It’s exactly 50 years since the famed Summer of Love when the “Turn on, tune in and drop out” generation shed their clothes, put flowers in their hair and, at festivals like Woodstock, overturned prim morality and ushered in a sexual revolution that would soon make its influence felt around the world.
During that summer, the 27-year-old John Lennon — already married — decided to lend his support to the London exhibition of a Japanese artist called Yoko Ono, and pretty soon the world’s most famous Anglo-Japanese union was created.
Such cross-cultural marriages may have been pioneering in the late 1960s, but these days they are overwhelmingly commonplace. A couple of years ago, when I was promoting a book on Yukio Mishima, I was interviewed in London by a Japanese journalist who suddenly asked me whether I too had a Japanese wife. When I told him that my significant other was Australian, he laughed at my eccentricity and remarked that in his experience, 90 percent of Western male scholars of Japan, when they had a wife, tended to have a Japanese one.
I can’t argue with his observation: Nearly all the heterosexual Western men I know in Japan have Japanese wives. Indeed, the overwhelming attraction of Western men to Japanese women has over the past 50 years been much commented on. In Japan, Western men have a cachet that seems to far exceed that of Western women, whose romantic life in Japan may perhaps be less advantageous.
But I do not want to get into too much trouble playing with stereotypes. There are plenty of Western women who find life partners in Japan. Such women are often adventurous, and it is that which can make them exceptionally attractive. However, it is the Western geeky male who genuinely believes he has hit the romantic jackpot in Japan.
Feminists understandably tut and roll their eyes at the depiction of Japanese women as passive and obedient sirens of sexuality, and occasionally cite the combination of Japanese women and Western men as a classic example of conservative gender roles and cultural stereotyping. Is the fact that I have rejected such a union a sign I crave liberated Western women — even the extreme, ballsy Australian variety — over retiring Japanese girls?
Er, actually no. I have no particular problem with the combination of Japanese girls and Western men — and yet long ago I found myself living in Japan and never dating Japanese women. Why?
You might think at this point I am about to revert to the standard narrative that the cultural background of a partner should be irrelevant when you meet Mr. or Ms. Right. But actually I am going to argue the reverse: that it can often be highly relevant depending on your personal circumstances.
I admire the grace and beauty of Japanese women and am more than aware of their considerable diversity, from demure kimono-clad Kyoto ladies to the unfettered, boisterous personalities so associated with Osaka. I realize you can find everything in Japanese womanhood, from power-dressing politicians and brilliant authors to tech entrepreneurs. If my circumstances in life were slightly different — if, say, I was living in a Western country working for a Western firm, or if I was looking to form a bridge to Japanese culture — I have no doubt that having a Japanese partner would add a fascinating extra dimension to my life.
The reason, however, that long ago I found myself seldom aspiring to be in a relationship with Japanese girls has to do with the manner in which I connect with Japan itself, a culture in which I have always searched for a version of personal freedom. Somewhere in the cultural differences between Japan and the West I felt that I could define my own personal sense of self.
Having a Japanese partner, I repeatedly discovered, unbalanced this sense of freedom. No longer was I in control of my relationship with Japan; now I tended to feel more like a prisoner in a relationship with a foreign culture from which I could not escape. The only way I could truly enjoy and develop my love for Japan, I concluded, was by excluding my love life from that cultural relationship.
Let me take you back to the beginning, though, when in my mid-20s I came to study and live in Japan as a graduate student. Like so many other Western men in Japan, I soon discovered that at the age of 25 I was dating a drop-dead gorgeous Japanese girl of such loveliness that I had to pinch myself to believe she could be interested in my shabbily dressed self.
Having endured undergraduate years in England where I was barely able to find a girlfriend of any description, this sudden transformation of fortunes should perhaps have been enough to have immediately made me seal the deal with the heavenly Japanese girlfriend, who was only too keen to settle down together. But somehow I dithered, feeling (correctly) that my romantic career was only just beginning.
There were several reasons why I started losing interest in dating Japanese women, but the main one was my deepening involvement with Japanese culture.
In my early relationships with Japanese girlfriends — I’d dated a Kyoto University student when I was 20 — I’d followed the standard pattern of being the curious Western male being introduced to the intricacies of the Japanese language and culture by a helpful girlfriend. But by my late 20s — when I was a graduate student in Japanese literature at Kobe University — I’d discovered that the dynamic of that type of relationship had started to fail.
Slowly it dawned on me that my language and cultural proficiency had finally come to the point where I no longer needed to be “tutored” by a girlfriend. Liberation!
By then I felt quite comfortable — indeed, slightly bored — in an exclusively Japanese world. I was spending all week in university libraries, taxing my brain, reading Japanese books. The last thing I wanted to do in my spare time, at the weekend, was indulge in more “Japanese.” I wanted an entirely different kind of distraction and stimulus. I wanted to head off to the bars and clubs of downtown Osaka and hang out with exciting girls from all over the world.
And there were so many of them! During this phase, I briefly dated girls from the Philippines, China, Korea, Thailand and Nepal.
My feisty Korean girlfriend was a constant source of cultural bewilderment to me, exploding into a fury if I did not fulfill her strange demands — she once took off a stiletto and hurled it across a train station foyer at me — and yet suddenly switched to mawkish tenderness. The Nepalese girlfriend would tell me about her “uncles” in the Himalayas and leave me dreaming about making hazardous trips into Kathmandu airport to visit her family.
After all the excitement of these girlfriends, my periodic return to the arms of Japanese girlfriends seemed like interludes of Zen-like stillness. And yet pursuing a relationship with someone from another East Asian country was never really an option — I was too devoted to my studies in Japan to have time for another major cultural commitment.
I eventually moved out of my East Asian period and into my “New World” phase, dating American, Canadian and Australian girls. I found my New World girlfriends exciting and stimulating and yet never mentally tiring or a distracting cultural commitment. I enjoyed halcyon years of flying home to the U.K. via the U.S. and Canada, exploring Vancouver, San Francisco, Dallas, Winnipeg, Washington, D.C., and New York.
The New World girlfriend, I concluded, was the perfect match for me. I found that the nationality of the girl I was dating greatly affected my mental mood and how I thought about things.
Japanese girlfriends, for example, were nearly always quite keen on the idea of moving back to the U.K. with me. But I, in contrast, was always keen to remain firmly established in Japan. On the other hand, when I returned to the U.K. during every holiday, I did not particularly like the idea of being constantly regarded wherever I went as someone whose sole point of identification was “Japan.”
But my romantic wanderings, modest as they were, eventually reached a conclusion when I met my Australian girl in Osaka. A sizable part of her appeal — her openness, fun, lack of airs and inhibitions — lies in the Australian inside her calling out to me.
I wanted to have a separate life in Britain that was unconnected to Japan — I wanted to be in control of my relationship with Japan, to stop and start it as I pleased. And if I had an Australian girlfriend, I had not only a separate “British” identity, I also had my “Australian” life as well. I was, I liked to tell myself, a citizen of the world, not a slave and spokesman of Japanese culture.
In my Australian partner, I have connected to worlds I would have never otherwise have known, of school years in the beating heat and sun-burned earth of provincial New South Wales. On a daily basis I find something expansive and liberating about living in the same house as someone brought up on a continent on the other side of the world so climactically different to my own soggy island of Britain. There is “another world” I can always escape to without taxing my mind and while speaking in my own native tongue.
And yet, crucially also, this is a relationship that allows me to pursue, without distraction, a great passion of my life: my love of Japan. My Australian alliance is not a rejection of Japan; rather, it is that which daily enables me to devote much of my energy, without flagging or a feeling of oppression, towards Japan.
It is ironic for me — lover of an Australian woman — that I constantly feel lukewarm about traveling to Australia itself, a country I often prefer in fond imagination than long-haul, sweltering reality.
I can appreciate the 50-year-old zeitgeist of the Summer of Love, although Woodstock happened before I was born. And while having many years ago retired from dating Japanese women, my love affair with Japan grows stronger every year.
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