My First Japanese Family

The speaker is an American lawyer, a twenty-year resident of Japan and a good friend of mine.  The interview took place in 2011.

The speaker is an American lawyer, a twenty-year resident of Japan and a good friend of mine.  The interview took place in 2011.

Cathy’s story

I first came to Japan in 1982 to live with the family of my first husband, a Japanese photographer. We’d met in France when I was twenty-two years old. I’d wanted to get married because I couldn’t figure out what else to do with my life. So at twenty-three I came to Japan, as the foreign fiancée of the eldest son in a conventional Japanese family, and lived with his extended family for six months, got married and continued living with his entire extended family. At that time the family consisted of his “grandmother,” his grandmother’s sister, his two younger sisters and his father and stepmother Kayoko, who came on weekends. After several years, one of his sisters got married, and her husband moved in, and they had two kids, so it really was quite an extended family.

My life was divided into two completely separate and distinct worlds. My first job in Japan was teaching English in a chain of English-language schools. Like a lot of foreigners, I taught English at multiple locations throughout the Kansai area in Western Japan, usually in the afternoon and evenings, and studied Japanese at a YMCA in the mornings. I quite liked this school since the teachers came from all over the world. The school I worked for was somewhat unusual in that it didn’t hire only blond, blue-eyed Americans. There were a lot of Asian teachers as well, which is unusual. We’d go out drinking in and to discos all the time (this was in the 80s). I felt like a tourist.

After this, I’d go home, where I’d try to be a typical Japanese daughter-in-law, wearing a kimono at home, doing Japanese cooking, even doing family ancestor worship ceremonies. This particular ceremony involved putting some rice in what looks like a small china teacup on the family Buddhist altar. You also put out sake and there are certain flowers that you change every two or three days. There are certain things that you dust, and there are certain things that you don’t move.

For me this part of my life in Japan was like acting. I wanted to experience the culture, and frankly I thought the only way to be accepted by a Japanese family was to be exactly like them. In my first few months in Japan, I learned from personal experience the maxim that the “nail that sticks out will be pounded down.” Conformity is highly prized. Individuality and self-expression is suspect and can be punishable by ridicule and isolation. At twenty-three I had no idea who I was, so I imitated what I saw and allowed the culture to define me.

With this kind of schizophrenic lifestyle, I’m glad I had a sense of humor because I really needed it. I was pretty independent, and I remember such things as going to the supermarket and buying what looked like organic peanut butter, taking it home, spreading it on bread, putting it in my mouth and discovering that—oh my God—it was miso. I got into so much trouble with my family. I’d decide to clean the house when they were gone during the day as a kind gesture, and I’d go out and buy cleaning products based on the size of the bottle and the color, assuming they would be the same as in the U.S. So I ended up using toilet cleaner to wash the dishes.

Yoshi and I were married for five years. After a couple of years of this Japanese-type existence with his whole extended family, I decided that we should move out. I thought married couples should live by themselves instead of with a whole boatload of relatives. I wanted out of this small town in which we were then living where I was the only foreigner. I thought that living in the either Kyoto or Kobe would work, since both of us would be within commuting distance of our jobs. He said no, he couldn’t do that. At the time we were living in a fourteen-room house, which is huge in Japan, left to Yoshi by his grandmother. He said he couldn’t leave his sister living there on her own. Six weeks after she met me, his grandmother had died from a heart attack which I’m sure it was brought on by her grandson’s marrying a big-breasted foreigner. She’d told everyone he’d only marry me over her dead body, and that was what happened. Yoshi’s grandmother left him this fourteen-room house, which is huge in Japan, and he couldn’t leave his sister living there on her own. At the time his sister was twenty-four, and I thought why the hell not? Then she got married, and her husband moved in, and they had two kids. So for a while there were two couples living there with two kids. Our marriage turned platonic, and in a way it felt like being married to my brother.

Looking back, there are a lot of things I really liked about his family. When I first got there, his parents were still really young and fun. They lived in Osaka and came home to this house on weekends. We spent a lot of time visiting temples all over the country. My mother-in-law was a Japanese kimono teacher who also taught Japanese tea ceremony and that sort of thing. I learned a lot from her about Japanese culture.

My first husband’s family was quite unusual from an American perspective, but perhaps not terribly unusual for Japan at that time. When I learned about the complicated relationship of Yoshi’s family, it seemed like something from a Japanese novel.

Yoshi’s father came from a poor but honest, hard-working farming family. Yoshi’s adoptive grandfather had only one child, a daughter, and they needed a son to marry into the family in order to carry on the family name. (In fact, Yoshi’s mother herself was not the birth daughter of Yoshi’s “grandfather” and “grandmother,” but was herself adopted. She was the result of a liaison between Yoshi’s “grandfather’s brother and his geisha mistress). So they went out scouring the villages for an eligible man to marry their daughter. They found Yoshi’s birth father—we always called him “Frank”—who at the time was seventeen or eighteen. He moved from his natural birth parents’ home to Yoshi’s grandparents’ home and was legally adopted as their son. He lived with them for two years before marrying their daughter. So for a couple of years, on paper, Frank and Yoshi’s birth mother were brother and sister. They got married, and he then legally became the son by adoption and was registered as such on the family register. This type of adoption of a son is a very common practice in Japan in families without sons. Yoshi’s grandfather, who was a wealthy banker, put Frank through college. Frank and Sumi had three kids, Yoshi and his two sisters. So the people Yoshi called his grandmother and grandfather were actually by blood his great-uncle and great-aunt.

Sumi had had a troubled childhood as the offspring of a long-term liaison between the brother of the man Yoshi called grandfather and a geisha mistress from Kyoto. This long-term liaison produced five children. To me what was interesting was that every time the mistress got pregnant, she would always go to her lover’s wife’s house to give birth, which was quite common in the Japan of the 1920s or 1930s. According to Japanese law, the lawful wife had the right to keep the children or have them adopted out. Of the five children, one was kept as a male heir and the other four were given to relatives for adoption. Yoshi’s mother was one of a set of identical twins who were split at birth and adopted by different relatives. Some of the relatives called Sumi flighty, and others called her slutty. After she married Frank and had three kids, she started running around and disappearing for long periods of time. Finally, when Yoshi was fourteen she disappeared altogether.

Yoshi’s father married a wonderful woman named Kayoko, my first mother-in-law. It turned out that Frank and Kayoko had also been having a long-term affair as well. What was amazing to me was that, by the time I got there, there was a grandmother who wasn’t really the grandmother and a father who was still legally the son of the grandmother whose adopted daughter he had divorced. Frank and Kayoko came on weekends. When the grandmother was ill and dying, it was Kayoko who came to take care of the grandmother, do the laundry, the shopping, the cooking, and all kinds of things like that, even though she was no blood relation.

This told me a lot about how Japanese families were constructed. It’s a kind of social fiction in a sense. Once you’re in a role it doesn’t matter what the reality is. Your role gives you your function, and there’s no way out of it. That’s really Japanese. I would ask Yoshi, “Have you ever met your natural grandmother, the geisha?” “Yeah, once.” “Weren’t you curious? Didn’t want to know more about her?” “No, why?” He thought it would be disloyal to the grandmother who had raised him.

I think the unusual family history made Yoshi’s parents really open because they themselves had been screwed by Japanese society. For example, some of the relatives said that when the grandfather was out scouring local villages for an heir, he already knew that his daughter had problems, but he didn’t divulge this to Frank.

In November, 1983, when I arrived in Japan, Yoshi met me at the airport and drove home to his house. It was Saturday, eight o’clock at night. His grandmother was already asleep. She just didn’t want to meet me. But Kayoko was there and Yoshi’s sisters and the great-aunt, who was wonderful, a real character. Frank worked for an architectural firm, and he was still at the office, but he called, and said to me in English, “Cathy, welcome to Japan and our family. Everybody crazy!” He came the next day bearing all kinds of gifts, including Japanese language tapes. His children weren’t fond of him because he had been absent so much during their childhood, but I think he saw me as a way to fill a hole in his soul.

We all lived in that big house. Through my English teaching we collected a whole menagerie of foreigners who used to come over for parties. Frank really loved that. One wing of the house had a huge room the size of a ballroom, but it was Japanese-style with tatami mats on the floor. That’s where we had all the parties. We had a stereo there, and Frank was really into disco dancing with the foreigners. Everybody was young, and it was a fun time.

Since the town was so small, I got to know the neighbors pretty well. I was the only foreigner for miles around. People often asked me to help their kids with English homework or to practice English conversation. I was never paid for any of it, but it gave me the chance to visit a lot of Japanese homes and see different types of lifestyles. One thing that was really fascinating about the town was that it was still divided into communities of ten homes, which was a system set up by the Japanese secret police in the 1930s as a way of group control—group spying, that sort of thing. In the 1980s, if somebody in one of the ten families died, all of the women would go to the house and manage the funeral, which would be held at home and last five days, from the wake to the Buddhist internment. So I got to be a part of that bunch of women. It was really amazing. They taught me how to make tofu and grow rice. That sort of thing was what made living in Japan an adventure.

I liked many things about Japan but I didn’t like my living situation enough to stay. I was getting tired of what I saw as a purposeless existence. I wasn’t using my mind enough teaching English [which can involve a lot of rote repetition and mind-numbingly simple sentences]. I got tired of playing a role. I didn’t know where Japan started and I stopped. I didn’t know how to tell my husband that the marriage wasn’t working out for me.

I told Yoshi, “I want to go to Boston for a year, and then I’ll come back to Japan.” I thought of it as a permanent separation, but I didn’t say that. He decided he was going to come too. I taught in an ESL program t a U.S. University for a year, and I really liked that. Yoshi was in an English program at Harvard. We went through his inheritance from his grandmother. We bought a car and did a lot of traveling.

By that time I wanted out of the marriage, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to go to law school, but I knew that enhanced language skills would be a plus, so I returned to Japan and went into a full-time Japanese language program from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. I also needed to save money for law school so—this was in Osaka—I would rush out of the Japanese language school at one-thirty and start teaching English at two. I taught from two to nine at night, Monday thru Friday and all day on Saturday. I studied until midnight. I would study on the trains. I’ve always been like that. Even starting from age fourteen, I always combined working multiple jobs with studying.

I applied to U.S. laws school from Japan. Basically I chose the University of Denver because my undergraduate roommate was from there, and I’d visited, and it seemed familiar. In my early thirties I noticed that, although many people thought I was adventurous because I’d lived overseas and I’d moved a lot, every time I moved or changed jobs I went where I already knew someone. So I went to Denver, and Yoshi came with me. He found a job working for a real estate agency that put out magazines with pictures of the housing. He didn’t like that kind of photography, but he did it, and he also worked as a chef in a Japanese restaurant. I worked in the library, and I was a hostess at a Japanese restaurant on weekends.

Halfway through my first year of law school, I had a crisis of confidence and indecisiveness and wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue either in the marriage or at law school. So I took a year off from law school. I found a job doing ESL in Chinatown that first summer, and then I found a job working for a really cool American lawyer who had worked in Hawaii and who had a Japanese speculator-billionaire as a client interested in investing in wine country properties and wineries. The lawyer needed somebody with Japanese language skills.

After about nine months, Yoshi and I decided to get divorced in Japan for various reasons, and we did. Then I went back to the States as a transfer student to a different law school—the Denver school had felt like a commuter school. I thought, “Okay, now I’m really done with Japan this time. I’m divorced, and I’ve said my goodbyes to friends and family. I’m going to a new school, and this is a new life.” Then the first week at school I met the man who became my second Japanese husband, which changed the whole course of my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.