Portrait of a Strong Japanese Woman

yuki

On my Grandfather’s farm 1979– before my Bonsai years

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.

During my first stay in Japan 1980

During my first stay in Japan 1980

Japan

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10 thoughts on “Portrait of a Strong Japanese Woman

  1. i would say Japanese people are strong they proved themselves every time to every situation after the world war when everything was destroyed they stood by there feet without any help they had earthquakes they had tsunami but they survived they are an inspiration i watched the drama asko high school its Japanese there it showed how that girl did not lose hope in all boys engineering school ,there amazing anime for kids are great with the ways to lead life like shugo chara i just have a lot of respect for japan and its people and yeah i know about the cultural thing its pretty similar with Pakistani and Indian culture but the only difference is she was not killed for that , i know its something hard to raise a kid as a single women as its requires alot of work but in pakistan and indian the society would not even let a women live that is a sad reality of that place

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    • Yes in some places women are treated horribly for getting pregnant outside of marriage. It was not that bad for Yuki, but it was completely unacceptable and frowned upon. It is as if they are about 30 or more years behind at any point when it comes to society and support for marginalized people and unusual situations. Thank you for commenting!

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  2. Very interesting. As a Japanese woman, i have strongly felt that I gotta be strong many times in this society. I imagine that Yuki had been through a lot than you could ever imagine. Must have been so so hard. I imagine I’m a lot younger than her yet I still do feel even now her situation is so hard.
    My mother raised me while she was working. She wakes up early in the morning when the sun is barely coming out, and comes back home just a few hours before the bed time. She took me and my younger brother to a nursery school before work in the last minute where she was almost late for work.. Always busy. Yet she attended my school events always. I wonder how she has managed to do all of this. I have seen her cry only at once in my life. She’s definitely a portrait of a strong woman for me. She always says to me, “I should understand that women quietly accept the unfairness we come across in our life. Either living for career not having kinds or giving up on a career for kids. (At this moment in Japan still women at some point have to face this options.) But they never whine because there’s no point of doing it.” This part is most men even don’t realize it I feel like. I do hope that it’ll change. At least it’s changed compared to the past.

    In general I agree with our people being strong… We have had severe natural disasters quite a lot and historically we had to be strong as a tiny country which other huge countries easily thought they could invade. I’ve seen people going through world war 2, and I cannot express my respect enough. Too great people suffering a lot but living today as if nothing happened.

    Thanks for sharing! It gives me think a lot. 🙂

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    • Thank you for reading! I see the silent perseverance of Japanese women as a special quality I don’t find here in America. It was so hard for me to live up to that. Even my mother-in-law whom I didn’t really admire at all could “ganman” and put up with quite a bit– pulling weeds in the garden every morning to let off stream. I work with and personally know strong black women; but they are a slightly different type than Yuki. Perhaps they are more outspoken and fierce. It is had for your average Caucasian woman to hold in emotion. We tend to fall apart at one point or another. I can’t say what is right but I wish I had more of Yuki’s strength many times. You can imagine her frustration with me! Thank you for sharing the story of your mom. Would you mind sharing what happened to your father? I was curious about how your mother ended up doing all of this.

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      • Oh, yes my father. I’d say he gets influenced by the traditional Japanese family where he grew up with, which is called ‘Teishu Kanpaku’. My grandparents generations totally had this classic idea. The difference between my family and his family though, is that my grand mother was a housewife. My grand father was the most powerful one is the family. since my father grew up in this situation, even though my mother is working, he hasn’t done housework so much. He thinks women have to do housework still and can be the most powerful one as his dad. I gotta admit I’ve witnessed my parents arguing over it a few times. My father works but my mother also works, does houseworks, too. – Ive seen the survey where still 5o % of young Japanese men have this classic idea where women still should do housework while men work. I do not appreciate this idea to be honest, especially in this era where more women also start to work outside. I’m sure it depends on what kind of the environment you were from, too. There are women who are okay with it. I grew up with my both parents working, but many of my friends’ mothers were housewives. I personally don’t feel close to my father as much because he wasn’t engaging with family events. Not even similar to Yuki’s situation though.

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      • I believe I am of your parent’s generation or maybe just a tiny bit younger who knows, but I have so many things I’d like to share with you regarding Japanese men as the number I have known intimately are embarrassingly many. But as for the head of the house, even in my new found strength and independent mind, my husband (a kind American I call “Pier Jesus” for his kindness in teaching others to fish) does have the final say as I know he loves me and has our best interest at heart. I can be a bit gankou so he has to set me straight now and then! He retired at 58 (by the way) and takes care of the house to a degree while I work. You are doing a great job with your posts!!

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