M’s the word in high-pressure popularity stakes


There’s a new phrase on working women’s lips: “yononaka kara sekuhara ga kieta (sexual harassment is gone from the world).”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened, but my friend Satoko (33, IT company executive) says it all began with the “jyosei-senryo sharyo (women-only train cars),” installed with the sole purpose of protecting women passengers from chikan (perverts) during rush hour.

Satoko, though gratified that the women-only cars exist, points out that since their introduction, Japanese men have become noticeably more passive and cowardly in their approach to women. “Before, there was a lot of light sexual teasing at drinking parties and it sort of loosened up the atmosphere. Now everyone talks to each other like bureaucrats. It’s polite and pleasant, but definitely not fun.”

What’s even less fun is that in the place of seku-hara there’s now a phenomenon called mote-hara which is more complicated and in many cases far more wounding.

Mote-hara (literally “popularity harassment,” a form of harassment in which people are victimized for not being popular), is mostly verbal and ranges from such seemingly innocuous statements as: “Don’t you have a boyfriend to take you out?” to the downright brutal: “At this rate, you’ll never get married.”

The state of mote (being popular) has become an all-important measure of a person’s worth to the extent that it overrides concerns like work habits or job dedication. “Motenakereba hito ni arazu (those who aren’t popular aren’t even human)” is how Satoko describes the invisible writing on the office wall and it’s a tricky business, since mote is less a matter of sexiness or looks (though both figure into the equation) than the power to draw others, to never offend and to be universally liked, all the time.

Women were once concerned with finding the dream guy, now it’s about being surrounded by men who have a mild liking for them. And if that goal’s not achieved, they’re often the target of mote-harassment: “Doryoku ga tarinain’ janai (you’re not making enough of an effort).”

Satoko gripes: “Everyone expects a woman to be Heidi in a nice outfit. Or one of those ghastly good-sport characters out of a Studio Ghibli movie. “Yameteyo! (Stop it!)”

Women like Satoko are in the minority; most Japanese females put an enormous amount of effort into maximizing their appeal — dressing in “mote-fuku (clothes that will increase one’s popularity),” coated with “mote-meku (popularity-enhancing makeup),” putting on a cheery face and polishing their small talk skills.

Believe me, surviving out there in mote-world is tougher than trekking across the Australian outback — at least there no one will be lecturing you on how to smile so that the corners of your lips pull up and transform your ordinary, hum-drum face into a “saikyo no mote-gao (full-power popular face).”

Men aren’t exempt from the mote-obsession either, though society tends to be kinder to clueless, dateless Japanese men who seem incapable of, or are not even interested in, dating.

There’s a growing number of “yarahata” (from “yarazu-hatachi, 20-year old virgins)” along with “sabaku otoko” (“desert men,” or men who go for years without having intimate relationships).

When you have an iPod and a Mac G5 and a host of friends to chat with online, well, who really needs a girlfriend? Besides, the male otaku now have their hero: the title character in “Densha Otoko (Train Man),” the bestselling novel about a bespectacled, Akihabara-addict who saves a beautiful woman from sexual harassment on a train.

In the meantime, the media turns up the volume on the mote-campaign, exhorting women to polish their bodies, apply the right makeup, and do their hair in a perfect balance of vamp seduction and girl-next-door friendliness.

And so goes the Japanese double standard: women must be in absolute mote-mode to get anywhere in life while men are allowed to wear dorky clothes and casually skulk around with Laox or Sofmap shopping bags.

Satoko is so incensed that she’s banned the use of the word mote in her company. And she’s threatening to nix all her pumps and stop washing her hair.

The last thing you want to say to her now is: “Sonna kotoja motenaiyo (you won’t be popular with that attitude).”