Japanese people have become more kojinshugi (個人主義, individualistic) and aware of their personal identities than they were 20 years ago, according to recent media reports. True, members of the younger generation have no problem addressing each other by first name (and this happens even among casual acquaintances) instead of sticking the reverent “san” (さん) at the end of the surname, and many avoid the use of keigo (敬語, formal speech) when speaking to elders — claiming it to be unnecessary semantic window-dressing.

Hadaka no tsukiai (裸のつきあい, a naked relationship, or tell-all/reveal-all relationship) and honne no kankei (本音の関係, brutally honest interaction) are phrases often bandied about; it seems there’s a genuine desire to dispense with formalities and get to the basics of ningen kankei (人間関係, human relations).

On the other hand, some things never change. Even as we get better at friendship and camaraderie, or master the art of crossing generations in a single leap, many of us are bad at other stuff — namely the male-female relationship.

Architect Mayumi Miyawaki once wrote that Japanese homes are designed to promote familial harmony while stomping out any eroticism between the man and woman of the house, and, paradoxically, this accounts for the relatively low Japanese divorce rate (no romantic expectations to live up to!).

He has a point. Though many Japanese couples are adept at love and dating before marriage, once cohabitation issues and parenthood emerge, many of them fall back into traditional patterns of Japanese male-female behavior, i.e., regarding one another as nothing more or less than kazoku (家族, family). Unfortunately, being of the same family doesn’t always bring love, respect and consideration. (Who are we kidding?)

Kazoku nandakara iijyanai (家族なんだからいいじゃない, It’s okay, we’re family)” is often the excuse for a lot of shoboi (ショボイ, shabby) behavior, including rudeness, crassness and infidelity. And it’s not just the low-level, you-left-the-toilet-seat-up confrontation. For example, many men find it perfectly acceptable to have their wives assemble their bentō (弁当, box lunches) to take to the office every day and thereby save on lunch fare, which they then pool to fund personal indulgences in otanoshimi (お楽しみ, enjoyment), most notably golf and affairs. Wives, on the other hand, prefer to hang out with female friends at the local supōtsu jimu (スポーツ・ジム, fitness gym) and spend hours over frappuccinos at Starbucks afterward. Sure, there may be little friction between husband and wife, because more important is the maintenance of the family.

At home, couples call each other not by their first names but “mama” and “papa” — or “otōsan” (お父さん, father) and “okāsan” (お母さん, mother) among those in the arakan (アラカン, short for “around kanreki” — 60-years-old) generation, whether they’re parents or just owners of expensive pets.

Sumiko, 44, who quit her banking job five years ago to devote herself to a household consisting of a husband and a Labrador retriever, says: “It’s easy for both of us to fall into role playing — that of the united parental front for the welfare of our dog. Of course, I have my secrets and he has his, and we never touch upon anything private. At home, conversation is restricted to everyday stuff and the dog, and we’re quite happy.”

At the park, where she does most of her socializing, Sumiko and her dog-owner friends know each other by the name of the dog (in her case, Donkichi) and the appendage “mama” stuck to it. In her circle, Sumiko is “Donkichi Mama.” When her husband joins her on the weekends, he’s “Donkichi Papa.”

Interestingly, the phenomenon of grown people addressing each other as mama and papa has its roots in the mizusho¯bai (水商売, night-time entertainment business). Geisha called each other “oneesan” (お姉さん, sister), but mistresses of okiya (置屋, geisha houses) were dutifully referred to as “okāsan,” and their patrons were “oto-san.” After World War II, the so-called water trade expanded to accommodate the newly emerged hosutesu (ホステス, hostess), and the all-powerful hostess at the helm of a bar was the “mama-san.” Suited, middle-aged men went around calling out “mama” to their najimi (馴染み, intimately involved) women.

And the custom still holds today. But only young hostesses aged under 25 call their clients “papa.” Why the rift? General knowledge has it that a Japanese male goes through life seeking maternal figures on every level and rarely takes the trouble to acknowledge women as individual personalities — inside the home or out on the town. So much for the naked relationship.

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