single men seem to be convinced that marriage and family will bring happiness. They simply don’t know how to get there; and the biggest obstacle standing between them and that happiness is by far the high cost of having a family (60.8 percent).

What do these two recent surveys tell us about Japanese values concerning love, marriage and family?

The survey on first love is no more than a fantasy. One may as well translate hatsukoi as “a crush.” I had a hopeless crush on my piano teacher when I was 5. When my parents found out about it and grilled me as to why I loved her, I told them the truth: I got all shook up every time I peered into the space between her two front teeth.

Real first love is extreme, if not as fatal as that described in the 1968 film “Inferno of First Love.” The hero and heroine, Shun and Nanami, manage to find each other again. But while she is waiting for him at the hotel, he is chased by a gangster and hit by a car.

As for love and marriage in the Japan of the second decade of our century, the survey shows that many young men would take the plunge and accept commitment if their society provided them and their dependents with a future of security. I do not believe for a moment that the young Japanese men of today are, as the media has labeled them, “herbivorous” wimps. That many of them have opted out of a relationship with the opposite sex shows only that they are deriving pleasure vicariously, primarily through digital means. In this they resemble young people all over the world.

It is the generation of old Japanese leaders in every area of societal activity that is intellectually sterile and isolated. They have managed to create a society that offers little security and hope to young people. Is this not what leadership in any country, in any field of endeavor, is about? Fail to provide the means for energetic, industrious and talented young people to create a life for themselves and their loved ones and you condemn your entire country to decades of wandering in a desert of your own making.

Poor Shun in “Inferno of First Love,” he ended up badly, a victim of his unworldliness. But at least he lived in a Japan where it was possible for a young person to take life into their own hands.

If these surveys are to be believed, the young men of today have two hands: They are just waiting for something productive to do with them.