TRG Info and Advice
So You Married a Chonan (the eldest son) Part 2
Marry the Man, Marry his Whole Family!
No man is an island, of course, and when you take the plunge to marry a Japanese man, you may get a lot of bonus relationships, too! Traditionally, families lived in multi-generational homes with the eldest member, maybe an octogenarian great-grandparent, receiving the most respect and authority (at least in spirit!). Men generally seem to be in charge on the surface in Japan, even these days and especially in rural areas, and a wife may seem to kowtow publicly to her husband, but most likely, she holds authority (and usually the purse strings) on most matters. This may be one of the biggest issues for western (and perhaps modern Japanese) women to deal with, the dichotomy of behaving a certain way in public, and another way at home. You may feel insincere, or even dishonest, but the concept of omote/ura (literally: front and back, but referring to the public face and private face) is a deeply instilled part of Japanese culture. If you can pull off the sweet and supportive wife role when you are out, and save your frank discourse for the bedroom, your Japanese husband will be infinitely grateful.
You may even find that embracing the idea of having separate faces for public and private will benefit you when dealing with certain, difficult people in your life. In the past, the relationship between the yome (son’s wife) and her mother-in-law was clear-cut: the daughter-in-law was the family servant, the mother-in-law was the boss of the home (especially if she was a widow) and the husband/son, too, declared loyalty to his mother. This is in line with the Japanese cultural idea of respecting the elderly, and as the norm, was not openly challenged.
Nowadays, though, things are a little different. While there are still multi-generational homes, the younger generation families tend to live under a nearby, yet separate, roof, so the older generation has slightly less power. The parents-in-law may still be employed, which also limits the amount of contact, even when families share the same home. The mother-in-law will, most likely, maintain influence over her son and future grandchildren, however, and may also be invaluable when it comes to helping with childcare, meals, and the never-ending chores of mothers who work outside the home. Being clear about your expectations and needs, being aware of the cultural differences in those expectations and needs, maintaining a willingness to cooperate, and having the backbone of a yogi will make for a more amicable situation.
Now, how to make those needs clear?! Your in-laws may speak a little English, or may study your native language to try and make you feel more comfortable and welcome, but, obviously the more Japanese you know, the more you will be able to communicate with them. Keep in mind, though, that Japanese is not only linguistically different from English and other western languages, it is also culturally different in its approach. This is where knowledge of omote/ura comes in handy! Because of the deeply ingrained separation of public and private, it is important to realize that what is being said has deeper meanings than you may initially understand. Your relatives may tell you to relax and take it easy, but really want you to get off your butt and help with the harvest! So, don’t take things at face-value. Assume there is more being implied, and that it involves pitching in.
Have you ever seen one of those coin donation things that looks like a slightly engorged, or convex, funnel? You start the coin in a slot on the outer rim and it makes its way, centrifugally, around and around, slowly at first, then gaining speed as it gets closer to the hole at the center. Now, imagine that little coin is the point that is trying to be made in a conversation in Japanese, and the hole in the center is the listener’s comprehension of that point. Japan, especially the rural parts, is a place where stepping on someone’s toes is to be avoided at all costs. That’s why, a point cannot be made directly, but must be eased into, and the listener (especially a foreign one) may get lost along the way, or just lose interest.
So, enlist your husband’s help when talking to his relatives. Join a flower-arranging club, or become BFF’s with his big-city sister, and lean on her sympathetic shoulder. Misunderstandings will crop up and if you can laugh about them, more power to you. If not, make sure you have a good long-distance phone plan for those hour-long laments to your State-side family. Or join the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese (AFWJ). More tips on how to deal with a Japanese mother-in-law can be found at blog.gaijinpot.com.