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BEYOND THE PAPER SCREEN / I’m thankful for the peace of my ‘ohitorisama’ life

By Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Japan News“Just one?” The hostess smiles tentatively, with her hand clutching a stack of menus.

“Yes.” I reply simply, pretending not to notice the awkwardness with which she puts the extra menus back on the desk. Her finger hesitates over the table chart until she finally makes the decision. “Follow me, please.”

I walk behind her across the dining room, past many open tables. I already know what is about to happen — she stands by a tiny table in the cramped corner, and puts the menu down in front of the only chair that faces the blank wall. “Enjoy your dinner,” she flashes a quick smile and walks away.

When I became single in my 40s, I was determined to not let my single status keep me from doing things I enjoyed. Uncomfortable experiences like the one I just described did not deter me. Purely out of stubbornness, I ventured out solo, sat at the worst table in the house over and over again, and endured poor service by the wait staff who often “forgot” about me.

Around the same time, “ohitorisama” was becoming a common phrase in the Japanese media, following the 2007 publication of a book using the term in its title by feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno. The book is centered on social and personal challenges related to the rapid increase in the number of adults who spend later years of their lives as a single person.

Ohitorisama is a very polite form of hitori or “one person,” often used in the service industry to refer to a solo customer. Overt respect thinly disguises its highly ambivalent connotation of social isolation, singlehood, and lonesomeness on one hand, and a cold calculation of service-oriented businesses that a single person takes just as much work to take care of yet brings less revenue for the establishment.

People who are “hitori” also experience their singlehood with a sense of uncertainty. Very few individuals truly choose to be single; most of us find themselves in the ohitorisama status as a result of unexpected circumstances. We don’t yet have any role models or blueprints of how this single life works. One way or another, Ueno argues, we can’t depend on the traditional end-of-life strategies that presume the presence of life partners or children. We have to plan ahead and make smart choices to make the best of our lives as ohitorisama.

Aside from the personal and sobering details of what it takes to live out our natural lives alone, Ueno’s books had an effect of opening up public discourse on what was once a taboo subject. A decade after her first book on ohitorisama, the term seems to have gained a great deal of social acceptance. If you google the word, you’ll be surprised to find a large number of blog sites by individuals who publicly share the often less than glamorous details of their ohitorisama lives.

Both in Japan and the United States, restaurants and hotels have identified them as an untapped demographic segment, and compete for their patronage. Now it’s so much easier to dine alone as many restaurants offer counter seating or a large shared table, so we don’t have to feel like we are taking up too much space. Hotels offer special packages for solo female travelers, which was unthinkable 15 or 20 years ago.

While ohitorisama enjoy more respect and better treatment in public spaces, there is an aspect of social life that continue to remind us that being alone is still an anomaly: the holiday season.

In the United States, Thanksgiving Day, which is celebrated on the third Thursday of November each year, is considered the quintessential family holiday, even more so than Christmas for many. It’s the time for the members of the extended family to come together and share in the bounty of the autumn harvest, which is deeply connected to the agrarian roots of this country. Even those who live alone in their daily life make a point of spending this holiday with their family members, even if they have to travel across the country.

I’ve had my own share of many different Thanksgiving dinners, from the rather subdued on-campus dinner for students whose homes were too far to travel to during the short break, to drunken grad school potluck. I’ve hosted a quiet dinner for a small group of friends, and joined a boisterous family dinner of 20.

Most recently, though, I’ve learn to love the “ohitorisama Thanksgiving.” Two weeks or so before the holiday, I do some big grocery shopping to get ready for the full Thanksgiving feast. On Thanksgiving Day, I pop open a bottle of Champagne, sit under the California sun (it’s never really cold on Thanksgiving Day in Southern California), and watch the turkey roast slowly.

Some people are surprised to know that I’m alone for Thanksgiving, but why not? Plenty of good food, no need to get dressed up, travel or entertain other people — this is the most relaxing holiday one can hope for. The only catch: people feel bad when they find out and try to add you to their table or to suggest where I could go not to be alone.

You must stay strong and resist them at all cost. A big family Thanksgiving certainly brings us a certain kind of joy; the ohitorisama Thanksgiving brings us another. I certainly appreciate my fortune to make a life of my own in its fullest — quite literally after all the turkey and stuffing I put away!

(The next installment will appear Dec. 30.)

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.Speech

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