Boyfriend stories used to be boring.
This was in the days when professionals among Japanese women were few and far between — when it was considered the norm for young women to graduate from junior college and then hanayome shugyo (train to be a bride) for a couple of years before launching into an arranged marriage. Japanese men were far too sober, hardworking and majime (serious) to provide much in the way of excitement.
But now, as increasing numbers of women join the ranks of the professional elite, the boyfriend has regressed in ways that provoke my friend Sachie to scream: “Arienaaaaai (impossible)!” Hikaru Genji (the title character from the 11th-century novel “Tale of Genji”), who stirred up the Heian Court by being gorgeous, wealthy and insatiably lusty? Pah! Heian or not, the “shining Prince” has nothing on today’s Heisei boyfriends.
Take the case of Shinji, 32, formerly a salaryman at a software company. He wasn’t particularly loving or generous when he was holding down a job, but after he left the company (for “health reasons”), he went to live in the apartment of his girlfriend, Michi.
Now, my friend Michi is hardly wealthy, but she graciously welcomed Shinji into her one-room, seven-tatami sized apartment and started going home early so they could have dinner together in front of the TV.
Trouble is, Shinji spent entire afternoons sleeping and smoking while Michi was at work. Weeks turned into months. Michi begged him to look for a job and she even lined up a few interviews — if only she could have got the guy not to be horizontal. Finally, sick of his lethargy, she told him to leave, whereupon he shot back: “Ore wo oidashitara issho sutoka ni natteyaru (Kick me out and I’ll stalk you for life!)”
In the end, she borrowed 700,000 yen from her parents and gave it to him on condition that he left and never bothered her again. Amazingly, they still keep in touch and Michi says Shinji went from being kareshi (boyfriend) to himo (man who lives off his girlfriend or mistress) and meru-tomo (e-mail buddy).
Then there’s my girlfriend Kana’s boyfriend Tomohiro, 29, a myujishan-shibo (a wannabe musician) who also quit his part-time job and rolled into Kana’s apartment, carrying his guitar and an extra pair of Levi’s.
Kana is a romantic, and she found this to be shibireru hodo otokorashii (so manly it sends shivers up my spine). Tomohiro’s bad habit was to insist that Kana be his audience while he played the guitar, and when it was over, to applaud till her hands hurt.
Truth be told, he was a rotten guitar player. One night she started washing the dishes as he played and that, apparently, was the cue for Tomohiro to maji-gire suru (fly into a megarage). He broke her TV screen with the vacuum cleaner. Telling her she was a bonjin (a mediocre philistine) who couldn’t appreciate “artists,” he left. A few hours later, he came back and told her he’d give her a second chance. Kana supports him completely now, even paying his pachinko money.
Once boyfriends pass the age of 35, the stories take on a different tone. Says another friend Fumiko, 36, who has been dating Naoki, 37, for two years: “When I was younger, my relationships were bad but at least they were always about me and my boyfriend. Now it’s about me, my boyfriend and his mother.”
Naoki visits his parents every other Sunday and has promised that upon marriage will convert their home into a nisetai jyutaku (two-generation house, usually with the newlyweds occupying the second floor and the parents below) so they can all live together.
Fumiko is a smart, beautiful investment banker who feels that a couple should live on their own and is irritated by what she sees as codependency between son and parents, especially the mom. And like many men of mazakon (Oedipus complex) ilk, Naoki berates Fumiko when she cooks and cleans in ways that are uchi no okasan to chigau (not like my mother). She hopes to saikyoiku (re-educate) him since her wish is to walk down that aisle, but, as she says, it’s noborizaka (a steep climb) every step of the way.
There’s a phrase for Japanese boyfriends like these: damenzu (a combination of dame [bad] and men). Women (known as damenzu-senmon, specializing in bad boyfriends) who date these types are able to tell at a single glance a man’s weak points.
Compared to the damenzu of today, Hikaru Genji seems like a rather fine catch.