TOZAWA, Yamagata Pref. — Cheerful laughter echoed through this snow-covered village in the Tohoku region one morning as a group of women sat down to chat over tea.
“I saw an American speaking Japanese the other day and said to my husband, ‘He speaks fluent Japanese even though he is a foreigner,’ ” one of the women says. “Then my husband said, ‘You are a foreigner, too, aren’t you?’ ” This triggers another burst of laughter from the women.
The women — all foreign brides — left their homes in South Korea 13 years ago to marry men in this village, which has a population of around 6,000.
During the late 1980s, several Tohoku municipal governments arranged marriages between local bachelors and women from South Korea, China and the Philippines in an effort to solve the serious shortage of brides in rural farming villages.
The move attracted nationwide attention. Some denounced it as human trafficking, saying it was nothing more than men from rich countries buying women from poorer ones. Others said government bodies should not interfere in such private matters as marriage. The scheme ended in 1990.
Many of the foreign brides have overcome initial hardships, however, and have integrated into their adoptive communities.
Tozawa village officials organized separate trips to South Korea and the Philippines in 1989, introducing 11 bachelors to women seeking a Japanese husband. All found brides.
A survey conducted by the village at the time showed about one-third of single local men showed interest in marrying a foreign woman.
The bride shortage, created by the outflow of young women to the larger cities, has been a problem for most of Japan’s farming villages because it means fewer children are born to take over the farms. In Tozawa’s case, there are roughly three single women in their 20s and 30s for every 10 single men, according to village official Yasuo Tomizawa.
Soon Ho Otomo, who was 28 years old when she married a Tozawa man, is one of the village’s first South Korean brides. “I’d dreamed of marriage with a Japanese man,” she said. Korean men are stiff and arrogant, she said, adding Japanese men seem more gentle.
Otomo’s decision to marry a Japanese was opposed by her parents, who had negative images of the Japanese from memories of Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Her parents had also wanted her to marry someone with a higher education.
Some foreign brides, dreaming of a wealthy urban life, are often shocked when they arrive at their new homes, which are usually in desolate rural villages.
Otomo, who grew up in Seoul, was surprised to see so few people walking about in the village during the day.
And while she had some knowledge of Japanese, which she had learned in junior college, she soon found that the Tozawa dialect was quite different from what she had studied.
The greatest difficulty, however, was in human relationships. Everybody in the small village knew she was a foreign bride, making her something of a curiosity to the locals, she said.
Otomo also found that some villagers would treat her as a friend then later speak ill of her behind her back. “It is really awful when you cannot trust people,” she said.
Today, there are 35 foreign wives — all Asian — living in the village. While some of the marriages have failed, the majority are doing well, Tomizawa said, noting the local government has made efforts to help the foreign wives living in Tozawa.
Weekly Japanese language lessons conducted in their mother tongues provide the women with a chance to meet and talk with their compatriots. The village has also begun portraying itself to visitors as “a village of cultural crossovers,” Tomizawa said.
Koraikan, or Korean Hall, where Otomo works, has played a key role in promoting the village’s cultural exchange activities. Established in 1997, the facility, built in the traditional Korean style, has a shop selling Korean goods, a Korean garden and a museum. More than 200,000 people visit every year, say village officials.
Koraikan annually hosts a festival with entertainers from South Korea and China. Some of the foreign wives participate as members of the organizing committee and act as interpreters.
The village is also active in promoting personal exchanges with South Korea and other parts of Asia. Tozawa hosts foreign trainees, passing on agricultural technologies, and the village also has a home-stay program under which children from the village and South Korea visit each other during the summer.
“More than 100 villagers have visited South Korea, and maybe about 400 people from South Korea have visited us,” said Kiichi Arakawa, a local farmer and a member of the village’s international association.
“Villagers have changed greatly,” Otomo said. “While many were born here and lived here all their lives, they seem to have turned their eyes toward the larger world outside.” She added that some villagers used to ask her such questions as whether rice is grown in South Korea.
Kinichi Haga, a local rancher and president of the village’s international association, said frequent opportunities for community work also help foreign wives and their husbands, who initially tend to feel uneasy about how other villagers might view them. “We went to put up New Year’s decorations in the community hall today, and the elderly folk were talking about how they do this in the Philippines and South Korea,” he said.
However, the international association’s annual convention held earlier this month was attended by just eight members, prompting concerns about the declining number of participants in cultural exchange activities in recent years.
This is partly because some foreign wives are busy with their own lives, including raising children and holding jobs outside the home, according to association members.
Haga said villagers no longer talk about the nationalities of wives as they used to up to seven or eight years ago. “The only villagers who care about nationality now are officials dealing with residence registration,” he noted.
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