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When it comes to okane (お金, money), the Japanese have always been a little ambivalent. For one thing, what do we call it? The character for kane (金) does mean cash but it can also mean gold, metal and many other things that glitter. People also refer to money as oashi (お足, literally: “reverent legs,” meaning money will run off if you’re not careful), sakidatsumono (先立つもの, the top priority), maruimono (丸いもの, the round thing), just to name a few.

Prominent Japanese keizaigakusha (経済学者, economists) have pointed out that the national brand of capitalism is often vague, antiquated and driven by tradition instead of market logic. In short, money in this country is a hitosujinawadewa ikanai (一筋縄ではいかない, torturously complicated) phenomenon.

Lately, however, money is becoming clearer in our minds, thanks to “Abenomics,” with its set-in-stone enyasu, kabudaka (円安株高, weak yen, high stock market). We also understand that this benefits the wealthy but screws pretty much everyone else, prompting us to prepare for the bone-chilling effects of a chōkakusa shakai (超格差社会, super income-gap society).

Not too long ago my grandmother used to say, kanewa tenkano mawarimono (金は天下の回りもの), meaning money goes around and is a great traveler so it’s best not to worry about it. But now okane seems to flow among a select few and only deigns to travel first class.

Back in the 20th century, money equaled shisan (資産, assets) — meaning fudōsan (不動産, real estate), tōshi (投資, investments) and perhaps its definition could even be stretched to include nen ni ichido no kaigairyokō (年に一度の海外旅行, annual holiday abroad) with trimmings like ichiryū hoteru no shukuhaku (一流ホテルの宿泊, luxury hotels) and burando shoppingu (ブランドショッピング, shopping for luxury brands).

Fast forward 15 years and money is drastically less elastic. These days, when Japanese talk about money in their daily lives, they aren’t talking about assets, luxury brands and holidays but tabemono (food) and its connotations. Not since the postwar years have so many people talked so much about food; even my brothers know the exact prices of milk, eggs and rice and will discuss the merits of one supermarket over another with the deep knowledge of a sengyōshufu (専業主婦, full-time housewife) — who, by the way, is an entity of the past. Few women can afford to stay home anymore.

“Tabeteikenaikamo shirenai (食べていけないかもしれない, Maybe I won’t be able to eat),” says Hayato, a 25-year-old hair stylist who came back to Tokyo after studying hair and makeup in England for three years. Salons are happy to offer him a position, but only with a tedori (手取り, take-home pay) of ¥150,000 per month. “Yachin to kōnetsuhi wo harattara mō tabete ikenai (家賃と光熱費を払ったらもう食べていけない, After paying rent and utilities, I won’t be able to eat),” says Hayato, echoing the plight of countless teishotokusha (低所得者, low-income people) between the ages of 18 and 30.

According to government surveys, the average shokuhi (食費, food budget) among households below the hinkon line (貧困ライン, poverty line) comes to ¥329 per person, per meal.

“Tabeteikereba sorede shiawase (食べていければそれで幸せ, I’m happy just to be able to eat)” was another thing my grandmother used to say, but eating seems to be something that’s becoming harder to do. A friend of mine who flew in from Italy couldn’t stop taking photos of baguettes in Aoyama, priced at ¥400 a piece. Their small size added insult to injury. Welcome to Tokyo — the city of soaring food prices and ever shrinking portions!

It’s little wonder then that less people are getting married and the ones that do aren’t exactly meni ohoshisama (目にお星さま, starry-eyed) with love. Take the case of 39-year-old Nobuhiro. His generation believes that unless they work hard and save up, they’re staring at a fate consisting of baito jinsei (バイト人生, part-time job life), shōgai dokushin (生涯独身, lifetime of being single), and kodokushi (孤独死, a solitary death).

So Nobuhiro attended konkatsu pātii (婚活パーティー, parties for finding marriage partners) like a fiend, until he finally hit upon his risōno aite (理想の相手, ideal partner). Their first date consisted of comparing annual incomes. Their second date consisted of discussing how much Nobuhiro’s okozukai (お小遣い, personal allowance) should be. “Mazu, okaneno koto wo kicchiri shitakatta. Otagai, otonadashi. (まず、お金のことをきっちりしたかった。 お互い、大人だし, First, I wanted to settle money matters properly. After all, we’re both adults),” he says.

If you’re wondering when and if the lovebirds shared a fāsuto kisu (ファーストキス, first kiss) and beyond that, it’s my privilege to inform you the occasion took place on the night of date number six, about 3 ½ months after their first meeting. Nobuhiro’s wedding is set for next spring, and it’s costing him ¥3 million. Don’t worry, though, the cost of the shinkon ryokō (新婚旅行, honeymoon) is a gift from the bride’s parents.

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