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Sansei’s pursuit of love overcomes distance

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Dale Araki is a third-generation Japanese-American who spent most of his childhood in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina before settling in San Francisco.

It was there in 1977 that he first met Shoko, who was to become his future wife.

They enrolled in a class on American phonetics at San Francisco State University — Dale as an undergraduate and Shoko as a graduate student. They shared a rare commonality — Dale’s father made a living in chick-sexing, and Shoko’s uncle had a chick-sexing school in Japan.

When Shoko finished her master’s course, she returned to Japan, and did not see Dale for nearly 10 years.

Originally from Furano in Hokkaido, Shoko made her career in Japan after returning, where she worked for NHK World Radio Japan, held intercultural training courses for companies and arranged academic conferences in intercultural communication. Meanwhile, Dale worked as a pension consultant, then as a policeman and later as a prison guard.

After occasional exchanges of letters, Christmas cards and phone calls, they reunited in 1988 in the United States, and married the following year, although she continued to live in Japan.

Dale offered to move to Japan to be with Shoko, who in turn asked Dale to quit his job as a policeman and get a master’s degree so he could get a job teaching English at a Japanese university. While Dale studied for a master’s in education, Shoko was busy securing a teaching position for Dale and finding a place to live. In March 1990, Dale finally joined Shoko to begin their life in Japan.

Shoko is now professor of intercultural communication at J. F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, while Dale teaches oral literacy and communication at Tamagawa University and University of the Sacred Heart. Shoko has authored several books on intercultural communication, including a recent book “Communication Competency” (“Jibun o Ikasu Komyunikeishon-ryoku”).

The couple live in Kawasaki with their cats Suki and Yaki, both of which are now 16 years old.

What were your first impressions of each other?

Dale: When I first saw Shoko, it was love at first sight.

Shoko: Is that really so?

Dale: She thought I was Japanese, so she thought, “This guy could speak good English.”

Shoko: But we couldn’t communicate, as I was so bad at English then. I didn’t understand what he was saying.

What brought you together again after 10 years?

Shoko: I had a conference to attend in Denver. I tried calling, but Dale was sleeping and the phone was off the hook.

Dale: When she called, I was a policeman in Berkeley, California. It happened to be my day off. She called my office. Obviously I’m not there. Then she had my aunt’s phone number. I happened to call my aunt to ask her how to cook broccoli and that’s when my aunt said, “By the way, Shoko called.” I told her, “Well, give her my number,” and Shoko called me again from the airport. If I hadn’t answered that, she would’ve gone back to Japan.

What was the proposal like?

Dale: Shortly after we started dating, I proposed to her in writing. Then, I received a three-page letter from her in August 1978. It said, “Dale, I love you, but I cannot marry you, because I have to get my MA degree. I have obligation to my parents.”

Shoko: At that time, I never thought about getting married to anyone.

Dale: I was heartbroken. We didn’t get together until almost 10 years later.

Shoko: During that time, he wrote me letters that said, “I haven’t seen you for many years, but I’m always thinking about you.” But it wasn’t realistic for me. I developed my career here, so I didn’t think about living in the U.S. Dale was totally American. He didn’t speak Japanese, didn’t seem to want to live in Japan. But he said, “I can go to Japan.”

Dale: It was a lot easier for me. Both my parents were gone. I’m the only child. I sold the car and . . .

Shoko: It was like “I’ll come to Japan with just one suitcase.”

How did your parents react to the marriage?

Shoko: I think my mother was happy (my father had passed away), because I was in my late 30s when we got married. I think she thought that I would never get married.

Dale: My father died in 1978. My grandmother (who lived in Japan and didn’t speak English) wanted me to do omiai kekkon (arranged marriage). I received a picture of a Japanese woman in a kimono and a call from my grandmother saying that her parents were coming to San Francisco to see me to talk about marriage to this woman. I was just flabbergasted — scared, and asked my aunt who lived in San Francisco to come with me. I met the parents, and took them to Chinatown and we talked. Afterwards, I returned the picture and said, “No thank you. I’m not interested.” The parents were speechless. My grandmother called, just furious, so upset with me. In 1990, we visited her, and she met Shoko for the first time. She was very happy that I’m married to a Japanese woman, happy I’m in Japan, happy that I’m a teacher — not a policeman. She lived until she was 92. She was a very happy woman.

How was it when you first arrived in Japan?

Dale: There was some culture shock about the sameness of people. San Francisco is a very international city, and I’m used to a more casual approach to things. For example, using honorifics (was a culture shock). In most instances, regardless of gender and age, it’s “Hi, how are you?” in the U.S.

Shoko: There are cultural differences in the sense of value between Japan and the U.S. For Americans who try to talk to each other in an equal manner, putting oneself below another person and using honorifics doesn’t match their way of thinking. It was difficult for Dale to make Japanese friends, especially with the language barrier. So having Suki and Yaki was really good.

Dale: I believe in pet therapy.

Shoko: Before they came to us, John (a Siberian Husky who was a pet of a neighbor) was his best friend. Dale used to take him out for a walk every single day, through rain and snow, day and night. To an American man, it seems like the wife has to wear many hats and assume different roles.

What is intercultural marriage to you?

Dale: It’s like double-mint gum. You double your pleasure, you double your fun, there’s also double misunderstanding! On the positive side, you double everything.

Shoko: That makes life richer. Another good point is — if we were both Japanese, I might have thought, “No, I can’t continue the relationship anymore,” but in an intercultural marriage, I can think like “Misunderstanding occurs because of cultural factors, not because of one’s character.” A concept such as “kuuki o yomu” (literally, “read the air”) exists only in Japanese culture. A relationship won’t work out if you think of trying to make yourself understood without saying anything. You have to speak up and express yourself in words.

Dale: We’re like a reference to our former students who get married to foreigners. When I ask my students what they think of intercultural marriage, they say things like “It’s fun” and “gaijins are more romantic.” But it’s not for everyone. It requires a lot of work, understanding, more patience, sense of humor — to really make it work.