Samurai Wife: the Myth About Subservient Japanese Women

SamWifClose

I don’t remember the first time I met my wife. Of course she remembers. In my defense it was at a party attended by lots of Japanese people. No surprise that I met many wonderful Japanese people that evening, most of whom I don’t remember. My wife 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 the exact same time. (Yes, Japan has lots of 7-11s.) 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. Yeah, 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, Keni, 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, Keni; I just met this Japanese lady at 7-11. She says she knows you. But I can’t remember her name.”

“Describe her,” commanded Keni 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 Keni 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 great meal our host fetched two guitars from his studio, and the post-dinner jam session was on. Between songs Takashi turned to me nonchalantly, and said, “So, I heard you ran into Kurumi the other day in front of 7-11.”

I found a pen and wrote down her name. I also had the presence of mind to recruit Takashi as an accomplice in hooking me up with her. Kurumi 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. The only certainty in my mind is how I feel about my wife as an individual. (And she’s perfect :-)) But 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 say, “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 crossed–even more so when you underestimate them. (My wife is particularly formidable when she’s hungry, the reason I keep her well fed.)

Yes, culturally 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 American culture embraces. 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. As a demographic Japanese housewives make most of the family’s financial decisions. In this context they drive a huge portion of Japan’s massive economy.

Are Japanese Women Subservient?

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 it doesn’t mean they are agreeing to obey you.) Younger Japanese women today are even less deferential than their mothers were. From my experience, Japanese women do what they damned well please. The most macho guy in the world is no match for a stubborn, resolute Japanese woman. Once a Japanese woman makes up her mind to do anything, well, then that’s just how it is going to be.

Are Japanese Women Romantic?

If they were I’d be divorced by now. Every year I forget our anniversary. Fortunately for me, Kurumi forgets too so we quickly forgive each other.

Every year Kurumi has to remind me in advance that her birthday is coming up lest I let it pass without my special birthday massage. Worse, I never give her flowers or presents, and greeting cards are rare. We just don’t do the “romantic things” that traditional Western couples love to do. And yet we’re happy!

By now you are wondering how this is possible.

The key 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, 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 anything 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 situation for even the most clueless husband.

It might also surprise you to learn that most 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 couples don’t love each other. Some actually do share deep feelings of intimacy. It’s simply not necessary or even acceptable in Japan to verbalize intimate feelings; words just don’t carry the same weight in Japan as in the West.

How Successful are Interracial Marriages in Japan?

It’s tempting to assume that interracial marriages in Japan have a lower-than-average divorce rate than that of Japanese couples, but the data don’t support it. If you believe the stats in 2003 from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the divorce rate among Japanese couples was 38 percent while the divorce rate for “international couples” was slightly higher at 42 percent. (The number doesn’t surprise me, but I’m interested in finding more recent stats.)

On an anecdotal level, my wife and I have met many Japanese/American interracial couples over the course of our marriage. And we are struck by how many couples are on different planets, and the number of cross-cultural marriages that don’t survive.

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. Guys end up in basements and garages while women gravitate to the kitchen. (This is not a sexist preference, just based on my limited empirical observation.) 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 cross-cultural spousal engagements, Kurumi and I can’t help but compare notes. It’s amazing how often we 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 American cultures being dramatically different. It’s exacerbated when these differences are invisible to both partners. In this case, spouses 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 Kurumi how lonely and isolated she felt. The gaps are not always so extreme, but gaps abound.

Common Gaps Between Japanese and American Interracial Couples

Too often American men don’t make the effort to understand their Japanese spouse’s culture. Most have no clue that their wives feel lonely and isolated.

A certain percentage of American husbands have decided they don’t like Japanese food. It may seem trivial, but food is a strong cultural force that can put strains on a relationship. My advice to American husbands: why not compromise and let the wife enjoy Japanese cuisine now and then?

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 surprise then that the American husband thinks his Japanese spouse understands and agrees with everything he’s saying. Of course he’s happy in the relationship! He doesn’t know that his poor wife is keeping her feelings bottled up inside to maintain harmony.

I spent 10 years immersed in Japanese culture and speak fluent Japanese. Kurumi has been immersed in America for well over 20 years and speaks fluent English. We understand each other intimately on both personal and cultural levels. Yet even we fall victim to cross-cultural communication gaps. Over the years we’ve gotten better at dealing with these “surprises.”

We are both happy and our marriage is strong. And still we stumble. Imagine the challenge for other intercultural couples without the benefit of knowledge that we have. Basic human variation between two people is challenging enough. It’s so much tougher to have a language and culture gap to further complicate matters.

Japanese protocol forbids me to say anything nice about what’s-her-name (just kidding Kurumi :-)) I’m supposed to tell you what a wretched wife she is, that she’s a useless, worthless human being. 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 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.

But as an American I see my wife as an independent, beautiful individual. And of course love her. The vaunted L-word doesn’t do justice to my feelings either, but I’ll just leave it at that.

By now Kurumi knows all my  flaws and still chooses to stay with me. It’s her way of saying, “I love you.”

As a final disclaimer, my wife’s personality belongs to her alone, and is not reflective of your typical Japanese housewife. 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

30 responses to “Samurai Wife: the Myth About Subservient Japanese Women

  1. presentthinking

    I really enjoyed this post. I lived in Japan for about five years and developed many close friendships with Japanese women. My interest in feminism led to many discussions with my Japanese friends on the differences in how we conduct our most personal relationships. It makes me sad when westerners discount the strength of Japanese women and don’t even attempt to understand the pragmatism of Japanese culture and how this informs so much of the relationships between men and women. Romance is such a western concept. Your post also reminded me of amusing conversations between Japanese friends where they try to top each other in insulting their husbands and children (“no, your son is so much smarter than mine”).

  2. Thanks for the kind words. So glad someone is out there who can relate to this.

    Btw, where were you in Japan? I was in Yamato, not too far from Yokohama. Loved every minute I was there. Yeah, Japan is second only to Hawaii (my current home).

    Stay in touch!

    Tim

  3. Hello Tim,

    I read your post with a smile as I think of the asian womens I know, my Mom inclueded, have the same pattern, Strong and looking soft on the outside.

    Good post.

    A.

  4. Thanks for checking in again Andy!

  5. No worries Tim.

    The woman, the tree of the family. Can you imagine what it stands for an asian woman to make the family unite, despite wars, revolutions or just an absent guy?

    I have tremendous respect for them even though I admit I dread a relationship with an asian woman (none of them have been asians to this days lol).

    A.

  6. Your post had me laughing and crying at the same time. Very unique take on things.

    One of my college girlfriends was “FOB” from Japan (not to be rude)… I remember she came to my dorm to get assistance in one of her classes from one of my roommates. My roommate had the hots for her… I ended up scoring her if you will.

    That was a very strange relationship and we ended up living together for about 7 months. We had a great 2 story “Presidential Suite” at Waiakea Villa Condo’s which had a “furo” that we could both soak in. It was a great little apartment.

    Problem was… is that she was very jealous and over protective, and I’m a very social person. One time I had a group project for class, and it just so happened that it was only 4 of us in this group… two guys and two girls.

    It was my turn to host the “Group Project” homework and my girlfriend just about flipped out on the fact that I brought over 2 girls with only one guy despite the fact it was a group project.

    Jealousy hit me in the face everytime something would happen. I wasn’t allowed any female friends at all. It got really ugly one day and I had to leave her after she literally was getting psycho on me.

    Now I’m married to a Half Japanese Half Hawaiian Tita.

    So I get both the Japanese Ninja after me and the Hawaiian Tita flying shoes at me!

    Great blog and it really made me remember some things.

    It is weird that all of my life… I have always been attracted to “Asian” girls just because I thought they were “unique”.

    I guess that goes from my upbringing in this all white town north of Seattle. Well not all white… but pretty much all white.

  7. Thought you might like this trailer I put on my blog:

    http://damontucker.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/honokaa-boy-the-film-trailer/

  8. Thanks for your earlier comments, Damon, and also for the link to the movie trailer. I heard about the filming a couple months ago. Looking forward to seeing it.

    Readers interested in current events in Hawaii, definitely check out Damon’s blog!

  9. Hello Tim. Great post, enjoyed it very much. It’s always interesting to hear such personal stories.

    I was nodding in agreement with most of what you said. The only thing I’d take issue with is the idea that people in Japan “are judged by their actions not by their words”. I’m not sure that’s strictly true. I’d say people are judged on the style of their actions more than the substance.

    Take, as a quick example, formal apologies. Personally I can’t bear them, but it’s a cultural given that a deep bow or prostration fixes all things, up to and including poisoning your customers.

    In working situations, people often have a carefully cultured air of appearing busy, even when they’re not. In terms of ‘action’, a lot of effort goes in to keeping up appearances. And that’s a large component of the oil that keeps the wheels of Japanese society turning, in my opinion.

    • Aloha overoften-san!

      I agree that people in Japan are judged by “the style of their actions”–well stated. Yeah, appearing to make an effort in Japan is just as important as the actual output of work, I see it all the time. Using your (more accurate) verbiage, the conclusion is the same: words don’t carry the same weight in Japan as in the West, certainly not “I love you.”

      By the way, your blog is very interesting and well written. Thanks for your perspective and also for checking in.

      Aloha,

      Tim

      P.S. For the record my wretched wife cares only about action and tangible results, not a whit about style😮

  10. Hi, Tim

    I understand you so much. About Romance, I think young generation want it so much. It is because of TV Drama. Japanese education is changing so fast because of the Media. Young age is difficult to control too much information.

    Taka

  11. Thanks for checking in Taka-san!

  12. Ok… I’ve waited long enough…

    Time for the nudge…

    Do I have to starve myself until you post again?

  13. Your wish is my command, Damon. Thanks for the nudge🙂

  14. Aloha Tim! Great post. My wife Noriko and Kurumi sound quite similar…in order to better understand our family I had my wife and four adult children (plus me) take the StrengthsFinder.com web based analysis to identify the top five strengths (out of 34) for each one of us.

    My wife is two top strengths were activator and achiever…i.e. she needed to be doing something always…and my top strenth is as a maximizer…always thinking about how to do the 20% action which generates the 80% of the results. This insight REALLY helped both her and I understand a key difference in our personalities…and it also helped us better understand our adult children and vice versa…Tom Rath is the author and it is available in book form at Borders…has a code in the book which allows you to take the web based analysis.

  15. David Carvalho

    あなたの美しい武士の妻へのとてもよく文書による捧げ物!

  16. David Carvalho

    I hope I didn’t curse you in Japanese on the last comment LOL!

  17. Tim,

    I loved your article. I have been searching for something like this for 10 years. During the 7 years I dated my wife, she was very loving and affectionate. Then she broke up with me and we got married 2 years later, but I never did see that affection again. We have been married 2 years now and she asked me for a divorce. Based on your article, I think she is lonely and we have a big cultural gap. I spent 1 week in japan and have been learning the language. But, because of my career (working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week) I never had the energy or time to give our relationship more focus. Now I have the time and energy. We tried a marriage counselor who speaks both japanese and english but that was useless. No matter what I do, I cannot get her to open up to me to talk about our relationshipo and how to fix it. I still love her with all my heart, but she will have none of that.

    Do you have any suggestions?

    Mike

  18. Dear JapanInsight,

    As the story of Mike — forlorn husband facing a cultural gap and its attendant tribulations — has been apparently relegated to the back-channel of the email, I must register my disappointment. Perhaps I speak for others as well.

    Are we not here to parse the broad aspects of the bi-cultural relationship?

    After all, Mike has candidly shared of the challenges he faces — challenges that may very well stem from the very topic at hand. You’d do your loyal readers a service by conducting your insight in more transparent ways.

    So, as you won’t, I’m gonna pull up a chair with my “taihen” brother:

    Mike, why are you even married if’n you work 14 hours a day, six days a week. Best I can tell, that perhaps leaves you with time to sleep and poop – if you’re lucky. Now if you’ve made baby/s with said bride, why we’re onto another dynamic. Have you? Dude, we’re pulling for you, but you gotta provide more fodd… I mean info for clarity’s sake. For example, you living in Japan? Stateside? What? Where’s your bride from? I had a Japanese gf from Kagoshima almost slice my nuts right off. Have you read Doi’s “Anatomy of Amaeru” (something like that)? You should. Anyway, I could go on, but suffice to say that you’d have to offer up some more particulars of what sucks in your relationship — admittedly, not the first thing a person thinks to do on the internet. Still, this is a good field trip for Timmu-sensei’s blog (which he’d know, I’d think).

    Best of luck,
    Darren

  19. Damn Darren, you can lay the guilt on thicker than my Irish-Catholic mother ever did, and that’s quite a feat…

    Looking at the sensitivity of the topic, my reaction was to email our new friend Mike san privately. But after being subjected to Darren’s on-line tongue-lashing and re-reading my email to Mike, I figured Mike wouldn’t mind if I posted the key points of my email. The caveat is that I am proudly NOT a licensed therapist (nor is Darren, ha ha) so take our advice for what it’s worth. You can choose to do all, none or some of the options below:

    OPTION ONE will cost you nothing but can be rough on the ego: “reflect” on what you feel you’ve done (or not done) to make your wife unhappy. (The Japanese word for reflection is “hansei”, pronounced “haan say”.) Then make your hansei list–all issues focused on YOUR shortcomings not hers–and promises on what you plan to do to change.

    OPTION TWO is radical: consider moving to Japan. Now of all times it would show a commitment to your wife and–I assume–her family in Japan (not to mention you’d learn more about her culture.) Assuming you don’t currently live in Japan, it would mean a change of careers. But in light of the fact that over 100,000 foreigners have left Tokyo due to the disaster and nuclear fears, I’m guessing that when Japan gets back on its feet, some of that lost manpower will need to be replaced.

    OPTION THREE—If the above option is too radical then consider taking your wife on a trip somewhere special, Hawaii comes to mind (yeah, I’m partial since I live here). And if you come to the Big Island we might even “counsel” you guys…over a glass of wine perhaps?😉

    As Darren said, “Anatomy of Dependence” is a great way to deepen your understanding of what make the Japanese tick, specifically the concept of “amae” (indulgence) within the context of Japanese culture.

    Best of luck!

  20. Well, Mike, I did encourage you to elaborate, so I really should chime in.

    Er, I tend to go with a state of affairs that says: If you want to be with each other, then do so; and if you don’t, don’t.

    Or the unvarnished version: Dude, it sounds pretty lame.

    Then again, “love” is a wildcard, thanks goodness.

    Good luck and remember to always be kind if at all possible.

    Darren

  21. I loved this article. I have been married to a fantastic strong minded and occasionally a bit intimidating Japanese woman for 8 years now and have spent many conversations explaining to people that the meek, mild, subservient Japanese woman is a lot like Sasquatch . You hear a lot about them but I have never seen one.

  22. Are religious differences an issue?

  23. Tim, your mention of not using the love word reminds of the scene from Fiddler on the Roof where each one asks the other, “Do you love me.” They respond by saying all the things they do for each other as proof of their love. Though at the end of the scene they say ,”After all these years, it is finally nice to know.”

  24. Great reading! I think because Asian women can control what they say, they may give the impression to outsiders that they are meek. Quite the opposite, when my wife gets quiet then I need to figure out what went wrong.

  25. My wife and I are coming up to 10 years of marriage this September. This is a great article. It’s the first time I’ve seen/heard someone else make this observation;

    “…spouses 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.”

    I completely agree. That’s the secret to our always-improving relationship.

    P.S. Small bit of trivia. My wife feels that the english “I love you” has more meaning and impact than if I say it in Japanese. “aishiteru” doesn’t carry much weight😛 She’s romantic, yes, but never in public.

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