Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Omai Madness

The omiai, literally 'getting together and seeing,' is a Japanese custom whereby unattached men and women are introduced to each other to consider the prospect of marriage.

Tachiko was a lively, vibrant young woman of about thirty. She was bright and funny, neither plain nor pretty, and a brilliant piano player. The first time I met Tachiko, she told me about her omiai habit. ‘I’ve been on about thirty-five omiai,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Omiai are my hobby.’

I was new in Japan at the time and intrigued by the whole concept. What was an omiai like? Tachiko pondered this. ‘It’s really just a first date. Sometimes it’s formal and your parents will go with you, but most of the time it’s informal and you just go and meet the guy on your own. At a coffee house or a restaurant, say. And you talk. You know, about the kinds of things you usually talk about on a first date. Hobbies, stuff you liked in school – things like that.’

For Tachiko, it was a point of pride that after the omiai, she would invariably have her mother call up the next day and offer her regrets. She would do this even when she liked the guy and felt that they’d hit it off. I couldn’t understand this and I said so. Tachiko shrugged. ‘I’m not much of a catch: my parents aren’t rich, I’m not beautiful, I didn’t go to a good university. I figure the guys will probably say no themselves; I just beat them to it by saying it first.’ I thought this sounded defeatist, but Tachiko maintained that this way she got to go on a lot of dates and go out with a lot of boys she would otherwise never have the chance to meet.

The last time I talked to Tachiko, she’d just had her forty-fourth omiai and seemed remarkably blasé about the whole thing. ‘The last one was really cute,’ she sighed. ‘And he liked books, too.’ ‘Weren’t you tempted not to turn him down?’ She shook her head. ‘I figure if one of them really likes me, he’ll call back.’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway, we always make them a pound cake.’

Junko was forty-two and divorced. She had been married briefly to a widower with two teenaged children after her colleagues had arranged an omiai. An attractive, maternally inclined woman, Junko had been looking forward to mothering her new husband’s teenagers. She’d had no idea what she was getting into. ‘They hated me from the word go. Nothing I cooked tasted right to them, nothing I did impressed or pleased them. They hated the new curtains I bought, hated the color I painted the bathroom, hated the drapes I hung, the sweaters I knitted for them. In fact, they really hated me, and it didn’t take them long to persuade their father I was no good. I felt like Cinderella. I cooked for them, cleaned their rooms, drove them to piano lessons and parties – and they still hated me.’

Once, on hearing that I had been proposed to by a man I had no intention of marrying, Junko urged me to accept. ‘Go on – say yes! Just give it a try! If you don’t, you’ll never know whether you liked being married or not!’ She sighed. ‘I wish divorce weren’t such a stigma here. Then maybe someone would arrange another omiai for me. . .’ Junko worked full-time as an accountant, but she still managed to get through fifteen Harlequin Romances a week. She had bin bags full of them in her closet.

Keiko was twenty-five. She was beautiful, but intimidatingly intelligent. And tall. ‘On my first omiai, the guy asked me how tall I was,’ she said, disgusted. ‘And when I told him, he looked really depressed. He goes: You’re two centimetres taller than I am! And then later, when we ran into these friends of his, he asked me to bend my knees a little so they wouldn’t be able to tell I was taller than he was.’ ‘Did you?’ I asked her, and she laughed. ‘No way. I stood up nice and tall. On tiptoe.

‘Then on my second omiai, the guy spent over half the time on his mobile phone. It never stopped ringing and he didn’t even excuse himself, he just went ahead and answered it. Every call lasted about twenty minutes and it was all about boring stuff – money and stocks and stuff. Then on my third omiai the guy keeps asking me about my girl friends. How many I’ve got, whether they’re pretty, and finally – whether they liked girls. Seriously.’

Fumie was only twenty-two, but her parents were keen on getting her married off as soon as possible. She’d already been on three omiai. ‘God, I hate them,’ she said flatly. ‘The first guy was a jerk. He had a nice car, but he had a pornographic video sitting on top of the back seat, right where anybody could see it. When I commented on it, he offered to show it to me – on our very first date! The next guy was dead boring and he had awful breath and dandruff. And the third guy took me to a family restaurant.’ Japanese family restaurants are, as you might imagine, for families. They are the sort of place you can take a group of unruly children and not spend your entire time apologizing to the staff. Although they are not perhaps the ideal venue for an omiai or a first date, the prices are right and the food is okay. When I said as much to Fumie, she agreed. ‘It wasn’t so much the fact that he took me to a family restaurant as it was that he kept pointing out babies. Isn’t that one cute? Don’t you want to have one right away? Jeez.’

Naoko was fifty and a career woman who had never been married. She lived quite happily with her elderly mother in a small apartment with no garden, so they liked to get out as often as possible and go for walks in their local park. ‘On our way to the park, there was one house that we just loved. Really old and traditional, but in perfect condition. It had a huge garden with a fish pond full of koi, a raked gravel bed, pine trees, camellias – all of our favorite flowers and trees. We’d just stand at the fence and stare at it and wonder what it would be like to live in a nice house like that.’

After Naoko’s mother died, friends had arranged an omiai for her. She had been dubious, but intrigued. The man was a widower with two teenaged boys, and he lived in a large house he was finding it difficult to manage on his own.

‘On the day of the omiai, my friends came and collected me. When we got to the man’s house, I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was the house with the fish pond and the garden – the one my mother and I had admired so much!’ Naoko and the widower hit it off. They found that they shared a passion for gardening and bridge. Naoko put in long hours at work and hated cooking, but that was no problem, as her new husband was a superb cook. They spent their weekends gardening together and, with Naoko’s salary, were able to afford a part-time housekeeper.

Her new husband’s two teenaged boys thought Naoko was terrific. ‘They come home drunk and I go into their rooms and yell at them. But they’re great boys, really sweet and thoughtful. We wash the dishes together after dinner and we always have a laugh. I never thought I’d like being a mother, but I do. It’s wonderful. I just wish my mother could have lived to see this. She’d have been as happy as I am.’ Naoko paused and smiled. ‘And she kept telling me I ought to have someone arrange an omiai.’

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5 comments:

Kim Ayres said...

A window into another world. I enjoyed that, thank you :)

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Kim. For seventeen years, that was my world. When we arrived in Scotland over five years ago, my youngest was seven and still spoke with a Japanese accent. Getting adjusted to life in the U.K. has been a long re- assimilation process for all of us, even if it isn't technically 'home.' The nice thing about living in the U.K. is that I'm not the only one in the household who can answer the phone (my husband was uncomfortable speaking Japanese on the telephone) and no one here knows I'm a foreigner until I speak.

Brian said...

You have a delightful way of capturing character in your little vignettes . Each so individual, each so clearly delineated in such a short time .

You catch the individual attitudes and way of speaking so well .

This is really excellent writing , Mary , and reading it is part of the reason I take such pleasure in your blog

Mary Witzl said...

Oh, nonsense, Brian, I just talk my fool head off. But you are very good to say all that anyway.

Carolie said...

Mary, I am SO glad I have finally found the time to read more of your archives! This post was absolutely lovely, little sparkling vignettes as if you were holding up bits of colored glass to show me. I want to know more about all of them!