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June 23, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Dances with wives in the danchi

(December 26, 1991)       

The very first party I went to in Japan was the bonenkai (year-end party) of my husband’s shakuhachi group. I enjoyed myself as we sat around singing old samurai songs, and was not the least bit perturbed by the fact that I didn’t have even the slightest idea of what the words were.

Several hours passed before I realized I was the only woman at that affair. Actually, the woman of the house was present, but she did not participate in the goings on. Almost invisibly, she would enter the room from time to time, place a new dish on the table, remove the used plates, and then withdraw to what appeared to be her station in the kitchen.

I realized too that I’d been waiting throughout the party for someone to put on some records so we could dance. I didn’t know then that these sit-down affairs were the preserve of men, not couples (clearly I’d only been invited because I was a foreigner) and that no one was even dreaming of dancing.

But last week I went to a party where there was lots of dancing. It was the year-end party held by the women in my danchi (residential subdivision of single-family homes). Housewives and mothers one and all (I’d say fewer than a quarter work part-time outside of the home), we had a fun get-together.

It was a potluck dinner and a delicious, if somewhat mixed, feast of pizza, gyoza, fried oysters, salads, baked stuffed fish, cake, and pudding. I was the only one to bring a traditional Japanese dish, oden. Simple and hot (and what I had fed my family before going to the party) it was eaten up immediately.

Along with the beer and wine there was, you guessed it, karaoke. I listened politely but firmly declined offers to sing. I love to sing, and I’m happy to accompany Roberta Flack, Carmen McRae, and Placido Domingo when I’m at home, but I try to spare others.

Later, someone put on a tape and they all started to dance to a song that I recall being popular with my daughter Nanao when she was in second grade, about 15 years ago. It was something with the refrain of “Popeye the sailor man!”

“Do you have any dance music?” someone asked me. I was home and back in a flash with Hammer, Third World, LL Cool J, Salt “n’ Pepa, Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Prince.

They cut off the fluorescent lights and someone plugged in a thing that looked like a crystal ball with lights in it that changed from yellow to orange to red to blue and back again. One woman stood on a chair twirling a flashlight while yelling “Let’s disco!” With a lot of loud laughing and talking, it got positively boisterous. There was sweating, taking off of sweaters, and general letting down of hair.

And well they could – there wasn’t a man in sight.

“We could never act like this if our husbands were around. If they were here they just wouldn’t like it, and we would never feel so relaxed. And even if our husbands pretended to enjoy it, you can be sure they would complain about it the next day. And in any case, we wouldn’t be comfortable acting like this around them.”

Considering the degree to which they were letting it all hang out, I asked my neighbor if they didn’t feel pent up all year long. “Oh no, no. Our husbands expect us to be meek, quiet, and well-behaved, and we’re used to it. It’s no problem.”

Since the tapes I’d brought were ones my husband had made for parties, the music cooled down, for slow dancing. One woman, my next-door neighbor, held out her arms to me and said “Cheek.” I said, “What?” she explained she wanted to slow dance with me, as several other women, now couples, were doing.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this “women only” party and look forward to our next year-end throw-down, I only dance slow dances with men. And the only person I dance cheek-to-cheek with is my husband.

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POSTSCRIPT

It is almost hard to believe this party actually happened. But it did. These same women are still here, living in their same houses. But they now have retired to the recesses of their homes, and I rarely even see them. Who could believe they could party like that back then! It’s been years since I was in any neighbor’s home. 

Those were the days when our kids were in school, and we regularly saw one another at open-school days, or perhaps at a meeting of the kodomokai (children’s association).

Of course, a lot of these women are working these days, and I cannot be sure what they do when they’re not working. But one thing for sure, they do not socialize. And I don’t mean just not with me – I mean they do not visit or hang out with one another in the neighborhood.

Well, we still party. Not with our neighbors, but we have friends here and there who come for our regular shindigs. Sometimes these are potluck, and in the summers they are out on the deck. There is always dancing.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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