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June 29, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Housewives one and all

(March 28, 1991)            

Not so long ago I was invited to lunch by a group of women in my community. The women, all housewives, study English together and had made a project of translating a series of essays I wrote for a regional edition of the Chunichi Shimbun. The essays covered such issues as the role of women, natural health care, public education in Japan, bullying, and a wide variety of other topics.

I suppose the concerns of housewives and what interests them are universal – children, education, food, clothes, family, husbands – are all likely topics of conversation when they get together. My hostesses felt they knew me, at least knew my views on these subjects, and our lunch was a chance for me to get to know them.

Although I find Japanese women are often shy and reserved in public, in small groups the questions are direct, the answers forthcoming, and there’s an easy familiarity. 

On the subjects of husbands, one of the women surprised the others when she said she and her husband regularly went dancing. They expressed envy and said the only thing they ever did with their husbands was go shopping at the supermarket on Sundays.

When the conversation turned to food, as it inevitably does, they were surprised to hear that I make Japanese pickles (only one of them ever had) and that I prepared “from scratch” many things Japanese housewives now buy prepared or in instant form, like dashi, the stock that is the base of so many Japanese dishes.

Although my lady friends exaggerated and exclaimed that I knew more of their traditions than they did, it was clear that in this group of ten women, of which only one could dress herself in kimono (her husband tied the obi), traditions that once passed from mother to daughter were nearly lost.

Some of the women admitted to being “education mamas”, women who push their children to excel and compete academically. Others, seeing how the pressures of the present education system adversely affect their children, said they are open in their objection to the “constant tests and unnecessary rules.”

All of the women agreed their lives differed appreciably from their mothers in that they had leisure and freedom their mothers couldn’t have dreamed of. They realized too, that their daughters would have opportunities and possibilities that did not exist for them.

The subject of extended families came up and one woman said, “Although I have finally gotten use to my husband’s mother, I think I would prefer to live alone, with only my husband and our child.” One might think the Japanese mother-in-law is the perfect helper and live-in babysitter, but according to her, they seldom babysit and the only time her mother-in-law was ‘helpful’ is “when she’s interfering in matters between me and my husband!”

I suppose ideally the older woman would be a source of support for the young wife (and no doubt she often is), sharing her experience and wisdom concerning child raising and household management, but often these two subjects are the very reason for clashes as, naturally, their views differ. These modern housewives, formally educated and with information readily available, obviously felt more confident and self-reliant than their mothers-in-law must have felt as young wives.

I told them that although Americans often refer to multi-generational families as “extended families,” Native Americans say, “We don’t have extended families. We have families. You have contracted families.”



It’s a long time now since I’ve had a lunch and this kind of interaction with a group of local women. These days, the extent of my ‘conversations’ take place in the swimming pool where I go daily, or the aisles of the supermarket if I should happen to run into someone I know.  

Like everyone else (or most people, anyway) I no longer make my dashi from scratch – and I’m perfectly satisfied with the instant version. As for pickling, just yesterday I noticed rakkyo (a type of shallot) is in the stores. I used to pickle 5 kilos of these every year. My whole family loved them, but I also gave the bulk of them away as gifts. In the years I was too busy to make them, I’d actually feel guilty. Now, I notice it’s the season, and guilt-freely buy the prepared ones like everyone else.

I wonder how many of my neighbors go dancing as couples? Not many I would bet. Visiting Denmark I take so much pleasure in seeing mature couples out dancing in the park, having a beer in a café, or listening to jazz in a club. Where we live in the provinces, where people tend to be more conservative, it’s almost unthinkable that women my age would be found outside enjoying themselves of an evening with their husbands.

But dancing and cavorting aside, I see so few people our age actually just enjoying their lives. Here, once the husband retires, he may just hang around the house – much to the annoyance of his wife. (Indeed, there is a Japanese expression for these men – meaning old wet leaves. A nuisance, useless, and hard to get rid of.)

One of the men we meet at the pool is someone we’ve known for a number of years since he has a store in the village where we used to live, and his children went to elementary school with our eldest daughter, Nanao. After Billy and I got back from a month in Italy, he told me that we are smart to enjoy ourselves doing the things we like. He said that although he and other Japanese could do these things (could afford to do it) they just don’t have the mentality. He made it sound almost as though Japanese are genetically incapable of enjoying themselves, most especially after they reach their mature years.  [That was Yoneyama-san. Shimizu-san told me something similar.] We had this conversation about two years ago. Just recently he told me that he and his wife had taken a trip to Germany, Switzerland and France!

I know there may be a practical need for austerity once the main income earner retires. But I also know most of these people have a comfortable retirement and do not lack for funds. And of course they might have a large savings. But after awhile you have to wonder what are they saving for?  I often think it must be for a nice funeral. And indeed, it was recently reported that shukatsu (personal funeral planning) has become the main activity of a lot of people.


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. 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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