“Two men on the subway, both middle-aged and a bit the worse for wear, were reminiscing about what it was like in the furuki yoki mukashi (古き良き昔, the good old days). It made me realize how rare it is to hear anything so positive today. “Yoruto sawaruto fukyōno hanashi (よるとさわると不況の話, Where there are people, talk is of the bad economy),” grandma used to say in the late 1970s.

But these starry-eyed ojisan (おじさん, middle-aged men) were talking about how, as daigakusei (大学生, university students) at posh private institutions in 1988, they used to go to shanpenkyabia bā (シャンペンキャビアバー, champagne and caviar bars), located in what was then the Tokyo hotspot — Shibaura Futo (芝浦埠頭, Shibaura Pier). A glass of pink champagne and one tiny helping of caviar at such a place cost ichimanyen pokkiri (一万円ぽっきり, exactly ¥10,000, taxes included). And when that was consumed, they ushered their dates into cabs and on to swank hotels or a late supper at some upscale dainingu bā (ダイニングバー, dining bar) in another fashionable area, most likely Hiroo.

It was rare for them to go home before dawn and rarer still to warikan (ワリカン, split the bill) with a date. Men were expected to dress up, pay for everything, give expensive presents, coddle and flatter women and generally behave like haburi no ii otoko (羽振りのいい男, men with plumed feathers). Never mind that they were still students and much of the dough was supplied by their parents.

As one of the ojisan remarked: “Ano korowa yokattanā (あの頃はよかったなあ, those were the days)! Onnanokomo kawaikattashi. Kanemo attashi (女の子も可愛かったし 金もあったし, Girls were cute and there was money around).” He went on to say that when recession set in, women stopped dressing as they should (i.e., with long hair and lots of makeup offset by tight dress-suits and high heels) and a sudden futokorono sabishisa (懐の淋しさ, loneliness of pockets) was painfully felt by every male over 15.

Well, at least the ojisan had their time in the sun. Two decades on, a student who can afford to take his or her date to champagne and caviar bars — if such places still exist — decked in Armani and picking up the check at every venue . . . well, would have to be a time traveler.

Warikan is not only acceptable now, it’s the norm, and often women are the ones paying for their boyfriends’ Starbucks lattes. Dress suits and high heels? Unless the occasion is a wedding, young women rarely wear anything but denim cutoffs, and a great majority like to get home before shūden (終電, last train), thank you very much. They don’t expect a lot of pampering, either; in accordance with the current social climate, talking the talk is strictly the domain of professional hosuto (ホスト, hosts, or male escorts) or a guy after your hard-earned savings. It is indeed an entirely new ballgame.

Still, were the days of caviar and champagne all that rosy? Even back when those crumpled guys on the train were living it up, many Japanese were fidgety with guilt at having too much cash and not knowing what to do with it.

To alleviate the discomfort of wealth, terms such as seihin (清貧, virtuous poverty) were bandied about, and laughable little tales such as “Ippai no Kakesoba (一杯のかけそば, One Bowl of Noodles)” opened the tear ducts of millions all over the nation. That story, about a hard-up single mother and her two sons, started off as an obscure novella and went on to become a bestselling book and a movie. (Shortly after, the guy who wrote the original story was arrested for fraud, which dealt a blow to the virtuous-poverty feeling of it all.) The family in the story went to a soba-noodle shop every Omisoka (大晦日, New Year’s Eve) to share a single bowl of kakesoba (かけそば, plain soba steeped in soup and with nothing on top). They did this every year in honor of the boys’ father, who died in a car accident after promising them a soba dinner, and the proprietor was so moved he made it a point to give them a generous helping of noodles each time. One year they didn’t show up. Time passed, and then one Omisoka the trio reappeared. The sons were grown and rippani natteita (立派になっていた, had matured into well-to-do men), and all three expressed their gratitude to the proprietor for treating them kindly so many years before.

Now there’s talk in the media (specifically a key TV network) about reviving the story — possibly to boost the ever-drooping national morale. This time around, though, it’s unlikely to make much of an impact. I mean, what’s with the plain soba? It makes better financial sense to go to a konbini (コンビニ, convenience store) and grab three plastic bowls of instant noodles. Or maybe I’m missing the point.

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