Japanese men do not open the car door for their wives.
They open the car door for their mothers. The wives are left to open their own door. The Japanese man will help if his wife is carrying a baby.
Japanese men do not babysit their children.
Japanese women rarely go out when their husbands are at home. They spend time with their friends during the day when the children are at school and their husbands are at work. A Japanese woman will leave her children with her mother if she needs to go to work or socialize with her friends. A Japanese woman does not go out at night with her friends to socialize.
Japanese men do not share in the housework or care of the children.
They don’t do laundry, cook, or clean the house. Their day to be with their children is Sunday. The parks in Japan are filled with fathers and their children. This is the day the mother can do something on her own.
Japanese men don’t sleep with their wives after children come into the picture.
Japanese women sleep in a separate room with their children. Her husband has his own room so that he is not disturbed by the noise of the children. He has to get up early and go to work. He also comes home late.
A Japanese father does not change diapers or feed the baby.
Japanese men do not cook for their wives.
This is a women’s job. A Japanese woman takes bed rest when a baby is born. She stays in the hospital for one week. She stays in bed at home for four to six weeks. Her mother moves in to clean, cook, and help take care of the baby. The husband goes to work.
Japanese men do not hang out with their wives.
They don’t go to dinner or socialize in the same groups. A Japanese man hangs out with his coworkers. They meet after work for drinks and food. A Japanese woman will socialize with other women. They go to coffee shops or local restaurants for lunch. Japanese couples don’t entertain at home. The home is for the family and a very private place.
Japanese men don’t wait for their wives to sit down before they start eating.
The Japanese wife sets the various dishes on the table and the men dig in. She is the last one to sit down to eat.
Japanese culture and American culture have almost nothing in common. I was the wife of a Japanese man and fortunate to find a husband that did not have all of these characteristics, but he did have a few.
He never opened my side of the car door. I never expected him to because I wasn’t raised that way and I was very independent. I didn’t need any help in opening my side of the car.
He was a very good cook but had no time because he left for work at 6:00 am and came home at 10:00 p.m. He cooked on the weekends.
He always waited for me to sit down before he started to eat. His father and brothers never waited for his mother to sit down.
The first time I went to my in-laws’ house I waited for my mother-in-law to sit down before I started to eat. Everyone else had already begun to eat. I asked my husband why they didn’t wait for his mother to sit down and he said it wasn’t necessary. He knew I was not going to eat until she did. He asked her to sit down so that I would eat. She sat down for two minutes and was back in the kitchen preparing another dish to bring out to the table.
My husband never really cleaned the house, but he did help to keep it in order and uncluttered. He washed the dishes on the weekends but never did the laundry.
He never took care of our daughter alone. The times I did leave to go shopping he would take her to his parents’ house for his mother to look after her. He never changed her diapers. When she cried he passed her to me.
We did hang out together by frequenting restaurants in the evenings when he came home early and I was too tired to cook. We never went to bars together except for one time. That is when I found out that going to bars is not what married women did. Bars were for men to drink and for the hostesses to flirt with them.
We did not sleep separately. We always slept together with the baby next to us in the other room.
Adapting to a different culture is not easy, but is possible.
The plane lands with a thud on the Tokyo tarmac, fifteen hours after take-off from Phoenix, Arizona. I look out the window of row 38 seat C, the window, and see only darkness. It is 10:00 p.m. in Japan. I am in unchartered territory, a place where I don’t know the customs, the language, or the food. I don’t know where I will live. Will it be in a condo, apartment, a new house, an old house, or with my in-laws? I left that decision up to my Japanese husband. I can only pray he didn’t choose his parents. Japanese tradition requires that the oldest son and his wife live with the parents and take care of them for the rest of their lives. I wasn’t provided this information until the day we got married. Sumio arrived in Japan one month before I did in order to find us a place to live and face the anger of his parents for marrying a gaijin (foreigner). Yes, that would be me. We got married in December in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I was a student getting my BA in ESL/Spanish. He was employed by a Japanese company in Waterloo, Iowa.
Sumio returned to Japan two weeks after the wedding and I returned home to Phoenix. He had to prepare his parents for his decision to marry an American woman. Six months before Sumio and I met, his parents had chosen a Japanese wife, omiai, for him. This was very common in the 1980’s. His father was angry because now they had to tell the girl’s family she was not needed anymore. Sumio had to financially reimburse her for any emotional damages she had endured.
My seat partner is a Japanese businessman who speaks English very well. We occupied our flying time with lessons in Japanese language and culture. He couldn’t believe that I was flying to Japan for the first time and meeting my husband at the airport. Why is an American woman moving to Japan? He never asked the question. He was polite. I thought about the answer and the answer was love and curiosity. I love the man I married, and I want to know more about his culture.
We exit the plane. My seatmate asks, “What is your husband’s name?” I answer, “Sumio”. He removes a white piece of paper from the message board situated near the information desk. It is thumbtacked to a corkboard. This was thirty-seven years ago, before cell phones. Sumio wrote the message in Japanese. What? I can’t read Japanese. My seat partner reads the message. “I am waiting for you at the exit of immigration.” Nice. I was hoping he wouldn’t leave me at the airport. I trusted him. We have only been married one month.
I present my passport. The customs agent looks at me quizzically. He is probably wondering why a girl like me has a Japanese last name.
He asks me, “What’s your purpose in coming to Japan?”
I answer, “I married a Japanese.”
He asks, “How long to you plan on staying?”
“I am not sure.” I answer. He smiles and waves me through customs.
The wide glass sliding doors open into the crowd of people waiting. How am I going to find my husband? They all look like him! Black hair, 5’7” tall, and dark eyes. I will let him look for me. I stand out in this crowd. Light skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair. How could he not find me? I hear him call my name “Kyaroru, Kyaroru”. My name is Carol. Neither he nor any other Japanese can pronounce my name. He just calls me Okasan (mother), a term of endearment that most Japanese husbands use for their wives. I turn around and there he is. He did come! What a relief.
We greet each other with a very short embrace. It is taboo to hug or kiss in public. Other people watch with quizzical looks on their faces. Am I his English teacher, his American girlfriend, or a friend of the family? Not many American women marry Japanese men. Japanese women wait on their husbands and Americans don’t. American men marry Japanese women because they know they will take care of them and wait on them.
The airport smells of cigarettes. I am about to gag. It is incredibly noisy. I can’t understand a thing that is being said over the loudspeakers. The Japanese use loudspeakers to announce everything. I have a really bad headache along with a case of serious jet lag.
Sumio asks, “How much money do you have?”
I answer, “$100”. He looks at me in shock. He can’t believe I traveled across the world with such a small amount. That was a joke the whole time we were married. We have to run to catch the last train. It is 11:00 p.m. and the last train is leaving at 11:30.
I am holding on to the handle of my black suitcase and dragging it behind me and running. I have my American passport in my left hand. My newly minted husband, Sumio, is
about twenty feet ahead of me with my second suitcase. These two suitcases contain my life possessions. I don’t know how long I will be living in Japan.
I am drained and anxious. I can’t read any of the signs or understand any of the announcements. I don’t speak Japanese. I must depend on my husband to translate. He doesn’t speak English very well. His translations are short. What am I doing here?
The train stops, we jump into the train dragging the suitcases behind us. Sumio stores the bags in the designated luggage area. There are five men in the train car. I am the only woman and the only American. Two of the men are dressed in dark blue suits with dark ties. The uniform of Japanese businesspeople. One of them has his shirt hanging out of his pants and his tie undone. He is slouched on the red plastic bench holding on to one of the poles with both hands for balance. The smell of sake fills the air. They are on their way home after a night of drinking in a bar. Three of the men are smoking. It is January 1981, smoking is allowed on public trains. Two other men dressed in black shirts with white T-shirts peeking out and black trousers are having a hushed conversation. They have the appearance of Catholic priests. They are not. They are the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Yes, they have a uniform too. My husband warns me in English not to look at them, so I don’t.
It’s 11:00 pm, and we are on a local train from the Tokyo airport to Toyohashi, Japan; Not the nice-looking Shinkansen (bullet trains) that are pictured in the tourist information, but the green and red trains that take people to and from work every day. Most Japanese use public transportation to take them shopping, to work, and to school. It is cheaper and more
convenient. We shouldn’t be on this train. Sumio thought I was going to bring enough money for us to stay in a hotel. I only have $100. After he got over the shock of me arriving in Japan with less than what we needed, we headed to catch the last train out of the station.
The train chugs along and stops at every station along the line. I am trying not to breathe so much because the tobacco smoke is making me sick. I am also famished. I just got off a fifteen-hour flight from the US. I haven’t eaten for almost six hours. I could vomit. I won’t.
The neon lights flash as the train makes its way down the tracks. There are more neon lights in every city in Japan than there are in Las Vegas. There are signs for “café” (bars), restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love motels. I want to hold Sumio’s hand to feel some solace. That is not acceptable in Japan. I feel alone.
One man finally gets off the train on the fifth stop. He is so drunk. He shuffles to the opened door while another man helps him out. He doesn’t make it. The alarm sounds, and he gets stuck. The door opens one more time. This time he and his friend make it off the train. I hope they can find their way home. The man slouched on the seat is sleeping. I wonder if he will miss his stop.
The men are staring at me. Where is an American woman with two suitcases going with a Japanese man? Was she picked up in some bar? Are they headed to a “love motel”? Japanese men don’t marry American women. We have a reputation for being too independent. I am his English teacher, prostitute, lover, or girlfriend.
I close my eyes once in a while and awaken every time the door opens. The slouched man on the bench is gone, and so are the Yakuza. Now, it is only Sumio and I. He holds my hand, and one hour later we arrive at our destination.
The automated voice announces the arrival at our station, Toyohashi. I must have fallen asleep the last twenty minutes of the trip. The train comes to a stop. Another man had gotten on somewhere and is slouching on the bench. Is this his stop? He doesn’t move. He continues snoring.
Sumio disengages my two suitcases from the luggage rack. He takes one suitcase, and I grab the other one. I am dazed I don’t remember where I am or why I am here. I look down at my watch it says Thursday, January 7, 1981, 9:00 a.m. Why is it so dark outside? It is Thursday, January 8, 1:00 a.m. in Japan. I think I must have skipped a day of sleep somewhere.
The doors slide open. Sumio exits first, and I follow. I have no idea where I am going. It is dark inside the station and feels very ghostly because there is no one around. We follow the exit signs out of the station. A line of about six taxi cabs sits waiting for customers, most of whom are drunk Japanese businessmen on their way home. The taxi cab drivers are snoozing in their seats with their hands rested on the steering wheel.
We walk over to the parking lot. One single car is waiting with its lights on. A young man, eighteen years old gets out of the car. Sumio and I walk over to the driver. He bows to Sumio and gets a quick nod in return. He is 5’7″ tall and has a head of dark curly hair. The curls are not natural. It is the 80s, and it was the style of the times. He looks like a Japanese Brady Bunch kid.
Yasuo is the youngest of four boys. He is my brother-in-law. He bows to me and I to him. My bow does not have to be as deep as his because I am older than he, and an American woman. He puts my suitcases in the trunk of the car. Sumio sits in the passenger seat on the left. Yasuo sits in the driver’s position on the right. Japanese drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Sumio is the eldest in his family. Yasuo is the brother that Sumio needs to protect. Sumio is the respected oldest brother, oniisan. Japanese siblings do not call their older brothers or sisters by name. They use their titles; older brother, younger brother, older sister, and younger sister.
We get into the car, Sumio sits on the left side of the driver and I sit behind Sumio in the passenger seat. I observe the neon signs trying to figure out what they say. Is it a supermarket or a pachinko parlor? Is it a bar or a coffee shop? There are not many cars on the street at 1:00 a.m.
I am so tired. I can only think about falling into bed and sleeping for about two days. Twenty minutes later we arrive at our house. The house Sumio and I will live in for the next five years.
Sumio and Yasuo carry my two bags into the genkan. We remove our shoes and step up into the entryway. They drop the bags off in the bedroom which is on the way to the kitchen and small dining room. I am hoping for some quiet time with Sumio. Yasuo leads us into the kitchen. Sumio’s two brothers, father and mother are sitting on blue zabutons. It is 1:00 a.m. Why are they sitting in my living room?
The table is square and a round lacquered tray full of sushi is sitting in the middle of the table. Six pair of chopsticks are set around the table. Eight pairs of eyes are looking down at the food. They are avoiding eye contact with me. It would be rude for them to look at a stranger directly in the eyes. I look at them. I bow and whisper konbonwa (good evening), I whisper because I am afraid I might pronounce it wrong. They greet me in the same way. I sit on my zabuton with my legs under me. It is not polite to sit “Indian style” for a woman. So many things to learn. Small blue plates are placed in front of the chopsticks. Chopsticks are never placed on the side of dishes in Japan. The chopsticks sit on little chopstick holders. This is my first time to eat sushi.
Sushi does not refer to the raw fish. It refers to the vinegar rice that accompanies the sashimi (raw fish). Japanese serve sushi for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and welcoming visitors into their home. I am the visitor.
Most Japanese buy prepared sushi in the supermarket or a local convenience store. If Japanese eat sushi outside of their home they frequent a “sushiya” in their neighborhood. The sushi sitting on the table in the kitchen was made by my mother-in-law. Today was a special occasion. Her eldest son brought home an American wife. Was she celebrating?
One hour after reciting our marriage vows my Japanese husband whispers in my ear, “Please, no more meatloaf, or mashed potatoes with gravy.” Oh no! Now, what do I cook?
We first started dating six months ago, he took me to restaurants seven days in a row. I thought this must be getting expensive, so I decided to make dinner for him in his apartment. The easiest dish I could think of was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy. He said, “This is really good,” and I felt proud of myself. Now, he knows I can cook. Apparently, I was wrong.
We meet in the student dining room at the University of Northern Iowa in 1980. I am a student trying to complete my double major as an undergraduate in Spanish and English as a Second Language. He has a female friend who lives in the same dormitory as I do.
It is a Sunday afternoon, and the kitchen area is open for students to cook. Every Sunday my dormmates and I make dinner for each other. Today it is our Japanese dormmate’s turn to cook. I spot Sumio standing in the corner of the kitchen grilling yakiniku, flipping pieces of shrimp, small slices of beef, pork, and chicken, and frying potatoes, carrots, and onions on an electric skillet. He reminds me of the chefs at the local Benihana restaurant.
He is the only male in the room. He doesn’t join the twelve women from ten different countries who are talking boisterously and commenting on how good the food tastes. The Japanese woman in our group who doesn’t know how to cook invited him to join us. I ask him to eat with us, his handsome face turns dark red. He is easily embarrassed. He sits down, and we begin to talk. His native language is Japanese, and his English skills are minimal. He has only been in the US for one year and doesn’t have much contact outside of his office where everyone speaks Japanese. I want to get to know more about him and his country. I am culturally intrigued and curious. We date for six months, he proposes, we get married and move to Japan.
One a month after our wedding, I arrive in Japan. It’s Sunday morning, Sumio has the day off. I wake up in the morning to the smell of fish, which makes my nose realize I am not in the USA. Sumio is preparing grilled fish, miso shiru (a fermented bean soup), steamed rice and salad. This is not what I expected. I am trying to get a whiff of coffee, bacon, eggs, or cinnamon rolls. No such luck. I am now subjected to eating dinner for breakfast. This is something I will find difficult to get used to. Where are my Cheerios?
Sumio gives me my first cooking lessons. He is an excellent cook. That is why I married him. He tosses ingredients, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, mirin (rice wine) into a frying pan without measuring anything. I stand close by with my American plastic measuring spoons, thrusting them under the ingredient he’s adding. “Wait a minute. How much does it take?” I ask. He answers, “This much.” He demonstrates by putting a gap between his thumb and index finger. I sigh and smile. I have to get this right.
The weekend is over, and Sumio returns to work and leaves me on my own. My mission for today is to prepare my first Japanese meal alone. I have six hours to come up with an idea for dinner. I sit in our small living room and flip the pages of my new five hundred fourteen-page cookbook, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. The cookbook is a wedding gift from an excellent friend who wished me luck as she gave me a wink. Pictures of seaweed, wakame, bonito, tofu, harusame, shirataki, udon, somen, dance on the pages before my eyes. A mass of unfamiliar ingredients saturates the page. There are pictures of yellowtail, sea bass, red tilefish, unagi (eel), cuttlefish, squid, chikuwa, and crab stare at me. My only experience with fish is fish sticks and trout. Will I ever learn to prepare these kinds of fish? Japanese squash, ginger root, renkon (lotus root), matsutake mushrooms, shiitake, bamboo shoots, daikon, gobo (burdock), and wasabi. The only vegetables in my past were frozen green beans, corn, and carrots. I am in panic mode. This isn’t fair. One of the reasons I married my husband was because of his cooking skills. I realize now some of the differences in cultural values between the USA and Japan. Japanese culture dictates that men work long hours, Sumio isn’t going to be doing much cooking. That is my responsibility.
I have my pencil, pad of paper, a cup of tea, and my cookbook on the “kotatsu” table nearby. The table is low to the ground, and I have to sit on the tatami mat and cross my legs. It is a position that is uncomfortable for a tall American woman of Irish/German descent.
I need help. I tire of staring at my Japanese cookbook. I feel overwhelmed with all of these exotic ingredients. I take my pencil and pad of paper, put them in my purse and walk to my Japanese mother-in-law’s house, which is five blocks away. I use the time to practice the greeting, ojama shimasu. I must say this greeting when I visit anyone’s home.
I slide open the entrance door. “Ojama shimasu,” I announce my arrival, take off my shoes and put them in the getabako (shoe cupboard) located at the genkan. My mother in law presents me with a pair of red slippers. She sets them on the floor and indicates that I must put them on. I put on the slippers and follow her through the house shuffling my feet along the slippery wood floor into the kitchen. She is about 5ft 2 inches tall and weighs around 125lbs. She has short black curly hair and a friendly smile just like Sumio. She is wearing a full-length white apron over her clothing.
His mother has offered to help me learn some cooking skills. She waves me into her kitchen, which is small, about one-third of the kitchen space in the USA. All of her cooking supplies are neatly arranged in cupboards and on shelves. It is an honor to be invited into her kitchen. Her kitchen is sacred, and no uninvited person is allowed to enter. Cooking is her job. Yes, I mean job. Many Japanese marriages are arranged. The parents pick the spouses of their sons and daughters. They get married and form a mini-corporation. The wife is in charge of taking care of the family, educating the children, and cooking. The husband goes to work and hands all of his money to his wife. She then gives him an allowance.
It is 5:00 p.m., and she is preparing for dinner. We don’t speak to each other. She doesn’t speak English, and my Japanese skills are minimal. She touches my arm and points to what she is cooking. She is teaching me how to cook. That is the reason I am allowed in her kitchen. Guests do not enter the kitchens of their hostesses. It is a workspace and is usually a little messy because of so much preparation of food. My mother-in-law hopes that someday I will be able to prepare a meal for her oldest son. She doesn’t want her son to starve. She hands me a cutting board and a very sharp knife. She places a cube of tofu on the cutting board. My first reaction is to give the knife back to her. I resist this temptation and begin to slice the tofu as carefully as possible. She closely observes me and smiles. I have never held a knife this sharp, and I am afraid I might cut off my finger. What is she thinking? I hope she approves of my cutting skills. I’m sure she never expected to be teaching her son’s American wife how to cook.
Sumio learned to cook when he was seven years old. Times were tough in 1962. Many people in Japan didn’t have money to feed themselves. Both his mother and father worked full time to make ends meet, and he was left to take care of his brothers. He would go out and find whatever he could. Sometimes he would steal food from the neighbors to create something to eat.
After two days of cooking lessons from my mother-in-law, I feel ready. I walk into a supermarket in Toyohashi, Japan alone for the first time with my list of unfamiliar ingredients. A woman stands at the front door. As soon as the door opens, she greets me, “irashai masse,” welcome. She is a greeter wearing a blue uniform with the name of the store, Ito Yokado, stitched in white on the left corner and white gloves on her hands. I have no idea where to begin. The store has four floors. The supermarket is on the first floor, clothing on the second, children’s clothing on the third, and furniture on the fourth. In some of the bigger stores the “already prepared “food is in the basement. This was my favorite place to visit. There were always free samples. I later learned that if I couldn’t cook it, I could buy it already cooked. I pick up a blue basket and proceed to walk up and down the aisles. I am the only “gaijin”( Foreign person) in the store. As I walk through the store, I observe that most of the women are wearing aprons. I am confused. Do Japanese households employ maids?
I can’t read any of the items. A square of tofu looks like a square of vanilla ice cream. I feel tense. Everything is measured in grams. How many grams equals a ¼ lb.? My recipe calls for ½ lb. of ground beef. The recipe is for eight people, and we are only two. There will be enough food for four days.
Two hours and two grocery bags later I finally check out and walk home.
I read the recipe and begin dicing vegetables, frying fish, shredding cabbage, adding sauce. Did I add enough ingredients to the sauce? I can’t give it the taste test because I am operating in the unchartered territory. How is it supposed to taste? I make a clear soup, slice the tofu, and make a small salad with cucumbers and tomatoes. Did I add enough soup stock? It tastes a little salty. The soup simmers on the small gas stove.
It is 9:00 and the food is ready. I lay it out on the table. The main dish is in the middle, the soup, salad, tofu, vegetables, and rice are placed around the main dish. Chopsticks are placed in front of the main dish. I feel a sense of accomplishment. I wait patiently for my husband to walk in the door. He arrives at 10:00. I greet him at the door. I take his jacket and hang it on the hook in the genkan. He removes his shoes, steps up to the floor, puts on his slippers, and walks down the short hallway to the kitchen. He washes his hands, sits down at the table, and waits for me to serve him. I put the plates one by one on the table. I place the chopsticks in front of the main dish in a horizontal position. I set the other dishes on the table around his place setting. I do the same for me. There is something green, something yellow, fish, salad, and rice. I arrange it just like the photo in the cookbook. I am feeling pleased with myself. I am also feeling very anxious. What if he doesn’t like my cooking?
He picks up his chopsticks and gently picks up the food and puts in his mouth. I haven’t touched anything. I wait for his reaction. “What’s this?” he asks very carefully. I tell him it’s fried mackerel. He has a strange look on his face. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want me to feel bad. He says, “It tastes good.” I know the taste is not what he expected. I cry. He reaches over and hugs me.
“It’s OK.” He says. Is it really OK?
This cookbook is not going to help me at all. Japanese don’t eat the food that is pictured here. It is for Americans who want to impress their guest by serving Japanese food. I want to make everyday food that my husband will like. Sumio tells me about a cooking show. I begin watching Kyo no Ryori every day. The chef provides step by step directions on how to prepare food. I sit down with my pen and paper ready. I write down the ingredients. The chef on the show picks up each ingredient and shows it to the audience. That is the only way I know what the item is. I listen to the pronunciation of the ingredient and carefully translate it phonetically. The word “shoyu” becomes “show you.” I had to take notes fast, and the instructions are in Japanese.
After a few weeks, my cooking skills improve. My husband is happy. He buys me a subscription to Kyo no Ryori magazine. I begin to study the kanji characters for each ingredient very carefully. I make friends with some of the Japanese women in my neighborhood. We get together and share recipes. They teach me their tricks. There are no more surprises for dinner
My second challenge was making lunch which involves more time and creativity. I usually end up arranging the leftovers from the night before in cute little containers. I don’t know how to carve little hearts or flowers into thin slices of radishes. I am not sure if he ever shows his lunch to anyone. He probably eats in a corner secretly hiding the lunch his American wife makes. I can imagine him showing his lunch to his coworkers. I am sure they have a good laugh. I married a good-natured man. The lunches of his co-workers were made with great care by their wives who took cooking classes before they got married. There are so many cooking schools in Japan. Cooking is a serious matter. It is the key to a lasting marriage.
I learn that Japanese cooking requires at least three of these ingredients in every recipe: soyu, mirin, tsu, and salt. I can only thank my husband for giving me the opportunity to learn about his culture by learning to cook.
I finally learned how to cook. My husband didn’t leave me, and my mother-in-law grew to like me.
“Just as there is no warning for childbirth, there is no preparation for the sight of a first child… There should be a song for women to sing at this moment, or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name the moment.” ― Anita Diamant,
I’m feeling some movement and some pain. Should I call Sumio or wait? He’s about two hours away at work. I don’t want to wait too long. The baby begins to push some more. Sumio gave me the number to call when I’m ready to go to the hospital. Japanese women call an ambulance. My husband is going to take me and be with me the whole time. I call the number he gave me. The phone rings. I practice what I am going to say when they answer. The person who answers doesn’t speak English.
“Sumio Kubota onegaishimasu.”
I said, “Please contact Sumio Kubota.”
She asked again in Japanese, “Dare?”
I repeated, “Sumio Kubota.”
The second time she understands. I think Sumio might have warned them. He’s the only one in the company married to someone who can’t speak Japanese.
He gets on the phone, and I tell him, “I think I have some pain. Maybe the baby is ready.”
He said. “I’ll be home in two hours”
He has to take a company bus, get on a train, and ride his motorcycle home. A trip of about two hours: I wait patiently, no not patiently. I am in panic mode. I rush around the house, put my pajamas and clean underwear, and my toothbrush in an overnight bag. I keep myself busy. I make some green tea and drink it slowly. I lay on the bed in the bedroom and try to close my eyes. I hear the door open.
Sumio rushes in the bedroom, picks up my bag, helps me put on my shoes, and we get in the car. I put my hand on his arm and say, “Please drive safely.”
He looks into my eyes, gives me a quick kiss and says, “I will”
It’s our first baby. We don’t know what to expect. We arrive at the hospital. It’s 2:30 p.m. I carefully walk into the hospital. The nurses are ready. Sumio had called the hospital on his way home. Two nurses and the midwife greet us with a gurney and tell me to lie down. The contractions are getting closer and more painful.
I lie in a Japanese hospital in the delivery room on a gurney with my back semi-supported with a few pillows. My legs are spread out in a frog position. I can’t see my feet because my stomach is the size of a hot air balloon. The midwife in her crisp white uniform and hat is standing on the right side of my belly gently massaging it with some lotion. Her right-hand rolls over my stomach and her left hand follows. My husband stands near my shoulders and follows the directions of the midwife.
“Gently Massage the shoulders.” I think she says in Japanese
He massages my shoulders. We practiced this at home for the past month. He’s not supposed to be in the birthing room. My mother should be there. She’s in the United States, and I would not think of having my mother in the delivery room. The second choice was my mother-in-law. No, sorry, that isn’t going to happen. She doesn’t speak English, and the last thing I want to do is give birth in front of her.
Men don’t enter the delivery room in Japan. Only women are allowed. Sumio is allowed to be there because his wife doesn’t have any sisters in Japan who can be with her and she doesn’t speak Japanese.
“Breathe! Push! Breathe! Push! Commands the midwife.
The pain is unbearable; I cry. I sweat! I yell!
I dig my fingernails into the arms of my husband who has not left my side. His arms become bruised, and he begins to bleed. He doesn’t complain.
“Breathe! Push! Breathe! Push! Commands the midwife again.
The doctor is somewhere down there waiting for the baby to emerge. After four hours of labor with no epidural, there is a scream. This time it’s not me. It’s our baby.
The doctor waves his hand signaling Sumio to approach the screaming baby. He passes the scissors to my husband and instructs him to cut the umbilical cord. It’s not in the plan. He smiles from ear to ear, and his eyes lit up like never before. He cuts the cord looks up at me and says, “It’s a girl!” We didn’t know the sex before the birth. I look over at Sumio who is cradling a naked red baby (acachan). He has tears in his eyes, tears of joy. Sumio places her on my chest and tears flow like raindrops slowly down my cheeks. She feels warm. Her five purple fingers curled like fists into her hands. We check her five tiny toes and her long legs. I look into her eyes. I want to find something that looks like me. She has blue eyes.
“All babies are born with blue eyes,” says the doctor.
I want my baby to have blue eyes because I have blue eyes.
She’s the first female to be born into both my family and Sumio’s family in twenty-seven years. I hold her for five minutes, and then they whisk her away to clean her and wrap her in a warm blanket. I already miss her.
I can hear fireworks bang! pop! going off in the park near the hospital. It’s summer, and Japan celebrates six weeks of firework festivals on the weekends.
Our daughter, Lisa, is a curious sight in the incubator lined up with the other babies in the nursery. She’s the only American/Japanese baby. Everyone passes by and stares at her. Her hair is thin and light. It’s not a black puff sticking straight up on top of her head like the Japanese babies. The color of her skin isn’t olive but not creamy white either. She doesn’t have a Mongolian spot on her back like Japanese babies.
Having a baby in Japan requires some research. My Dr. Spock book, the only one available to me in 1982, doesn’t explain the Japanese birthing process. I need an obstetrician who speaks English. Where is the nearest hospital? Where can we sign up for Lamaze classes?
When we first find out that I am pregnant, we start shopping for hospitals. We visit the public hospital that is six hundred feet from our house. If we use the public hospital, the delivery is free. Japan has a socialized medical system. We enter the hospitals and have a nurse take us on a quick tour. The smell is clean. The room is drab, white paint on all four walls, no pictures, no windows, and blue cotton curtains separating one patient from the other. I want to get out. I feel I am in prison. This is not a place where I want to have a baby.
My Japanese language skills are those of a three-year-old; I can answer “yes” or “no.” Most of the time I don’t understand the question, but I don’t want to show my stupidity, so I pretend. I ask the questions and Sumio translates. We walk around two-
three hospitals, and there are no rooms. Women give birth behind blue curtains. There is no privacy.
“Are there any private rooms for delivery?” I ask the nurse who is giving the tour.
“No, we have three or four women delivering at the same time.” She answers
I wrinkle my face and look at Sumio. He asks me not to show my emotions directly in front of the nurse. It’s a form of rudeness in Japan.
I begin to ask questions of anyone who speaks English. “Where did you go to have your baby?” No one can tell me an answer because none of my foreign friends have children yet. One of my American friends is teaching English to an obstetrician. She suggests we check him out. The doctor owns the hospital which is common in Japan. The hospital accommodates twenty patients, women and babies only.
I tell my husband about the information relayed to me about the obstetrician. The next day he takes off from work, and we go to visit the hospital. The hospital is the obstetrician’s house.
We ring his doorbell. He opens the door.
“Irashai mase,” he says.
“Ojama shimasu” replies Sumio.
I smile and somehow say “Ojama shimasu.”
“My name is Sumio Kubota, and this is my wife, Carol.” “We’re friends of your English teacher Joann,” says Sumio.
“Yes, Yes, I know. Good teacher. Joann good teacher. My English not good” says the doctor.
He invites us into his living room. We remove our shoes. He places two pairs of slippers on the gekan, and we slide them on our feet. Sumio and I both bow from the waist down to him and he bows a little above the waist to us. He’s of a higher rank than we are. I learn this by watching Japanese soap operas. The doctor shows us to a table, and we sit with our feet under us on his tatami floor. His wife appears from the kitchen with a tray carrying ocha and cookies. She is short, round and wears a flowered skirt and pink blouse. She wears a white apron over her clothing. She smiles, bows from the waist and sets the tray on the table in front of us, she pours hot tea into the teacups and places them on the right side of each of our settings. We drink tea, and the doctor asks Sumio about my condition. Wait, I’m pregnant not Sumio. Sumio relays the questions to me and then translates my answers to the doctor. Sumio is not very comfortable in his position of being pregnant for me. He and the doctor continue talking, and I begin to think that this isn’t going to be an easy project.
They finish talking, and the doctor gets up, and so do we. He leads us to the door. We put on our shoes. We head out the door and across the lawn to the hospital. He shows us around the hospital. The rooms are private, and everything is clean. We enter the doctor’s
office. I have a list of questions I want to ask him. He examines me, takes my blood pressure, listens to my heart, weighs me, takes my measurements both around my belly and my height. He begins to talk to my husband in Japanese.
Hello, I’m the one who is pregnant let me in on the information.
My husband tries to translate, and I try to understand. I thought the doctor might be able to speak a little more English after all he is taking English classes from my friend.
All my vital signs check out. We decide to have the baby at this hospital.
In the fourth month, I ask the doctor if there are any birthing classes for Sumio and I. All I had was a Dr. Spock book. That was in the time where Dr. Spock knew everything.
There are no birthing classes. I am supposed to watch a movie shown at the local civic center. This movie will provide me the necessary information I need to give birth. I walk in. It’s a theater with stadium type seats. I sit down. I’m the only white American woman in the place. I smile at some of the women while they whisper to each other and wonder why there’s an American woman in the room with them. The movie comes on after about ten minutes of waiting. I feel very anxious; all I want to do is get up and walk out.
It’s black and white. This movie is twenty-five years ago. It is now 1982. They introduce a woman who’s pregnant. She’s lying down on the hospital bed ready to give birth.
I look at the moving pictures. The woman begins to breathe deeper and deeper. Five minutes later a baby pops out. The movie ends. What? That’s all! I am starting to get very nervous — no classes to show me how to breathe.
No classes showing Sumio how to calm me down if something happens. No massaging of my swollen protruding stomach. What do I do?
On the second day of my stay after giving birth to our daughter Lisa, no one comes into the room. The nurses don’t come in often. They’re afraid of the gaijin who is in a private room. They bring in breakfast at 7:30 every morning, no one has shown up with my breakfast. My husband comes by at 7:30. I ask him about my breakfast. He goes to find out. He comes back with this answer. “They don’t think you like the breakfast.”
The breakfast consists of toast with butter, salad, misoshiru, a boiled egg, and green tea. On the first day, I eat everything except misoshiru. I am not too fond of misoshiru. It’s too salty.
Sumio clears up the misunderstanding. They deliver a boiled egg, salad, toast, and tea. He brings his breakfast from McDonald’s, a sausage biscuit with hash browns. I want his breakfast.
Babies in Japan don’t sleep with their mothers in the hospital. They sleep in the nursery in their incubators. The nurses bring the babies into the mother’s rooms only for nursing.
“Can you ask them to bring Lisa into the room?” I ask Sumio.
He comes back five minutes later and says “It is too early. They’re not ready yet.”
They bring her around 8:00. They set her on my chest and tell Sumio that I need to breastfeed her. They lay a warm towel on my breasts and massage them for a few minutes.
They lay Lisa down on my stomach and direct my left nipple into her mouth. She begins to suck. She starts to cry.
“You don’t have enough milk flowing yet.” says the nurse to Sumio
Not being able to produce milk begins the process of giving massages three times a day to keep my milk flowing. I have a size DDD breast, and no milk was finding its way down the pipe. The nurses take Lisa away to the nursery when the milk stops coming. I’m not good at nursing. I don’t want Lisa to leave; I want her to stay with me. I pretend she’s still nursing. I keep her as close as I can. There is no way I’m letting her out of my hands. She’s the only one who can understand me.
Japanese women stay in the hospital for one week after giving birth. I only last five days. I plead with Sumio to get me out sooner. I want to go home.
The day I leave from the hospital my mother-in-law shows up with Sumio. I tug on his pants and give him “the look”.
“What’s your mother doing here?” I ask
He looks down at me as I sit in the wheelchair ready for him to take me to the car.
“It’s a Japanese custom for the mother to show up and take the baby home and help you take care of her.” He tries to explain as I stare him straight in the eyes, my sign of showing anger. I hold my tongue for now. I don’t want to create a scene and embarrass Sumio in public.
We get into the car. He opens the back passenger door and loads my bag and helps me get into my seat. He closes the door. He opens the front passenger seat, takes the baby from his mother as she gets in her seat. He passes our baby to his mom in the front seat.
Wait a minute. It’s unsafe for a baby to sit in the front seat. There are no seat belt rules in 1982.
Sumio starts the car. Tears stream down my face. Lisa is my baby, and I want to hold her in my arms. Sumio catches my face in the rearview mirror. He stops the car at the Seven Eleven and gets out. He opens the passenger side of the front seat, retrieves Lisa from the arms of his mother, opens the back- passenger door, hands me Lisa and kisses me on the forehead.
He says, “I am sorry.”
Culture differences haunt our relationship as we try to figure each other out.
We arrive at home, and I carry Lisa into the house. I’m not letting this child out of my site.
It’s a hot, humid summer day. We don’t have an air conditioner, and the windows are open. I put a cotton t-shirt and a diaper on Lisa. I watch her fall asleep in her new crib. My mother in law covers her with three blankets. I take them off. She thinks Lisa is going to catch a cold. I watch Sumio’s mother pick up her suitcase and walk to the car. I hadn’t noticed the suitcase before. It’s big enough to hold two weeks of clothing.
“Why does she have a suitcase?” I ask my husband.
“She was going to stay here for three weeks to take care of you and Lisa.”
“Now, she’s going home.”
He looks at me, kisses me on the forehead, and says “I love you!” again. “My mother will be fine. I know you can take care of the baby and the house on your own. You are strong. Our family is you, me, and Lisa.”