I was trudging home the other night with a dōryō (同僚, colleague) after another in a series of sābisu zangyō (サービス残業, unpaid overtime) sessions, debating whether to skip dinner or stop off at the nearest 24-hour sūpā (スーパー, supermarket). Out of the blue, my colleague asked me, “Ima ichiban hoshiimono wa nani?” (「今一番欲しいものは何」”What are you craving right now?”) and before thinking about it, I blurted out “Yome ga hoshī. Dekireba sengyō shufu” (「嫁が欲しい。できれば専業主婦」 “I want a wife. Preferably a stay-at-home wife”).
Actually, that translation is a bit off, as the Japanese “yome” is different from the Western concept of a “wife.” A wife is married to her spouse while a yome is married to the household. The wife expects to be treated as an equal but the yome‘s unwritten job description specifically states her underling position. Her boss is the household, not her husband.
Let me tell you the real reason fewer Japanese women are willing to settle down to marriage — they have a gnawing fear that if they do tie the knot, their husbands will morph into the tenkeiteki Nippon danshi (典型的日本男子, typical Japanese male) who takes it for granted that the yome will cook, clean, raise the kids and tend to their elderly parents. All this, while wielding the supposed Japanese male birthright to spend inordinate amount of hours at the office and uwakisuru (浮気する, have affairs) at every opportunity.
This fear may be ōgesa (大げさ, exaggerated) but it’s 80 percent true, according to a personal survey I took among my girlfriends. Okay, the married state in Japan may be dismal; on the other hand, it’s possible the Japanese woman has evolved so far as to ignore it altogether. Every woman I know (including married ones) would rather have a “yome” over a danna (旦那, Japanese husband). I mean who wouldn’t want an adorable creature willing to keep a home-cooked dinner warm past midnight and the fridge stocked with beer?
My friend Yoko has taken to saying “Atashi-ga atashi-no yome-ni naru” (あたしがあたしの嫁になる」 “I’m going to be my own Japanese wife”). You know, American self-help blogs exhort you to treat yourself like a best friend, well Yoko’s tactic is to cook for herself, gently wake herself up in the morning with a cup of sencha (煎茶, green tea), care for herself when she’s futsukayoi (二日酔い, hungover) and other stuff that generations of yome have been doing for their danna for millennia. Acting as her own yome, Yoko makes sure she’s daiji-ni sareteiru (大事にされている, valued and respected) — after all, she’s the sole kasegite (稼ぎ手, wage-earner) in her single-person household. Appare (あっぱれ, bravo), Yoko!
Yoko is probably not the only one who has decided on marital self-sufficiency. A new trend among urban working women is to wear the kappōgi (割烹着, coverall aprons) in the privacy of their hitorigurashi-no heya (一人暮らしの部屋, single dwellings), indicating a desire to become a part-time yome with the kinks of servitude to house and danna, deleted.
The kappōgi used to be to the Japanese wife what ball and chain were to the slave. The white smock signified a life of endless toil, punctuated by kateigyōji (家庭行事, household events) like preparing the New Year’s feast, and kankonsōsai (冠婚葬祭, gatherings, weddings, funerals and celebrations) that demanded a whole lot of extra labor and tons of kizukai (気遣い, using one’s perceptions to deduce the needs and demands of others, and acting on them before being asked to do so). The kappōgi both defined the yome and incarcerated her. My grandmother owned several of them, and kept them crisp and white and spanking clean. Her grandchildren urged her to discard them for the modern, Westernized and colorful epuron (エプロン, apron) but she refused, saying aprons weren’t kinōteki (機能的, functional) enough.
Now, more working women are rediscovering just how serviceable a kappōgi is — it can be worn over a suit without mussing it up, which means a woman can don it to go through the morning chores just before rushing out to catch the train for work. The woman largely responsible for making kappōgi trendy is of course, STAP cell developer and biochemist Haruko Obokata (30), who prefers it rather than the conventional lab coat. Haru Kuroki, who won the best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for her role in “Chiisai Ouchi (小さいおうち, The Little House),” is now dubbed “Nihon’ichi kappōgi-ga niau jyoyū” (「日本一割烹着が似合う女優」 “The actress most suited to wearing a kappōgi in Japan). Illustrator and artist Setsuko Tamura works in her Harajuku atelier in a kappōgi. And according to fashion legend, the German wife of 1980s designer Isao Kaneko swore by it.
So there you go. The yome is a precious phenomenon but all things considered, perhaps too precious to share out.