Loser Dog Nation

(this article first appeared in the april 5, 2004 issue of newsweek international)

This may be the year of monkey, but Japanese will remember 2004 as the Year of Loser Dogs, thanks to an ongoing national debate.

It started with Junko Sakai's book, "Loser Dogs Barking," out since October. Single and childless women in their 30s or older are makeinu, the author declared. It doesn't matter how successful, beautiful or happy they might be. They're all "loser dogs."

How rude, you might say. But Sakai, 37, has a disarming defense. She's one, too. Japan's loser dogs, she says, go around barking about how fine they are without a husband, all the while obsessing about getting married. Their problem is that they just don't have a clue how to do it. Instead of going out to meet a guy, they adopt a prized Persian cat. Instead of dating an available, "nice" (meaning boring) man, they go for the dangerously attractive married one. The result: hordes of loser-dog girls packing Tokyo's finest restaurants, yapping about how they totally identify with Carrie in "Sex and the City." (Japan being a couple of seasons behind, they haven't seen the series' happy ending.)

It's an issue close to my heart. Single until very recently, I'm still half-caught in loser-dogdom, along with my dearest friends. I particularly resent the Japanese government's blaming falling birthrates on the fact that women are marrying increasingly later in life, if at all. Yes, nearly a third of Tokyo's female thirtysomethings are single. But the figure is 44 percent for men. (Loser dawgs?) Yet nobody blames them. Why?

Sakai's book has sold 150,000 copies--a big hit. In offices, cafes and sushi bars, as well as on the Net and in the media, women debate if loser dogs are really losers, and if so whether it's too late to find happiness. Not long ago I overheard a group of women in their early 20s separating "cool" loser dogs, who dress sensibly and act their age, from "pathetic" ones who don't. And as a former longtime loser dog, I heartily agree with a friend who jokingly calls herself a loser dog--but doesn't want others to do the same.

It's obviously anachronistic, to label a woman a winner just because she's married. Still, even in this modern day and age, Japanese women are expected to hitch up and breed. If they don't, society considers them failures--only these days everybody knows better than to say so to their faces. That helps explain why people now tell me that I'm a "real grown-up"--as I so obviously wasn't while single.

You wouldn't know that loser dogs are a social underclass from the way they act. Without a family to care for, or a husband to order them about, they enjoy sizable disposable incomes and lots of free time. They shop lavishly, travel and adopt sophisticated and expensive hobbies like collecting kimonos, attending Kabuki theater or studying the tea ceremony. You might say loser dogs nourish culture instead of babies.

Married women with children, on the other hand, don't feel much like winners. In fact, most feel like losers, says Sakai, and envy their single friends. Marriage can be hard work and parenting even harder. Nobody can have it all, it seems, and Japan may be the last country on the planet not to accept this truism. Perhaps that's why "Loser Dogs Barking" has sparked such an uproar. Just as loser dogs can't live up to what society expects of them, Japan can't deliver what's expected of it. There seems to be no quick fix to our recession and aging population. Our economy continues to stumble along, instead of being an engine of global growth. Call us Loser Dog Nation.

(c) Newsweek

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