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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

The challenges and rewards of bicultural marriage


By MARGARET STAWOWY
LOOKING BEYOND THE MASK: When American Women Marry Japanese Men, by Nancy Brown Diggs. State University of New York, 2001, 231 pp., $19.95 (paper).

Finally, here is a book that explains the ramifications of a decision I made 24 years ago when I married my Japanese husband in the United States. Although some of my Japanese friends passed along valuable cultural insights, I mostly had to figure things out on my own, such as differences in communication styles and values -- just the kind of things covered in Nancy Brown Diggs' book "Looking Beyond the Mask."

Of course, there are challenges in every marriage, regardless of the nationalities of the partners. In bicultural marriages, not every disagreement can be blamed on cultural differences; some might be the result of personality or gender clashes. In fact, Diggs' informants in this book generally believed there were far more similarities than differences between themselves and their spouses. Some even extended this observation to include their respective families as well.

And yet, cultural differences are very real and must be acknowledged. As an example, the American wives in "Looking Beyond the Mask" unanimously agreed that their Japanese husbands are serious, responsible and hardworking. Yet these positive traits can turn into negative traits when a man sacrifices himself to his work. According to the Japanese, this is simply what a man does and must do to provide security for his family.

Sadly, this sanctioned estrangement of a man from his family can and does lead to marital difficulties. "The job always comes first," is a common lament among the wives. A Japanese wife, while she might not like it, will accept this level of job commitment as the norm. An American wife won't, and although there is little she can do about it (especially if they live in Japan), she and her husband need to recognize that the issue exists.

The women interviewed in "Looking Beyond the Mask" also acknowledged problems that arose from their own cultural assumptions. For example, being a self-sufficient individual is considered positive and healthy in the context of American life. However, many informants have recognized that a fine line sometimes exists between "taking care of yourself" and being selfish.

Clearly, living with a person from another culture forces a re-examination of entrenched beliefs. A difference of opinion, or anything else for that matter, need not be a "negative." According to Diggs, challenge is an opportunity to learn, grow and change, and the results can be extremely liberating for both parties. Japanese men who marry outside their culture find a measure of protection from their society, as their American wives are a perfect excuse for them to do things a little bit differently. For their part, American women find numerous opportunities for personal growth. As Diggs writes in her introduction, they get to glimpse the real personalities behind the cultural masks we all wear.

Diggs addresses issues as diverse as in-laws, customs, communications, manners, values, living conditions, medical matters, religion, sex, gender and child-rearing. While factual, she is also extremely readable, using a journalistic approach rather than an academic one. For primary sources, she relies on interviews with those who know the subject best: American wives of Japanese men. Her footnotes and bibliography document secondary sources, such as newspaper, journal and magazine articles and books. Diggs moves effectively between the general and the personal, and in the process highlights the common areas of potential conflict in the manifold experiences of her informants.

As somebody who's been (and is still) there, "Looking Beyond the Mask" is an accurate, fair and balanced portrayal of what it means to marry a Japanese man. While it specifically addresses marriage between American women and Japanese men, I believe that other foreign women, particularly from industrialized countries, will also find it of interest.

Margaret Stawowy, a former Yokohama resident, is a poet and critic who has relocated to the San Francisco Bay area.


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