I don’t remember the first time I met my wife. Of course, she remembers. In my defense, we met at a live music event attended by a multitude of Japanese merrymakers—plus one foreign merrymaker. I met lots of wonderful Japanese people that evening, most of whom I don’t remember. If you believe my wife, she was one of those wonderful people.
A year later, fate would intervene by sending my future wife and me to the same 7-11 store at exactly the same time. Figure the odds. With a cast on my broken left wrist, I was there for my daily Japanese junk-food fix, a convenient way to avoid the hassle of cooking with one arm. It didn’t help that I’m left-handed.
My future wife approached me in front of the convenience store with a confidence and energy that commanded my attention. It’s funny that I remember her energy but couldn’t remember her name. She closed the deal with eye contact and a cheerful, energetic greeting. It was her energy that hooked me. I was smitten.
I managed to mumble a greeting in Japanese then proceeded to deliver the cleverest line I could think of: “Do I know you?”
To her credit, she didn’t get huffy or offended. She patiently told me her name and reminded me that we had met at a party and had a mutual friend, Ken’ichi, who at the time was my roommate.
Damned if her name went in one ear and out the other.
I went home and immediately cornered my roommate: “I need your help, Kenchan; I just met this Japanese lady at 7-11. She says she knows you, but I can’t remember her name.”
“Describe her,” commanded Ken’ichi in his best detective voice.
“About 5 foot 2, dark hair, and brown eyes.”
“That narrows it down to half of Japan’s population,” he deadpanned. “Can you give me a little more detail?”
Of course I couldn’t. Not even a little. And truth be told, I nearly gave up trying to figure out who the mysterious lady was. But then fate stepped in again. Just weeks after the 7-11 encounter, Ken’ichi and I were invited to a friend’s house for dinner. Unbeknownst to me at the time, our friend Takashi and his wife were acquaintances of my future wife. After a tasty meal our host fetched two guitars from his studio, and the post-dinner jam session was on. Between songs Takashi turned to me and said, “So, I heard you ran into Kurumi the other day in front of 7-11.”
I immediately found a pen and wrote down her name: “Walnut.” (For non-Japanese speakers, that’s a direct translation of “Kurumi.”) I also had the presence of mind to recruit Takashi as an accomplice in hooking me up with her. Walnut was now in my sites, and the hunt was on.
What’s It Like Being Married to a Japanese woman?
It’s tough to paint a fair picture with a broad brushstroke. For just like snowflakes, no two Japanese women are alike.
With that important disclaimer out of the way, allow me to debunk some myths about Japanese women and point out patterns of behavior that might make you think, “Wow, that’s really different than I expected.”
Delicate, Helpless Wallflowers?
Don’t let the soft, gentle demeanor of a Japanese woman fool you. Make no mistake about it, Japanese women are steely, resolute, downright scary if you underestimate them. My wife is particularly formidable when she’s hungry, the reason I keep her well fed.
Culturally speaking, Japan is still a “man’s world.” But it doesn’t logically follow that Japanese women are wimps. On the contrary, in contrast to the helpless “damsel in distress” portrayed in Europe’s feudal days of yore, women in Japan’s feudal times were expected to pick up a sword and fight to the death for their master, no special treatment in Samurai Land just because you’re a girl.
Fast forward to the present: my wife is mentally one of the toughest people I know. Lots of Japanese women–especially the over-fifty generation–have nerves of steel. As a cultural demographic they aren’t as susceptible to the emotional highs and lows that my heritage seems to embrace. In practical terms, it means that when I’m down, my wife never fails to pull me up. And when I’m riding high she always brings me down to Earth. It’s a yin-yang relationship for sure.
If you want to know where the hidden power is in Japan, then follow the money. Japanese women overwhelmingly control the home finances, which means they drive a huge portion of Japan’s massive economy.
Are Japanese Women Subservient?
(The picture above clearly illustrates who is subservient in this relationship.)
Men who are married to Japanese women will laugh at this question. Some will cry. Contrary to popular myth, Japanese women don’t kowtow to their husbands. They may nod their heads while you’re talking, but that doesn’t mean they are agreeing to obey you. From my experience, Japanese women do what they damn well please. The most macho guy in the world is no match for a resolute Japanese woman. Once a Japanese woman makes up her mind to do something, then that’s just how it is going to be.
Are Japanese Women Romantic?
I can’t speak for other Japanese women, but if my wife were romantic, I’d surely be divorced by now. Every year I forget our anniversary. Fortunately for me, my wife forgets too, so we quickly forgive each other and move on.
Every year, my wife has to remind me in advance that her birthday is coming up lest I let it pass without my special birthday massage, the only present she wants because it costs nothing. Worse, I never give her flowers, and greeting cards are rare. We just don’t do the romantic things that traditional Western couples deem important. And yet we’re happy!
By now, you are wondering how this is possible.
The key reason is that my wife doesn’t like to do romantic things. She’s not a “girlie girl.” Deep below her petite feminine exterior beats the heart of a tomboy, and here’s proof: she has an intimate understanding of the rules of American football, can throw a tight spiral, never watches chick movies, is low maintenance, and doesn’t complain when I do guy things. In other words, Kurumi thinks and acts like a guy.
Keep in mind that when we talk about Japanese attitudes toward romance, we’re dealing with a wide bell curve, not to mention that different generations have their own standards. Naturally, there are extreme exceptions. For example, if I were to map out Kurumi’s position on the “bell curve of romance,” she would be on the far outer fringe of the unromantic side.
This means she would rather get something useful for her birthday, like a pick-up truck (as pictured above) instead of a silly diamond ring. It means that she would scold me if I ever had the bad judgment to buy her something as useless as a diamond ring–which I couldn’t do even if I wanted to since I’d need her permission to buy it in the first place. See, we even have safety mechanisms in place to prevent me from buying her the wrong gift. It’s a totally fail-proof system for even the most clueless husband.
It might also surprise you to learn that many Japanese women are not fond of the “L-word,” an attractive prospect for any romantically challenged guy. Most Japanese will go through life never saying “I love you” to their spouses. The gooey romantic talk gives them the willies.
Don’t misconstrue this to mean that Japanese spouses don’t love each other. Many couples in Japan have loving relationships. But verbalizing feelings of love is not as important in Japan as in the West; words simply don’t carry the same weight.
How Successful are Intercultural Marriages in Japan?
If you believe the statistics in this article from 2014, the divorce rate for “international couples” was about 40% percent, while according to this article, one in three marriages in Japan end in divorce. Statistics vary depending on the source, but everywhere I’ve checked, international marriages have higher divorce rates than those among Japanese couples. It doesn’t surprise me.
On an anecdotal note, my wife and I have met many Japanese/American intercultural couples over the course of our marriage. We are struck by how many couples are on different planets, and the number of these marriages that don’t last.
When we socialize with mixed Japanese-American couples (in most cases Japanese females/American males), after the initial introductions and chitchat, there’s a tendency for the Japanese wives to strike up their own conversation in Japanese while the men gab away in English. For whatever reason, we always seem to create a physical “gender buffer,” although it’s not done consciously. With some exceptions, the husbands usually end up in basements or garages while our better halves gravitate to the kitchen. The result is that two distinctly separate conversations take place in the course of the evening: the American men’s point of view versus the Japanese women’s point of view.
After these engagements, my wife and I can’t help but compare notes. We always find gaps in relationships, some critical, some trivial, others downright funny.
This is not a knock on intercultural couples. In fact, it would be very odd if there weren’t gaps. The problem is not simply a matter of Japanese and Western cultures being dramatically different. It’s exacerbated when these differences are invisible to both partners. When this happens, one or both spouses can easily fall into the trap of assuming they’re on the same page when they are not, the most dangerous assumption you can make in the artful dance of communication.
Years ago, I remember an American acquaintance gushing how great his marriage was while his Japanese wife quietly confessed to my wife how lonely and isolated she felt. The gaps are not always so extreme, but gaps abound.
Common Gaps Between Japanese and American Interracial Couples
In my experience, American men (particularly those who have never lived in Japan) generally don’t make the effort to understand their Japanese spouse’s culture. Many have no clue that their wives feel lonely and isolated.
What also surprised me was that a certain percentage of American husbands don’t like Japanese food. It may seem trivial, but food is a strong cultural force that can put strains on a relationship. Here’s my advice to American husbands: let your poor wife enjoy Japanese cuisine, and maybe give it a try yourself?
The language barrier is usually much bigger than the American husband realizes (assuming he doesn’t speak Japanese). In some cases, the Japanese wife barely understands half of hubby’s English ramblings, but she’ll nod while pretending to listen because it’s just not worth the aggravation to ask for clarification. No wonder the American husband thinks he and his wife are on the same page. He has no clue that his poor wife is keeping her feelings bottled up inside to maintain harmony!
And these differences just scratch the surface. Throw in the crazy idiosyncrasies we all have, potential fallout from religious differences, not to mention different attitudes toward sex, money, and rock-n-roll, and you’ve got a murky brew of marital juices to stew in.
I spent ten years immersed in Japan where I studied the culture and learned to speak the language fluently. My wife has since lived in America for over 30 years and speaks fluent English. We understand each other intimately on both a personal and cultural level. Over the years, we’ve learned to deal with hidden surprises that occasionally blindside us. More often than not, it is different perceptions of what is “funny.”
(Disclaimer: The graphic above is a conversation that never took place. Woe be to me if it had. But I’d be disingenuous to pretend that bridging the sarcasm gap hasn’t been a challenge.)
We are both happy and our marriage is strong. And we still stumble. Imagine the challenges other intercultural couples face who don’t have the knowledge we have. Basic human variation between two people is challenging enough. It’s exponentially more challenging having language and culture gaps to further muddy the waters.
Japanese protocol forbids me to say anything nice about what’s-her-name. 🙂 I’m supposed to tell you she’s a wretched, foolish wife. Japanese culture dictates I say this not because it’s true, but because saying nice things about a family member is akin to bragging about yourself since, in a collective society, family members are considered a part of you. To avoid any hint of bragging, Japanese go to the opposite extreme and say terrible things about their spouses and children. They don’t mean a word of it. Well, most of the time they don’t.
But since I’m not Japanese, I’m under no cultural obligation to tell you how “wretched” my wife is. Truth is I’m kind of fond of her. Even the vaunted L-word doesn’t do justice to my feelings, so I’ll just leave it at that.
After 36 years together, my wife knows all my quirks, peccadillos and bad jokes, and yet she still chooses to stay with me. It’s her way of saying, “I love you.” What more can a guy ask for?
As a final disclaimer, my wife’s personality belongs to her and her alone. But I believe she embodies the best qualities that Japanese culture has to offer.
Parting Advice for Intercultural Couples
Take the time to learn about each other’s cultures. Visit each other’s countries. (Try living in both if it’s an option.) Study the other’s language. Put yourself in the other’s shoes by imagining the loneliness that comes with living in a foreign culture. Never assume common values. Embrace your differences. Do things together. Eat good food, be respectful, and give massages often. Be patient and gentle. And most important, keep your sense of humor.
For more on international marriages check out Married to an Alien: Can Love Conquer Culture?
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009