Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Secret Life as a Japanese Housewife

I was the only girl on my 3rd grade Y-basketball team. Throughout my elementary school years, I spent hours at the Y practicing my shot and could beat just about any boy who challenged me to a game of one-on-one, no matter how old he was. I've lost more than a few boyfriends and potential boyfriends by beating them in a number of different sports.

Before I moved to Japan to teach English, friends and family members joked about my finding a Japanese husband. I couldn't think of a more absurd scenario. Super-independent, tomboy me, falling for an old-fashioned, chauvinistic Japanese man? Never! Well, we all know how that turned out. It's also probably obvious by now that Ren is no more a "typical" Japanese man than I am a "typical" American woman. Stereotypes are never useful. Still, my fierce competitiveness (along with a number of other "un-ladylike traits") made me a less-than-ideal candidate for becoming a Japanese housewife.

Despite my best intentions, however, I spent more than two years of my life in that role. Like many Japanese housewives, I had a Japanese husband, a kid, and a part-time job. Unlike them, I'm not Japanese, my kid was a step-kid and my job was teaching at a national university, but I suppose I fit the role just the same. Before I married Ren, several of my Japanese friends warned me against becoming the wife of the oldest son. The role of daughter-in-law is never an easy one, made much worse when living with one's in-laws. And as the wife to the oldest son in a family from somewhat rural Japan, I had the distinct pleasure of living with my mother-in-law after Ren and I married.

When we dated and talked about getting married, Ren was anything but the typical Japanese man. He cooked, he cleaned, he shopped. He expected me to be and do who and what I wanted. Unfortunately, one man's expectations can't hold up to an entire culture's. First of all, Ren's mother did not want Ren in the kitchen. That was my job. The hardest part of married life for me was cooking. As a single person, I "cooked" but this usually entailed boiling pasta, melting cheese on tortilla chips, or making berry smoothies--hardly food I could serve to my new Japanese insta-family. After all, I went from being single to living with not only Ren but also Ren's daughter Big Sissy and Ren's mom, Ba-chan.

Worse. Breakfast in Japan cannot merely be cereal, a banana and some yogurt. No, there is usually miso soup, rice, and some kind of fish involved. "Western" breakfast invariably include fried eggs, toast and a salad. For someone who could barely manage pouring cereal in a bowl that early in the morning, the breakfast expectations seemed unbelievably high. While making breakfast, I was also expected to make boxed lunches (bento) for Ren, Big Sissy and I as well as dinner for Ren who usually worked well past dinner time. Given that I was the kid who never ate breakfast because I couldn't stand the sight of food before say, 9 a.m., this was not easy.

Mornings were made more challenging by the fact that Ba-chan threw down the gauntlet regarding wake up time. If I got up at 7, she got up at 6:30. If I got up at 6:30, she got up at 6. If I got up at 6, well..., you can figure it out. Not one to back down from a challenge, I would peel myself out of the futon at 5:30 and before even opening my eyes, I could get the rice washed and cooked, start a pot of soup, and finish making half of the bentos. By the time everyone was up at 7, I had everything cooked and on the table, the laundry in the washing machine and the futons shaken and stored in the closet.

I wish I could say that I learned something enlightening from being a Japanese housewife for two+ years, but mainly I just got very, very annoyed. I decided that women in Japan have to work a lot harder than women in the US. Not just with cooking, but with shopping--since refrigerators are smaller and food fresher, most women shop every day or at least several times a week. Since Japanese houses are more permeable to the outside, most women dust and vacuum daily. Since washing machines are smaller and fill up sooner, daily loads of laundry have to be hung out in the sun (most families do not have dryers). Sleeping on futons means that bedding has to be shaken out and folded up every morning and aired out at least once a week. When I was a Japanese housewife, there was an insane amount of work each and every day. It helped to have a husband who vacuumed, a job I could go to, and a sense of humor, and most of all, it helped that we finally left Japan for the US.

My time as a Japanese housewife mostly taught me about the sacrifices we make for each other when we get married, sacrifices that seem more extreme when the marriage is an international one. Ren has sacrificed as much or more since we came to the US. Knowing how hard it was for me in Japan, my sense of gratitude for his sacrifices is tempered by a sense of guilt since I have a good idea of what he is going through.


NOTE: I should probably note that these stereotypes regarding the roles of men and women are much more entrenched in rural Japan than they are, say, in Tokyo, and of course, there are exceptions to these stereotypes just about anywhere. Sometimes sweeping generalizations make for more interesting blog posts, though...


Alyss said...

Wow, that sounds like so much work! I have been looking around on the net for awhile about the difference in Japanese housewives and America. It seems there is a lot a pressure and expectations compared! You must have been glad to go back to America, I can't see myself getting up at 5:30am to do all that! Wow! Kudos to you for actually rising to the challenge!

Ruthie said...

Aaaahahaaha, I just found your blog, and it's so enjoyable. My husband's Japanese, and I've lived with his family in rural Japan for the past 13 years. I paid my dues with early mornings and box lunches, and now my kids are grown and off to college....finally I can sleep in and get a sense of balance in my life. I'll catch up and read some of your other entries as well. My own blog is "Kanagawa Notebook", if you're's pretty serious, but then things here are fairly serious these days. I appreciated the humor in your writing. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm currently an active duty Navy Officer living in Yokosuka and an XO of a command on base (like the vice president). My husband is the stay at home husband who works part time. when we go to bi-lateral socials with the Japanese, they always laugh when they realize our roles are reveresed and he does the shopping and cooking and i go to work everyday. it seems very odd and backwards here...very 1950s. i laugh everytime we get the odd questions.

Anonymous said...

This blog was really helpful to me. I'm currently the girlfriend of a Japanese man.We met in a University. He will become a Salaryman starting in April which is less than 4 months away. I'm currently still living in America until I graduate. He wants me to marry him eventually although we aren't yet engaged. I've been worrying about the demands and expectations of the Japanese housewife as well as how little the wives see their husbands who come home very very late at night. He, coincidentally, is also the eldest son in the family, which means I would also inherit responsibility for caring for his parents. What I would like to know is, how did you convince your husband to come to the United States with you because my boyfriend refuses and says that if he leaves his job his career is finished and also he can't abandon his parents. Do you have some wisdom to impart? Thank you.

Mom on the Edge said...

Dear anonymous,

Your question hits at some of the biggest issues facing a Japanese-man/American-woman couple. Your boyfriend is right. If he leaves his job and comes to America he will sacrifice his career. If he is the eldest son, he will also be doing something that is extremely unfilial. Those are two huge sacrifices that would weigh heavily on any relationship. In our case, Ren had already had a 20+ year successful career as a civil servant. He'd also already spent 20+ years caring for his parents and fulfilling the role of eldest son. So, he was ready, able and willing to make the move. As he put it when I posed your question to him, "It takes a certain kind of guy to do what I did." Still, even though Ren made that choice, we've had plenty of difficult times. 

There's no way around the fact that international marriage is tough, particularly when you have the factors you describe in play. All I can say is, you have to take the cultural issues seriously and hope that you can  reach a compromise that works for you both. The key is to keep the sacrifices you both make in balance. Too far one way or the other and there will be too much resentment to overcome. 

icansaymama said...

I just found your blog today and I love it! I am very interested in Japanese culture and, therefore, am curious what else I am going to learn here! The internet is great!

Unknown said...

Found this blog entry very interesting. Me & my bf are American (although he's half Filipino) but are going to be moving to Japan where I will eventually become a stay at home wife. I've been trying to find out what kind of expectations there are going to be for me. Obviously I won't have to deal with the traditional mindsets coming from parents or him, but I know there are expectations outside the home. Of course I want to be the best wife and mother & present that to others around me. Is there any specific does and don'ts for my role that an American might not think of?

Mom on the Edge said...

Rachel, This is a difficult question to answer. My best advice is when you are at home, do what makes sense for your family/relationship and when you are out, take your cues from people around you. Once you are a parent of a child in school, the expectations will come hard and fast. By then, though, you will have a better idea of what to expect. Plus, the school will give you all sorts of "guidance" on what they expect.

I've written about having a kid in school in Japan several times. Here are a couple of links: