The Japanese ojisan (おじさん, middle-aged and older male) hasn’t been too genki (元気, full of cheer) or assertive lately. Just the other day, I witnessed a company nomikai (飲み会, drinking party) at a beer garden where the only persons swilling nama (ナマ, draft beer) by the tankload, pulling off yakitori (焼き鳥, speared grilled chicken) morsels from the sticks with their bare teeth and cackling loudly into the night sky were thirtysomething women.
The men, on the other hand, were mainly bukacho (部課長, managers of sections and departments) in their 50s and they were sober, quiet and steeped in misery. There they sat, hands folded over protruding bellies made prominent courtesy of the male dignity-stripping Super Cool Biz mandate (to save on electrical power this summer, businessmen are asked to forego their suits and dress casually), not daring to order another round. The sight was pretty painful.
It wasn’t always like this. The Japanese ojisan used to be an imposing figure, if not in the international arena then certainly in the katei (家庭, home), and in the shokuba (職場, workplace) — two places where the ojisan lorded over women and the younger generation with a sour face and a stern disposition. The worst type of ojisan were marked by the triple traits of ibatteru (威張ってる, boastful and arrogant), nanimo shinai (何もしない, incapable of doing anything useful) and zurui (狡い, egotistic and sneaky) and there seemed to be one or more of the mold in every workplace, every family and every school. Still, society as a whole and women in particular showed remarkable patience and understanding toward these shōmonai ossan (しょうもないオッサン, hopelessly dense, chauvinistic old bastards).
My grandmother was a great believer in humoring such men as a way of making the world a better place. “Otokono yū kotowa ‘Hai, hai’ to kīteokeba ii” (「男の言うことは『はいはい』と聞いておけばいい」, “Just say ‘Yes, yes’ to everything that men say”) she used to say. According to her, this ploy saved time and preserved the sanity of women everywhere, but it also spoiled my grandfather out of his skull. He never ventured into the kitchen, did the laundry or even bothered to kutsu wo soroeru (tidy his shoes) upon coming home from the office. He would leave a trail of socks, tie, shirt and suit jacket that lead from the front door to the bathroom, which my grandmother picked up and put away, and he always expected her to be there with a dry towel when he had finished having his evening ofuro (お風呂, reverent bath). He also demanded ice-cold beer in a thin, elegant glass in the summer and warmed-to-perfection sake served in an earthen tumbler in winter, and threw tantrums when his wife failed to make the appropriate otsumami (おつまみ, appetizer) to go with the drinks. Bizarre, wasn’t he.
The Japanese ojisan was at his most powerful during the glory days of the baburu (バブル, bubble) economy of the 1980s; in those days, women were the ones sitting demurely at the nomikai. But the long, drawn-out recession capped by the triple disaster on March 11 completely stripped the ojisan of all charisma. No one feels like saying “Hai, hai” to anything they say; the general feeling (not just among women but men of all ages) is that the ojisan is not to be trusted and their self-serving, delusional antics are not only nauseating but downright harmful.
My guess is that the Japanese ojisan went down when the Jiminto (自民党, Liberal Democratic Party) went out in 2009. It marked the official end of an era — the LDP had been in power since 1955 (commonly referred to as “55 nen taisei,” or the 55 system). It stepped down for about two seconds in 1993 but for all intents and purposes, the LDP controlled Japan for a good six decades. True, the party pulled Japan out of the ashes of World War II, but at the same time it built a money-worshipping culture that poisoned minds and ecosystems, put up nuclear power plants all along the nation’s coastline and instilled the ojisan value of putting profit and company loyalty before everything else.
There is, however, a ray of light visible in the long, dark tunnel of ojisan-dom: The new reign of the Minshuto (民主党, Democratic Party of Japan) and the new man in the prime minister’s chair, Naoto Kan, showed us that not all ojisan are of the same grain. Here at last is a PM unfettered by the opinions of his fellow politicians and unfazed by the fact that the entire government hates his guts. One huge point in Kan’s favor is that he invited Nadeshiko Japan (ナデシコジャパン, the national women’s soccer team) over to his place the minute they got off the plane at Narita after winning the World Cup. And he wasn’t obnoxious and didn’t stoop to committing gender-based gaffes. Given the long history of ojisan crimes, surely this goes down in the books as a shining miracle.