That whole deal about growing up and behaving like an adult? Scrap it, you don’t have to — at least not in the Japan of recent years. Adult responsibilities, adult worries, adult concerns — while we all know such things exist, it’s become possible to dodge them well into your 30s and 40s, in a kind of sedated state of child-nirvana.
Japanese culture — especially after the nation’s surrender in World War II, has nurtured a child-fixation that deems childhood as the ideal state of being. Perhaps the hardships of war, the humiliation of defeat and subsequent dramatic collapse of prewar values — sacrificing your life for the common good and prosperity of the family and nation — prompted people to seek a psychological escape hatch.
In any event, while prewar Japanese media paid hardly any attention to children, the postwar media came to be overrn by okosama bunka (kiddie culture), manga and anime being the prime examples.
In the 1970s, the otona (grownups) of the nation still frowned on television anime and considered reading too much manga as harmful for the brain (no wo kusaraseru, meaning “rotted brains,” was the popular phrase of the era when it came to kids and their cartoon-strip obsession). They also claimed that children could not differentiate between idoru (idols) on the box in every home from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Now, the generation that grew up watching anime and immersed themselves in manga has come of age and, far from scowling, will sit down in front of the TV with their kids and watch hours of anime or fight over who gets to play the Nintendo DS or Sony PlayStation.
This is a generation that has been trained to know their idoru, name each and every one of the “Momosu” (short for the all-girl pop group Morning Musume), sing J-pop star Kumi Koda at karaoke if the occasion calls for it, and download pictures of boy-band Kat-tun to use as screen savers. Who these celebrities are is far less important than the fact that ii otona (fully grown people who should know better, as adults used to chime way back when) will actually spend a chunk of their waking hours doing this stuff.
Indeed, the whole concept of “otona” has shifted over time under our fidgety feet. At the beginning of the 20th century, many Japanese went to work straight out of elementary school, married at 19 or 20, were drafted into the army and often died on the battlefield or during childbirth. Survival meant returning to nonstop giri (obligations) and otonano shigoto (adult duties). They most often died between the ages of 45 and 50.
Reaching kanreki (one’s 60th birthday) was cause for major celebration, whereby the family hosted oiwai (festivities) for the noble elder, as he sat in the obligatory akai chanchanko (a flaming-red vest, reserved for kanreki festivities). The age of 70 was called koki (turning 70)and living to that age put one on par with a minor deity.
Now of course, the Japanese are among the longest-living people in the world. Getting to 60 years old is nothing, and rare is the person who celebrates the occasion with a red vest. Mada wakai (still young) is now the remark afforded to those in their 60s and, as for people in their 30s and 40s, well they’re just babies. The popular belief now is that in terms of knowledge, wisdom and joshiki (common sense), today’s 35-year-old is the equivalent of a 20-year-old of 50 years ago. Little wonder that our most popular J-pop band consisting of guys approaching 40 is called Mr. Children.
Fortunately — or not — it’s now possible to live in a semipermanent state of extended childhood, which is probably the reason why less and less Japanese are willing to get married or have kids of their own. Jibun hitorinokotode seiippai (I have my hands full just looking after myself) has become a common and perfectly acceptable reply to the question, Naze kekkon shinaino (why don’t you get married)?
In the meantime, we must rely on best-selling books like “Otona Yoseikoza (A Crash Course in Adulthood)” to get in touch with what otona really are, or were. Whatever. It’s the real kids one feels sorry for. Speaking from personal experience, reading manga and filling your head with idoru tidbits was far more gratifying when the adults scolded and yelled and thrust hardcover editions of Meiji Era (1868-1912) literature into your reluctant hands. What’s the fun in being a kid when the adults are going to act in the exact same way?