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Saturday, March 26, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

On catching your spouse's culture


There's this lady I know who has one major gripe about life in Japan.

Which is: Some people here do not believe she's Japanese.

"Hmm, that's odd," I tell her.

"Odd?" She is steaming. "It's more than odd, it's unholy!"

See, she was born in Japan of Japanese parents. Raised here too. In fact, she has spent only three years of her life overseas, a time period now two decades in the past. She speaks English well, but prefers her native tongue.

"I do not speak English well," she pouts. "I speak it like a pull-string toy."

And, sure enough, she looks Japanese too. She has straight black hair, a trim build and classic Asian cheekbones. As to her diet, it seems she is forever craving rice, fish, green tea or some gooey mix of the three.

"I eat like a Japanese" -- she is ready to claw me -- "because I AM a Japanese!"

"Of course, you are." I pat her on the head. "Why would anyone think differently?"

"Because of my husband. HE is not a Japanese."

I blink at her. "I'm not?"

She mutters something -- perhaps a lotus sutra, perhaps a Bronx oath -- then thrusts me in front of a mirror.

Lo and behold, I am not! Instead, I am a dumpy Westerner with deep-set eyes, a pointy nose and a wardrobe straight from Sam Walton.

"Well, whaddya know. No wonder I get double takes."

"You deserve double takes," she says. "You go with the Japanese landscape like Oscar Meyer goes with whipped cream. But I myself am much closer to strawberries than sliced bologna. Why can't people see that? Why do they question my nationality?"

I argue that if you walk and talk with bologna, some people are bound to assume that you're a kind of sandwich fixing too.

"OK, but how about on the phone? Why do some people speak like they're talking to an infant with poor hearing? My Japanese is just as native as theirs."

"Yes, but if you answer with a foreign name, some callers will naturally think you're from another country. That's only reasonable."

"And that caller this morning? The one that made me scream."

"The perfect example. How could that person possibly know you were Japanese?"

"Maybe because she was my sister."

". . . Oh."

Oh and then uh-oh. For my wife's rant about people doubting her nationality has two edges. First comes the grind of having to put up with clerks, cab drivers, cops and all the others who presuppose that because she can chat with a foreigner in a foreign tongue, she must be a foreigner too.

This "birds of a feather" outlook is forgivable perhaps, but the frustration comes from having to endure the same deja vu-like conversation over and over.

"My, your Japanese is good," says our waitress.

"It should be." My wife smiles. "I'm Japanese." Meanwhile, her nails dig trenches in the tabletop.

The second edge is edgier. Some people have expressed that by marrying a foreigner my wife has lost her Japanese essence. That her ethnic and cultural purity has been compromised. That by living with a foreigner she has caught the foreigner's culture the way a person might catch the flu. That she no longer thinks or acts the way a good Japanese should.

The scene develops like this: My wife gets into a disagreement with a friend, a neighbor or even a family member over some profound issue, like . . . oh, what to serve for lunch. When the disagreement spikes into an argument, the other side's final retort might be:

"Oh yeah? But that is not the way WE Japanese do things."

Indeed, this crack -- or a close approximation -- was once sprung on my wife by her very own sister. It's funny now, and the two still melt phone wires in endless conversations, but at the time it wasn't funny at all.

"At the moment," says my wife, "it is never funny."

For what, she will ask, is a good Japanese? Someone who boosts the GNP, watches NHK and then votes for the LDP? Or someone who worships all domestic heroes -- Hello Kitty, Ultraman, the Giants, etc. -- but dresses in foreign brands? Or is it someone who rejects the pervasive West and drinks their cappuccino only at Doutor, never Starbucks?

Or is it someone insecure with diversity? Someone who holds themselves up by nudging others down?

Not that such people are unique to Japan. Every culture has some shadowed nook where the unknown is feared and where pride trades places with prejudice.

Yet somehow -- maybe because of Japan's period of isolation, or its island mentality or because of the silly myth of one solitary Japanese "race" -- such attitudes gain voice quickly here. "We Japanese" is a noun phrase that often precedes an expression of exclusion, not unity.

Japanese who wade apart from the muddled mainstream need to be encouraged that they belong just as much as anyone else. They also need thick skins.

"Don't worry. I'm here for you," I tell my wife.

"That's the problem, isn't it?"

So I pinch her and comment that her skin seems thick enough.

"And couldn't it be that you're mistaken for a foreigner for none of the above? That there's yet another factor involved?"

"Which is?"

"Some say married couples come to resemble each other over time. Maybe that's what's happened. Maybe people now take you for my twin."

"Baloney," she says. "Or is it bologna? Anyway, I don't resemble you whatsoever. I look normal, not strange."

"Thank you, my evil twin."

So she returns my pinch and suggests that maybe it is I that have come to resemble her.

Could well be . . . for people say that I don't look Japanese either.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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