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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003

BILINGUAL

When American values get a woman's mind cooking


My brother has plunged into this deep gloom. It's his girlfriend, naturally. He's taken to calling me three times a week, genuinely perplexed and begging me to tell him why the romance is gone. He's my brother and I love him, but honestly, like most Japanese men the guy does not have a clue. I can tell by listening to his monologue, which after hearing similar versions almost everyday, I can repeat verbatim:

"Whatever I do is wrong. I could get all worked up or just shrug and leave her alone, both ends of the spectrum don't work. She ends up staring at me, her eyes shot with red and brimming with tears. 'Wakkate inai (You don't understand)' is her newest mantra. 'You don't understand me or women. What's worse, you don't care!'

"You want to know the thing about Japanese girls -- they're too serious, though they could have you fooled for a time. Sooner or later, they show their true colors, which is stuff like kekkon (marriage), kodomo (kids), shiwatori kuremu (antiwrinkle creams) and, of course, the Permanent Diet Syndrome or some approximation thereof. And these are just the girls you thought were real fun, the ones who had tattoos in the shape of snakes (with tongues out) coiled around their navels, the ones who looked great in Earl jeans, miles of legs ending in narrow mules and spikey heels, the ones who licked your face like a dog and crinkled their noses when they giggled, which was all the time.

"As for the more serious ones, like my girlfriend, they are hopelessly serious. These are the ones who went to good colleges and scored 550 in TOEFL, who chose to go to Myanmar instead of Los Angeles for their graduation trips, who could spell words like connoisseur and pronounce it right, too. They agonize all the time: careers, relationships, marriage by 30, the 35-year mortgage, when to have kids and whether they should continue working, then wrinkle cream and the Permanent Diet Syndrome.

"Schemes and plans cook in their brains like popcorn on the stove -- and the wondrous thing is that they're cooking every day. My girlfriend is only 27 and already you can hear the popcorn ricocheting off the walls of her head all the goddamn time. 'Motto kiraku ni ikoyo (Why don't you relax),' I tell her. She looks at me darkly and says: 'You are everything that's wrong with Japanese men. I hope you realize that.'

"She wasn't always this serious. She had her hair in, like, 100 tiny braids with cute little beads attached to the ends and she listened to Elvis (Costello) and collected cookie cutters, 'just for fun.' On my birthday she made me a batch of chocolate cookies shaped like VWs and Cessnas. On the box it said: 'To my favorite little boy, with so much love from his favorite little girl.'

"She was just this amazingly kawaii (cute) creature. It never mattered how late I worked or if we didn't see each other for two weeks -- I could call her, see her and she would be exactly the same, blowing purple bubble-gum and fiddling with her eight earrings, four in a row on each ear. 'Chu chu! (Kiss, kiss)' she would shout and throw her arms around me before I could even say hello.

"Actually, I know what happened. Yuki, her best friend, is now going out with this American guy, Barry, and whenever she goes over to hang out with them she stocks up on the ammo. Like: 'You know, in the States, a wife can sue her husband for lack of attention.' And: 'Barry cleans the house and does the shopping and he says a couple should support each other and help each other to grow, otherwise the relationship grows stagnant (dramatic pause). What do you think?' And the all-time clincher: 'Barry wonders why the economy continues to be so bad when Japanese men work such long hours. He asks what you guys do all day.'

"Tonight, she gave me the evil eye when I arrived at her apartment. I had worked late then went out drinking. It's true, but hey, at least I made it back on the shuden (last train)! Anyhow, she looked at me and said: 'In the States, no woman would ever go out with you. If they did, they would immediately drop you.'

"Well that made me feel great. So I shouted and kicked some things around, and then she cried and came out with the mantra again: 'Anta, anta zenzen (naki, naki) wakattenai! (You, you . . . [sob, sob] just don't understand!)'

"I'm telling you, this Barry guy has a lot to answer for. In fact, I'm holding the entire United States responsible. There's nothing that ruins a Japanese relationship more than nichibei hikakubunkaron (U.S.-Japanese comparative culture)."



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