Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Pairing Up In Japan

My Japanese colleagues were an interesting bunch.

Yagi-san was very bright -- and independent. Even though she was almost thirty, she was still happily unmarried and had every intention of remaining so. Her English was breathtakingly natural: she had studied in upstate New York for several years, managing very well on her own.

Otani-san was in his thirties, a prissy, fussy man. He had studied linguistics at a big-name university in Kyoto and spoke meticulously grammatical English. He talked a lot about practicing English, as though it was a musical instrument or a sport. I hated the idea that someone would speak a language merely to practice it – but oddly enough, I always got the feeling that this was exactly what he was doing: trotting out his considerable English speaking skill like a show pony so that people would ooh and ahh. Unlike Yagi-san, Otani-san was obviously looking to get married; he kept up a running commentary on the various attributes of the ideal wife.

The contrast between Yagi-san and Otani-san was striking: she had lived by herself in a foreign country, managing to rent her own apartment and deal with all the headaches of expatriate life singlehandedly, but Otani-san had coddled mama's boy written all over him. An only son, he still lived at home; every day he brought a boxed lunch his mother had prepared for him. This is not at all unusual in Japan -- especially in the Kanto area where rents are sky-high -- but a man in his thirties who still lives at home is a poor match for an independent woman who has braved life in a foreign country. Given their differences, I was astounded to learn that he had set his cap on Yagi-san as a possible marriage partner.

Otani-san once told me how important it was for a wife to learn to prepare her husband’s miso shiru, the bean paste soup most Japanese have every day, just the way he liked it. He claimed that when a wife could do that, her husband knew she truly loved him. Then he turned to Yagi-san and asked her rather pointedly what she put into her miso shiru. Spring onions? Tofu? Pork, perhaps – or potatoes?

Yagi-san bristled. "I don’t make miso shiru," she said tersely. "That’s my mother’s job."

"Oh, but every young lady should learn how to make miso shiru!" he parried unctuously.

Yagi-san and I exchanged a disgusted look and she mouthed oink-oink over Otani-san's head. Then she picked up her books and hurried off to teach her class. You could practically feel the scorn and revulsion dripping off her as she left the room, though Otani-san seemed perfectly blasé about her reaction.

Later, when we were out of Otani-san’s hearing, she vented her rage. "Since when does he get off thinking that I am going to be in the least bit attracted to him? I’d rather die than make his miso shiru! God, I can see him looking at me, thinking, Hmmm, she’s a little old perhaps, but she might just do." She shivered. "I’ll bet he thinks I took this job just so I could meet someone like him and get married. Gag!"

"What do you mean, you're a little old?" I asked. "You're younger than he is!"

"Oh, but that doesn't matter: I'm almost thirty! Practically damaged goods here in this country!"

"What he asked you just now – did that really mean that he was interested in you – just asking you how you made miso shiru?"

"Oh, take my word for it -- he's definitely interested." She shuddered again. "Just as long as he doesn’t get his parents to call mine and try and arrange something."

"Do you think he’d really do that?"

"It’s happened before. The lady down the street arranged a couple of omiai for my sisters; now she wants to do one for me and my parents are encouraging me to accept. You should see some of the guys’ pictures. Yuck."

I'd had omiai explained to me on numerous occasions, but I never tired of hearing individual opinions on this fascinating custom. Yagi-san insisted it wasn't so bad as long as no pressure was put on either of the parties to accept. "It’s basically a way to meet someone – usually when you’ve graduated from college and you’re supposed to be the right age to get married. Someone who knows your family and the guy’s family brings over his picture. And they give your picture to him. If you both like what you see, then there’s an omiai. If you don’t, you make an excuse."

"What if one of you likes what they see but the other one doesn’t?"

"Well, then it’s embarrassing, but there’s no omiai. Both people have to agree to it. Unless the person’s parents can manage to convince them not to care so much about looks."

"Can’t you just go out on dates with people that you like?"

She smiled. "Some of us don’t have a lot of chances to meet people. Or perhaps the people we meet with aren’t the right people."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, if our parents don’t like him, say. Like if he’s a foreigner. Or maybe his family’s not rich enough, or they are rich, but they’re not really educated."

"Even if you love each other?"

"Love isn’t that big a deal in Japanese marriages. It is not necessarily a plus to love someone you plan to spend your life with."

I did my best to hide my shock.

I have often thought of Yagi-san and how hard it must have been for her. She had excellent English skills, had been to a good university and managed on her own in a foreign country for several years. And yet her salary was lower than mine, her chances of promotion were slim, and she was probably expected to get married to someone eventually. Such as Otani-san. If she had been bitter about this – and I often suspected she was – I certainly couldn’t blame her.

A few months after I started working at our school, a new teacher was hired. Mizutani-san was a practical, fashionable young woman who had studied at a posh university in the U.K. and spoke English with a proper British accent. She had been married for a little less than a year. One day when we were having coffee together, the subject of philandering husbands came up.

"Japanese men are the worst!" she raged in her crisp, clipped diction. "They have so many affairs! They expect the wife to be perfect and do everything for them – pick out their clothes, do all the housework, balance the household budget – then they still go out and have girlfriends! They are – well, they are quite beastly. Male chauvinist pigs."

That Japanese men had affairs wasn’t exactly news to me, but I had thought that the men who did this were generally older ones. "Younger men don’t have affairs, do they?"

She put down her coffee cup, her nostrils flaring. "Oh, yes, they jolly well do!"

"Still, I think men being unfaithful to their wives is pretty much an international thing."

"Be that as it may. But Japanese men are the worst. So after we got married, I told my husband, go right ahead and have an affair. Be my guest. But if I catch you, I will divorce you immediately."

"And what did he say to that?"

"He didn’t say anything. But now he knows he’d be in big trouble if he did. So I know he’ll be careful."

"You mean careful not to have an affair?"

She shrugged and looked at her fingernails. "Careful not to have an affair, yes. Or careful not to let me find out."

What I thought was interesting was that although she would have preferred him not to have an affair at all, an affair that was well concealed was not out of the question.



laura said...

I know for a fact that anyone my mother may have tried to fix me up with would have fallen flat. NO WAY!!! And seeing a picture of someone would never work for me either. I think the ostrich with it's head in the sand sums up a lot of marriages regardless of country or culture: 'If I don't see it or hear about it, it doesn't exist.' I would have a hard time with that.

Marcia said...

This is a fascinating story. Once again, I'm glad I live in America. It ain't perfect, but my appreciation for it grows.

Charles Gramlich said...

How completely odd to our way of thinking. The miso suri story is just wild, but I could see every expression on her face. You described it beautifully. I need to try and work material like this into my fantasie stories to give a real feel for a different culture.

Jacqui said...

When I studied Japanese, we learned the term "Christmas cake" once referred to unmarried women over the age of 25 (as in they're stale and nobody wants them)...

In other news, my mother tried to set me up multiple times when I was single. Her number one requirement seemed to be that the men were tall (I am almost 6 feet). Oh, and that they were total losers.

Mary Witzl said...

Laura -- Whenever either of my daughters is interested in a boy I like the look of, I make sure not to get too enthusiastic. Nothing quells romantic interest faster than an eager mother; all the boys my mother thought were just great made me roll my eyes in horror.

And that ostrich thing doesn't work for me either!

Marcia -- Thank you for visiting and commenting!

Oddly enough, I like the omiai system -- as long as both parties can say NO. But my appreciation for America has grown for different reasons.

Charles -- Thank you for that compliment, but arguably, fantasy is an entirely different world, so you are already doing this. I don't know if I could conjure up a world that wasn't already there for me to observe, so my hat goes off to you.

Jacqui -- The term 'Christmas cake' was still used a lot in the seventies and eighties. It is used much less nowadays, I am happy to say; young Japanese women are much pickier about getting married than their mothers were. Before, many women felt strong pressure to marry before the age of 25, but the age of marriage has shot up to over 30 and now women are the ones who call the shots.

And oooh, if my mother had picked out men for me -- no, it is just too awful to contemplate...

Gorilla Bananas said...

These type of marriages belong to an era when men and women needed to pair off to survive. A man needed a wife for a, b & c; a woman needed a husband for x, y & z. It must have been like that in America in the frontier days. Love becomes necessary when people can live happily on their own, like Yagi-san.

debra said...

My mother once suggested I meet some guy whose mother was trying to find him a mate. The operative word is "once." Never again. I can't
remember if I ever did meet the guy (I can't imagine that I would have agreed)--if I did it certainly wasn't memorable.

I love your insights into Japanese culture and the way you tell the story. Thanks.

Tabitha said...

Wow, I find the similiarities between Japanese and Indian culture very interesting. Unmarried Indian women approaching 30 are also considered 'damaged goods' because everyone's wondering why no one wanted her. Regardless of whether it was her choice. There's also a kind of match maker for marriages, exchange of pictures and such. But it's now acceptable to walk away if you're not interested, which is good.

Affairs, however, are not acceptable. Neither is anything less than total devotion to the family. Which is good, and has given me a very devoted husband. I wouldn't have married him otherwise. :)

I love your stories! I check your blog every morning, and when I see a new post, I get all excited. :)

Kim Ayres said...

"Be good, or don't get caught"

What a shame to have to live with such a cynical outlook.

Wonderfully written, as always, Mary

Carole said...

I was so afraid it was going to end with Yagi-san marrying Otani-san. Thank goodness she didn't. Great comparisons.

Mary Witzl said...

GB -- What you wrote is so true. Now that so many Japanese women can do things for themselves, they don't feel the same pressure to marry and produce children. I think this is great (though not necessarily for the Japanese population, which is declining). Fewer women end up in unhappy marriages, wondering what happened to their lives.

In the frontier days of the American west, I suspect there were many marriages of convenience. My mother used to tell us about women in her family who had ended up with louts because they dreaded being scorned as useless spinsters. Tragic.

Debra -- Parents cannot pick enticing mates, there is no doubt in my mind. They are thinking of financial stability, grandchildren and sensible mortgages, whereas the kids tend to be thinking with their hormones, and what a clash!

Thank you for the nice compliment!

Tabitha -- We have Indian friends in Japan who have expressed similar sentiments, and I always find their descriptions of life in India and Indian culture fascinating. I love the Indian commitment to families and am glad to know that people don't have to accept matches that don't appeal to them.

Thank you for your compliment; you really cheer me up -- and your blog always has such perceptive, interesting posts about writing that I am all the more flattered.

Kim -- I swear, I use this blog to repair my damaged ego. After flipping through the week's collection of rejections, I come here and feel like weeping to find such positive responses to my writing. I was going to quit when I got to 10,000 hits, but to heck with that. I'll soldier on a little longer.

Carole -- Me too! In fact, if Yagi-san had gone for him, I would have been too depressed to write about it. I heard from a mutual acquaintance that Otani-san had an omiai and married a woman who was ten years his senior. I hope she is preparing miso shiru just the way he likes it, the poor thing.

Angela said...

Again, a fabulous post and a well delivered slice of culture. I'm saddened that women are still treated as second class citizens. I love the fire of Yagi-san; I hope she did find happiness, in the end. And a pox on all those cheating men. A POX!

Tabitha said...

I'm glad you're cheered up! And I'm doubly glad you've decided to keep blogging. And, *blushing*, thanks for the compliment. :)

Christy said...

I sometimes think that an arranged marriage would be, well not easier exactly but something. There's no expectation of happier ever after. I've seen so many marriages fail because Prince can't be Charming all the time and Cinderella's glass slippers hurt her feet.

marshymallow said...

Fortunately, my parents have never pressured me to get married, and have always supported me when i feel pressured by other people (my grandmothers, for instance - you should hear them on the subject of great-grandchildren). It really shocked me though, the first night i was in the dorms and we were exchanging majors - over half the girls said they were there for their MRS degree, and i know now that most of the students will feel a failure if they haven't married by the time they graduate. It's creepy.

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Ooh, there are going to be a lot of men suffering from the pox! But I can't help agreeing with you.

I loved Yagi-san's fire too. When she said what she said about Otani-san, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Tabitha -- Thank you again! I've just got a fresh rejection, so I need the extra coddling. No way I'm going to stop blogging now.

Christy -- On one hand, I hate the idea of a loveless marriage just for the sake of producing children. But you do have a point, and I have seen so many 'omiai' married couples who seem perfectly happy. I think you can grow to love someone too; I always remember that song from Fiddler on the Roof...

MM -- Thank GOD your parents are sensible and don't push you! Take your time! My mother's favorite saying was "Marry in haste and repent at leisure," and I really took it on board.

I'm as appalled at your dormmates' admissions as I am amazed at their honesty. I swear, the last thing I ever wanted to do while I was at university was get married. Are these the same people who had never heard of Kazuo Ishiguro?

Barbara Martin said...

Different countries have different customs which I find fascinating. However, Mizutani-san's idea of allowing her husband extramarital affairs providing she didn't know about it or that her husband concealed it, is not that uncommon. I've heard of other wives making this statement, wondering how they could be indifferent about it.

As far as arranged marriages go, in 1905 my English grandmother was told explictly by her father that she was not allowed to marry for love. Her husband would be selected.

My grandmother's response was to go to the city, become a salesperson in a ladies clothing store, support herself for a year and marry the man she loved. All to her father's chagrin.

Mary Witzl said...

Men whose wives don't mind their affairs are to be pitied: clearly, their wives don't care enough about them to feel jealous.

Good for your grandmother! I'm sure what she did set a good precedent in your family.

marshymallow said...

They are. Pathetic plebians. :o>