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Sunday, May 14, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Bewitching tales of when a foreign woman takes a Japanese man


Though it boasts one of the highest living standards in the world and a crime rate that is low compared to other developed countries, many of its citizens believe that Japan is a very difficult place to live for non-Japanese. The most commonly held reason for this belief is that the language and social customs are too difficult for outsiders to cope with.

But as is the case with most expatriate communities, the majority of resident aliens in Japan readily assimilate while retaining a great deal of their native habits in everyday life. That, in fact, is the theme of the new TV Tokyo series "Okusama wa Gaikokujin (The Wife is a Foreigner)" on Tuesday at 8 p.m.

As the title states, the series is about non-Japanese women who marry Japanese men. It's easy to understand why it limits its coverage of so-called international marriages to only one of the two possible combinations.

Japanese family life is still centered on the husband-father, and brides traditionally enter the man's family. When Japanese women marry non-Japanese men, the possibilities are more open-ended, both legally and socially, even when the couples remain in Japan. But foreign wives of Japanese men have to conform more or less to the Japanese family model. Or, at least, that's what the show implies.

Each profile of a foreign wife follows a pattern that endeavors to explain both her foreignness and her success at navigating the role of okusama. Though the program makes a token attempt to advance a "we are the world" outlook, mainly through a regular spot in which the wife throws a party centered around food from her home country, the main point is to examine her success at being a Japanese wife and mother.

This being TV, conflict and contrariness are encouraged for the sake of audience interest, but in the end the wives are shown to be making an effort to "become Japanese." In the context of the show and the larger belief that "Japan is unique," this assimilation is characterized not as the inevitable adaptation of an outsider to a new environment, but rather as a dedicated effort to rise to a challenge.

While watching the program, one is acutely aware that it's entertainment, not documentary. In this regard, the more exotic the subject the better. None of the women profiled on the three shows aired so far have been Chinese, Filipino or Korean, the three nationalities that collectively account for 70 percent of the foreign wives in Japan. Perhaps these women aren't considered "foreign" enough, but most likely their marriages don't fit the image the producers want. Many Japanese men, especially those from rural areas, make arrangements through brokers and other go-between services for wives from Asia, but such unions run counter to the purposes of "Okusama wa Gaikokujin." For one thing, it's stressed that all the couples depicted married for love.

Marrying for love is still considered enough of a novelty that something as simple as a kiss earns obsessive attention. "Please be more affectionate," Ebitoa Okamoto gently chides her Japanese husband, who clearly adores the woman he met as a volunteer on the Solomon Islands but is averse to showing it. "I'm Japanese," he says in his defense. In order to get the reluctant hubby to kiss his wife on camera, the producers send her to a beauty salon (the first time in her life) and then have the couple go out on a Tokyo canal in a rowboat, where they can smooch in relative privacy.

Demonstrations of lip-locking is no problem for Elena, a 29-year-old Russian woman, and her 48-year-old Kyoto hairdresser husband. They kiss each other all the time, as well as their 10-year-old son Nikita. In Elena's case, the assimilation problem has more to do with her mother-in-law, who tells the show's hosts that she feels she should be "mean" to her daughter-in-law, though apparently this is because she's from Kyoto and not because Elena is Russian.

Any conflicts the reports uncover usually have something to do with the husband's family rather than the husband. In one segment, a wife from Sri Lanka admitted that before her mother-in-law died they hadn't communicated with each other for years. As a kind of repentance, she makes sekihan (rice with red beans) for her husband since it is the food he most closely associates with his mother.

Differences in attitudes are the show's main selling points. In one segment, the wedding plans of a young American woman and her fiance hit a snag. Fluent in Japanese and respectful of tradition, the woman nevertheless balks at the idea that one of her future father-in-law's business contacts, a man she never met, will have the privilege of giving the first speech at their reception. The woman is less bothered by the custom than she is by the implication that she has no say in the matter. In another report, a very efficient American housewife has trouble getting her construction worker husband to do the dishes in front of the cameras, even though he does it every day when they aren't there. She knows it hurts his pride to reveal such a "weakness" on TV, and the cameras just eat it up.

The producers have no intention of humiliating the husbands. Their weaknesses in the face of their "strong" foreign spouses gain them sympathy from the show's hosts, a reaction that suggests most Japanese husbands wouldn't tolerate this sort of behavior from Japanese wives. Given the relatively high divorce rate for international couples, a good many don't tolerate it from their foreign wives, either. (Though intolerance certainly runs both ways).

The show implies that successful cross-cultural marriages defy logic. The series even uses the theme song and other motifs from "Bewitched," the American sitcom whose Japanese title was "The Wife is a Witch." That explains it. These women put spells on their Japanese husbands.



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