(originally sent to Fukuzawa and Friends 4 Oct1995)

This topic may not be for everybody, since not everyone reading this is married to a Japanese. But I have an interesting question I'd like to field to others who have taken this path:


Fukuzawan Fred U and I have been discussing this at length, and he expressed his surprise when I pointed out that just about all international marriages I know had been vehemently opposed by the Japanese side. In his experience, marriage was more a decision of the couple who would have to live with the decision, and the family had little involvement. I disagreed entirely, and so I'd like to ask readers who are married to Japanese people to help us resolve the issue. The question:

When you, as a non-Japanese, decided to marry a Japanese, did the Japanese side oppose it? Is this the case for international marriages to Japanese in general?

Well, the latter question of course invites "well, it depends on the person and the family" types of answers, which get nowhere. That is, unless you have a good-sized sample of people saying, "In my experience,..." yes or no, with which you can start making reasonable generalizations.

To get a discussion going, let me pose my view of this situation in very stark terms: I maintain that Japan is very closed-minded about marriages in general (not just those to extranationals), and that Japanese families in particular practically see it as their business to interfere with their relative's marriage to people they don't like. That will automatically happen if the suitor is foreign.



Watch enough TV or read enough pulp fiction over here, and soon one gets the idea that Japanese families delight in interfering with wedding engagements. The bashing of engaged couples seems a national sport (unless, of course, the family has selected a potential mate through omiai). Look at the ubiquitous TV houmu dorama, which are nothing but conflicts between people who didn't show the proper respect (by not using the appropriate politeness level, by saying too much, etc.) or who by twists of fate have to make a decision which takes the umbrage of the sixteen-or-so concerned family members. All those dramatic pauses and cautions about going too far going unheeded... That gets boring after a while, so, in order to keep the fur flying, a scriptwriter injects a love interest. Have somebody want to marry some stranger, and PRESTO!, instant conflict. And it sells!

My points are these:

1) For a society such as Japan's which prides itself on harmony, people here certainly do seem to thrive on creating or watching conflict,

2) Although it is rather difficult to say that TV etc. has any effect on (or is any reflection of) what goes on in real life, I would like to assert that there's something significant to the fact that so many people bother watching these dramas. They can relate to what's going on. After watching enough of these shows, people begin to expect this conflict to occur in real life--legitimating the feeling that parents should have a right to interfere in, even refuse, their son or daughter's engagement.

3) In my experience, Japanese families always seem to refuse, as a point of tatemae, any marriage proposal that hadn't been cleared through the parents in the first place--as though the parents have a stake in what kind of spouse their child selects. Whether it be to control intrusion damage or to test the suitor's will to marry, refusals of this sort seem normal; in my experience many, if not most, marriages between Japanese people caused some pretty soap-opera-ish ripples throughout the family.

With this millieu in mind, introduce a foreigner. BOOM! Given that people here tend to stress differences more than similarities, foreigners are living, breathing, in-your-face examples of differences. Moreover, since foreigners are usually outside of the omiai network, international relationships are bound to fuel opposition from the Japanese side.

So ends the general observations. To answer those who might say "it depends on the family", I'd like to ask what kind of families wouldn't object from the start to marriage to foreigners? Those international ambassador jet-setting families who can accept marriage to outsiders, like Haru Matsukata Reischauer's? Those families who sponsor frequent homestays (and knew they'd be asking for trouble)? Or is the expectation of a smooth engagement to a Japanese person pretty much pie in the sky? I would suggest that Japanese family ties in general are simply inimical to couples who do not go through proper channels.


I will never forget the day I proposed marriage to my parents-in-law in Sapporo. It was 1988, and I had been going out with my now wife, Aya, for about two years, and had been writing her letters for twice that long. I had been no stranger to the family--I even homestayed with them for a couple of weeks on my first visit to Japan. I was 22, she was 28, and despite the fact that we were adult enough to make our own decisions, here we were asking for permission to marry when I strongly felt it was none of their business.

The scene was something out of a Japanese movie. I sat on my legs on the floor for about an hour, next to Aya, recalling how she'd taught me how to bow and propose. Put your hands out, thumb and forefinger perpendicular to each other, and touch them to the carpet in front of your knees. Make sure your hands touch together on the floor, as if to make a diamond shape with the thumbs and forefingers. I bowed down, touched my nose to the floor, and said, "Wareware o kekkon sasete kudasai". That was the best Japanese I could muster at the time given my nerves and the excruciating pain in my legs.

The reactions were right out of television drama. Father Yoshio, 60, sat on the sofa with a furious face, his lips pursed like those on Japanese policemen dragging a murder suspect from the scene, refusing to make any eye contact with us. He only made one comment all day: "Zettai dame da".

Mother Soto, 54, sat on the floor next to Aya, then calmly and smilingly gave, to Aya directly, plenty of reasons why we should not get married:

1) David is an American and international marriages are doomed. Even people from within Japan from different districts get divorced. Keep closer to home.

2) David is still a graduate student and cannot support a wife financially.

3) David would be whisking away our daughter to America where she'd get shot like everyone else Japanese who goes over there. (Yoshio also had a personal stake in this, because his older sister got married to a GI during the Occupation. He didn't want that to happen with his daughter as well.)

4) David doesn't understand Japanese and has a history of not showing those to whom he's indebted the proper respect (This is true. Mea culpa.)

5) Various other tatemae reasons, including Aya's poor cooking, our differences in height (a full 30 cms), and David's anatomy. Pretty bad science, all of it. But the aftermath held more of the same from the rest of the family. Yoshio made it a point to ask just about all family members, down to cousins, what they thought of our marriage, and nobody, bar one cousin my age, came out in support. My point is that it just seemed a point of order for the family to strafe a potential suitor that people either knew nothing or too much about. Notably absent is the feeling that perhaps Aya, as a full-grown adult nearly thirty years of age, could make trustworthy decisions.

Then, when I had to leave Aya behind and go back to America for my first year of IRPS, her parents turned up the omiai gas. They frequently suggested she meet potential suitors and wed like her older sister did through omiai, and stressing day after day how difficult it would be for Aya to live in a culture as crazy as America's. A year later, when we did get married, we had no ceremony. The two of us just went to the Ward office for an exchange of documents, and then went for lunch together. Our first night married was not even spent together--she went home to prove that we were married and that nothing would change that. Once she got parental acquiescence, two days later, she moved in.

Hell of a way for someone to wedge himself into Japanese society, huh? But let me give you the backgrounds, FWIW, of my parents-in-law, since that does matter to the "it depends on the family" part of this discussion:

Yoshio's family were part of the second or third wave of immigrants to Hokkaido, and they made their fortune on land and breadmaking in Sapporo. Unfortunately, Yoshio's grandfather made an abortive attempt to run for a political office in Sapporo (I think it was mayor), and, Japanese elections being expensive, lost it all. Yoshio became a member of the Imperial Army during the war, and is well-versed in all that sonnou joui and semper fi stuff. His platoon was strafed by American fighters at Chitose. Then, after the war, his older sister got married to a GI, which was a huge stigma in those days. However, oddly enough, he did an about-face and started working for the American Occupation forces stationed near Makomanai, Sapporo, driving jeeps, ambulances, and the occasional armored car. He's a retired cabdriver and trucker now, speaking English with a GI accent to me and his "American" grandchildren, who is a honor-bound kinda guy in the mould of Alec Guinness in Bridge On the River Kwai.

Soto (meaning "outside", as you know, because she was born when her father was 40 or 41 or something. By Japanese superstition this means that the daughter will grow up wanting to kill her father, so the name was meant as a disclaimer. Can't figure it out.) came from a family of fishermen. On the run from the Aomori area, they came up to Rebun Island, just a few dozen miles south of Sakhalin, following the squid schools. Though she was young enough to avoid all the wartime monpe dress and bamboo-spear drills, WWII inflation wiped out her family's life savings. She came down to Sapporo to work as a seamstress after the war. Yoshio and Soto met through omiai, and she became a key pillar of support for a family which was apparently sleeping eight to a room at one time. Today, she is a hardnosed analyst of life and a razor-sharp judge of character; she can spot a thief a mile away.

The point is that these people came from impoverished backgrounds with anti-American training, which may account for a lot of the conflict. But not everyone has this history. So why does opposition to international marriage in Japan seem to me so widespread? Ki no sei?


A few quick disclaimers. This is NOT to say that other societies do not oppose marriages to foreigners, and that families in all societies do not interfere with engagements, etc, etc.

My question to everyone interested out there is:

Did your Japanese parents-in-law initially oppose your marriage? If so, why? If not, why not? Do you think opposition to international marriage is an intrinsic part of Japanese society?

I would love to hear from everyone with experience on this point, and also on the rather strong black-and-white view of Japanese society and culture I outlined above. I would also like to hear about your Japanese family backgrounds, and would take any comments into confidence. BTW, I would prefer personal experience over hearsay (to avoid the apocryphal gaijin-society urban folklore, such as the famous story where a Japanese husband FEIGNED DEATH in order to divorce his Western wife), but any story and feedback would be informative.


Dave Aldwinckle


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