Japan: Not All Silk and Sushi

I have now lived in this country for 40 years. It is my home. I will die and be buried in this soil. I have learned many things and there is much I admire about this country. It is so much a part of me, that I don’t think I could ever live in America again. When I visit there, I feel I no longer belong.

That said, I must admit that Japan is not an open or friendly society though it may seem to be to the casual visitor. As a daughter-in-law in a traditional Japanese family, I was not accepted for many years, and then only partially. I married an only son, a special entity who must carry on the family line in a society that is very particular about purity in the bloodline.

People in the neighborhood went out of their way to be friendly. A lot of people were looking out for me and gave advice and aid in many hard times. It was through these countless kindnesses that I survived. That and faith in God has brought me through.

However, my first days in Japan are not pleasant to recall. I was a victim of spousal abuse. At that time I could not speak Japanese nor did I have a friend to confide in. That was when I became close to God.

Great grandma’s funeral

It is true that I have often gotten special treatment because I was a foreigner. Shopkeepers would give me a discount. In those days, there were very few foreigners in Japan. It is amusing to recall how school children would stare wide-eyed and say, “Gaijin! (Foreigner!) “How tall! How scary!”

Yet, though I am no longer angry towards this society, there were many instances when my two daughters were excluded or hurt by ostracism or verbal bullying. Going to Japanese schools and looking almost Japanese, they had a quite different experience than I did.

Edward G. Seidensticker, the most prominent American Japanologist, studied at Harvard and the University of Tokyo and eventually translated “The Tale of Genji” and other classical works into English, Though he loved Japan, he decided to leave  in 1962 and had this to say:

The Japanese are just like other people. They work hard to support their– but no. They are not like other people. They are infinitely more clannish, insular, parochial and one owes it to one’s sense of self-respect to retain a feeling of outrage at the insularity. To have this sense of outrage go dull is to lose one’s will to communicate and that, I think, is death. So I am going home.

He uses quite strong language. But I do not think he overstated the situation. The pressure to conform to accepted modes of behavior, to do as others do, is very strong here. If one doesn’t, he is ostracized and becomes isolated and alone.

I once talked to a professor from Hiroshima University who was amazed how well I had assimilated into Japanese society. He thought few foreigners could do so. I am not unique however. The same must be true of many women who married into a traditional Japanese family where their personal freedom was strictly limited.

Set apart: daughter-in-law (Year 3)

Today, Japan is changing. People from many countries are living and working in Japan. On the surface, some things have changed. But many prejudices and precedents remain the same. Especially here in the countryside we are expected to conform to the system set in place years ago.

I divorced after 14 years and have never regretted that decision. I had become so obedient as a wife and daughter-in-law, that I had lost my own ability to think or speak for myself. After we separated, I felt as if I had been  emancipated and, though I struggled to raise my two daughters alone, and was often ill, I was so glad to be free. It was hard to be in excruciating pain from a migraine and have my husband berate me, “What?! Sick again?! Where’s my dinner?”

After being married for 6 years, my mother-in-law  said to me,” I have nothing against you personally. It is just that I have always believed that Japanese should only marry Japanese, so I cannot accept you .” I did try very hard to be accepted and to obey her.

Yes, I am now married to a Japanese man who treats me with dignity and equality. I am no longer subject to the strictures of the Japanese family. I am now free to do as I please. But just yesterday I talked with a Japanese woman who is utterly dependent on and obedient to her husband of many years and she is very unhappy.

It seems this is not the case with the younger generation as young woman now divorce if they are the least bit unhappy. Whether this is an improvement, I am doubtful.

Going home for a Visit (1974)

Though Japan rapidly modernized from the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japanese social mores did not. Even today, much of the traditional structure remains the same. Women do not receive the same pay for the same work They are rarely promoted to executive positions. Women are expected to keep quiet and listen when men are speaking.

I am reminded of a scene in a novel by Ishikawa Tatsuzo. At an after school meeting of teachers who are discussing going on strike,  only the men speak up while the female teachers sit and munch on rice crackers and drink tea. No one wants to hear their opinions. (Ningen no Kabe )

These days young women do speak up more. They have more freedom than the bride of 40 years ago. In fact some mother-in-laws may even be cowed by their daughter-in-laws nowadays. But the insularity and narrow attitudes definitely remain.

I hope more and more Japanese will come to accept people who are different and not look down on them or shut them out of the group. Just this morning I was watching the news and heard  of another junior high school boy who killed himself because he was bullied and intentionally ignored at school.

Before he did it, he sent a text message to one of the kids who was harassing him. “I want to kill myself.” The other boy replied, “Just do it!” so he jumped off the roof of his family’s 14-story condo. He was just 13 years old.

I have lived here so long and have seen and experienced so much. Japan is my country but these are things I cannot accept or ignore. As Seidensticker said, we must never lose the sense of outrage at such things.

(Does this go on in other countries? I’d like to hear you comments on any of these issues or your experiences)

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. beckynielsen
    Jul 07, 2012 @ 16:41:44

    There is so much to say in reply – may just touch on a few of the things. First, I loved seeing the pictures of you as a young woman and mother – beautiful of you and your darling daughter. And then such heartache! How terrible it must have been to be experiencing such ostracism from your first husband’s family, abusive behavior on his part – and to not even speak the language well! Talk about isolation! Desolation! At least when I’ve had hard times, I’ve known the territory and the language so that wasn’t an added stress!
    And yet, there are people all over the world who find ways to offer kindnesses. For that we can always be grateful.
    I read one of Ishakawa Tatsuo’s books – forget the name, but think it was his most well known one – loved it. What a terrific writer! Gave such a sense of that rigidity of culture.
    Bullying is a serious problem everywhere – a friend of my grandson’s experienced this last fall and it was shocking to see how little the school or police were able or willing to help. He is ok, now, but it was a terrible time. Read Jodi Picoult’s book Nineteen Hours, I think – powerfully written, alarming.
    I admire your courage in opening up these topics.


  2. leahmama1
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 00:33:18

    Thanks.I really appreciate your thoughts as I didn’t know whether to post this or not. It’s hard to express the true situation. If you remember, tell me which of Ishikawa’s books your read! I feel bad about writing so many negative things but, to be honest, I’m really glad my daughters are living and raising kids in the US instead of here!


  3. cheerfulwoman
    Jul 20, 2012 @ 22:08:15

    I feel so complicated about both Japanese and American (U.S.) culture and lifestyles. I haven’t been able to write a reply to this, because it touches on so many things and most are difficult to express. Thank you for sharing your experiences.


  4. leahmama1
    Jul 21, 2012 @ 07:40:13

    Thanks for reading it! I appreciate your thoughts!


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