Committed to ‘making it work’ as foreign wife

Poet Winnie Inui reflects on three decades of foreign wives' association in Kansai

by Jane Singer

Forty-five years spent living in the Kobe area as the American wife of a Japanese businessman must change a person. Yet Winnie Inui, 68, still welcomes visitors to her suburban home in Ashiya, Hyodo Prefecture, with a blanket of felicitous concern (“Enough tea, dear?”) and a flair for storytelling that remains true to her Boston Irish roots.

A poet and a founder of the Kansai branch of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese, she recently spoke about her nearly half-century in Japan.

Winnie Flanagan was working at a bank in Boston during the day and studying French at night when she first met Tsuneo Inui, then a student at Harvard Business School, in 1964. Although charmed by this man who sang exotic songs in Japanese to cheer them up when his car became mired in a snowdrift, she didn’t seriously consider the idea of marriage and life in far-off Japan, but after he returned to Japan in June 1965, he and Winnie pursued a courtship by mail.

That August he sealed the deal by sending Winnie an engagement ring. In the hope of making the occasion more meaningful, she asked the postman to place it on her finger. Despite doubts about life here, Winnie was sure that, as she said, “If we really care about each other, we should be able to make it work.”

In December 1965 she arrived in Japan toting her mother’s wedding dress. One week later, in January 1966, she and Tsuneo were married at Rokko Church in Kobe, with his family, friends and business associates on his side of the aisle and not a soul on hers.

“The wedding was a shock — nobody was having fun, it seemed to me, and Tsuneo kept telling me, ‘Don’t eat, don’t drink and STOP smiling.’ “

Winnie and Tsuneo soon moved into a small apartment in Kobe. He usually worked until 11 p.m.; Winnie knew no one and couldn’t speak the language. Fortunately, though, he had enrolled her in a language class before she arrived, saying, “You have to study Japanese from day one.”

“I went to class five days a week, three hours a day for a year and a half.”

Lonely, she made friends with a bar hostess living next door: “Like me, she was a misfit in society. She would pour me hot sake and practice Japanese with me.”

Winnie cherished her first impressions of Japan. “Everything chock-a-block, the shrines and temples, the uniformed schoolchildren looking like little policemen, the trains . . . I loved walking around.”

But as she noted, “One day you wake up and realize that this is your life, and it’s no longer a vacation. You start to look around more critically.” She tried to convince her husband to move back to the U.S., but he reminded her that she had made a promise to stick it out.

She had no money or opportunity to return to the U.S. for three years. “That was fortunate, as it turned out. After three years here I had put down roots, and after a trip home I had no doubt that this was where I wanted to be,” she said.

Kobe at the time had a large Western expatriate community, but being the wife of a Japanese, Winnie lacked access to their rarefied world. “Society was very stratified then. I didn’t know any other foreign wives of Japanese — I was one of the first of the postwar generation of foreign wives. There were Western missionary families who had formerly lived in China and American GIs on leave from Vietnam. The expatriates were ‘the people on the hill’ — they had chauffeurs, servants and clubs.”

One day a friend who worked as a lifeguard let Winnie sneak into the Kobe Club.

“Today the members are mostly Japanese, but at that time Japanese weren’t even allowed inside,” she said. “As I sunned myself beside the pool I began speaking with a British woman member and she learned that I was married to a Japanese. Taken aback, she said, ‘Oh my poor dear, what must it be like for you?’ For her the Japanese were the maids, the nursemaids and the drivers.”

In 1967 Winnie’s first child, a boy they named Makio, was born. “We wanted our children to be bilingual and at home in both cultures, so we only spoke English at home but sent the kids to Japanese schools for their compulsory education.”

Her son went to Japanese schools through university, while her two daughters were happier finishing their high school education at the Canadian Academy, an international school in Kobe.

“The children had some struggles, but now they appreciate having a bicultural background. As my son said, ‘I can look at a problem two different ways due to my background — it’s my single biggest edge in the workplace.’ ” Two of her children work for foreign-affiliated companies and one for an international school in Tokyo, and Winnie and her husband are now trying to foster bilingual skills among their three grandchildren.

In 1969 Winnie read an article about a new group that had been formed in Tokyo, the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese, and she and a few other foreign wives whom she had gotten to know decided to start a Kansai chapter. A planning meeting was held in her living room in April 1970 with four other women, with the first official meeting held a few weeks later.

“1970 proved to be a real turning point for this area. Shops like Mister Donut came to Kansai and the Osaka Expo was held that year. Many foreign women came to work for the pavilions of their countries at the Expo, met Japanese men and got married, and many of them joined the AFWJ. Within five years we had several dozen members,” she said.

Winnie sees the AFWJ as a group whose members, first and foremost, serve as family for each other.

“It offers friendship, support groups, advice on raising bilingual children, information-swapping, a place where we can be silly together — where we can be ourselves.”

The AFWJ hosts guest speakers and holds panel discussions about child-rearing, legal and medical issues, and it sponsors holiday events, camps and hiking groups. Members come from all over the world, including many non-English speaking nations.

Considering the common image of American women as wanting to be pampered and Japanese men as distant and unhelpful, marriages between Japanese men and Western women might appear to have longer odds of success than Hugh Hefner’s latest match. Winnie noted: “Actually I’ve read that there’s a lower divorce rate among marriages like mine than those where both partners are Japanese or both American,” Winnie said. “I think it’s because the stakes are higher. We (international spouses) went out on a limb to marry, and our families might have been opposed, so we’re committed to making it work.”

Winnie has always enjoyed writing poetry, but she says it was living in Japan that made her a writer. “I wrote long letters home and have always kept a journal. I read a lot and was inspired to write poems. Japanese society also tempered me, like a piece of pottery in a kiln, allowing me to become a better writer.”

She describes the major theme of her poetry, which has won awards in several national poetry competitions and appears in every bimonthly AFWJ Journal, as “feeling belonging in a place I don’t belong.”

Winnie’s art was tempered further by the events of Jan. 17, 1995. At 5:46 a.m. her old wooden house in Ashiya began heaving violently — “You could hear the very earth groaning” — and the glassware and furniture came crashing down. A wall had fallen across the stairs to the second floor, but in the darkness Winnie, her husband and their 15-year-old daughter managed to slide down the stairs barefoot and negotiate a sea of glass on the first floor without receiving a single cut.

Afraid to re-enter their still-shaking home, they stayed in their car overnight, then evacuated to a friend’s apartment in Osaka for some time. The Great Hanshin Earthquake and subsequent fires killed 6,308 people and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

Their house was unlivable and had to be torn down, but upon gazing at the much greater losses suffered by her Kobe neighbors and interviewing other foreign residents, Winnie was inspired to write several poems. Her husband translated them into Japanese and in late 1995 Winnie published them in a small book, “Dark Dawning,” with proceeds going to charities for earthquake survivors. In one of her poems, “Re-doing Life on Shaky Ground,” she wrote:

Obsessed with this earthquake

“our” earthquake,

compelled to look

to feel again and again

what we could not take in

that dark morning whe

the dear (and deadly) clutter

of our little world came

crashing down on us,

Now, voyeurs of rubble, we are propelled through ghost towns

of once daily life, knowing the time to pare down is

hard upon us, to jettison, weed out

the ridiculous, to treasure the Sublime, as God

undoes the grasp of memory

one finger at a time

Memories of the earthquake have faded, but Inui hopes to continue chronicling her life here in poetry, and she is looking for an editor to assist her.