‘Riaju! Riaju!’ The girls shouted, when I admitted that I had a boyfriend. I had wondered whether my love-life was an appropriate topic for discussion between teacher and teenage pupils, but was won over by their enthusiasm for the topic. In the following hour these Japanese summer school girls stretched their knowledge of English to its fullest in a quest for information about my life as a ‘riaju’.
I too had some learning to do: to begin with I had no idea what a ‘riaju’ was. Mami, the chattiest, explained. She pointed at me and said, ‘ You have boyfriend – riaju’, then pointed at herself and with an exaggerated pout: ‘Me, solo-jo’. If I learned one thing about Japanese teenage girls in the couple of weeks I spent teaching them it is that they are fascinated by boyfriends. The girls asked countless questions and each answer I gave, however mundane, was greeted with a chorus of ‘Ooh’, and, ‘Kawaiiiiii!’
‘What boyfriend name?’
‘Sugoi! Cool name, very cool name!’
Perhaps the reddest I turned (the students had absolutely no qualms about telling me so) was when, quite out of the blue, Mami shrieked and pointed at my hand. ‘You marry boyfriend?’ She asked, looking at a ring that I had picked up for a fiver at Camden Market. Her face visibly fell when I explained that the ring was purely decorative and was, anyway, on the wrong hand.
It quickly became clear that the status of ‘riaju’ was a highly enviable one. I found out that riaju is an elision of the phrase ‘real jujitsu’, and is widely used among young Japanese people to refer to people in relationships. The implication is that people in relationships are ‘real jujitsus’, making the most of and having great lives, whilst poor singleton ‘solo-jos’ are failed jujitsus; perhaps not even jujitsus at all. This seems to me a strange way to measure happiness, and a little binary to say the least. Do the teenagers who use the word ‘riaju’ really believe that relationships equate to happiness? To believe that a relationship brings a fulfilling life risks encouraging any and all relationships, rather than positive and meaningful ones, and risks undermining the merits of independence.
Happily, it seems that the students’ use of riaju doesn’t (yet) affect their day-to-day relationships with the opposite sex. I only ever came across ‘riaju’ as applied to heterosexual relationships, and whether the same connotations of aspiration and status apply to homosexual relationships is unclear; this is a question that would be interesting to explore. In my experience despite the girls’ fixation on boyfriends and being riaju, in reality they studiously ignored their male classmates. In classes girls never sat next to boys, and at lunch girls and boys sat on separate tables. In a lesson on directions I taught the students a game: one student was blindfolded and others had to direct them in English to Haribo. I asked a girl whether I could borrow her cardigan as the blindfold, and embarrassed she declined on the grounds that she did not want her cardigan to touch a boy.
The label ‘riaju’, at least among these 15 year old girls, is one applied in admiration and flattery, not yet to be emulated. The girls are very young in certain ways, spending their free time in The Disney Store buying Monsters Inc shoelaces and having the time of their lives: solo-jujitsus.