The pejorative expression ‘old lady smell’, for most perfumistas, is a justifiably hated phrase (so reductive; so un-connoisseur). In Japan, malodorous criticism is aimed much more at men; the supposed stench of the jiji, or man over retirement age. Salarymen of a certain generation tended to pick a product; be it Shiseido Vintage, Kanebo’s Eroica, Mandom, Auslese, or any one of the selection (still readily available on shelves at local pharmacies) that come in every conceivable toiletry – see the triangular Vintage box set above – and wear it for life. Imagine the scented hair tonics and creams and brilliantines plus a freshly shaven face splashed with hopeful aftershave: the result; a real cloud of aldehydic sweet woody herbal aromatics that the young men of today here would rather die than wear, the associations so strong. I have had male students talk quite avidly of how much they physically detest the smell of the overscented comb-over retirees embarking the city trains to meet their old colleagues for a game of golf or mahjong or to just talk about the old days in some cafe or beer hall: an olfactory divide that is quite different from the UK, for example, where all generations slap on their Sauvage or their Boss or Paco Rabanne or Aventus for a night out at the pub with no real cognitive dissonance. Here, a perfume like Vintage, which D picked up for me the other day for about 50 yen (about 33p) from the Zushi recycle shop, immediately confers a real sense of age, denoting wordlessly that you worked through the Bubble in the post-war years like a dog, and that you are now, in your dotage, still clinging to the old ways.
Post-war Japan was a thriving, dynamic period when men were required to sacrifice themselves 24 hours a day for the economic recovery and dignity of the nation: wives stayed at home and reared children (even now, many women don’t go back to work until their children are around ten), cooking and cleaning and socialising with other mama-san, while exhausted but nicotinized and over-adrenalised husbands would be forced to go for compulsory drinks after office hours until the last train or later to cement the bonds with the other workers in their guaranteed-job-for-life companies (the younger generation is learning to say no). Then, you couldn’t. I wonder, then, if a loyalty to a product like Vintage – warm, sad, musty, quite touching in its lingering sensuality -is a way of of just maintaining that time line; a daily men’s ritual that for many of the boom-generation now must be a visceral smell-link to the past, and for them at least, still relevant to their present.