Divorcing My Japanese In-Laws

As the long August days of worshipping the dead ended, I took my final afternoon run.  But instead of running away from my life– pushing myself to the brink– I skipped up the hill for a short distance and then turned to cross a wide valley of rice paddies that overlooked the town.  Midway I stopped and admired the flow of an irrigation stream.  It was nothing special, but I wanted to take in a few simple views– sights of lovely simplicity that would remain with me as lasting memories of the “real Japan” that had so captured my heart.

imageAs I stood there mesmerized by the rippling water, the cicada chorus that had ebbed and flowed thoughout the afternoon began to grow in decibels from every direction.  Without thinking I took off the delicate ankle bracelet I had bought to wear with the minis and threw it into the water.  This was a spontaneous act, essentially without purpose or meaning.  I did it to observe the gold glistening under the clear mountain water and because . . .well just because I could.

In order to follow through with my plans to see my old friends Yuki and Yasu, I would need two extra, unscheduled days in Tokyo.  It was obvious that my mother-in-law Satoko was not pleased with this turn of events.  As the children and I were preparing to leave Sado Island, she confronted me.  My erratic behavior over the summer had not gone unnoticed.

“School has changed you.  You are holding your chin up too high,” she told me in an unabashedly accusatory tone.  “You should stop studying and pay more attention to your family.”

Apparently she was of the opinion that my philosophy studies had gone to my head.  I stepped down into my shoes before I replied.  ” I want to graduate.  I want to think for myself.”

The old woman grimaced.  “You know how my son is.  Do you think there is any way you can do as you please?”

“Is that fair?  Can’t I live a normal life?” I asked.  “Can’t I say and do what I think is best?”

My mother-in-law was stern.  “It is your job to be a good wife and mother.  You made your choices and now you have to stick with them.  It’s obvious no?”

With this Satoko rose and went down the hall.  As I turned to carry our bags out to the car I heard the heavy rolling sound of the fireproof tower door.  When I returned to call the children I found my critic had returned.  In her hand was a money envelope . . .the kind used for gifts.image

“When you get to Tokyo buy something more presentable to wear.  You cannot go back to your husband in the little dresses you have been wearing around here all summer.”

I pushed the envelope back.  Knowing what I was about to do, I could not accept it.

“I have enough cash and a credit card.  Moreover I like what I am wearing.”

Satoko grabbed my forearm forcefully and thrust the envelope into my hand.  “Change your image,” she instructed in an imperious tone.

Further refusal was pointless.  I deposited the money in my purse, picked up my backpack, and called out for the children  I felt bad for having been so tough on Satoko.  It handn’t been my style to argue with her or push back.  I’m sure she had set out to be a good mother, but for whatever reason had been unable to raise a son who appreciated her efforts.  For this she had suffered and was about to endure more anguish with my departure.  All I could do was move forward quickly and not look back.  In a few days I would have to do the same with my husband.   One way or another I wouldn’t be stuck.

As the children slipped on their shoes I took one last look at the little bit of house I could see from the entryway.  In my ears the famous Sado Island ballad played.   It was true, Sado was easy living– a good place to live, but under the circumstances I could not stay.

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16 thoughts on “Divorcing My Japanese In-Laws

  1. My wife had a similar experience with her own mother. She expected my wife would grow up to be a certain kind of daughter, willing to do all the subservient duties for her that she had done for her own mother. But my wife did not turn out that way, choosing her own life’s needs over filial duty. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was necessary.

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  2. I really enjoy your style of writing.

    I get that “a good mother does this” vibe all the time. As a westerner I can’t help but feel really uncomfortable with the implications that even my own wife makes that it’s ok for the guys to go out but she’d be a bad mother if she left me with the kids to go out with her friends for a night. It may be because I live out in the sticks but the attitudes people have about motherhood here is absolutely oppressive. A good mother would never use store-bought baby food, for example. A good mother would never leave her kids with her parents for even a singly night. Mothers are expected to sew and handcraft all sorts of items for their children for preschool.
    My wife recently started working three nights out of the week to help our financial situation a little and you wouldn’t believe the crap she got from all kinds of people.

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    • Thank you again for reading Mr. Nail. Yes I was the quintessential Japanese wife and mother. My bentos rivaled those of any native wife and I designed plenty of outfits for my babies knitting and sewing them of course. It was so out of hand that I quite simply lost it. That scene I blogged about my last encounter with my MIL was the beginning of the end, as with that stop in Tokyo I would completely undo my marriage and begin a cultural binge that would last years and take us down a dark path. My life since 2001 is radically different! You should see where I am now! At the moment I’m in the middle of northern Michigan living a little hick-like existence I’ve created outside of my work life. Hell I wear my shoes in the house when I want to (if I need to run in really quick) and I don’t apologize for much of anything. No “Hansei” I tell you! Your wife probably enjoys getting out a bit and using her mind!

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      • I’m looking forward to hearing what happens next.

        I’m glad you were able to get away from all that. Though it’s really sad that so many women, not just in Japan, have to live with this kind of shit : /

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    • No one has anything to do with what she do, no one should judge the love of mother She loves her child more than anything and putting lines what is good and what is bad mother is stupid as every mother loves her child the method and thinking and the way to take care is different

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  3. Cultural and generational differences can make relationships unnecessarily difficult and keep us from what might otherwise be very satisfying relationships. I have been in your shoes, and did as you are doing. It isn’t easy, but at the end of the day, we have ourselves to answer to, and we must do as our hearts and minds lead us. Hang in there!

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    • Yes they can! I could see in my in-laws just how their son developed into the spoiled adult he was. The fallout of their mistakes had become my burden and I wasn’t going to take it a minute longer. When you hit a wall . . .well that’s the point of no return.

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  4. I’m sorry you had such an awful experience. Although I’m full-blooded Japanese, I grew up in America. My dad’s parents came here a hundred years ago from Sendai. My grandmother, as I recall, had definite ideas about right and wrong, as does my mother, who came from Hiratsuka. That has a tendency to strain our relationship.

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    • Thank you for commenting Patricia! What was so very hard about “Mr. Right’s” version of right and wrong was that it was more about control than the actual outcome. It went beyond the efforts of the average Japanese and was sometimes quite unpredictable. If you can image, me, a country girl from Michigan trying to assimilate in the 1980’s and 90’s to a Japanese standard defined by one particular man…a rural elitist, you have a picture of my life from 17 to 31. Being so manipulated in my thinking it took me a very long time to unbind my twisted roots.

      I see you are from Southwest Michigan! I live in St. Joseph/Benton Harbor. I have just released my story and am now facing the task of promoting. It seems you are well-versed as I checked out your common blog and then followed the trail. Any words of wisdom would be helpful! Stacy G….Bonsai

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