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