One of my cousins spent four weeks in a hinanjo (避難所, evacuation shelter) after the Tohoku disaster, and during that time she experienced the moteki (モテキ, a time when one is gloriously attractive to the opposite sex) of her life.

Now in her 40s and divorced for some time, this cousin had always been pretty and hadezuki (派手好き, having a penchant for all things glittery, or just plain flamboyant) — to use one of my grandmother’s phrases.

When her marriage fell apart, my cousin took it in all her stride and moved out of her damp, gloomy house into a light-filled apartment just outside Sendai city. She got a job at a big discount store to shiwake (仕分け, dividing and categorizing) the stock, a skill which she later deployed to full use within 30 hours of the Great East Japan Earthquake when supplies from well-wishers started coming in from all over the country.

Even working among the danbōru-bako (ダンボール箱, cardboard boxes) by day, and sleeping in the local chūgakko (中学校, junior high school) gymnasium by night, my cousin was always made-up, her hair carefully dyed and sporting her favorite necklaces. Men at the hinanjo trampled over each other to ask her out, preferably to the nearest operative bar 10 km away. (The toilet didn’t work but hey, sake was ¥100 per tumbler!) One night, someone tried to sneak into her futon, which for the record wasn’t conducive to romance or even a night’s rest. Another man approached her and offered her the use of his house, as soon as he could get the mud and seaweed out of the premises. And then he proposed. My cousin summed up her situation in one sentence: “Nanpatte iiwanē! “(「ナンパっていいわねえ!」”It’s so nice to be courted!”).

The catch? None of the gentlemen were a day under 50 years old. But I circulated my cousin’s story to a bunch of Tokyo women and their collective reaction pretty much amounted to: “How could such a thing happen — and why isn’t it happening to me?”

There was a time when all a woman needed to do was look nice and be herself, and men just seemed to crawl out of the woodwork. Back in the 20th century, there was no such thing as koikatsu (恋活, systematically and actively working to get a love-relationship) or konkatsu (婚活, marriage-hunting, or actively looking to get married) or smartphone apps that promised entrance to the best matchmaking sites. Men and women just assumed everyone was interested in everyone else, and forged ahead. For men, the favored tactic was nanpa (originally derived from the term nanjyaku, 軟弱 — which means softie) and this amounted to cruising the streets of Shibuya or Shinjuku, looking out for anyone cute who seemed available, and pulling out that famed and lamest of lines: “Bokuto ocha shimasenka? (「ぼくとお茶しませんか」, “Would you like to have a cup of tea with me?”). Amazingly this seemed to work, at least some of the time. In fact, all my brothers have reported a daritsu sanwari (打率3割, 3.0 batting average).

Now nanpa is a lost art. The streets of Shibuya are packed with young men, but the only ones brave enough to talk to passing females are chirashi kubari (チラシ配り, flyer distributors) or geinō sukauto (芸能スカウト, scouts looking for idol wannabees) or worse. Usually worse. Everyone else is staring at their phone screens, plugged into their earphones or just can’t be bothered to put themselves out on a limb. Ask a 20-year-old guy if he’s ever engaged in nanpa and he’s likely to stare at you blankly and say, “Nansuka, sore?” (「なんスか、それ」, “What in the world is that?”).

These days, guys who practice a little nanpa are likely to be labeled charao (チャラ男, Mr. Sleaze) by young women who just aren’t familiar with the ancient method — and thereby risk social ostracism as a charao for like, eternity.

Charao however, should be distinguished from nanpashi (ナンパ師, nanpa master). In many cases, their sleaze consists less of gutsy promiscuousness than merely collecting as many girls’ meado (メアド, mobile phone addresses) as their phones will hold, and then bragging about it to friends. Definitely not the same thing.

It’s a sad, dark world when a woman walks down the street and no one, but no one, offers her that cup of tea. And even if nanpa still existed, there’s hardly any place for a spontaneous couple to sit down and chat, unless they want to get in line at Starbucks and sip coffee out of paper cups. Or worse, stand in front of a vending machine and fiddle with their change. Tokyo streets used to be crammed with tiny coffee shops that served coffee in elegant China cups, where two people could sit down and actually hold a conversation. To be sure, the girl was often bored to death or the guy was disappointed. But at least it happened, in the real and physical world.

Isn’t this what people mean when they talk about riaju (リア充 — short for riaru ga jūjitsu, リアルが充実 — having solid experiences in the real world)?” It’s probably a good idea to check into this world now and again.

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