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.
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
My Japanese colleagues were an interesting bunch.