Friday, September 28, 2007


I don't know why I'm not packing a suitcase full of contraband. They NEVER check my bags at Narita anymore. Never. There used to be a time when they ALWAYS checked. Very Thoroughly. As in squeezing toothpaste, opening jars of jam.

Now, no matter where I'm coming from, they just look at my passport and thank me. (US Customs Officers could learn a thing or two about good manners from the Japanese Customs Officers!) Several decades of Being Thoroughly Checked has made me dress rather conservatively when crossing borders, and I thought that had something to do with the friendliness of the Customs people in recent years, but today, I could have had dreadlocks, tattoos, pierced nipples --showing! -- and still would not have had even a single raised eyebrow. Because -- I realized today -- to the Customs Officer, I am an Obasan. They look in my passport, see my date of birth and whammo! The magic's all there. To the officers, I am nothing if not one of those fearless and fearsome middle-aged Japanese women.

Clerks and CEOs alike quiver. Media execs pander. School children cower. And surly teenagers give them plenty of elbow room, lest a sharp bony one jab them in the solar plexus. The Obasan will chase muggers, lecture mass murderers. They are invincible! But definitely not invisible. They are world travelers and while the Single Obasan may choose to travel alone, most of the married Obasan will travel with their Oba-pals. If you thought one Obasan was scary, wait til you encounter a pack of them!

You see them everywhere: cackling up a storm in the economy cabin (Obasan are way too practical to throw money away on business class, but will happily be upgraded gratis and then try to get all their buddies into the cabin;) arguing in Japanese with confused French waiters; telling the Hong Kong street vendors who have been shouting "Yasui yo! (It's cheap!)" that the watches maybe yasui but are actually takai for a fake Rolex.

Obasan don't complain much. They don't have to -- they rarely give in. A force to be contended with, they were given the nickname "Obatarian" as if they were some kind of alien space monster. (Maybe they are!) It makes me smile to think that I have such a powerful disguise at my disposal!

Now that I know this, I'm going to use it more. Like, all the time? But if you wear a disguise long enough, does it become you?


Right now, some of you might be thinking of rounding up a small army of Obasan to be your "mule" operation. Don't bother. Obasan are Righteous. They don't like cheaters and smuggling is cheating. They're also conscious of health -- both human and environmental -- and a true Obasan is an avid recycler. She'll wear the same outfits until the styles have gone out and come back in.

The Customs Officers may label every Japanese woman over 40 an "obasan," but true Obasan are actually a dying breed. Literally! The baby boom generation produced a fair few, but most Obasan, the kind that I am talking about, grew up during World War 2, came of age during Japan's defeat and its reconstruction. When they were kids, they lived on rice gruel until even rice became a coveted luxury. After the war, they were sprayed with DDT by the American Occupation Forces. They've seen world turmoil, corrupt politicians, economic booms, bubbles and collapses. All the follies of MEN. They took it all in.

Yoko Ono, although from a completely different background, is of that generation and Obasan are just a frumpier, monolingual version of Yoko-san. I always thought she had a lot in common with my mother who is two years older than Yoko. I saw her perform a couple of times -- once in the 70's during her hiatus from John, then again in the 90's when she played at a small club in Tokyo. She was looking real good in a black tank top and cropped hair but my male colleagues were shuddering.

"She's too scary," they said. Perhaps it was the thought of their own mother wailing away on stage that scared them, but their comments made me grateful that I was a woman. Not much scares us. I can't think of a "type" of man that would scare me, the way that Obasan scare Japanese men. Not only are we the tougher sex but have Great Unseen Powers from Planet Obataria! So be afraid. Be very afraid.


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