Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sakura and No Future

We live in Japan, and we have six children. These two facts are unusual for two reasons: (1) we're not Japanese, and (2) six children in one family is unheard of here.

When people see us out and about with all the kids, people actually come up to us and ask if they're all ours. "No, we picked this one up in the supermarket parking lot, and this one just followed us home one day," we sometimes joke. But the old ladies asking us just blink. I guess it's an American joke, as the natives call it.

But the fact that Japanese--who are not given to talking to strangers, especially foreigners--stop to talk to us about our children is a pretty strong indicator that we're doing something rather strange. That is, having children. Lots of them.

I know that birth rates are declining all over the world in industrialized countries, but in Japan, it takes on a whole new quality. After all, the Japanese have no desire to open their borders to massive immigration, but they are also equally averse to having more children.

So they're kind of stuck. And they're not sure what to do about it. One thing the government does is try to entice its citizenry to have more babies by doling out a child-welfare allowance every four months. It's great for my family -- we collect quite a bit over the course of a year, but it's not really meant for us, is it? And the Japanese aren't taking the bait.

I asked my students what they think should be done about the population crisis looming. They said they didn't know. From where I sit, there are only two solutions: have more babies (iyada), or allow for massive immigration (iyada). Iyada means "no" or "I hate that idea" in Japanese. They can't both be iyada; you have to solve the problem somehow.

And that's when my students let me know what they really think: babies are expensive and troublesome, so the government should do more to help us take care of them. More free money etc etc. I laughed nervously, assuming they were joking, but when no one shared my mirth, my heart sank. They were serious.

The sakura might be the most beautiful thing about Japan. I love going out with family and friends in the spring, sitting in the park, and looking up at the blossoms spreading on black branches across the clear sky. I go twice: the first time when the sakura have just bloomed and the second time when they've begun to fall. I sit on a mat and let the pink rain flutter down around me. Listening to the squealing of children as they chase the blossoms, trying to catch them. 

Children. Fewer of them every year.

They are the sakura. Or, rather, Japan is. When the trees are in bloom, they are the most beautiful sight -- breathtaking even from a crowded commuter train as you look out over the city. For two weeks, Tokyo is transformed. And then the sakura fall, and the long month of May stretches before you with no cherries in sight.

The trees have been designed that way -- non-fruit bearing cherry trees. Then they're not really cherry trees, are they? You could argue that they indeed are, but the sakura certainly have no future. They die, and all too soon.

The natural fruit of a marriage is children, and without them, a marriage, though valid and strong and good, is not what it could be. This is why we pity the childless, why we go to such lengths to help women conceive when they can't. The fertility rate of the Japanese female is 1.1, the lowest in the world. And it's not because the women have trouble conceiving; it's because they're either just not or they're toddling down to the clinic to remove the unwanted inconvenience growing inside them.

I'm not here to preach about abortion or contraception; I'm just pointing out the facts. Japan is running out of people.

Fruitless marriages, and the nation now faces a crisis.

2012 saw the biggest population plunge on record: 284,000. There were only a million babies born in Japan in 2012 (and that stat includes foreigners'). With no children, Japan just keeps getting older. The elderly now outnumber children aged 14 and under.

No fruit. No future.

Our branches grow barer each year, and soon the tree will stand unflowering.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

It's All Right -- He's a Wolf!

Werewolves. They are everywhere. Vampires are still around, of course, but it seems like werewolves and the other were-creatures are ubiquitous. I edit more “shifter” (werewolf or weretiger or were-something) romances than probably any other single sub-genre, and they show no sign of slowing down.

I am not complaining. I like paranormals, and I have no quarrel with the concept. What I have found curious is why such stories are so common. Authors continue to write them because readers continue to read them. What is it about this particular take on the romance genre that has taken such a deep hold?

Because we're awesome?

I got my first hint when I read a review of one particular non-werewolf story wherein the reviewer complained of the hero's possessiveness and dominating nature. To paraphrase, the reviewer stated that it wasn't as if the hero were a werewolf or something to make his claiming of the heroine palatable. 

That put me on the track, and I have, I am convinced, found the source and fountainhead of the appeal of the shifter story (and a lot of these things apply to the vampires, too). 

A werewolf, or whatever type of shifter, is expected to have several qualities, and, across the board, they do. 

They are physically strong. This is not that remarkable, as this is common to romance heroes, but their physical strength far surpasses that of the heroine – and the heroine does not mind. Furthermore, the hero has a protective streak, which does not, somehow, irk the heroine. 

They are dominating and demanding. They want the heroine to belong to them only. “You are mine” is a common refrain among shifter heroes. They want to claim the heroine as their one-and-only “mate”. This does not bother the heroines, either. It is part of the werewolf's natural “mating” instinct. He scents his mate, and he claims her for his own. There are no ifs, ands, or buts, and though the heroine is often given a chance to refuse the hero, he gives this chance with the inner caveat that he has no intention of giving her up. If she refuses him, he will simply pursue her further.

Yes, yes. You can get away with it, too.
But you are from a backward, barbarian culture.

They are perfectly loyal. They tell the heroines that they will love her and her alone, for their whole lives long, that there is no other woman for them. And the heroines believe them. 

None of these things would fly if the heroes were just ordinary men. Physically stronger than the heroine might be permitted, but it would certainly not be allowed to come to the fore. It cannot be emphasized too heavily. In shifter stories, the hero's superiority in physical strength is not glossed over. It is reveled in. All this strength does not threaten her, though it can give her a pleasurable frisson during lovemaking. No, because the hero is a werewolf, his strength does not diminish hers. Furthermore, his desire to protect is accepted as one would accept an animal's perceived need to protect its mate. It does not say to the heroine that he considers her weak; it says to her that he considers her precious. This is not permitted to an “ordinary” hero. 

As for dominating and demanding – outside of BDSM, these things are straight up not allowed. (And BDSM is an interesting comparison to shifters to be explored later in this blog.) A hero who is demanding, who requires that the heroine “belong” to him, that she be his and his only in so many words, is not acceptable. The hackles on the readers would rise, and the book would be panned.

The loyalty of a werewolf hero is never in question. He is bonded to his mate, with some sort of natural and/or mystical attachment that nothing can break. Human heroes have to go through a lot to prove that they are loyal, that they can be trusted, because the default mode for the heroines is to assume that men are untrustworthy.

All of these qualities are, obviously, ones that the readers find attractive, or else they would not read the books. But these same qualities raise feminist alarms if they appear in men. In paranormal beings, these qualities are acceptable because by acknowledging the strength of a paranormal hero, the heroine does not lessen herself.

Do whatever you want to, baby! You're paranormal!

Apparently, by acknowledging such strength in an “ordinary” hero, she does. 

This brings us to the BDSM sub-genre.* I see a lot of this genre, too, and I find it curious that many of the same qualities as belong to the shifter heroes appear in the “Dom” heroes, but again, because this passes as part of an established sexual practice, it is all right. Over and over, “the sub has all the real power in the relationship” is pounded into the reader. In other words, the reader is assured that the heroine is not becoming weak by becoming a sub. 

It seems that there is in most modern readers a feminist streak that will leap on anything that might possibly be construed as making the hero the heroine's superior in any way, even the most superficial physical ways, or that will lash out at the slightest hint of control from the hero. But equally, it seems that these dominating, ultra-masculine qualities do appeal to these same readers. It is what they seem to want their men to be, but cannot admit this without the paranormal veneer. The competition between the sexes is too tense. 

This concerns me, societally speaking. What good is a feminism that will not allow a woman to admit to what she actually wants? 

*I am not addressing actual BDSM practices, as genuine BDSM is quite rare in romances. What you find instead is a layman's guess about what it is like, and the image is all that matters for the story. This pseudo-BDSM, where spanking and wearing a collar are the primary characteristics of the relationship, is what is common.

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