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With love and Japan, what you get out depends on what you put in

by William Bradbury

At a bar in Tokyo, united only by our Caucasian ancestry and shared mastery of English, the stranger put his hand on my shoulder.

“Be careful, man,” he said.

“What?”

“Yeah.” I had no idea what he meant.

“You married?” he said.

“No.”

“Then be careful. I know so many guys, man — they marry a Japanese girl and they lose their character.”

He must have had some bad experiences. In fact, he sounded like a troubled (and paranoid) individual. I later found he had divorced and remarried twice. And then I started thinking about it . . .

At the outset, moving to Japan makes an infant of us all, regardless of race, sex or creed. To use a rather grandiose comparison, a major conflict in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” comes from the fact that Prospero knew the language and Caliban the land, but when you first get to Japan, you know neither.

If a Westerner happens to have a Japanese partner, it’s easy to become dependent on them when it comes to dealing with problems, translations, ideas for where to go, phone calls with Japanese-only services and so on. When I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) I saw a colleague, an architect in his home country, struggling to figure out the way to the test hall without the help of his wife. It’s pathetic to complain about being helped, but with requiring assistance in everyday tasks comes a feeling of discomfort — emasculation, even.

I don’t agree with the notion that men should always organize dates or figure things out alone, but in Japan, even if you have the desire to do so, the reality is that local women probably know the environs better, and in many cases they will be happy to take you out and show you around. It’s a great way to get an insider view of the city — gaijin haunts don’t seem classy places to take girls anyway — but the experience can feel vaguely like going out as a child with your mother.

The ordering stage of the evening only compounds this feeling, as you squint over the kanji and realize your progress with the language has been rendered void by the near-illegible handwriting on the menu. You just about make out “fried potato” but keep silent and wait — this place is probably famous for something and you just don’t know it yet.

The problem is part of a trade-off, though, and it seems both parties are willing to put up with a fair amount of discomfort for reasons that may have more to do with identity than the actual person they’re with. Foreigners can feel as if they are fulfilling a fantasy by having a Japanese girlfriend, and are likely to be the envy of at least one of their friends back home. I’ve heard foreigners come to a defeatist “well, I couldn’t get anyone back home” conclusion about their predicament and I’ve also heard others marvel over that same point. Yet it can’t just be a case of one-sided desperation and dependency, or surely the women wouldn’t tolerate it.

In the early stages of a cross-cultural relationship there can be a lot of what I call the “pet treatment,” where the Japanese partner seems a little too obsessed with taking photos of the two of you together and tagging you on Facebook in them. It’s a novelty, granted, but it grates when you realize that where you’re from appears to matter more than who you are.

It also seems that some Japanese women like their men to be dependent. It’s not something many are used to from Japanese men who, for better or worse, are expected to be breadwinners and can find themselves trapped in the work/work-socializing system. Women in relationships with foreigners also often don’t seem to mind deranged behavior, and things like drunken emoting or over-the-top romantic statements can even be seen as cute examples of non-Japanese behavior.

One reason for this admirable level of tolerance may be that the cachet that comes with being perceived as international and not traditionally Japanese is enough of an identity/image-booster for the woman to compensate for the character flaws of the person she is dating. Like many things, this is linked to the notion that the Western way is just different — and thus intriguing to boot.

All these factors make it hard to maintain a healthy relationship in Japan without sometimes mistakenly blaming your partner for your own problems. Even without relationship issues, living in Japan can trigger an identity crisis, as all of your personal quirks tend to be grouped together under the umbrella of “things foreigners do.” Some of these frustrations can amplify the irritation with a partner who might seem to be restricting your freedom and independence.

The healthiest option then, if you choose to settle in Japan, could be to focus and try and forge a life for yourself independently, study hard and try to integrate. Single or not, the happiest people I’ve met have always been those who live in here earnestly, and language plays a large role in that.

Evasive behavior has its perks, and having a doting partner willing to do everything for you might sound like a certain kind of male dream, but the laziest life isn’t always the best. The question is whether you want a happy life or a comfortable one. Maybe everyone knows which they’d prefer deep down, but one takes more effort than the other, and so, often, the decision makes itself.

William Bradbury is a freelance writer and musician in Tokyo who has nothing special planned for White Day. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • vivianlostinseoul

    Enjoyed this read, great work William. I was going to say, same can be said about foreign women with Japanese male partners, but no- it’s quite different. in my experience, foreign women tend to remain more independent.

  • 3FSmith

    This made me laugh (especially the bit about the architect not ebing able to find the exam hall!). An interesting perspective. My wife is Japanese and although we have never lived in Japan, we have visited annually for at least ten years now. One of the things I look forward to most on a trip to Tokyo is her looking after me during our stay – ordering food, navigating the transport, booking onsen etc. It’s a real role reversal of our lives in my native country where I do most of these mundane tasks. I did not however realise there was any cachet in having a foreign partner (she kept that quiet!). I agree with you that the effort in learning the language in some depth would really reap benefits. If we ever lived in Japan I get the impression it would take me a lifetime to get to grips with it.

  • MarkD

    Living in the US, we had the opposite experience, initially. Since my wife has now lived here more than half her life, she’s more competent than most native Americans.