Love in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband - Part 5 Australian Sophie Shimizu, like me, has never understood why "Prince Charming" is always depicted as a big, brawny type and never found herself attracted to Caucasian men. In this interview she tells how she met a cute Japanese surfer in Australia and ended up becoming his wife and moving to Japan. She also weighs in on the two-way street of Japan— how one's breath can be taken away by both its charm and its dark side.
Where and how did you meet your husband?
We met in Australia where I was born and raised. A friend introduced me to this quiet, very tanned and awkwardly cute Japanese surfer boy and after a while we became best friends. He had been born in Gunma Prefecture and traveled to Australia for a brief visit, but ended up staying for the end of high school and then on to college. When we weren't together at the beach or doing crazy things like getting piercings, we were constantly emailing, texting and on IM.
How did the relationship progress from there?
It was quite some time before it hit us that we shared feelings for each other. In the meantime I had accepted a job teaching English in Japan. All it took for him to tell me his feelings was me leaving for Japan without him. I literally got a text saying "I love you" just as I was boarding the plane! Very convenient!
After I returned from Japan things progressed and he said he wanted us to return to Japan together to meet his parents. I was too ignorant to look up where Gunma was before we left. I just assumed my cute Japanese surfer boyfriend was from a coastal town somewhere near Tokyo as he said it only took a few hours to Tokyo by train or car. The day after we arrived, I looked around and saw nothing but farms and mountains. I felt like Heidi. It was hard to tell on the way there because it was around 7pm on a winter night when we arrived. Needless to say I was shocked. I Googled "Gunma" and then it hit me that it was the farthest prefecture from the ocean, literally in the middle of Japan. This is where we live now. It took some getting used to, but now I love it. Nothing beats the views of the mountains around here and I can’t get enough of it. Ocean schmocean!
What are the challenges of living in Japan?
For me, it's trying to fit in without completely losing sense of who I am as a person. I often find myself being outcast because there are so very few foreign women around. The exception being those in the "entertainment" industry, which often leaves me susceptible to dirty stares. As a result of that, my husband doesn't publicly display his affection towards me. He might occasionally hold my hand but It's a far cry from making out on a park bench by the beach that's for sure! I blame it on the fact that being in the "country" means you are less likely to run into anyone that has had much interaction with a foreigner. So I'm usually trying to fit in as best as I can in regards to how I act and what I wear... speaking of which... another challenge? Finding decent sized clothes for non-Japanese women! The bigger the size, the wider. And no adjustment to length. It's insane!
Did you know anything about Japan or Japanese culture prior to meeting your husband?
In high school, I dropped out of studying French and changed to Japanese in grade 10. Everyone thought I was crazy as I was one of the school's best French speakers, but I honestly didn’t care for the language and wanted to push myself to learn something else. As I was about four years of study behind the other students in Japanese class, I had to teach myself everything in my own time and try catch up. By senior year I was getting A's and no doubt that was thanks to having Japanese friends. The funny thing is, I know more about Japanese culture than my husband. As he completed high school and studied at college in Australia he missed out on all the important things. He is awful when it comes to Japanese tradition.
Had you ever envisioned that you might marry a person from another culture?
I never understood the reason why "Prince Charming" was always depicted as a wide shouldered, tall and muscly brute. I never found myself attracted to "white" men at all. I remember my mother telling me stories about her teacher, in a small country town in Australia who went to Japan to teach English during Christmas Holidays and came back with a Japanese man who she later married. It was such an inspiring story. A white country girl in the 60's marring a Japanese guy? At that time, it wasn't very much accepted. and even now, it's rare to see white women with Asian partners. I was the only girl in my year at high school with an Asian boyfriend. The white girls wouldn't hang out with me, so I became the "token white chick" amongst a group of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Koreans. Very interesting!
Do you and your husband speak Japanese to each other?
The funny thing is we used to in Australia, but his Japanese was too poor to keep it up so we spoke in English. He will occasionally say something in Japanese and I will just speak in English. But for the most part we're an English speaking couple. Our daughter has picked up on both languages, so we tend to use Japanese with her as much as we can.
Do you and your husband have any communication problems that have nothing to do with language?
I found that when we were in Australia, my hubby was carefree, crazy and spontaneous. After we’d been living in Gunma for a couple of months he turned into this grumpy conformist. It's hard to communicate when he is in the mindset of acting Japanese. I to this day cannot understand why he snaps into Japan mode around me, but it really angers me. Some days I just have to pull him aside and let him know he isn't acting like the guy that made me fall in love with him.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of your cross-cultural marriage? Rewarding aspects?
I wouldn't say there is anything particularly challenging. Australia is so multicultural, that we don’t really have our "own" culture. So it's very easy for me to adapt to things and, in fact, I love it! I'm a total culture and history buff and can't get enough of the whole "Japanese way of life" (except maybe the futon and house dust). The reward for me, is being able to do cultural things with our daughter that we wouldn't be able to experience back in Australia. I want our kids to be proud of their heritage and enjoy their culture as much as I do.
What attributes do you feel are most important for a successful cross-cultural marriage?
Being open minded and willing to adjust or make certain allowances. If you can't do that, then it's not for you! I hear all too much of foreign men losing their children to Japanese wives or vice versa because neither of them can make certain allowances in their relationship or get to know the other’s culture. It's very sad, but I'm glad both of us are sensitive to each other’s backgrounds and upbringings.
What do you find fascinating about Japanese culture? Frustrating?
Japanese culture is a bit of a two-way street. Some things might take my breath away, yet some just make me want to shout, “Oh, my God!” I really do enjoy the beauty of nature more so than I ever did and I have Japanese culture to thank for it. Cherry blossom viewing, seeing the first Autumn leaves—I love these raw aspects of Japan. Everything is appreciated here and I love it. I'm a big fan of matsuri (festivals), and find the little things like Girl’s Day and Respect for the Elderly Day very lovely. We have nothing like that back home, and if it is it's all just paid for by Hallmark.
What frustrates me is the idol and porn culture, in particular "Gravure Idols." I'm just going to slap the next man I see playing with a virtual lover game on their DSi. I can't accept the fact that young girls here are depicted as sex objects. In most cases it borderlines on pedophilia. And as a mother, it's just disgusting to think no one would blink an eye here. For example, just the other day I saw a man masturbating at a local mini mall. Just out in the open, in fact, right in front of the escalator and watching children. No one did anything. I was the only one to think about putting embarrassment aside and calling police and notifying the shops around him for them to call security. It took three attempts for any of the stores to call security for me! I told them what was going on right outside, and everyone just smiled awkwardly and said "that's strange" and continued doing everything as per usual. My mommy instincts just kicked in, as we were right next door to TOYS 'R US. The mall was packed with small children, some of whom saw the man and were visibly disturbed by him. What did their parents do? Nothing. Just ignored it and kept walking! As did every other shopper there.
Do you work outside the home? If so, what is your job?
I'm currently a stay-at-home mother, but recently decided to get back out into the work force. I'm tired of dwindling my days away. I will never be a "Japanese" housewife and I don't think my husband expects me to be. I do really love spending the time with my daughter though. She is my greatest achievement to date.
Do you see your in-laws often? Do you live with them?
We live in an apartment owned by them, and on the same block of land as the family home with only a driveway to separate us. For the most part, they drive me mad but we get along. If you can picture "Everybody Loves Raymond" that’s pretty much what I've going on in-law wise.
—Wendy Nelson Tokunaga conducted this interview. She is the author of the novels, Love in Translation and Midori by Moonlight. Get more info at: http://www.WendyTokunaga.com
Causes Wendy Tokunaga Supports
San Francisco SPCA Reading is Fundamental