2004 was the year of jun-ai (pure love), epitomized by the huge popularity of Yon-sama (the reverential nickname for Bae Yong Joon, star of the hit Korean drama “Winter Sonata”) and a craze for sentimental love stories that gripped the nation from Hokkaido to the Okinawa.

So what exactly is a jun-ai relationship? Well, it should be platonic or, at most, include just one sexual encounter. A jun-ai couple should also be faced by many obstacles contrived to keep them apart and pining for a romantic reunion. Jun-ai quotient also rises if it’s a hatsukoi (first love) situation — a pair who fell in love when they were 15 and somehow managed to keep those nascent emotions intact in spite of the passage of time.

The Japanese set great store on the hatsukoi thing, being convinced that the purest love comes when one has never loved before. For this reason hatsukoi is considered sacrosanct, a treasure that will never be tarnished with petty problems that inevitably plague a relationship between seasoned lovers.

Ideally, one or the other of the hatuskoi couple will die (preferably in his/her teens) at the peak of their love, thereby preserving the memory of the relationship, in all its purity, beauty and fervor, forever. Which brings us to “Seka-chu” (short for “Sekai no Chushin de Ai wo Sakebu [Crying out Love in the Center of the World]”), the miniseries that rivaled “Fuyu-Sona” (short for “Fuyu no Sonata [Winter Sonata]) in terms of hankie-wringing. Even the Shibuya gals called out “Seka-chu mitaina koi ga shitai!” (I want to have a relationship like the one in ‘Seka-chu’!) and subsequently toned down their makeup in preparation for the pure, honmono no koi (genuine love).

Yes, the once-chic otegaru na kankei (casual affair) is out — along with burgers, konbini (convenience stores) and other evils of fast-food culture. Nothing is tackier than having a string of sefure (sex friends) but no real kareshi (boyfriend) with whom to take walks, dinners and enjoy long, meaningful conversations. The important thing (for women, anyway) is to get into rabu modo (love mode) before they throw themselves into a full-fledged relationship, to be ready for romance so that when the daarin (darling) does come along, he will spot the signs immediately. Then they can both launch into that most coveted of states: uru-uru na ai (starry-eyed love).

According to the numerous rabu ankeeto (surveys about love and relationships) printed in Japan’s myriad fashion magazines this time of year, young women long more for shinmitsusa (intimacy) over sex and enjoy the process of seduction far more than its consummation. For this, women polish their bodies and hydrate their skins (the effect is called rabu-hada, or skin that’s made for love) in order to appear jun (pure), shiawase (happy) and stress-free and emulate the lovely, almost-unattainable heroine in a jun-ai monogatari (story).

They also welcome a bit of pain, for what’s true love without a thin icing of setsunasa (sadness) over all the delicious sweetness? The phrase setsunai yo (I feel a little blue) has practically become a compliment when spoken between two lovers; it means they’re capable of finely nuanced emotions and that by sharing their depression they feel that their relationship could last a long time.

What a lot of women say, however, is that the young men of this country are too thick to understand this need for emotional drama. Twenty nine-year-old Minako says resignedly: “Kono kuni no otokowa fukami ga nakute nijigenteki sugiru” (The men in this country have no depth and are too two-dimensional).

The men, on the other hand, say that it’s enough to kokuru (confess their love) with commitment and sincerity; after that, where’s the need to discuss emotions? “Suki to ittandakara mou iiyo” (I said I love you, so that’s that) is a famed line spoken by the hero in one of the torendii dorama (trendy dramas) the networks churn out with regularity.

Men are also bound by tradition: For a long time, any Japanese male who spewed forth about kojinteki kanjyou (personal feelings) was considered a big-time wimp and a loser. However, recognizing society’s need for men to hone their verbal skills, many companies now encourage their male employees to participate in company-sponsored communications classes. Whether this new trend will transform them all into Japanified versions of “Yon-sama” remains to be seen.

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