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Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

Don't mention the L-word

International relationships can sometimes strike one alien chord after another


There you go again. That trick of saying "I love you!" just before hanging up the phone.

News photo
Foreign men can sometimes find it difficult to express their feelings, and some girls prefer it that way.

In our eyes, Americans say those three words far too often, and when they're no longer in the mood to say it, switch over to: "I think we better have a talk."

To the Japanese, notorious for being far less expressive about emotions, the whole American-style love-relationship thing strikes one alien chord after another.

Even the most outspoken and liberated of women are bugged by the excessive use of the L-word, like my friend Miki (an urban professional who's lived in the U.S. for 6 years): "It demeans the relationship to have to hear that casual 'I love you' every 5 minutes. And I can't help thinking that such casualness will never stand the test of time."

I ran this by Michigan native Andrew (29 years old, now in his third year in Tokyo) who said: "What's the big deal? What's wrong with the L-word as long as we mean it? Saying 'I love you' is a way of keeping the wheels greased and everyone happy. Surely it's better than the Japanese refusal to talk about feelings."

Oh yeah? Well here's something else the Japanese have trouble with: the perceived American lack of manners. This goes for both men and women, as many Japanese profess astonishment about the general absence of etiquette or personal hygiene habits.

My friend Yuka, for instance, dated the gorgeous Gregory for 2 months before she called it quits, "and mostly because of the way he used my bathroom!" Gregory never picked up the stray hairs clinging to the sides of the tub after he showered, he often didn't flush after using the toilet and was okay with using Yuka's toothbrush when his own wasn't handy, which was all the time.

For Gregory, he and Yuka were in love so minor details like that didn't matter. Yuka, brought up on rigid codes of manners as drummed into her by her mother, saw it as a desecration of her personal space. She stopped taking Gregory's calls or answering his e-mails and just "dropped the whole thing, because he probably wouldn't understand if I told him what the problem is."

With Japanese men, it's trickier since they have no problem with their own lack of manners but will apply strict standards of female behavior (formulated by their mothers, of course) to their American girlfriends.

Ryosuke (31) showed up at Diane (26)'s apartment unannounced to drop off some flowers and was stunned to see how "underwear dribbled from drawers, the bathroom was pure filth and the tiny kitchen was a no-man's land of trash and confusion.

"I didn't know where to look but then, she didn't seem to care. It was a part of her that I would rather not have seen."

Other things that bother him are the way Diane sits with her legs wide open when she's wearing pants, how she climbs onto the bed with her boots on and how she rummages through wares in a discount shop, picks something up and then "throws" it back on the shelf.

But let's face it, such complaints are part of any relationship and (in the American scheme of things at least) they can be talked over and worked out to the satisfaction of both parties.

Much more complex are the subtle, inoffensive differences that end up defining a relationship, often in not so happy ways.

Says Richard, who has been married for 2 decades to a Japanese wife: "She's still a big mystery to me and it has to do with her innate non-desire to talk, deeply and intimately, about what really goes on in her mind. When I try to ask, she switches the topic to our kids or daily stuff."

Mike (47) says: "My wife is very independent and surprisingly strong. She thinks it's unnecessary to accompany me on social functions and she's perfectly content to stay at home or entertain her own friends -- alone. I find it lonely and a bit frustrating."

For American (or Western) women in relationships with Japanese men, the reserve and distance they encounter can floor them far more than their male counterparts. Used as they are to concepts like total togetherness and frank, emotive discussions, the Japanese male can seem deplorably lacking.

Tess, a 30-year old radio journalist whose recent relationship with an older Japanese male just "shattered to smithereens," says that no matter how "Westernized" or "liberal" Japanese men may look on the surface, they are at heart hopelessly feudal and chauvinistic.

"On the surface he was kind, loving and gentle. But I could see that he expected skills from me like cooking and cleaning. He thought it was okay to come home late as long as it was for work. I just hated being forced into a position of helpmate/little wife. "No wonder so many career-minded Japanese women are antimarriage or just simply, anti-Japanese men."

All these comments are not uncommon -- in fact they've been voiced so often that the Japanese have learned to joke about them. They're too aware that self-expression (or lack thereof) remains their Achilles heel, so difficult to overcome in the face of the American knack for expressing every single feeling.

For many couples, it boils down to who's willing to change or compromise, but in this respect the Japanese can be just as obstinate as the Americans -- for the reason that they just don't find much appeal in frank, intimate conversation. Surprisingly, this is true even among the younger set.

Says 25-year old Tatsuya: "There are just some things that are better left unsaid and some aspects of a partner that's better left unseen.

"I don't see why love should be equal to baring everything or spending every possible minute in each other's company. After all, it's the mystery that makes a relationship attractive."

Okay, so the Japanese are good at this mysterious, Unknown Factor thing. They're good at fanning the excitement. But after that fades, then what?

Tatsuya grinned before saying: "Soudaneeee (weeeelll), then I think that in a lot of cases, it's time to have a talk."



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