Osaka Obachans – They Won’t Go Quietly
Kansai Scene, May 2008
You’re not in Osaka long before you notice that women of a certain age are not half as inhibited as those younger. Perhaps you’ve been elbowed by one while trying to get on the JR Loop Line train. Maybe you’ve witnessed a near-riot about six inches below your nose when a nearby shopkeeper announces a spot sale on daikon. Or you might have been snapped at by a carpet-sample dog, stretching out from the basket of a matronly woman’s bicycle to get a bigger morsel of you, while Mistress looks on, accusingly. Besides experiencing the famous brashness of Osaka, you’ve also brushed up against Obachan Culture, and lived to tell the tale.
Obasan (おばさん) simply means aunt in Japanese, but it’s used to address any woman a lot older than yourself (use onésan– elder sister – for women your age or somewhat older… or when it doubt). Obachan – auntie – is an affectionate term used for your actual aunts and close female friends of the family, usually with the person’s given name preceding it (e.g., Keiko Obachan). Addressing a stranger as “obachan” is often considered too familiar, even rude, but describing a loudly-dressed, outspoken woman as an obachan is done all the time (“Look at those two obachans over there, buying sequined turtlenecks for their chihuahuas.”). The most extreme groups, the ones who hunt for bargains in packs, are dubbed “obatallian,” short for “obachan batallion”.
I asked various Japanese acquaintances to describe to me the typical Kansai Obachan, her likes and dislikes, her shopping habits. It was surprising just how uniform the descriptions were – I quickly formed a composite picture in my head. You’re an obachan when you love Korean dramas so much that you go on obachan-tailored package tours of the towns in which the stories are set. You’re an obachan when you listen to Hikawa Kiyoshi, the enka singer (and line up for his concerts at the Shin-Kabuki-za in Namba). You’re an obachan when you’ve got a purse full of the worst old-fashioned cinnamon sweets, which you’re always foisting on unsuspecting children and adults alike. Your an obachan when you sleep with your teeny-tiny dog, but your hapless husband is relegated to another room (and your dog growls at him too).
Kansai Obachan fashion is flash-on-a-budget. While a Tokyo obasan will boast of the quality of her ¥20,000 cockatoo-print blouse, the Kansai equivalent will brag about how she found her tiger-stripe velour number in the knock-off bins for ¥2000. After years of making ends meet to raise a family, once a woman hits 55 or so, she can turn those penny-pinching skills to her own advantage, and with a clear conscience.
Also, with the recent changes to the Japanese divorce laws, a woman who has put up with an absentee salaryman husband for decades can now claim up to 50% of his company pension. Obachans are the butt of many a salaryman’s put-downs, but as they near retirement, the men are starting to realize that maybe the joke was on them.
All this might sound sexist or ageist to you, but the Japanese media’s recent acknowledgement of Obachan Power is a backhanded compliment. After all, in popular Japanese culture (if not in real life), the mother has always been the long-suffering martyr of the family, the eternal Doris Doormat of movies, books, soap operas. In the past decade, women of retirement age are increasingly refusing to play Whistler’s Mother, and if their behaviour sometimes seems a bit extreme, remember that they have a lot of catching up to do. Centuries, even.