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February 22, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

Stereotypes, spinsters, and henpecked husbands

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“Bringing your wife to Japan is like bringing a bag lunch to a smorgasbord.”

An American man who used to live here said that to my husband. I wasn’t especially fond of this person and was more inclined to disregard rather than comment on anything he had to say. But when this remark hit my ears, I recall thinking that although he’d long since confirmed himself as an idiot in my opinion, this had to be the most outrageous thing I’d ever heard him say.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” was my icy response to my husband. I was not asking a question, but I got an answer.

“He said that since foreign men here can choose among so many young, available, good-looking Japanese women who are willing to do anything for them, why come to this country with a wife.”

Well!

(My husband assured me that this is what this person meant, certainly not what he, my husband, thought.)

Japanese women, charming in more ways than their looks, must be just about worn out with some of the worn-out images of them — stereotypes that lost their shelf-life a while back.

We won’t go into all that could be implied in the “willing to do anything” part of the comment, but one thing Japanese women are supposed to be willing to do without nary a word of complaint is run a household.

They’re portrayed as happy homemakers who never tire of cooking, serving and cleaning up after meals while doing the laundry and balancing the family budget. Their boundless energy appears to be heaven-sent as they’re never dismayed by the responsibilities of taking care of young children and aging parents. Most especially, they never want (or need) help.

When I arrived in Japan 22 years ago, it seemed all Western women (American women especially) were perceived as demanding harridans who exact a stiff domestic price from their husbands. This perspective even came with a word:  kakadenka.

That’s a word I used to hear all the time. In fact, I think it was the second Japanese word I learned after sumimasen. But kakadenka, which means “henpecked”, seems to be one of those words that has gone out of fashion, like spinster.

Apparently, my husband was “henpecked” because he participated in the activities of raising a family and took on some of the chores of running a house. His little chores (airing the futon, taking out the garbage) could be seen by others. Although I usually carried our baby on my back, if he pushed the baby in the stroller the world took note.

Just after the new year, I caused a stir around here because of something I said in an interview that appeared in the Chunichi Shimbun (I’ve written a column for the regional edition of this paper for the past 14 years).

Long before I saw a copy of the interview, I heard about it — from teachers at my daughter’s school, my dentist, neighbors, a gas station attendant, a delivery man. One of the women from our old village called saying, essentially, “Right on!”

The thing that hit everyone in this lengthy interview was my statement that “I expect my husband to be home for supper.”

Not exactly revolutionary stuff.

That short time in the day when the family can sit together at the dinner table and eat a meal I’ve prepared for us all to enjoy is important. I am not forgiving about giving up a minute of it to the office, the school, or even traffic.

My friend “Noriko” has told me she cannot recall when her husband, a  doctor, last had a meal with the family. He tends to disappear around dinnertime. On his day off he leaves the house and does whatever he chooses. Contrary to the notion that Japanese women don’t care if their husbands are never at home or stay out drinking and carousing, it really upsets her.

She’s told me she feels like she raising her children single-handedly. Although her husband provides a comfortable living, she says “that’s not all I want from him.”

This was especially evident recently when she had the responsibility of looking after her bedridden father-in-law while she herself was recovering from a car accident. Around the same time the eldest of her three sons began displaying violent behavior at home and abruptly quit high school.

At a symposium held in Tokyo it was said that Japanese men are still holding on to concepts and ideas that are no longer viable in modern day Japanese life. They concluded: “In present day Japanese society, women and children are changing. Only men do not appear to change.”

Noriko was one of those who called about the controversial interview. She said her husband read it, confessed he’s been “remiss” and announced he planned to “review” his entire relationship with the family.

Maybe he will change. Maybe kakadenka, a word I never hear anymore, is gone for good.

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© 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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