Foreign wives of Japan offer NHK and ‘Massan’ criticism and kudos

by Louise George Kittaka

NHK’s long-running morning dramas have been viewer favorites for over 50 years. The current series, “Massan,” was inspired by the lives of Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japan’s whisky industry, and his Scottish wife, Rita.

The show has been attracting attention from Japan’s international community, largely due to the casting of American Charlotte Kate Fox as the first leading foreign actress in an NHK morning drama. Fox portrays the heroine, Ellie Kameyama. The show’s title comes from Ellie’s nickname for her husband, Masaharu, played by Tetsuji Tamayama.

One group with a vested interest in NHK’s depiction of a foreign bride are the members of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese (AFWJ), a 500-strong organization with members of around 40 different nationalities.

AFWJ began in 1969, when American Joan Itoh Burk asked Japan Times columnist Jean Pearce for help in reaching out to other women in her situation. AFWJ has gone from strength to strength in the ensuing years.

“Living in and having ties to a culture that you weren’t born into always comes with challenges. AFWJ allows us to both commiserate over the challenges and celebrate the triumphs of our day-to-day lives with an amazing group of women, many of whom have had similar experiences,” says the current president, Melissa Noguchi, a Canadian who lives in Ibaraki Prefecture.

In a recent online survey, 130 AFWJ members shared their thoughts on “Massan” so far. What do these women think about its foreign heroine and the implications for them as Ellie’s modern-day successors?

There was much anticipation about the actress picked for the coveted role of Ellie Kameyama who, like Rita Taketsuru, is a Scotswoman. Around a third of the survey participants admitted to being initially surprised that NHK didn’t tap a Scottish actress for the part, but the general consensus is that it doesn’t really matter, as Fox can do a fair Scottish accent and most of her dialogue is in Japanese anyway.

More than half praised the language skills of Fox, who knew no Japanese before being cast as Ellie, and a similar number agree that Fox possesses the characteristics to make her a popular choice with Japanese audiences.

“I think they have done a good job with her character and the presentation,” notes American Kathi Fuji. “She is quietly strong and supportive without giving up her own personality.”

At a press conference last week in Tokyo, which she attended with senior producer Ken Sakurai, Fox spoke of the challenges of learning her lines in an unfamiliar language. “This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life — every day in the beginning was the hardest day! I can’t sugarcoat it. You have to get up every day and memorize sounds that you don’t understand.”

As a group, the AFWJ women had some problems with NHK’s physical depiction of Ellie and her early behavior upon arrival in Japan in the early 1920s. Sixty-two percent questioned the need to make Ellie a platinum blond. (Rita Taketsuru was brunette.)

While acknowledging that the very blonde hair helps to separate the identities of the fictional Ellie and the real-life Rita, some participants said it also perpetuates the image that all foreigners from Western countries are light-haired.

“Ellie was already different enough to not turn her into a Timotei model,” says Nancy Baldwin, another American.

Others noted that NHK could have paid a little more attention to the fashions, with Ellie’s dresses and hairstyle being more reminiscent of “Little House on the Prairie” circa the 1880s. Historical accuracy aside, however, 64 percent agreed that Ellie’s looks are designed to appeal to the Japanese audience.

The section of the survey related to Ellie’s actions soon after her arrival in Japan drew the most united response. A whopping 83 percent took issue with the fact that Ellie attempted to hug all and sundry upon initial meetings. Many women commented that hugging would have been as foreign to the Scottish a century ago as it was to the Japanese.

At 76 percent, almost as many members said that many of Ellie’s initial antics, such as trying to walk into the house wearing shoes or clumsily knocking things over, only serve to reinforce stereotypes of “typical foreigner” behavior.

“I think she would be naive about this country upon arrival but the way that that inexperience is portrayed and expressed is rather childish, and not that of a woman who had made the decision to leave her family to live in a very different and distant country,” says Laura Kawaguchi from Canada.

At the same time, members acknowledged that some of Ellie’s behavior mirrors that of the standard morning drama heroine, who typically starts out as a sweet-natured but gauche ingenue before growing in confidence and competence throughout the series.

“I think it’s important to view the character of Ellie within its context — that of the NHK morning drama. She’s been written as sympathetic, though the choices the writers made might not always be comfortable for us,” notes Rachel Greenwood Yokomatsu, a New Zealander.

Many of the issues faced by Ellie in “Massan” are familiar to AFWJ members. Not surprisingly for the times, Ellie and Masaharu experience strong opposition from both families, with veteran actress Pinko Izumi playing Ellie’s formidable mother-in-law.

Fox says she has spoken to a handful of real-life foreign wives so far, and one of the topics they discussed was the dynamics of the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship.

However, while close to a third of AFWJ survey participants faced initial disapproval from their husband’s families, the most common problems as newlyweds were “feelings of isolation in the community” (64 percent) and “struggles with finding my place in Japanese society” (63 percent). These were closely followed by “problems with realigning expectations of marriage with Japanese norms” at 57 percent.

When asked about the same issues now, the responses reveal that things get easier over time, but the same three issues still loom largest in the lives of AFWJ members, at 45 percent for both “feelings of isolation” and “finding my place,” and 42 percent for “realigning expectations of marriage.”

Fox touched on this last issue during the recent press conference, expressing an interest in Western feminism within the context of an intercultural marriage.

“When a foreign wife comes to Japan, does she have to bend her way of thinking, and how do she and her husband work things out?” Fox said. “I wonder how they align their ideas.”

Marian Hara, who hails from Scotland, comments on a similar topic, citing the “inability of many people to appreciate that it’s fair for my husband to make adjustments and meet me half-way, as I’ve made a lot of adjustments that get taken for granted.”

One of AFWJ’s more senior members, who was married in 1970 and chose to remain anonymous, notes that time can take care of things. “Most of the naysayers are now dead!” she quips.

Nearly a third of participants say that they still have issues with being told, “You wouldn’t understand because you’re a foreigner” when conflicts arise. Ellie would no doubt sympathize on this point.

Irrespective of their perceived shortcomings of the series, 80 percent of participants say that NHK deserves credit for the decision to make a morning drama centering on an intercultural marriage, while some 71 percent believe it is a positive things if “Massan” can help the average Japanese viewer to become more aware of the related issues.

“My husband and I watch together and we’ve both seen conversations echoing ones we’ve had,” notes Alisha Smyth Yamamori. “It makes us think and talk more about our differences!”

Fellow American Leza Lowitz, who is the only foreign wife in her neighborhood, says, “Whatever the stereotypes and drawbacks of the show, it has gone a long way in opening hearts and minds, so I am grateful.”

Christine Pearson Ishi, also from the U.S., expands on this theme: “The show isn’t just about a foreign wife and her struggle of learning to live in a different country, as much as about how a Japanese family and society have to learn to deal with someone who is not from Japan.”

In the final part of the survey, participants had the chance to comment on what they would like to tell NHK about “Massan.” The most popular topic was the speed with which Ellie has picked up Japanese.

Some women suggested that Ellie should have used more English at first, at least in private with her husband. German Annette Kurazono points out that NHK could have made more use of subtitles while Ellie’s Japanese proficiency gradually improved.

“My daily conversational Japanese is fine and yet a number of people have recently inquired why I don’t speak better having lived here for more than 10 years,” says American Beth Oba. “I fail miserably compared to how fast Ellie is learning, and I think the precedent being set is not fair to me or any foreigner in Japan.”

Scot Fiona Matsushima expressed the wish that Ellie be portrayed as a Scottish woman rather than a generic Westerner.

“For example, they said that ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is an English song but actually it is a Scottish song written in the Scots language. It would be great to feature more about Scottish culture.”

As the show moves forward, taking the Kameyamas into the war years and beyond, many AFWJ members are looking forward to seeing how Ellie’s role develops.

“I hope her character will mature realistically and will make people curious in a positive way about international marriages,” says Stephanie Napier, another American.

“While ‘Massan’ is a drama and therefore a work of fiction, many of the themes, such as acceptance and striving to understand the culture of the person you love, hold true even in today’s society,” says AFWJ PR officer Heather Fukase, an Australian based in Nagano.

Fox echoed similar sentiments when asked to comment on what viewers can learn from Ellie and her approach.

“Her biggest message is ‘Never give up.’ Today, so many people walk away and give up when things go wrong, but for Ellie that simply isn’t an option,” said Fox. “If we give the message to be patient and don’t walk away, we have done our job.”

Trailblazing role: Ken Sakurai, the lead producer of
Trailblazing role: Ken Sakurai, the lead producer of ‘Massan,’ and Charlotte Kate Fox, who plays Ellie Kameyama in the NHK morning drama, appear at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo last week. | LOUISE GEORGE KITTAKA

Ellie’s character shaped by talks with expats, visit to Scotland and Fox’s input

Ken Sakurai, the lead producer of “Massan,” took the time to address some of the AFWJ members’ questions about Ellie by email.

When coming up with the concept for the character of Ellie Kameyama, writer Daisuke Habara and the production team looked first to the life of Rita Taketsuru for inspiration, before fleshing out the character by adding in elements that would make Ellie an appealing and unique personality in her own right, Sakurai says.

“From the outset, we thought about how the success of this NHK morning drama, which is watched by a multigenerational audience, depended on whether the viewers could relate to our heroine Ellie’s feelings.”

In order to catch the essence of what makes Ellie tick, Sakurai adds that Habara interviewed a number of real-life foreign wives of Japanese to hear about their experiences, as well as visiting Scotland to learn more about the culture and people.

Actress Charlotte Kate Fox, who plays Ellie, has also had input in the development of the character she plays. Sakurai recalls a memorable conversation over dinner with Habara and Fox, soon after she landed the part of Ellie.

“Charlotte said, ‘Life is an adventure!’ with her eyes shining. Habara was very impressed with her belief in the future, and her comment was written into the script as one of Ellie’s lines.”

Sakurai points out that although “Massan” unfolds during the Taisho and Showa eras (1912-1989) , some of the issues that Ellie and husband Masaharu argue over would have parallels for modern-day Japanese couples.

“I think that seeing things from Ellie’s perspective helps to make them stand out more, and this is actually one of the major themes of the drama,” he says. “Viewing things through Ellie’s eyes, we want viewers to find aspects that make them think ‘That’s so odd!’ and ‘That’s amazing!’ about the Japanese.”

As for Ellie’s platinum blonde hair, which AFWJ members commented on, it seems that Fox’s natural color is a bit of a mystery. According to a spokeswoman from NHK, it has been dyed a number of times for previous roles, including at the time she auditioned for “Massan.”

What is clear from photographs is that she was very blonde as a child. After various considerations, it was apparently decided that reverting back to close to her original color would best reflect Fox’s natural charm.

Louise George Kittaka is a member of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese, which is open to any foreign woman married, engaged or in a long-term relationship with a Japanese partner (www.afwj.org). Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • I’m very happy to read thoughtsーboth positive and negativeーsimilar to mine as I’ve been following the show. I really hope they allow Ellie to develop more as the series progresses. (And honestly, shouldn’t it be called “Ellie and Massan”?)

    • Don Corleone

      I must concur – the show should’ve been named “Ellie and Massan”, after watching it a few times I became hooked by the story, though it is obviously has been made “nice” and thoroughly sanitized for whatever reason, it is still a good tale.

      • Yes, true. Japanese TV does often like to keep things a little bit too clean, but I guess in this case (at least in part) it’s due to the airing time. I know some of my friends’ elementary school-aged children are watching it, and it’s just about the right level of “nice” for them. I think it’s good that all ages can enjoy itーand hopefully learn something from it, too.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Are the only foreign national wives in Japan worthy of interest Caucasian or those from former British colonies? For many years, even decades, the typical foreign national wife in Japan has been Chinese, Korean, Filipino, etc.

    • Ron NJ

      The only ones Japan wants to openly acknowledge are of European extraction, yes. By far (as in, several orders of magnitude more) the largest number of non-Japanese spouses in Japan are of Korean, Chinese, and Southeast Asian origin, however.

  • Ron NJ

    I’m so tired of always being referred to as foreign. Can’t we just have a conversation about people yet? There’s more to me than where I came from or what race I happen to be – it doesn’t need to be the center of practically every interaction I have just because Japan can’t seem to get over the fact.

    • JTCommentor

      Seemingly in these articles its the foreigners who are also insisting on talking about it. The fact that such an organization as “foreign wives” exists suggests its not just Japan that cant get over it.

      I very much agree with your point, 100%, but its not just Japanese (or even majority) who constantly talk about the “issues” – the expat community seems equally (or more) obsessed.

      • Minxy Minamoto

        This article was written in English in a Japanese newspaper so it’s only natural that lots of foreigners read it and want to comment on it, especially as the topic was the depiction of a foreigner in Japan.
        The expat community is not one homogeneous group who all act the same so I’m not surprised that as percentage of the expats in Japan we see here a tiny, tiny number of commentors.

    • Gordon Graham

      You’re so tired…

  • Ahojanen

    Aside from intercultural/stereotyping discussion, as a native of Hiroshima, I am not satisfied with “Massan” people speaking the local Hiroshima dialect. While acknowledging their efforts, I find it still sounding unnatural…

  • Tina

    I agree with many of the points made by the foreign wives commenting on this show. However, I feel that the interracial marriage issue is trumped by the fact that this is a historical drama. I would like this to be the first step towards seeing modern interracial relationships in Japan being portrayed (granted, not many dramas in North America do so either…).
    Also, I really can’t get over the fact that they made her blonde. I just don’t accept their reasoning… :/ I have brown eyes and dark hair but that doesn’t make my struggle as a foreign wife any different…?

  • pami

    As an American wife of a Japanese, I am thoroughly enjoying this drama although I don’t speak much Japanese. I enjoy the characters of both Massan and Ellie and can relate to their challenges in each of their respective roles. I think Charlotte is so fortunate to have gotten this role as well as Tetsuji to not only make history working with Charlotte but to tell the story of one couple. I can relate to many issues and situations that come up with family and culture barriers and its so refreshing to see how they overcome challenges. When my husband and I travel in Japan we always get second glances and stares and I can only imagine what people are thinking. I always smile and nod whether on the train or street because I am respectful and always try to be accepted. My Japan family loves me (although they never say!) and I , them. When you love someone it doesn’t matter if you speak the language well, because you can show your love by your actions. Its important that each of us follow our dream and this show depicts one couples’ dream. Thank you NHK and TV Japan for this wonderful “asadra” I watch 2x a day!

  • Tomoko Endo

    In reality, I read that Japanese men were brutal for foreign women at Meiji period. So France gave men to research thier French wives’ misary lives.
    First, Japanese men were gentle in France, but even if they went back to Japan, they did cold treatments to French wives.