Saturday, 2 July 2011


Right from the start, I had trouble with Sugiyama-san. We first crossed swords over my refusal to attend open house day at my daughter's nursery school. My daughter, at the time, was all of fourteen months old.

"We can't have your husband missing work!" Sugiyama-san almost shouted when I suggested he go in place of me. She looked astonished that I could think of such a thing. What kind of wife was I?

"But he wouldn't be missing work," I repeated. "Like I said, Tuesday's his day off, but it's my busiest--"

Sugiyama-san shook her head. "Impossible! On his day off, your husband must relax." She gave me a hard look. "Men need to relax, you know. They work so hard."

I bit back my irritation. We'd already established that I didn't have a day off, but it obviously didn't occur to Sugiyama-san that I might need to relax too. Or that I worked every bit as hard as my husband did.

"You're the mother so you should come," she repeated. "Your employers know that you have a baby. Can't you tell them it's important?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it. "But you just said it wasn't important--"

She gave me an exasperated look. "It's not important enough for your husband to miss his day off."

I stared back at Sugiyama-san, one of the middle-aged women who looked after my daughter all day while I was at work. She seemed to keep contradicting herself. When she'd initially told me about this open house day, she'd claimed it was very important. But as soon as I'd mentioned that my husband had that day off and could come in my stead, she'd decided it wasn't really that important. Or rather that it was, but only for me, the mother. She'd also initially said that the parents wouldn't have to talk much, just observe, but now she felt that my husband's lack of Japanese would be a problem.

"I have a meeting at work that day," I told her. "I'm expected to attend it."

"Perhaps they could find a substitute. If you asked--"

This was the last straw. "Let me get this straight. You want me to miss a day of work to come and observe my one-year-old's class because it's important -- but not important enough for my husband to come even though we live only five minutes away and he isn't working today." I felt like kicking a fence. I'd already missed several days of work over the past month to take my baby to clinic appointments as my husband's Japanese was not up to this. In fact, I'd missed so much work ferrying my daughter (and sometimes my husband) to the doctor that I couldn't afford to take time off when I got sick myself. I went into work half a dozen times when I'd have been better off in bed. And yet as the mother, I was still required to take time off work although my husband's day off was sacrosanct.

The irony of this escaped Sugiyama-san, but my anger didn't. Over the next year, she gave me hell. Every week, parents were required to wash and change the sheets on their children's futon. Every Monday, my daughter's futon would invariably be at the bottom of the pile and impossible to retrieve without maximum effort. As I struggled to put it back in the cupboard, Sugiyama-san would gleefully point out what I was doing wrong. One day I made the mistake of telling another mother there that my husband was better at changing the sheets on our futons as it was a job he didn't mind doing. That was a big mistake: Sugiyama-san overheard this and the story of how good I had it quickly made the rounds of the nursery school. You're so lucky that your husband does your work for you! was something I grew weary of hearing, especially since my husband and I split housework, bread-winning, and childcare 50-50.

Over the next year, I bit back many angry retorts when Sugiyama-san took it upon herself to criticize my mothering skills. My daughter's refusal to take naps had caused me no end of grief, but Sugiyama-san was certain that I was causing this problem. Was I letting her sleep too much at home? No matter how many times I explained that my daughter had always been a poor sleeper, Sugiyama-san remained suspicious ("You working women are so busy with your jobs, you let your babies sleep far too long!"). Likewise, my baby's dislike of leafy greens and her loathing of mushrooms became controversial issues. Didn't we eat spinach and mushrooms at home? Yes, I assured her through gritted teeth, we did, but I could still see the doubt in her eyes. Sugiyama-san also insisted that my daughter's bright red mosquito bites were an infectious skin condition (this required a signed letter from the local dermatologist, stating that Caucasian skin often reacted differently to mosquito bites, after which she was still not satisfied -- "Heh! What does he know?").

Japan is now suffering a decline in the birth rate as more and more young women decide not to marry and have children. Unless Japanese people start having more babies, their population will almost certainly shrink more than 20% by 2050. This will have terrible repercussions on the health and pension systems and the economy of Japan as a whole. Personally, I think people with attitudes like Sugiyama-san's don't help a bit. Her attitude -- that mothers should happily bear the brunt of the labor and responsibilities of parenting -- wore me out. Her strong bias towards men -- she was as kind and considerate towards my husband as she was bitchy and fault-finding with me -- was infuriating. I can see why young women in Japan might want to opt out of motherhood. Given the choice between a life of endless toil and servitude one of relative ease and freedom, who can blame girls for deciding not to marry and have babies? The day Sugiyama-san switched nursery schools was one of the happiest days of my life.

I didn't see her again until almost the last month we were in Japan when my daughter and I ran into her in the park. She looked happy to see us. "You remember your old teacher, don't you?" she said, prodding my daughter. "You're lucky to have girls," she said wistfully. "All I've got is boys and they're all grown up now."

As I waved goodbye, I felt a pang of pity for this woman who had made my life so miserable. But I also felt a wave of sympathy for the daughters-in-law she will one day have.


Anonymous said...

Given how she probably raised her sons, they'll go looking for someone who will treat the like they expect to be treated!

Charles Gramlich said...

Whoa, Men need to relax. Not quite a modern view on the subject.

Dale said...

That's how it works: you accept the right of the class above you to bully you, and it confers on you the right to bully the class below you. Ick. I'm more than happy to fold sheets and attend daycare open houses, to escape that world.

wonderful post, as ever, Mary!

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

What a great story! I wonder if this woman's viewpoint about the roles of men and women was her own or reflected the general Japanese thinking.

It would have driven me crazy to deal with that woman, especially because there was no way to make her see the light (as Westerners perceive it anyway.)

Yes, I feel sorry for her daughters-in-law!

Anne M Leone said...

What a fascinating character portrait! And I'm so glad I didn't have to put up with Sugiyama-san!

Pat said...

I think I would have been tempted to do her it.
Is she a one off our does the new man not exist in Japan?

MG Higgins said...

How frustrating! I wouldn't have done as well in your shoes, Mary. Wonderful story.

Vijaya said...

You're a better woman than me, Mary. I would've probably slapped her. I am so thankful for a good and kind husband. He'd never put up with her either.

Japan, Italy, most of Europe, actually are already experiencing grave difficulties because of their low birth rate.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- They'll have a tough time finding such a paragon, and even if they do, I suspect the fur will fly. Things are changing in Japan. It used to be that young men could pick and choose, but that is no longer the case.

Charles -- It definitely wasn't what I wanted to hear after a long, hard day at work, contemplating an evening of domestic toil, not enough sleep, followed by another early work day. Sugiyama-san was a woman who promoted the interests of men over those of women.

Dale -- That's how it typically works in Japan: women who are bullied by their mothers-in-law take it out on their sons' wives. I knew a woman who treated her daughter-in-law well after being hounded by her mother-in-law: she was determined not to follow the same pattern. I admired her no end!

Karen -- It was really unfortunate that she was our daughter's first childcare worker; the ones she had after that were much better and had more modern outlooks. A few became our friends. Dealing with Sugiyama-san was so discouraging, but it was a great character-building experience.

Anne -- That was a hard time for me. I'm not the sort of person who makes enemies easily, but Sugiyama-san really stretched my patience to the breaking point.

Pat -- During that time, I did a lot of jaw-clenching and counting to ten. Once I went home and threw my keys across the room so hard I chipped the plaster. Ah, the memories.

MG -- I used to lie awake, thinking of long, satisfying things I could say in Japanese which would take the wind out of her sails. I was usually too tired and stressed out to manage them, but thinking them up helped ease some of the irritation.

Vijaya -- We sometimes talked about taking our daughter out of childcare, but we really needed it. My husband had an advantage (or perhaps a disadvantage): he couldn't understand what Sugiyama-san was saying. Later, when I got to know the other parents better, I learned that she irritated other people too. One father even threatened to punch her. But I would not have slapped her: she was bigger (and taller too).

Robert the Skeptic said...

This reminds me of all of my mother's friends who used to refer to me as "little Bobby" because I was so small in stature. I was always encouraged to eat more. When visiting relatives, they would dish out the amount of food they determined I should consume and were always prodding me to finish my plate. The fact that these relatives were lousy cooks like my mom only made the ordeal worse.

I'm 5'-6" and 155 lbs. This was determined by genetics and Pituitary Growth Hormone, NOT what I did or did not eat. Most guys my age have guts hanging over their bellies. Not me.

Carole said...

I'm impressed you didn't bite her head off. That is some serious impulse control.

Robin said...

Oh how I hate men-o-centric bullying caregivers. My first "nanny" was a Sugiyama-san, and I danced a jig when she left. I liked the innocent, enthusiastic young daycare girls. They were so much more fun to deal with.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- Sugiyama-san and I quarrelled about more than food. The odd thing was that my daughter ate as much at her daycare center as she did at home -- she just didn't like lettuce or spinach. Still doesn't. I suspect food preferences are just part and parcel of the way we're made.

Carole -- I walked away seething more times than I can recall, and on several occasions I cried (but fortunately never in front of her). I only realized I wasn't her only victim months after the worst of it was over.

Robin -- Me too! I feel especially let down by women who are hateful because I feel like we should stick together and support each other -- it's tough enough as it is. But women who treat men like gods and women like dirt make me sad -- like they hate being women so much they'll do anything to distance themselves from other females. When my husband changed the sheet on our daughter's futon or performed any other small chores, Sugiyama-san was all fawning praise and cooperation. Fortunately, after her we had nothing but good experiences with the other teachers, young and old. The first ones were a little suspicious of ME at first -- Sugiyama-san had obviously shared stories of my incompetent unworthiness -- but after a week or two, we were pals. The other teachers were a great bunch of women and deserve separate posts of their own.