One day in Osaka, I went out for lunch to a nearby restaurant with a colleague. On arrival, we discovered that every Tuesday was おっさんデー (ossan-day); discounts were available to middle-aged men. The notice didn’t specify what age you have to be to qualify as “ossan”, but after a brief discussion we somewhat ruefully concluded that 40 was probably the cut-off, and that we were both entitled to a discount.
“ossan” is a shortened and uncomplimentary version of ojisan meaning “uncle”. To be an ossan is to be irredeemably uncool.
An ossan-gyagu (ossan gag) is a terrible, unfunny joke of the kind an uncle would tell. He may even sport a “bar-code” hairstyle (a comb-over).
But the ossan can’t be entirely useless, because there is an ossan-rental service, where you can hire a middle-aged man for only ￥1,000 per hour (less than €10). One 47-year-old “assari ossan” says that you can talk to him as if you were talking to a potted plant and he will listen and absorb like a sponge. You can talk to him about your divorce or other issues that may be troubling you. Another aspiring ossan is only 39 and may not be quite ready for ossan duties – he says his favourite food is gummi bears.
Apparently your rental-ossan is more than just a listening ear; you can also get him to help with test-driving a car, viewing an apartment or general advice, or even just send him to the shop or the post office.
The word oji, meaning uncle, is written in kanji as 伯父 if he is your parent’s older brother, and 叔父 if he is your parent’s younger brother. It is an example of a distinction that appears in the written language and not in the spoken language (a distinction imported from China, along with the characters – the Sino-Japanese pronunciations are hakufu and shukufu). This is a point I want to come back to in a future blog post about the advantages of the kanji-based writing system.
Different languages distinguish different kinds of uncles. In Latin, your father’s brother is patruus and your mother’s brother is avunculus. The two words have very different connotations: patruus is a “severe reprover” whereas avunculus is, well, avuncular. Similarly in Finnish, your father’s brother setä is strict and austere, while your mother’s brother eno is fun and indulgent. Of course, in any family the same man may be patruus to one group of people and avunculus to another; will the two sets of cousins perceive him differently? I believe that some languages (Indian languages, Thai) have different words for as many as five or seven different kinds of uncle; for those cultures the English word “uncle” must seem hopelessly generic.