Bad news on the kekkon sensen (結婚戦線, marriage front) — hardly anyone’s doing it. According to a government survey, more than 60 percent of single men and close to 50 percent of single women are not in relationships, nor are they particularly interested in dating. At this rate, Japan’s already dwindling birth rate is expected to drop another couple of notches, accelerating the trend of chōkōreika shakai (超高齢化社会, super-senior society).

It’s not that people don’t want marriage, it’s more that they don’t want to wind up like their parents. For women, it’s a familiar feeling. The more I talk to my single friends, the more I hear the phrase: “Jibun no hahaoya no yōni dakewa naritakunai” (「自分の母親のようにだけはなりたくない」”Anything is better than being like my mother”). And who can blame them? If they were smart, the legion of Nihon no okāsan (日本のお母さん, Japanese mothers) would have formed a union decades ago. Even a casual glance at a Japanese mother’s job description reveals its thankless, long-suffering, utter doormat nature. A time-worn phrase goes like this: “Onna wa sangai ni ie nashi” (「女は三界に家なし」”In three worlds, a woman has no home”). Meaning that when she is young, she must abide by the law of her parent’s household; after marriage, she’s under the thumb of her husband and mother-in-law; finally in late middle age, she enters the household of her eldest son and must obey his wishes. By that time her elderly in-laws are in need of kaigo (介護, care and aid) which as the okāsan, she’s expected to provide. “Bummer” doesn’t begin to describe the life and times of a Japanese mother.

But the old okāsan image has undergone a major revamping as the ultimate, respected eikyū shūshoku (永久就職, eternal employment) position. Thanks to home electronics, the okāsan is no longer a bowed-down slave in the kitchen. She has time during the day for keshō (化粧, makeup), puchi zeitaku ranchi (プチ贅沢ランチ, a semi-extravagant lunch) with her mamatomo (ママ友, mom friends), trips to the gym and other pleasurable pastimes. The concept of the sutekina okāsan (素敵なお母さん, nice-looking, sophisticated mom) has been generated to alleviate the stress and koritsu (孤立, isolation) that too often plagues the Japanese mother.

On the other hand, a surprising number of young women say the smiling, ever-toiling, hard-working okāsan is their ideal. Kaseigaku (家政学, home economics), which is recently also being called seikatsu kagaku, 生活科学), is an immensely popular course at women’s universities, along with eiyōgaku (栄養学, nutrition science). And many sociology courses now include kekkongaku (結婚学, the study of marriage), to steer students into leading a stable, tax-paying, children-raising existence that would keep Japan from going haiiro isshoku (灰色一色, gray altogether). The kind of knowledge and mindset that our grandparents knew instinctively, must now be studied at a place of higher learning.

Twenty-nine-year-old Asami, who favors pin heels and skinny jeans, says, that more than anything else, she aisaretai (愛されたい, wants to be loved). Asami works at a shōkengaisha (証券会社, securities firm) and lacks for nothing financially, but too often finds herself stuck on the treadmill of work-shop-pass-out-on-the-couch-with-a-wine-bottle. Asami knows from experience that a few gaijin otoko (外人男, foreign men) have found this cute and funny, but fellow Japanese took flying leaps out of the relationship and never came back.

Which brings me to the observation that traditionally, the Japanese male has always had this burning need for a proper okāsan. At a hinanjo (避難所, shelter) in Fukushima, a 64-year-old man sighed and said that he was of the last generation brought up by the furuki yoki nihon no haha (古き良き日本の母, the traditional Japanese mother of bygone days) who had no education and was badly informed but was a veritable gold mine of love, common sense and living skills. This man could build a little shack from scratch, grill fish over an open fire consisting of bits of trash and a few twigs, traverse 20 km on mountain paths in search of sansai (山菜, edible wild herbs). He said: “Kāchan ni shikkari sodatete morattakara daijōbu” (「母ちゃんにしっかり育ててもらったから大丈夫」”My Mom brought me up well so I’m okay”), but lamented that in the shelter, single people in their late 20s to early 40s could not be relied upon to boil water much less care for others.

Back to Asami: these days she says that her gyaru mōdo (ギャルモード, gal mode) days are over. She would like to morph into a warm, loving wife and mother who can whip up dinner in no time and look perfectly adorable in an epuron (エプロン, apron), the widely acknowledged armor of the okāsan. Trouble is, like many others she has no idea where to begin.

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