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‘Outsider’ shares unique take on life, prejudices in the ‘real’ Japan

by Tomoko Otake

As a “blonde-haired, blue-eyed” American woman living in the rural farmlands of Tokushima Prefecture with a Japanese husband and their twin children, one with hearing disabilities, author and novelist Suzanne Kamata has gained a unique perspective on life in Japan.

And she is not afraid of expressing her uneasiness with Japan’s social norms.

Kamata, a 43-year-old Michigan native who has lived in Japan for 21 years, first came to the country on the JET program — the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, which places native English speakers as assistant teachers in Japanese schools. She said she decided to come to Japan after mulling the option over another foreign assignment — the U.S. Peace Corps.

“Japan was going to be my fallback, and I was accepted into the Peace Corps and they were going to send me to Cameroon,” she recalled in a recent telephone interview from her home in Tokushima. “I thought I could do (Japan) first and do the Peace Corps later.”

But Kamata’s stay here ended up longer, as she fell in love with a Japanese man — a physical education teacher from Tokushima and a former baseball star in high school and college. They soon married, and now have two children.

Whether in fiction or nonfiction, her writings have been inspired by her day-to-day exchanges with family members, relatives and neighbors living in “real” Japan. Indeed, “Call Me Okaasan — Adventures in Multicultural Mothering,” which was published in May and in which she put together essays by 20 female writers raising children across cultures, came out of her “urge to consult with other mothers” as she found Japanese rules of motherhood perplexing — and “often at odds with my beliefs,” she wrote in the book’s introduction.

Specifically, she cites the “self-sacrifice” required of mothers in Japan, as well as the sense of guilt shared by mothers for not “devoting every moment” to their children, as a few of the parenting norms unique to Japan.

“In the States, people say things like, ‘Happy mothers are good mothers,’ or ‘Mothers have to find time for themselves,’ and ‘You have to spend time with your husband,’ ” she said. “(Mothers in Japan) actually feel guilty about buying things for school instead of making them themselves. Here, when my kids started school I was told that you need to sew the apron and sew the little bags or something yourself so that your children will understand that you love them.”

Kamata has also been vocal about issues of disability, especially prejudices and misunderstandings about people with disabilities in Japan.

Her daughter, Lilia, 10, was born with cerebral palsy and is deaf. She said the sense of stigma is especially strong in Japan, not just for disabled people themselves but also their families.

The types of jobs available for disabled people are also severely restricted and stereotyped, she said.

The vocational training available at schools for children with disabilities — haircutting for the deaf and massage therapy for the blind — is good in a sense there is a path for them to make a living after school, she said, adding that students are discouraged from choosing other paths.

“Somebody gave a speech at a deaf school once,” she said. “It was about his success as a hairdresser. He talked about how his dream had been to be a photographer and to have a camera shop. And that’s like something that a deaf person can do, no problem, I thought, but his father said, ‘No no no, you can’t do that,’ and pushed him into cutting hair.”

Now a champion barber, the speaker came to the school as a role model for other deaf children. “I didn’t find it inspiring at all.”

With all her misgivings about Japan, Kamata, who speaks English with her husband and son and communicates with her daughter using Japanese sign language (due to a lack of other options), said she loves the safety, cleanliness and punctuality in Japan, as well as the kindness of people in the countryside. She also appreciates how people don’t openly express feelings of irritation.

“Sometimes when I get to the States, the way everybody is so loud and openly irritated can be jarring,” she said. “Here, people might be irritated but they don’t show it.”

She also feels that, with depopulation, Japan’s traditional values, including fixed gender roles and a somewhat xenophobic attitude toward people from other cultures, will dissipate.

“When I came, people were still saying ‘Christmas cake,’ ” she said, referring to the comparison of unmarried women at 25 or older to the cake, which loses value and gets sold at a huge discount after Dec. 25. “Nobody says that anymore. Younger women are fed up with all that.

“And now it’s not so bad to be mixed . . . You have a celebrity like (Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher) Yu Darvish. He identifies himself as Japanese and he is like a superstar.”

Kamata, who is now working on a new novel, said she wants to continue writing, partly to give her daughter a voice.

“There is so much more to her than a wheelchair or a hearing aid,” she said. “So I want people to understand that about her. I like I’m giving her a voice. Instead of hiding the fact that she is disabled and making it OK. (And I feel like I’m) trying to make it OK to be disabled and to be public about it and not ashamed.”