The question, “What has happened to love these days?” is every bit as serious as the question why diets never work in this country. I’m very distressed to have to report that Japanese love, like Japanese politics and the not-so-quite-lovely outlook of the economy, is unwell. It suffers from low blood pressure and has trouble getting excited. It backs off and runs the other way, when it should stage a strategic attack. It gets bored easily, wanes and dies before it’s even had a chance to color or ripen properly. One famed television commentator put it this way: Kono kuni no renai wa ima, kuso omoshirokunai (Love in this country at the moment is sh*t-ass boring).
In defense of J-love, the whole package used to be quite stirring only a decade ago when the recession was still in full swing and people compensated for lack of funds with an abundance of hormones.
Back then, you really had to toil and had go out on a limb. You had to prove your worth, if not through obvious factors like money or looks, then the old-fashioned way through magokoro (sincerity) and honki (I-mean-it seriousness). Those were the days when boys sold their Honda Cub motorcyles to buy Christmas gifts for their girlfriends and left some cash for dinner and a rabuho (love hotel). Girls formed long, long queues at cosmetic counters to buy the latest eyelash/lips/cheek-enhancing wonder product along with a bevy of expensive clothing so they could look extra nice and kachi aru (worthwhile) for their dates, deemed as both an act of service and of love.
In those days the Japanese still geared themselves up and were willing, if not to walk through fire, then to at least pretend they would — all in the name of renai (love affairs). It’s no wonder sky-high platform shoes were all the rage back then: Everyone wanted to be taller and/or better than their actual size.
Nowadays, however, we live in what philosopher and Kobe Jogakuin University Professor Tatsuru Uchida calls a “Downstream Society.” Thirty years ago the Japanese were renowned the globe over for being freakish overachievers. But as Uchida points out, we’ve shifted lanes, and drastically. At times it feels like the entire nation has checked themselves into a geriatrics ward such is their glazed expressions, slow reactions and naive dependency on others to cover for them when the going gets tough.
None of this is more apparent than in the way we approach renai, which is after all, the barometer for a healthy, functioning society. The operative words that define Japanese renai are mukiryoku (lacking gumption), taikutsu (humdrum) and wakariaenasa (an inability to understand one other). The current popular image in today’s Japanese media of a loving couple is two people hunched over dinner in a one-room manshon (studio apartment) in front of the TV, computer, video game, etc., where one or the other will also be fiddling with the keitai (cell phone). People just don’t want to make the effort anymore.
Which brings us to that other omnipresent word: tsukare (fatigue). Much of this has to do with the media and the way it has endorsed self-contentment. Arino mama no jibun de ii (It’s OK to just be yourself) is a popular message and traditional concepts of yesteryear such as doryoku (effort) and konjo (perseverance) have become jokes that are used for self-mockery.
Japanese society has turned extremely lenient and understanding. Apparently it’s OK to have no goals, no job, no self-esteem, no skills. It’s OK to remain single and OK to change sexual partners as often as you change your underwear. It’s also OK not to have anything to do with renai and spend your days in front of computer screens forever. All the things that we were once taught were cardinal sins, are now forgiven with a benign benevolence. The operative words for the Japanese state of existence are now hokkori (cozy and warm), mattari (comfortably lethargic) and nonbiri (taking it slow).
Accordingly, the flame of Japanese love has burned down to cinders. Love as it is has been transferred to a hot plate, the temperature turned down to a permanent low. It’s OK for girls to show up for dates in worn-out sneakers and yesterday’s sweat shirt wearing lip gloss purchased at 7-Eleven. I’d like to speak for all of us Japanese women who battled and labored and worked for love during the 1990s: Okane kaeshite kudasai! (We want our money back, please.)