Saturday, July 07, 2007

"I Envy You"

Today I taught one of my students the phrase, "could you do me a favor?" At the end of the lesson, she said, "could you do me a favor and send me (the scripts for the CD content from last week's lesson)?" I had meant to send her the scripts last week after he lesson and in fact, had forgotten to send them once before. I apologized to her and said that I usually receive a phone call from my husband every Saturday shortly after her lesson and once I start talking on the phone, the idea of sending the scripts flies out of my head.

My student was understanding of this, of course, but she was also a bit puzzled. She asked me if today was my husband's day off and I told her he was working and called me during his lunch from 1:00-2:00. She then asked if he called me everyday from work and I told her he did. Her response to this was, "why?"

I'm pretty sure that a western person would not ask me why my husband took the time to call me every day from work. I told my student it was because he wanted to talk to me and he loved me. Her response to this was "Japanese men never do that. I envy you."

Based on similar responses from women at my former office, I'm pretty sure her statement about Japanese men in this regard is, by and large, true. Back when I was working full-time and my husband worked on a temporary basis and was a househusband the rest of the year, he used to make special trips to my office once or twice a week to have lunch with me. On occasion, he'd even meet me and go home on the subway ride with me even though the trip wasn't incredibly long. My female coworkers were unfailingly impressed with his voluntary show of devotion. One of them even asked me if I was asking him to do these things for me.

I am worldly enough to know my husband is unusually attentive even for a western husband but I also know that most Japanese husbands almost never call their wives just to chat or see how their day is going or visit them for lunch at their offices. One of the reasons for this is that it would likely seem untoward for them to visit them at their offices. Another is that most Japanese men are the main breadwinners and work a lot of overtime and wouldn't have the time to do so. However, with cell phones in nearly every hand, calling ones spouse to have a little chat at lunch every day is certainly within their grasp but it's simply not a usual part of the normal behavior in Japan for husbands to seek out interaction with their wives on a regular basis in this way.

One of my other students recently told me that her perfect future mate would be a foreign husband because she felt foreign men were more aware of women's needs and treated them better. She said that she felt Japanese men were selfish and put themselves first all of the time. While I've never been in a relationship with a Japanese man, I can say that my experiences teaching them do reveal a great deal of self-centeredness. While the women I teach have conversations with me in a give and take fashion, men rarely, if ever, ask anything at all either in terms of my disposition, personal news, or opinions on a given topic. Mind you, I'm not complaining about this as a teacher but it does show that they are not very other-directed compared to Japanese women.

I'm not certain that Japanese women aren't idealizing western men to some (or a great) extent but I'm pretty sure they're not demonizing Japanese men to a great extent. Based on my experiences, I'm sure that I could never have married a Japanese man and been happy. Beyond the inevitable cross-cultural personality and communication issues, there's the fact that anyone raised in a culture which puts men first and foremost can't help but end up feeling that he's at the top of the heap.


Amelia said...

Hi, I came over here from Joseph's blog and am really enjoying reading your perspective of life in Japan! I just wanted to post an alternative view to the final part of this entry, in which you mention "the inevitable cross-cultural personality and communication issues" and "the fact that anyone raised in a culture which puts men first and foremost can't help but end up feeling that he's at the top of the heap." I am in a relationship with a Japanese man, a healthy, happy relationship that I hope will continue to marriage and beyond, so I see this from a different angle entirely.

First, while there are regular problems of communication between us, a lot of it comes down to the fact that we are both playing games we were taught in the languages we grew up with. Rather than speaking directly, I'll edge around a problem and expect him to just pick up on whatever it is I want to say, while he'll speak as if there isn't a problem when in fact he's hurt or disappointed or angry.

If I were in a relationship with an English man and he with a Japanese woman, I don't think that these socialised habits would automatically make our relationships healthier just because our partners would have a better chance of understanding what was going on straight away; on the contrary, having different mother-tongues and etiquette forces us now to be more forthcoming, honest and direct with our thoughts than we would be in our own languages, strengthening our level of communication all around.

In addition, while it's all too common to think of these problems as a "language barrier", it's far more my experience that we have two languages' worth of jokes, wordplay, emotional expression and forms of apology. Saying "I'm sorry" in Japanese doesn't lessen the meaning, but it certainly comes out more easily for me when I'm angry and stubborn but know full well an apology is in order. In this way, it's definitely my experience that sharing two languages contributes at least as much to relationships as it problematises, if not more.

As for feeling he's at the top of the heap, I really have to disagree with this as an inevitability, or even a possibility brought on by the country in which we live. Society may consider my partner to have superiority over me in some way (or inferiority - the idea of weak Japanese men unhappily under the thumb of domineering Western women is my least favourite stereotype of our relationship), but by his own words and actions I have never for one second felt that this is the case. He is very careful not to tell me what to do, wear, say or how to act, even when I begged him for such instructions before meeting his parents for the first time. "Just be yourself and they'll like you," he told me. Not the most helpful response in that situation, but a sentiment I appreciate and that we both, as opposites in so many ways, live by willingly in order to function as a couple.

He cooks dinner when I'm busier than he is, cleans and does laundry and washing up when they need doing, and if I start doing any of the above things when he's around he usually joins in cheerfully, making a chore into a shared activity. He asks about my day, has been known to call me just to say hi (though is far too busy now for it to occur to him; I think the Japanese education system promotes the idea of sustained concentration over long periods of time as the absolute in efficiency), and values communication in general very highly.

My English father, by contrast, never called my mother just to chat, made it clear that her calls to him were a timewasting intrusion, expected to be waited on hand and foot for every minute he was in the house and refused to talk even when it was obvious he was unhappy. I was raised in a culture that puts men first and foremost, and it was very far from South-East Asia.

I never particularly intended to be in a relationship with a Japanese man, but now that I am, I can't imagine being restricted to one language, one culture, lacking the richness of constant discovery and surprise about each other's backgrounds, cultures and experiences that being in an international relationship guarantees, although obviously I know that's not the way people in non-international relationships see it in the slightest. Similarly, the general outside view of Japanese man/Western woman relationships tends to view one partner or the other in a pitiable, unequal situation, and that's certainly not my experience either.

Having said that, just as your husband is unusually attentive for a Western man and my father is almost certainly unusually uncommunicative for a Western man, maybe my boyfriend is a bit unusual too, altered by his interest in other countries and experiences with international students and studying abroad - but then, his parents seem to have an equal, communicative relationship despite their traditional set-up, and his friends are all sweet, gentle guys who don't seem to treat their girlfriends with anything less than considerable care and respect, despite the fact that none of them have been abroad as far or for as long as my boyfriend, if at all.

Speaking generally of the tendencies of Japanese men as a whole, I would say the same as you, particularly with regard to their style of communication compared to the style of communication of Japanese women. When it comes to the specifics of relationships with Japanese men, or relationships in a Japanese society however, while my experience is obviously just one anecdotal account, it seems to me that these things have already started to change significantly and will continue to change for some time yet.

Those changes may be lagging by Western standards, but to me that just makes it all the more important to acknowledge that they exist, especially since Japanese men are unlikely to point this out themselves - unlike the Western men I have known who testified to their Nice Guy status/worth as a lover, it doesn't seem to occur to Japanese men that their treatment of women is a point of pride appropriate to mention in conversation. I question how much this lack of disclosure contributes to the continued view of Japanese men as ruled by their patriarchal background and thus unworthy partners to some extent or another, often with the implication that all Japanese women are automatically better off with the more "deserving" Western men (see Joseph's tongue-in-cheek blog entries on the penis size and sex drive of Asian men for more...).

Sorry this became so long!

Shari said...

Hi, Amelia and thanks very much for your very interesting comment. By the way, I figured it was inevitable there would be people who would disagree with me on this post, particularly since I failed to emphasize that *I* could never marry a Japanese man, not that any western women couldn't.

One thing that has made me more wary about Japanese men as husbands (not that I'm in the market for a new spouse as mine is perfection personified) is that I've been talking about this issue with Japanese women off and on for years now and have never experienced one who was happy after years of marriage and have known several who were separated or divorced.

The youngest one who was married for the shortest time was relatively content but the older ones have told me their husbands have changed since their younger days. In general, they said their husbands were "kinder" to them when they were first together.

Most of my current crop of students are female and in their early 20's to early 40's. Those in their 40's are less pleased than those in their late 20's/early 30's.

That's not to say my students all are representative but they probably are more typical than your experience with someone who is in a relationship with a foreign woman. That being said, I've had female foreign coworkers who were in some disastrous relationships with foreign women - one was destructive and extremely toxic.

In international relationships, I think that the language barrier is less of an issue than the one provided by cultural expectations. I'm not sure how long you've been in your relationship but, if it's been longer than 3 years, I'm willing to accept that the picture is quite a bit rosier than either my students (or I) are painting it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shari

This comment isn't related to the post but I'd like to thank you for maintaining a truly wonderful blog, from which I've learnt a lot about human relationships and society in Japan.

Noting that you're being troubled by a back problem, I thought I'd mention my uncle's experience. He injured his spine over 20 years ago, and in consequence suffered a lot of pain for many, many years. About 10 years ago, he started to swim regularly in an attempt to cure his back problem. He was in his early 40's then. At first, he swam about three times a week, and gradually increased the frequency to five or six weekly.

After doing so for about three years, his serious back pain completely disappeared. He has continued to swim regularly for exercise and is now an exceptionally fit man for his age.

I hope you'll get to consult your doctor to see if swimming might help you with your condition.

Shari, you're a very perceptive woman with a lot of inner strength, and it's a blessing to your readers that you take the time to share your insight on Japan and human relationships. I've to admit that I'm a little envious of your happy marriage with your hubby. :)


Amelia said...

Actually, I think I'm the one who failed to make the disclaimer part of my comment clear, sorry about that! I included the line: "it seems to me that these things have already started to change significantly and will continue to change for some time yet", and I really should have emphasised that. I don't think all Japanese men are like my boyfriend, or even the majority, and I certainly don't think that my experience in an international relationship is typical of relationships of Japanese women my age (23) with Japanese men, but as Western influence increases and internationalisation and feminist thought become more commonplace, however slowly by Western standards, I really do think Japanese society will change so that relationships like mine become more commonplace too. I firmly believe that this change has begun, and that my boyfriend and his friends and family, however small a part of Japanese society as a whole, are a testament to this.

My relationship is not over three years' long, but honestly, I don't think our length of relationship is as relevant as our age - my boyfriend is already more considerate and attentive than anyone I have been involved with in England. It seems obvious to me though that more couples in their 30s and 40s will be unhappy in their marriages than couples in their 20s - isn't that true of Western couples too? Through my parents and older friends I have heard of many women who stay with their husbands for their children, religion or financial dependence, and who feel that their husbands made more time and effort for them in their younger years.

I'm not for a second saying that men neglecting their wives after years of marriage isn't a problem in Japanese society, or even that isn't more of a problem in Japanese society than in Western societies, but I definitely think it's a significant problem in Western society as well, patriarchal on different levels in different areas. That isn't an impression I received from your post, which is why I wanted to comment.

I'm not sure if I've read you correctly though, so I'd like to explain my thinking a little. The initial concern I had with your post was that you seemed to be saying that marriage to a Japanese man will inevitably be unhappy, and that the higher levels of patriarchal influence and lower levels of communication you have observed in Japanese men are responsible for this. The issues I have with this are that I think the patriarchal influence of the West (certainly in England) ends plenty of marriages in its own right, and that the way in which Japanese men communicate is as much evidence for problems in the social expectations of women as it is for men.

For example, I wonder how much of the stigma on unconventional relationships and divorce here is responsible for women ten or twenty years ago marrying earlier and being less willing to bring up these problems or to walk away, effectively giving men no reason to change their slipping manners, than the women now putting off marriage until their 30s but naturally interested in relationships before that. The way in which women approach marriage and work has changed a great deal even within the last ten years, and this raises the expectations of the men who wish to marry them. (That reminds me, I was wondering if your Japanese students come from any kind of common background, or if you have some traditional housewives and mothers with some women currently focused on their careers, or married and still working?)

I also believe that with younger men in particular, if a woman wants her husband to be more communicative or treat her differently, it is not impossible for her to relay these wishes to her husband and work with him to change these problems. If it is impossible, that is a mismatched couple and/or a selfish man, not a flaw inherent in men born in Japan, though I do think that was the case as recently as the aftermath of the bubble economy collapse, when men had to drastically rethink their position in society and the world after the economic crisis made so many redundant.

The last thing I intended to do here was declare myself some sort of authority on relationships with Japanese men, and I apologise if I gave that impression. All I wanted to do was provide an alternative view of Japanese men based on people that I know, perhaps younger and more international than the men your students are married to, socialised in a different time with different expectations. I just think that as the current focus on internationalisation continues, aided considerably by the internet, gender roles and relationships will too, but not only for men. I think this change has already begun, and I do believe that the picture for women my age in relationships with Japanese men is indeed rosier than it was for their mothers, teachers, or even older sisters.

Shari said...

Bill: Hi there and thanks for your very kind and generous comment as well as your advice about back pain. I'm sure swimming would help though I can't say how far it'd go since I have a congenital spine defect that contributes to the problems (it's near the bottom of my spine and tends to cause pain to radiate out relatively low. I think exercise that strengthens the muscles always helps make up for any weakness and will admit I don't get enough. There's this vicious circle issue with back pain where exercise hurts so you don't want to do it bit if you endure it long enough, things can get a bit better.

My husband and I realize we are very, very fortunate to have found each other and wish everyone could have the same type of relationship with someone in their lives but know it's pretty rare!

Amelia: Many of your points are well-taken and I agree with them. This is a vast topic and I actually hesitated to comment on it at all because it's something that requires a book.

Just to clarify a few things though...

I don't feel that Japanese men are born with their tendencies (or any other people in any culture). Their tendencies are shaped by the society. It's not in the blood. In the case of Japanese men, domestic harmony is challenged on several fronts, most primarily the fact that familial relationships come second to their jobs. The primary goal among Japanese men is to fulfill their role as breadwinners and work.

Because of this, they will have problems with their spouses because they have no time to keep up a good relationship. They also associate all day with other men (for the most part) and in working environments where women are, by and large, given inferior positions and assume all the support and subservient roles. This is not true of all companies but it is overwhelmingly the case.

A person can't spend more time in a situation where women are cleaning the office, serving the tea and coffee, being paid less, and generally being treated as second class citizens *and* watching older men comfortably take advantage of this situation without starting to think this is the way of the world. On top of this, their wives are seeing them for very little of their days and they have little or no time to communicate.

This is the world Japanese men live in. When they're young, they haven't yet entered that world and are different. Their view of the order of things is far more equitable pre-company employee life. Give them a decade or two in the workplace and they are different people. Who wouldn't be with 10-12 hour workdays?

The Japanese men you encounter in academia are not the Japanese men you encounter in offices. I can't stress how different your experiences will be if you deal with Japanese people outside of the eikaiwa and academia. Society has not yet made its indelible imprint on them until they've passed into the role of becoming a "member of society" (as the students often describe the transition from free-spirited student to hard-working adult).

As for age and marriage, I don't think age so much as time are the factor. People tend to grind each other down in most relationships as well as get bored and start to question their situation. There is a lot to the notion of "honeymoon" phases of relationships depending on the couple. All sorts of power issues get battled over and losses on both sides build into resentments and general discontent. Those battles haven't yet happened for young couples and the "bodies" of desires, dreams, and unmet needs are not yet scattered all over the ground where they can be glanced over and bitterly regarded on a regular basis.

While many couples are more unhappy at 40 than 20, it's not always the case. My husband and I are happier now than ever and we've been together emotionally speaking for coming up on 20 years. We're freaks though we're not alone.

All satisfaction in a relationship comes down to communication. If you use the challenges of your relationship to build better communication (as you say you do), then you're golden. Many people use them as excuses not to change. Some people use cultural differences as the ultimate excuse not to change because they say they will not surrender their cultural identity.

Anyway, I'd agree entirely that the situation is better for women than before. However, the overwhelming majority of men still prefer that their wives be housewives and still believe women are weaker and cannot work as well as men. I've covered this topic (literally) thousands of times with men throughout my work and at least 80% assert they want their wife to be a homemaker if she has a child.

Helen said...

This is a very interesting post for me, married as I am (have been?) to a Japanese man for almost 6 years. We have bad times, I think most people do, but we also have great times. We were both older when we got together....late 30s. It takes a lot of communication to make things work, but I think it does for anyone who is in a long term relationship. I freely acknowledge that a lot of our problems are of my making...I don't ask enough questions or I make things worse at times.

In terms of getting calls during the day, I rarely get them, but I often get text messages. (I'm phone-phobic so I prefer those anyway!) I don't wash hubby's clothes, he does it himself...his choice...and I rarely wash dishes when he's around! He does a fair bit of cleaning...probably more than I do as I'm really not domestically inclined.

I'm not sure why my hubby is such a gem....maybe because his mother basically raised him on her own after his father died...

I'm a fairly strong willed person and I wouldn't put up with being treated as a second class citizen. I made sure that my husband knew that before we got married. Unfortunately, his mother didn't get that message, which is why we no longer live with her!

I belong to a couple of support/information groups for women married to Japanese men. One, AFWJ has around 500 there are more than a few of us married to Japanese men. There's another free group on the web...not sure how many members it has, but it has a lot. So, Amelia and I are in a larger company than you might think!

And yes, culture is a big deal, but we create our own world together. We have more problems when we let outside factors interfere. When I first got involved with hubby, I thought I knew a lot about Japan because I'd been here for 3 years. I did, but not enough! I'm still learning, and hubby is still learning about my culture.

This is getting long and I could go on and on and on, but, I'm sure you'd rather I didn't.

I never expected or planned to fall in love with a Japanese man. I'd heard all the things that I'm sure you had...they're chauvinistic, demanding, absent...but it's not always true!

Miko said...

Raising a son to be a gentleman in Japan, even in a modern port city like Kobe, has been very hard in some ways because as far as I can see there is absolutely NO concept of chivalry to speak of, and no way to instill any sense of it in him except by insisting, "this is how they do it in other countries" (and of course he doesn't understand what I mean by that - why should he?).

All is not lost! I am gratified to report that my Japanese friends are indeed envious of me because they regard him as unusually "yasashii" and considerate towards me. Obviously something kicked in, despite the relentless social conditioning.

Still, I am afraid that he would never pass muster in another country, at least not as far as everyday manners are concerned. That would require extra-special training, I think.

I'll post about it all one of these days, I promise.

Amelia said...

Shari, thank you again for your reply, I really appreciate the time you're taking to discuss this in such detail!

The primary goal among Japanese men is to fulfill their role as breadwinners and work.

That's definitely one area in which I've struck gold. My dad has a very Japanese-style job in the UK (with less golfing and office ladies) and it's not a fate I'd wish to anyone, so naturally, it was one of my biggest concerns when my Japanese boyfriend and I started discussing the future.

Talking it through, I learned that he's definitely not as concerned with job security and long-term employment as so many of his peers are. We've discussed ways in which we can provide alternative sources of income for ourself so that he is not the primary breadwinner and he can choose his job based on emotional rather than financial reasons. He's currently a research student, rarely gets home before midnight, and has already said that his dislike for this schedule will also influence his job search.

Like you say, communication is critical, and I doubt that the result would have been the same had I the typical expectations a Japanese girl holds of her future husband. There seems to be a lot of resignation to the 10-12 hour day and an inevitable emotional wind-down as a trade-off for job security, and that's such a shame.

The Japanese men you encounter in academia are not the Japanese men you encounter in offices.

You're quite right. I've witnessed the way a personality and lifestyle can change because of a stressful office and long hours, I should have remembered how much people can alter in this environment.

At the same time, I'm still really not comfortable with the idea that absolutely every man in such an environment will inevitably come to treat his wife as women are treated in his office. I accept it as possible for everyone and applying to many, but the absolute really bothers me there. Surely you might as well say that all women in offices learn to be submissive to their husbands at home, or that women with any power at an office also use that power at home?

People tend to grind each other down in most relationships as well as get bored and start to question their situation.

Which I accept completely - but surely that's the same for Western couples too? I was struck that you have only encountered several students who have been separated or divorced when in England or America it would statistically be much higher. I think that in Japan more women are unwilling to walk away or take steps to improve their marriages through routes like family counselling or even talk about marital problems with people who can help, which would explain to me why you can say that you've never met a Japanese lady happy in her marriage after ten or twenty years.

I'd agree entirely that the situation is better for women than before. However, the overwhelming majority of men still prefer that their wives be housewives and still believe women are weaker and cannot work as well as men. I've covered this topic (literally) thousands of times with men throughout my work and at least 80% assert they want their wife to be a homemaker if she has a child.

That actually matches up with what I've heard in conversations with friends, but I question how much the stigma of childcare as the last resort of a bad mother is responsible for this. I don't think this is down to Japanese men wanting their wives barefoot in the kitchen as much as it is Japanese men wanting their children raised with care, something outside childcare is thought not to offer.

The fact that the idea that women are weaker and can't work as well is still popular is a crying shame. It's not something I've discussed with my friends here, but I fervently hope that the people I know don't think in this way, and that it's something else set to change.

Shari said...

Miko: Hi there and thanks for your comment. Your sentiments of my students. One interesting point I realized after you mentioning how your son is growing up made me realize a big difference among Japanese and western men. Generally speaking, western men get more polite as they get older and Japanese men get ruder. It's like they encounter reverse social teaching in this regard.

Amelia: I wish we had a proper forum to discuss this since doing this in comments is a more convoluted process. However, I'm doing my best to clarify things.

To clarify, I don't believe "all" of any group of people can have a characteristic applied to them. I speak of majorities, pluralities, "many" and "most" when I speak of tendencies. Nothing is inevitable for every individual so, I don't think all Japanese men are doomed to regard women as inferior, even if they are exposed to relatively sexist working environments.

My comment about "grinding each other down" in a marriage was a comment based on age, not nationality, so I do indeed agree that it may happen in any culture.

I think I'm relatively sloppy about clarifying these things when I initially make a comment, unfortunately, and for this I apologize.

One thing though about divorce rates. The reason fewer Japanese people divorce is because their expectations of marriage are different. Western people commonly hold unrealistic expectations about passion, romance, etc. Women in the west also have, by and large, better career options and are less concerned about their future should they divorce. Japanese women can find themselves in a really difficult position if they divorce.

Also, some women remain married but actually do not have a functional relationship with their husbands. They live apart but remain married. This keeps divorce rates down even though people aren't in any sense of the word "married".

By the way, you really should consider starting your own blog and talking about your experiences. I think you have a lot to offer and many people would enjoy hearing what you have to say (including me!).