At the high school graduation party I attended in March, where many smart, bright young seventeen and eighteen year old male and female students were celebrating getting into some of the top educational institutions in Japan, one moment quite unnerved me. While the majority of the event was just meant to entertain- bingo, comic sketches, musical performances – there were also some more serious speeches – advice to the young for the future – and some personal announcements by the teachers and administration, in particular, the fact that two couples had fallen in love in the teachers’ room – two male teachers, two female secretaries, and that they were going to be soon getting married.
The tumultuous reception that this news received – students whooping, shrieking, clapping in delight, should, in theory perhaps, have been a positive and heartlifting sight – after all, love is a wonderful thing, and the commitment of two people to each other is something to celebrate – but there was just something about it- the sheer level of ecstatic reaction to this news that totally dwarfed everything else on that night – as though marriage itself were the be all and end all of life, the goal of everything no matter what, and, that despite all their great academic achievements, ultimately, all most of the girls in the room wanted to do was to get married, have babies, and stay at home and cook. This view of the students’ attitudes was strengthened after the ceremony, when I saw hordes of animated girls excitedly milling around the staff room eager to talk to the women in question, murmuring ‘I want to get married too’ and ‘congratulations, congratulations‘ and I found myself wondering why it was bothering me so much, why it grated : was I just a cynical old git who should have just gone with the moment, or was I right to feel ill at ease?
Firstly, I must say that I have nothing against marriage. In fact, I think it can be a very beautiful thing when both partners are doing it for the right reasons and they really love each other; when they are allowed to be who they really are, and when the situation affords the husband and wife (for the time being I am only talking here about conventional marriage) that sense of haven; a nest to come back to, a place to raise a family, a nucleus that protects them from the world and gives a sense of security. Both my parents and Duncan’s parents have been happily married for fifty years so I come from good stock in that regard; they may have had their ups and downs at certain points like all couples do, but essentially they like each others’ company, still laugh, have fun, and enjoy being with their family. This is also true of many people in Japan too, obviously: sometimes you see middle aged couples here walking hand in hand, having a good time, and think yes, that is how it should be (from a western perspective, at least: I realize that what I am writing here cannot cover the pros and cons of arranged marriage in other countries); not trapped in some gender divided trap where you each have your role that has been imposed on you by society, and which gradually drains away your natural humanity and turns you into a nag, a drudge, or an exhausted, miserable, husked out bastard.
Any discussion of marriage in Japan must of course be tempered with the caveat that I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, yes I realize that there are plenty of couples who avoid these pitfalls and hang on to their personal freedoms and are happy, and also that I realize that things are very much changing, that younger people are rejecting the strictures of the older generation, and are, to some extent, redesigning what marriage means, yesyesyes I know. I am very much aware of all this, and to me, all this can only be a good thing.
However, having lived here for so long, I also know that the clichés of marriage, the roles that each partner is meant to take on according to the gender they just happened to be born with, are still very much entrenched in the broader swathe of society, and that to willingly enter into this arrangement is, to me at least, nothing less than a form of hell (you must realize that for me, there is nothing more important in this life than maintaining the feeling – possibly the illusion – that I am FREE: that I can, as far as is humanly feasible, resist the pressures of society and its bullshit – and so much of what we are told we should be really IS bullshit, total tripe, and to make it worse, often very wrong as well at the same time – and that really, my whole driving force in this existence is to try and understand what it is all about; to find a way of living that lets me reject what I feel is immoral, stupid, or unnecessary, and embrace a more unfettered, liberated existence where I can be who I am and live naturally. And in many ways, I have largely succeeded).
In Japan, for most people, unless you have the mental strength and arrogance to resist the enormous silent pressures of the society, it is hard to have such a life. Both women and men, in the traditional marriage at least, get a very raw deal. The man, upon entering the vale of matrimony and having provided offspring, essentially becomes a workhorse, working six days a week, all hours of the day, in order to provide for his family, the wife taking control of the finances (he gets pocket money) hardly ever seeing his family. This continues until retirement, when he and his wife have often spent so little time together, probably not having had sex in decades (this is no exaggeration: in an official survey, Japanese women were found to be the least sexually satisfied in the developed world) that they have virtually nothing to say to each other and often end up getting divorced or living entirely separate lives. The wife, having spent her entire existence on raising the children, doing housework, possibly having a part time job but essentially being a housewife no matter how good her education, gets sucked into the torturous ‘mama-san’ existence of having to spend time with other frustrated mothers, where the rivalry, gossip and bullying can rise to such levels that deep depression, and often domestic violence, can result. My best friend here has suffered greatly because of this over the years; the pressure to conform, to be this ‘perfect mother'; to be constantly present at every PTA meeting and social event organized at other mothers’s houses that she ended up in counselling, except that the chauvinist pig of a ‘psychiatrist’ just told her, outrageously, that she was being selfish and that she should, in essence, just ‘get on with it’ and so that was what she has been doing: getting married, basically for the sake of it, because she thought she had to as she approached thirty, ie. over the hill, desperate, and marrying a friend of a friend who seemed acceptable enough but who in truth was completely unsuited to her; they have nothing in common except drinking and hot springs and the fact that they have produced two children – very cute children, so for that reason she doesn’t regret it- but the fact is that they have nothing to say to each other except bicker, and her daytime is filled with these stressful interactions with alpha female mothers; a Lord Of The Flies playground culture that leaves her bone dry and stressed out, and thanking god she still has piano duets with me as an outlet on the occasional weekend or she would go crazy.
THE INEXORABLE DESEXUALIZATION OF THE JAPANESE FEMALE
For women here, this would seem to be the general pattern:
Be as ‘cute’ and kawaii as you can, all the time, for as long as possible, from childhood until your mid twenties and beyond: cuteness, speaking in a toddler’s voice, being doe-eyed, ‘feminine’, girl-like, the required way to be through school and university and even when you start work (when you are secretly just looking for a husband).
2: Start dating prospective young men, possibly with an eye to ensnaring one.
At this time, you are young, beautiful (anyone coming to Japan can see how gorgeous Japanese women can be: so utterly conforming to the ideal of what heterosexual men want, which is why so many western men can never leave: some of my female friends who have visited said they just felt like ungainly elephants in comparison to these perfected, hyper-pretty creatures – these young women who are petite, svelte, immaculately coiffured and made up; coy, sweet, the absolute straight man’s dream and an unimaginable way of being in the west ). They also have enough disposable income, usually living with their parents post university and not paying rent, to spend the majority of their money on their appearance; on the latest fashions, make up, shoes. Cue: romantic dates at chic new restaurants in Tokyo or Yokohama, holding hands under the cherry blossom, falling in love.
- GET MARRIED.
The most extravagantly tightly organized wedding ceremonies, where not even one tiny detail is left to chance, complete with the requisite reading of the letter to your parents, where you, and they, weep as you tell of what a bad little girl you were and how you put them through so much trouble and beg for their forgiveness
- STOP WORKING (OBVIOUSLY), CONCEIVE:
It is here that the desexualization of Japanese women becomes most extremely apparent. Although very young, gunshot wedding types who are getting married just because they have already got pregnant often buck this rule, remaining ‘sexy’ and dolled up in high heels while pushing prams, generally speaking, it seems that when you have a baby, you have to, by law, give up all claims to being sexy, chic or dressing for yourself, and must adopt a kind of pure, maternal look, complete with floppy denim hats, flat shoes, lots of white, blue and pastel coloured baggy clothes with little dogs and rabbits sewn on them, much less makeup, an absolute volte face in appearance that I often find astonishing.
At this time, despite your soft and sweet appearance, you also become the absolute master of the house. You control your husband’s finances completely, economizing and saving obsessively for the future and the astronomical cost of your offspring’s education, including the obligatory extra cram school lessons, spend all your time ferrying the kids around, shouting at them to do their homework, producing the stressed out kids I then teach,; and attending mama-san social gatherings, sipping on tea and gossipping, and hardly ever see your exhausted husband, who in general will get home very late in the evening, even around midnight, when you will possibly have prepared his dinner for him, or might already be in bed (usually in separate rooms: this is the norm for most couples; kids also always sleep with their parents, even up to the age of seven or more, meaning that ‘intimacy’ is quite literally almost always out of the question, for months or years at a time).
Become an ‘Oba-san’.
This is the phase I detest the most, that moment in Japanese culture where each person becomes categorized as either an ‘aunt ‘ or an ‘uncle’ (o-jisan).
I am now one of those, apparently, that is my identity: I am nothing but a ‘middle aged man’. I AM an ojisan. For women, it happens any time between 35 – 40, at which point you inevitably become an obasan – an object of scorn and derision- and can’t really be seen as attractive any more, because, baby, you are an obasan.
I was at the airport the other day, waiting for my parents to emerge from the arrivals gate, and there was a couple, probably French I would say, in their late sixties, early seventies even, and I marvelled at how self-confident and sexy the wife looked. So elegant, well put together, self-assured, she looked her age but looked fantastic with it, and exuded some kind of sensuality that had not been eroded by society’s expectation that she become a dowdy, sexless old frump whose only desire in life is to natter with other old ladies and push people out of the way on the trains. Of course, I don’t doubt that the pressure to be beautiful and attractive at all ages of life in French culture is also a kind of sexist, societal pressure of a different kind, but in terms of how the couple looked as they waited for their friends to arrive, it didn’t seem as if she had had to let go of her essential identity (though what do I know: I know nothing about them, I am just making suppositions about strangers in airports).
At any rate, though I meander, there is no doubt in my mind that marriage in Japan comes with its hideously inbuilt fortresses of gender segregated behaviours that I personally would not for one moment be able to endure. I had one colleague who was wondering aloud one day whether or not to ask his girlfriend to marry him (‘because then I won’t have any money’); another who had been forced to stop listening to music (‘because my wife doesn’t like it’.) In fact, in the teachers’ conversation classes I do, half the time the men are just complaining about their wives, who, as society expects, have become complaining harridans who watch and criticize their every move and make their lives miserable. I have even heard, through the grapevine, that the husband in one of the the aforementioned couples, the teacher and admin staff lady whose wedding announcement caused such a froth of ecstacy among the gathered young students, is already complaining behind her back that his wife is ‘strict’, that she has ‘changed’.
‘Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie’, then, ‘the most beautiful day of my life‘, the new perfume by Guerlain, meant to be romantic and personify the time when a woman has never been happier, the symbolic giving herself to be owned by her husband, gives me rather ambiguous feelings. (I would like to know, actually, from female readers if, in fact, your wedding day was the happiest day of your life?)
I can imagine that, in some ways, it might well be. If you are truly in love, and your fiancé has proposed, and you get to be the star, the princess, for a day, and wear a beautiful dress, that it could be a magical and utterly memorable occasion, all eyes on you and your happiness (although isn’t the planning and organizing of it all, not to mention all the family arguments and difficulties, the finances, the logistics, an absolute nightmare? Can the day possibly live up to your expectations?) Est-ce que c’etait vraiment le plus beau jour de ta vie?
I enjoy weddings sometimes: I like the heady, champagne-bubbled gleefulness of it all, the kids running around, the elated feeling in the air; the chance to wear a nice suit and tie; I do, despite what I have said, enjoy seeing how beautiful the bride looks as she walks down the aisle, and I am happy for the couple if I think they will be truly happy (even if, I suppose, the number of marriages that then end in divorce can make one also rather skeptical about it all). After that ceremony, though, does the signing of the papers give a sense of security and fulfillment, or does it really feel like a contract; that you are signing away your liberty?
I am not a woman, so I don’t know what all of this feels like. I know that if I were a woman, I would organize the ceremony differently so that it felt fresh and new and didn’t abide by too many conventions (I personally feel that although observing tradition is an important part of human culture for purposes of bonding and ritual, most traditions are also entirely random and arbitrary and that to jettison them and recreate things from scratch can be beautifully reinvigorating). Would I wear a white wedding dress ? Maybe. Maybe not. Would I wear perfume? Yes, a truckload of it. Which one? One that had been specifically designed for a bride, one that prescribed the experience for me? Doubtful.
Guerlain’s Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie is not the virginal, nuptial fragrance you might imagine from such a name though, where I envisioned lilies of the valley; lilies, something white and sensuous and ‘pure’ (how unbearable it must be for women the world over to be yearned for as ‘pure‘, though – how can you bear it? I swear, I am actually really glad that I am not a woman, because if I were, I think I would be constantly so enraged by the sexism and double standards that exists in societies the world over that I would just spontaneously combust one day in a raging fireball of furious conflagration). No, I expected the perfume to conform to those hideous conventions where the father of the bride ‘hands over’ his daughter to the awaiting groom, where in some places she will be set on fire or splashed with acid if she puts a foot wrong, but where usually this doesn’t occur, and the wedding ceremony leads on to the reception, and then the disco, and then the honeymoon.
In truth, the smell of this perfume – a sexy, sugared almond gourmand orange blossom – is more suited to the idea of the evening party. It is not a very original scent, this one (poor Thierry Wasser is compelled to churn out so many perfumes for Guerlain these days that true originality must be hard to achieve). The smell is much thicker, viscous, sweet and powdery than I would have imagined from a nuptial scent, which I suppose in itself makes it somewhat new in conception. This bride is winking, she is not conforming to the untouched ideal, she is evincing sensuality she wants to dance. Yes, orange blossom is very much the main theme here, touched with angelica, pink pepper and bergamot, the usual deal, and a marshmallowish, vanilla/ white musk/patchouli base, not that different from Mademoiselle Guerlain, which I also reviewed recently, and is also really quite commercial smelling, both of them descendants of Jean Paul Guerlain’s Classique. I don’t mind it at all, actually, and would be quite happy to smell this lingering about the wedding cake in the hotel foyer, even if it might demonstrate a certain lack of originality on the part of the bride: ah, this is a wedding scent by Guerlain….
Le Bouquet De La Mariée, the other scent in today’s title, is not really a separate perfume at all in fact but just the more expensive (by a mile) parfum extrait version of the edp, and to be honest I couldn’t really ascertain many differences in its structure or odour – it just smelled stronger (you could, in other words, just call it a rip-off). Both of these perfumes are perfectly fine, but then again I recently received a very generous decant of Jean Paul Guerlain’s Metallica/ Metalys from 2000, and although I had done a cursory review of this beautiful scent in my carnation piece that I reblogged the other day, I had never really spent any serious time actually wearing the scent properly, something I did when in the mountains of Nikko last week as we walked along the river. This is in fact a beautiful and haunting orange blossom perfume, almost indescribable in its strange, iris-spiced, sun-lit pinks and oranges, its sensual tonka and vanilla base, its ambiguity and mystery (wouldn’t a bride want to be more enigmatic; isn’t that half the point?) and in comparison, I am afraid, Mr Wasser’s wedding bell confections just fade into banality. Pretty and vivacious though it may be, like many of marriage’s formalities and procedures, there is something unthinkingly obvious about it all.
And, to finish, just one more thing.
Why is it only the bride who gets in a flutter about her wedding day scent?
Why is it only she who thinks that this is the ‘best day of her life’?
Can you explain it to me?
I genuinely don’t understand.