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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 31


February 20, 1989   -   HUSBANDS AND WIVES


"My husband hardly ever buys me anything.  He says I can buy myself whatever I want.  So I can't return this purse, or he'll never buy me anything again."  Kubo was telling this to her fellow MMC members, laughing and talking at once as is her style.  She reminds me of Lucille Ball.  She can't quite control her mouth at times - especially when speaking Japanese.  I've seen her get going talking to one of her neighbors.  She couldn't stop to let the other talk or even to give them room for aizuchi, the frequent "uhhuh" type responses that are mandatory in Japanese conversation.  Savvy Ishitaki says that Kubo can't control her mouth and can be next to impossible to get away from once she gets it going.  She told me if she sees Kubo in the supermarket she'll push her basket to the other end of the store and hide.  I told Ishitaki that I thought Kubo might have a chemical imbalance that is exacerbated by caffeine, but Ishitaki sees Kubo's garrulousness as a moral problem.  With a "humph," Ishitaki suggested Kubo should go back to Kyoto where she came from.

Kubo had been going on for ten minutes and soon I'd have to step in to give someone else a turn.  One saving grace is that she's interesting.

"Another point to consider," said Elin one day as we were discussing Kubo's affliction, "is that you're as hopeless as she is."

"No no no," I had said falling to my knees, "Say it isn't so."

Anyway, Kubo said she'd gotten hysterical screaming at her son because he failed the entrance exam to a school she wanted him to get into.  Shimizu, who says he never pushes his wonderful, friendly teenage daughters (both our students), told Kubo she should trust her son and not fret.

"Let him follow his sports interests - he'll work out okay, don't worry.  People are too hard on their children."

I cheered him on.  He's a saint - it's just what she needs to hear.  She's not a listener though.  She just kept going - rattling on about how her son's life was over and how he'd be a burden on the family.  She did get off that topic eventually and onto her husband and the purse.

"We don't have love marriage.  We are tanshin funin (single/work away) couple.  He works in Northern Japan and Osaka and only comes home for one or two nights a week.  He calls me on the phone.  I say 'moshi-moshi' ('hello' for the phone) and he says, 'boku'(me).  Just 'boku' and the time I should pick him up.  I say 'hai' and he says 'ja'(something like 'well then') and we hang up.  I pick him up at the station late at night and drive him back early in the morning.  Yesterday he gave me this ugly purse for my birthday.  And I must keep it."

It was ugly - green plastic and sequins.

"I am so sad for you," said slender Mrs. Tanahashi, who always waited awhile before she softly entered into the conversation.

"It's okay, I will buy myself another purse today."

"No, I am sad because your husband is not close." 

"Oh no!  Don't be sad.  I am happy.  Being apart is good.  He never get angry.  No drinking.  When he is gone I am free.  Not slave of home.  I can study English and teach Japanese to foreigners and shop every day.  I am grateful."

Boy these marriage stories I get.  A high percentage of the women I teach talk about their husbands' absence.  Some adjust, like Kubo, and others complain.  The main problem is that the guys don't come home, many wives say, till three or four - every night.  This was the problem of two wealthy lady students of mine, one told her husband she was fed up and would take the children and leave if things didn't change.  They ended up "compromising":  he'd get home by ten o'clock one night a week.  The other, a doctor's wife, has a different attitude about her absentee husband.  "My husband works late and goes out too.  But I'm happy to have for husband an erai hito," (important person).  "I respect him.  When he comes in around four o'clock he always says 'tada-ima,'(I'm back) and I say, 'okaeri,'(welcome back) and go back to sleep."

I asked where their husbands went and they said to the JC's - the Junior Chamber of Commerce.  That's what they all say.  They must be an actual organization in town but "JC's" also seems like a code word for playing around in the night world of the water trade.

Another housewife told me that the deal she made with her husband is that he could go to the JCs every night but one if she could study English on that one night.

These are attractive, charming, educated, expressive women - their husbands should be happy to come home to them.  And they have wonderful children - I meet all the kids.  They're so sweet.  The guys don't know what they're missing.  I have men students who joke about having to spend a day with their family once a month.  I ask them "what did you do last weekend?"  Over and over I hear, "I went fishing," "I played pachinko all day Sunday" (most people work on Saturday), "I went to Tokyo with my friends," and of course, "I worked."  I just don't get it.  Elin said that, to her, the biggest and most incomprehensible difference between the States and here, is the relationship between the men and the women.  They really have separate lives.

A fellow named Rod who I study Japanese with specializes in having affairs with love-starved married women.  He says they're the only ones who don't want to get married - or at least that's what he thought till he got involved with what he called his Number Ten.  After her he said he was pretty shaken up and didn't date for a while.  But like with any habit, time diminishes the negative memories and magnifies the craving.  He comes to class looking tired a lot.

What's weird is that most of the families that I know outside of classes are different from what I hear about in class or meet in town.  Some of the men work late, but they usually come home at a reasonable hour and are home on Sunday.  And none of them smokes or drinks much.  They usually eat dinner together with their families.  Our good friends, the Hashimotos, clearly enjoy each other's company.  Mr. Okamura next door often eats three meals a day at home with his wife.  The young couple down the street, the Tanakas, are together a lot.  Ishitaki Sensei works late a lot but he doesn't play around - his wife drives him to work and picks him up every day.  Shimizu is always home - his liquor store is downstairs.  And instead of going out he paints in his spare time and has a karaoke club which meets at his home every Saturday night to sing.

I asked the MMC about the seeming discrepancy.  Mrs. Kubo said that people who study English have more money so the men can afford to go out at night.  Morikawa, the slightly plump professor's wife, said that people around here have plenty of money and that many poorer men just go to cheaper places and that I'm blessed to have so many friends and neighbors who have close families.

"My husband love to be with daughters," Tanahashi said.  "He comes home as early as he can and we are together almost every Sunday."

It's funny, I thought.  Our discussions of marriage (and there had been many - with a lot of emphasis on the changing roles of women) are typical of much of our talk.  At first the generalizations are built up, and then they get torn down.  We spend a lot of our time talking about patterns of culture - in the States and Japan.  America is too diverse to get a handle on - but Japan isn't easy either.  This is a culture with a foot in the ancient past, another in the near past, a hand in the West and another reaching for the future - and the head is wearing a series of different masks.

Poor Etsuko, the not yet married school teacher, had been left out of the conversation and sat smiling on the couch.  I asked her if she had anything to say.

"Oh, I'd be happy to have a husband who stayed out sometimes and gave me ugly purse - but not drink.  So maybe better not stay out.  I hate the sake when men drink.  He could smoke.  I don't care smoke."  Her head tilted back and forth, "Hmm, - I don't know.  I am waiting."