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Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2006

THE ZEIT GIST

Mind the gap

Accepting differences is vital to maintaining a relationship with a partner from abroad.


By Dr. CHIE OKUDA

While the exoticism of cultural otherness certainly adds something to the experience of meeting a lover from another country, differences can also be the source of annoyance and complications.

These frustrations lead many cross-cultural couples to seek psychotherapy. In Tokyo counseling is usually initiated by Westerners and it is most often Western men who wish to start couple therapy sessions with female Japanese partners who are reluctant to see a therapist. This is noteworthy considering that in other areas women tend to seek counseling more than men.

One common source of trouble for Western-Japanese couples is communicating about problems. Westerners, whether male or female, often complain that when they try to raise a concern they do not receive an equal degree of willingness to discuss the problem from their Japanese partner.

When reluctant Japanese partners feel pressed to talk, they may become quiet and withdraw even further to the point where they become highly emotional and upset.

Such behavior, indicative of considerable discomfort, can be viewed as a defensive reaction to the Westerner's "intrusion" into their partner's psychological comfort zone.

The Japanese enters a self-protective, self-preserving mode as unfamiliar situations seem potentially dangerous. When a person enters this mode and refuses to explore their partner's viewpoints, rational problem solving is hindered and communication reaches a standstill.

Take the case of James from Canada, who has been married to his Japanese wife, Emiko, for three years and still finds it difficult to talk about deeper issues.

"Whenever we talk about something important, Emiko becomes quiet, looking downcast as she gets a flat expression on her face. I feel very uncomfortable when she gets that way, and that becomes the end of our conversation," James said in a therapy session.

His initial frustration has turned to dissatisfaction over time, as he feels neglected by her unresponsiveness to issues of great importance to him and to them as a couple.

Emiko, on the other hand, is upset and unhappy for the opposite reason.

"James tries to press me to say my opinions about things that I don't know what to think about. I don't like it when he gets that way," she said. She also felt disappointed that James did not seem to care enough to guess and understand her feelings.

While Westerners are generally very open in expressing themselves verbally, Japanese tend to believe that being able to assume how a partner feels can show how much one truly cares.

When a couple's interactions and communication become as reactive as James and Emiko's, it is hard for them to share a sense of closeness. A couple may feel attached and bonded to each other, but frustrations and unresolved problems can pile up and make them unhappy.

This cross-cultural breakdown may be due to the difference in communication comfort zones for Japanese and Westerners. Japanese are said to be indirect in their communication style, which foreigners often believe to be too ambiguous. Westerners who grow up in individualistic Western cultures may find it difficult to comprehend the behavior of Japanese, who have a more collectivist orientation.

Those who grow up in an individualistic culture may co-operate and compromise as they make their thoughts and opinions known to others and can expect others to do the same. Contradictions and oppositions that arise in interpersonal relationships are also dealt with this way.

In Japan, however, where a more collectivist way of thinking is respected, the concept of "wa" (harmony) in groups is valued. It is not easy for Japanese people to state their viewpoints without thinking of the expectations of the group and the viewpoints of others.

The Japanese psyche is mindful of its place in relation to the group and that psychological process is engrained enough to frequently be subconscious. So despite James's good intentions, it may be that his wife felt at a loss for words, unable to clarify her personal opinions.

In the minds of many Japanese people, individual and collective identities may merge, and therefore it can feel selfish to focus on one's own individual needs. The complexity of individuality for the Japanese psyche may be beyond verbalization and thus better expressed nonverbally, in facial expressions, demeanor and behavior, for example.

This probably explains the "flat expression" on Emiko's face that her husband noticed.

This presumption and dependence upon another's benevolence in an intimate relationship -- as when Emiko said James "should guess her feelings" -- is known in Japanese as "amae" (dependence). Amae is the noun form of the adjective "amai," meaning sweet.

According to Takeo Doi, M.D., author of "The Anatomy of Dependence," amae is fundamental to Japanese relationships. When Emiko was upset, she would have felt better if James had responded to her amae as a Japanese would.

For James, however, amae is an unfamiliar notion, and he feels disappointed by Emiko's unresponsiveness to his needs. He would like Emiko to take him seriously enough to engage in an open conversation with him about important matters. When Westerners try to resolve problems in their relationships with Japanese partners in the usual Western way, it may not go smoothly, making communication differences problematic.

Cross-cultural couples who succeed in maintaining fulfilling relationships and marriages, characterized by a sense of security, intimacy and trust, do not passively view their differences as a cultural barrier, but instead learn to attend and proactively deal with each challenge.

To stop cultural differences interfering with a relationship, one must be aware of the effect cultural backgrounds have. Awareness is the first step toward exerting control over any aspect of life, including romantic relationships.

Personal and cultural differences overlap, so by acknowledging a cultural factor, one can take the blame off a person and make it easier to focus on the real issue at hand, without becoming emotionally reactive or defensive.

Unawareness or denial of cultural differences can lead to unrealistic expectations as individuals try to impose their own standards on someone with a different system of values and habits. Emiko might not have felt so unloved had she been aware of her own cultural bias and realized that her Japanese amae-based way of relating might be foreign to James, who might not have felt so discouraged by his wife's unfathomable facial expression and reluctance to openly attend to major problems.

If a partner does something that seems uncaring or fails to meet your expectations, it's best not make assumptions. Instead consider the partner's perspective with an inquisitive frame of mind, which will in turn increase the chance of your partner doing the same thing.

If an explanation does not make sense, try to refrain from the "I'm right you're wrong" defensive reaction which will always lead to problems. This is true for all couples, but even more so for relationships that have to cope with both cultural and individual differences.

Remember the beginning when that person from another country caught your attention. The differences were exciting.

Differences are attractive because they show you possibilities that lie beyond your individual limitations. Openness to differences creates an opportunity for you to grow and expand your horizons.

Dr. Chie Okuda is a Roppongi-based bilingual clinical psychologist/psychotherapist. If you have any questions regarding cross-cultural relationships, e-mail Dr. Okuda at okudacc@yahoo.co.jp

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