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The husband instruction manual
Updated: 2004-06-07 08:54

Junichi Watanabe, whose tales of middle-aged adulterous lust have made him a household name in Asia, has a new collection of essays that purport to explain the nature of husbands.

Junichi Watanabe
"Monogamy is imperfect: an unfair equalizer. It is a sys-tem of doling out alms to coarse, impotent men, although it does provide stability for raising progeny," says Junichi Watanabe, one of Japan's best-selling authors.

Sensationalist words calculated to make jaws drop and the press scribble furiously? Perhaps, but they also reflect the subject matter of the novels that have made him a household name, novels that are ripe with eroticism, love, seduction, and - as you might expect - infidelity.

Multiple orgasms, risque sex and Herculean lovemaking sessions are all par for the course, as are lush, romantic descriptions, featuring sensuous, soft kimonos, Chateau Margaux wines and long treatises on the symbolism of cherry blossoms.

His tales of adulterous passion have proved to have resonated strongly with the public, not only in Japan but throughout Asia, perhaps because Watanabe delves into his characters' minds and souls. It is also a revealing look at Japanese contemporary mores. Watanabe asserts that "one cannot write something like this with rich details without real-life experience." He alludes to "Shanghai Baby" written by local author Weihui, whose sexual escapades were the basis for her novel.

Sharp and spirited in his light grey suit and orange necktie, Watanabe launches into a litany of the sexual differences between men and women, which he has expounded in his latest book "All About Husbands."

"Man is a sexual animal. Sex is the strongest connection between men and women. Yet it's inevitable that a man will eventually have no desire for his wife's body," says the 71-year-old. "I'm against marriage, although I've been married. I was young. It (marriage) is wrong, especially for a writer, a job that cocoons you in your own world."

An collection of essays, the book traces married men's psychological and sexual changes beginning with the first days of marriage, and continuing onto middle age and the twilight years. There are chapters devoted to topics like the decline in lovemaking frequency after childbirth, reasons for married men cheating on their spouses and why men resist divorce even they're having an affair - and how the "wise wife" (in Watanabe's eyes, anyway) should handle these situations.

Needless to say, this is not a feminist tract. The book was published in March in Japan and was introduced to local readers this month in Chinese by the Shanghai People's Publishing House.

"As the book is based on real-life experience, I think it will be of interest to women readers," says Cao Yang, editor of the Chinese version of this book.

He was proved right at the recent book signing at the Shanghai Book City, when nearly 300 copies sold out in one hour.

Watanabe, like Murakami Haruki, is popular among Chinese readers. The Culture and Art Publishing Company in Beijing released 12 of his books last year. "Shitsurakuen" ("A Lost Paradise") sold 3 million copies in Japan, while the Chinese version sold tens of thousands of copies and dominated the local book charts.

Watanabe, a surgeon by training, gave up medicine to pursue writing after two of his novels won awards: "Makeup," a psycho-analytical novel written in the first person, won the New Current Coterie magazine prize, while "Light and Shadow" won him Straight Wood Literature Award in 1969.

"Medical science deals with the physical structure of man, while literature explores man's emotions," Watanabe says. "I get bored by concrete things that can be easily articulated, so I have ventured into the realm of those that can't be, such as love and passion."

A prolific writer, Watanabe has penned more than 50 novels. He has a solid group of faithful readers in Japan and has been called "the great master of Japanese modern love-lit" and "the mouthpiece of the modern male."

He excels at uncovering the painful and often aloof emotions of middle age. In his view, everyday life inevitably waters down and drowns all passion in life. Extramarital love is used as a symbol of a revolt against dreary emotions to show that the soul still shines, even in middle age. The characters, generally speaking, are sick of their stale-saltine family life yet are still reluctant to leave it.

The "mid-life crisis" exploded to the full his novel "A Lost Paradise," which tells the tale of a claustrophobic extramarital love.

Kuki is a former magazine editor whose star has dimmed as he slides into middle age. After his company's corporate downsizing, he finds himself in an easily forgotten corner of a corporate conglomerate and, at home, in an increasingly chilly marriage. Rinko is an elegant calligraphy instructor who looks quite fetching in a kimono, and is similarly stuck in a nuptial dead-end. Both find solace in each other's arms, but their respective spouses are getting wise to the affair. Rinko's cheese-loving husband hires a private investigator, while Kuki's wife uses more intimate methods of divining the truth. Given the forces that are pulling them apart, they resolve to take concrete measures that will insure they will be together forever - double suicide immediately following sex. The only way to maintain the highest passion for love, says Watanabe, is to die.

Even by the high standards of trend-conscious Japan, "A Lost Paradise" rates as a genuine publishing sensation. In Japan, the novel has even created a new slang expression: To do a "Shitsurakuen" is the new term for having an affair. Someone compares it to "The Bridges of Madison County" with some justification as each novel is an unrealistic but highly romantic view of adultery, written from a man's point of view, featuring middle-aged protagonists living dead-end emotional lives.

Watanabe predicts marriage will evolve into various forms, like cohabitation, or weekend couples, a wedding but no marriage license.

"Our social moral standards have changed," he notes. "I believe one hundred years away from now, things will be different and we'll be more tolerant."

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