A lie to live by, at least in Japan

July 10, 2008 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — I was about to write down my age on a ski-class form earlier this year when I sensed an eagle eye peering over my shoulder. The mother of one of my son’s classmates was trying to see how old I was. I hesitated for a moment, and then nervously wrote down 44.

I’m not proud of lying about my age, but I don’t want to stand out among the mothers at my 9-year-old’s school. Most of the women are in their late 30s and early 40s, and this being Japan, they view the 40s as the 60s. It’s been four years since we met when our children entered school, but the mothers remain obsessed with knowing how old everyone is, tracking down holdouts like me who haven’t come clean.

Several days after I claimed to be 44, a mother who hadn’t been anywhere near the slopes called out to me at a school event. “I found out we are the same age,” she said, smug with the pleasure of discovery.

Women all over the world worship youth, but age has particular significance in Japan, where Confucian values dictate a reverence for elders. From the depth of one’s bow, to speaking in honorifics, to the seniority-based job promotion system, codes of behavior determined by an age-based hierarchy are observed throughout society.

When my son first started school, I told a bemused American friend that I couldn’t oppose a school regulation, “because I am only the mom of a first grader.”

At those lower rungs of the age-based pyramid, there are fewer expectations of wise behavior and abilities: a suitable paradigm for women in a sexist society. Add to that the global popular culture that equates beauty with youth and vibrancy, and no wonder Japanese women want to stay young.

In a survey released this year by the food and beverage company Kagome, 92 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 59 said they felt it was advantageous to appear youthful. About one third of those respondents said that was because looking young made them feel “superior to friends in the same age range.”

At a recent luncheon, one woman announced that she was the same age as a mother in another class. When I nonchalantly replied, “Oh, really?” the woman barked back, “Why? Does she look younger?”

Asked at what age they felt they had been the most attractive, the average of the replies from the surveyed women was 28 years old.

Being brazen and shameless were listed in the poll as traits of a woman getting on in her years. I compromise my ethics because I don’t want to be stigmatized as such. I’m not alone in my deceit.

When City Living, a free newspaper for female office workers, conducted an Internet survey in 2005, nearly half of the women who responded said they lied about their age on items like train commuter passes and questionnaires and when meeting new people.

Of course lying won’t turn back the clock. And shouldn’t we be grateful to be well enough to greet another year? Thankfully there appears to be a trend to accept and even embrace reality.

In “Around 40,” a popular TV drama, a single and successful doctor and her two female friends battle the biological clock, empty marriages and professional setbacks. In the end, however, they all move on with self-confidence, suggesting that “Ara Fo,” as this mini-generation has been dubbed by abbreviating “around forty,” is a time of happy self-realization.

Seeing a market in the bolder, older woman, three new magazines catering to the 40s were launched last year, and this year a monthly for women in their 50s and up hit the stands. The thick, glossy publications are mostly about upscale fashion, leisure and lifestyle and feature beautiful women like Yuki Amami, 41, the actress heroine of “Around Forty,” and Risako Miura, a 40-year-old model and wife of one of Japan’s most famous soccer players. They are part of a growing group of celebrities who make the 40s look carefree and stylish.

I’m not attractive enough to singlehandedly blow that trend into my son’s school. So until the 40s are accepted there, I’m laying low and trying not to get tripped up in a web of lies.

Japanese often refer to their birth year by its Chinese zodiac sign, so I need to remember that I am year of the rabbit. I have to keep my enthusiasm in check when the conversation turns to a rock group of the 70s. And I’ve got to resist the urge to roll up my eyes in the been-there-done-that expression when yet another mother bemoans an approaching birthday.