June 22, 2017

To Sensei with Love

As I discussed previously, how popular fiction genres overlap in their appeal from country to country can tell you a lot about cultural "universals."

Just as informative are those genres that do not find close analogues abroad, or inspire opposite reactions. For example, in the "conventional" romance genre, the relationship between a teacher and student. The Hollywood version is typically described with words like "forbidden."

Even if we're talking about legal adults, any given episode of Law & Order involving a professor and a college student is likely to end with a dead body.

There are, to be sure, plenty of legal, ethical, and moral reasons for discouraging such relationships. But as Kate argues,

The American attitude is bizarre. Not because teacher-student relationships are a good idea. But because the stigma rests on a proposition that is unsettling in the extreme: namely, that any teenager before the age of eighteen is the equivalent of a child.

And yet, in Japan, it's a go-to plot device, and not one expressly designed to raise eyebrows or breach taboos. Less a May-September romance than May-July, it typically involves a girl who is a high school student (and thus a minor) when we first meet her. Or far younger, as in The Tale of Genji.

But Genji is a gentlemen—well, one who has bed just about every aristocrat's wife or daughter in Kyoto—so he installs the ten-year-old Murasaki in his villa and waits for her to grow up. Which, back then, wasn't that much older.

A modern version of this story is Bunny Drop. Tellingly, the implied May-September romance the series open with ruffles fewer feathers than the one it ends with (the manga series, not the anime), despite the age difference in the latter being half that of the former.

And unlike Genji, Daikichi is the perfect single adopted dad. It's one of those endings that leaves me curious about what the unwritten sequel would be like. (Keep in mind that "Murasaki" in Genji is generally considered to be the author's autobiographical Mary Sue.)

Bunny Drop dares to keep the subject grounded in the real world. More typical of the genre is I Married a Pop Idol. The book blurb reads as follows: "A young businessman meets a woman and falls in love, leading them to marry. But the man's wife is actually an idol in high school!"

Even frumpy NHK has gotten into the act, with the clumsily titled Ms. Sauce's Love (literally translated), a weepy May-July romance between a college freshman (Yudai Chiba) and a thirty-something (Mimura). Chiba is actually 28 to Mimura's 33, though I'd swear he looks 14, if that.

The manga series R-18 combines the May-July romance with another strange (to American sensibilities) trope, according to which the virginal protagonist writes an explicit sex column under a nom de plume. This year's Eromanga Sensei again leveraged the popularity of that particular idea.

And let's not even get started on the whole sibling romance thing.

But back to teachers and students, a realistic portrayal can be found in Makoto Shinkai's Garden of Words, which has the teacher breaking off the relationship before it can move to the "next level." (And Shinkai's Takao looks and acts more mature than Chiba's Masanao.)

Dancing around the taboo are stories that concoct an excuse for the protagonists to get married, as in the aforementioned I Married a Pop Idol and the obnoxious Please Teacher series. Or the less obnoxious but pornier and occasionally funny My Wife is the Student Council President.

Back in the real world, there's French President Emmanuel Macron, whose wife is 25 years older than him. They met when he was in high school. Okay, reality can be stranger than fiction. How about "real" enough to make a live-action movie? Say, of Kazune Kawahara's bestselling Sensei! manga.

The story centers on second-year high school student Hibiki Shimada, who is in love with her teacher Kosaku Ito, a cold man who seems to hate girls, but is actually kind. The story begins when she accidentally puts a love letter entrusted to her by a friend in Kosaku's shoe locker.

Whatever would happen to high school romance in Japan without shoe lockers? But seriously, the sociology behind the widespread acceptability of this particular romance genre does deserve a closer look.

Japan's consent laws can be easily misconstrued. The applicable civil code is little different than in the U.S. Compulsory education in Japan ends after junior high. Few teenagers leave school at that point, but the legal possibility may help erode the magical 18-year-old boundary.

More importantly, most teens in Japan haven't contracted special snowflake syndrome. Japan is a country where elementary school students are expected to walk to school by themselves. Zounds!

Alas, actor Keisuke Koide recently learned how unforgiving real life can be. A drunken one-night stand with a 17-year-old girl resulted in NHK and NTV yanking shows he was in. Netflix, which cast him in an upcoming big-budget series, "is considering how to respond to the scandal."

(Which sounds to me like they'll let the commotion die down and proceed as planned, counting on there being "no such thing as bad publicity.")

You see, that's not fiction. In a society that can superficially appear devoid of moral limits (when making believe), social expectations ruthlessly enforce the lines that must not be crossed (in reality). Japan has the lowest teen fertility rate in the world and an abortion rate half that of the U.S.

Apparently Japanese teenagers know the difference.

Related posts

Cheese! (part 3)
Kicking down the door
The student-teacher romance in manga

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