Yuki is a strong Japanese woman. My sister from another mother– I’ve never seen her cry. On the other hand, she’s seen the worst of me.
The most unlikely of friends, Yuki and I met in the summer of 1979 when I was fifteen; she a year older. While Yuki was tiny and quiet. . . a sophisticated city girl, I was a country bumpkin– clumsy and uncouth. For several weeks we were inseparable. When she left to return whence she came, my parents thought I’d lost my bean-pickin’ mind as I cried for two days straight.
In those days Japan wasn’t half-way around the world; it was a city on another planet and I thought I might never see the girl again. But, as luck would have it, Yuki invited me to spend the next summer with her.
It was that summer that I met two very different suitors– a boy my age and a man five years my senior. And, shortly thereafter, despite strong feelings for the boy, I was swayed by the promise of a future in Japan offered by the older man. Little did I know that he and Yuki would not mix.
For insecure girls like me, it is an unfortunate thing that controlling men quite purposely drive wedges between their girls and anyone who threatens their position. And so it was that though my man’s cunning manipulation that Yuki became “no good” and we lost touch. Before long twelve years passed.
Passed like hell with a man Yuki sniffed out as “not her type” the first time she met him. In fact nothing had been right during those years Yuki and I were apart. I was nearly thirty when I felt compelled to reach out once more. Trouble was brewing and I had secrets to share. Only Yuki would do.
It was a hot summer night, well past dark, when I finally reached Yuki at the number her mother had given me. I had dialed a dozen times and had nearly given up when on my “I swear this is the last time-try” Yuki’s soft voice interrupted the whirring drone of the Japanese phone bells.
I wasted no time telling Yuki of my little secret– my plan to meet up with my old flame . . .the boy I had jilted once upon a time, and with this news we instantly reverted back to the days we stayed awake talking and giggling until the wee hours. Finally, after nearly 30 minutes of me laying out the highlights of all that had occurred in her absence, I turned the tables on my friend and asked what happened in her own life.
“So . . .are you married?” I asked convinced she was.
Yuki paused and then sighed. “No. But, . . . ” she hesitated once more, “I have a son.”
“You got married and divorced?”
“No. I never married.”
In America the answer to this equation is completely obvious but in Japan, especially in those days, Yuki’s words produced quite a quandary. This was indeed shocking news . . . especially for an educated girl.
“He wasn’t the kind to marry,” Yuki said, “. . . but I had the baby anyway . . .a boy.”
“And the father?”
“Oh I don’t know . . .he’s married I think.”
Yuki went on to explain how her parents had been against her following through with the pregnancy and how this made her resentful to the point of refusing their help. All of these years she had been raising the child alone while working as a career woman for a global company– a manager no less!
With this conversation we reconnected. Over the next couple of years I would need my dear friend more than I ever imagined. In retrospect, I took more of her time and energy than she had to spare. For it was Yuki that would pick me up from Narita Airport one night when I arrived without notice. It was my BFF that would keep me for two months in her spare room. And it was my sister, my dear Japanese “one-chan,” who would witness my unraveling and call me out on the tatami for losing my mind.
“Don’t you think it’s abnormal . . .” she asked one night, “that you cry and laugh at the same time? Normal people don’t do that and I can’t have my son see your weakness!”
During the time I overstayed my welcome, those two months when I was holed up in Yuki’s modest home in the shitamachi of Edogawa-ku, I watched her manage what most Japanese women could not. Her son, barely seven, dragged himself to school in the mornings and fell asleep alone in front of the TV at night. Yuki didn’t burden her company with her situation and worked the expected 55-60 hours per week– arriving home well after dark. At the end of these long days this Samurai of a woman who was all of 90 pounds, would carry her son up to her bed and together they would call it a day. Sleeping curled up next to each other was their only quality time.
Some would say Japanese women are strong for holding so much in– for doing what is expected–falling into their roles and managing their homes with precision. But in Japan, to have done what Yuki chose to do . . .keeping her aspirations alive while raising an illegitimate child (a culturally valid term in Japan) without assistance? In a society that at the time offered little support or acceptance, I found Yuki’s actions courageous. On top of all this, she put up with me.