“Ken? Ken! Wake the hell up! Meet me at the station.”
I sat up in bed, and realized it was not my bed. Words like this are why Ken Seeroi does not answer his iPhone after 11 p.m. The dreaded Yoko was on the line, and I was in her bed. Well, at least she had a bed, and not a horrible futon like I do. Either way, I really gotta remember to turn off that ringer.
“Ah baby, I’m kind of asleep,” I mumbled, “and it’s pouring down rain.”
“I forgot my umbrella,” she said. “Bring me one.”
“Yeah, just stop at 7-11. They’re like five bucks.”
“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll just get wet. Forget I asked you. Don’t worry about me.”
I could see where this was going, so I tried to use my sweet voice.
“Ah baby, jeez. I’ll give you the 500 yen. Just pick up a little umbrella, okay? Maybe they have a cute one,” I added, helpfully. Ken Seeroi has the voice of an angel, I tell you.
“They don’t. I hate their umbrellas. Never mind,” she said, then, “I’ve had a cold all week, but don’t worry. I worked all day, and I can walk through the rain too.”
“Who hates umbrellas?” I said. “Ah jeez, when does your train get in?”
“I’m boarding now. Six minutes. You should run.”
“Ah jeez,” I said, holding the phone and trying to put on my pants. I say that a lot.
“And I wanna eat grilled chicken,” she said.
“I made pasta.”
“Too many carbohydrates, and it’s late. I want chicken. Bring money,” she said, and hung up.
Two Australians Walk Into a Bar
Running to the station in the rain with two umbrellas, I wondered when my life came to be ruled by Japanese women. It’s like the Australian guys I met over Japanese beers at an Irish bar a month ago. Men with Japanese wives spend inordinate amounts of time in Irish bars, I don’t know why. Probably it’s just an Aussie thing.
“Look, they’re really sweet at first,” said the one guy to me.
“But once you’ve got married, mate, that’s it,” said the other. I wondered when they’d started completing each other’s sentences.
“Yeah, wait till they take your entire paycheck and give you an allowance.”
“And good luck getting sex ever again.”
“Sounds great,” I said, “where do I sign up?
“Anyway, I gotta go,” said the first guy, downing half a pint of beer in one gulp. “Wife’s gonna be mad.”
“Yeah, me too,” said the second guy. “Mine’s been angry since the day we got married.” And they both laughed nervously.
They stood up to leave, when suddenly the first guy turned toward me and leaned in, like he had something vitally important to say. “You’re working for her,” he said desperately, “for the rest of your life. Remember.”
“It’s worse once you have a kid,” said the other, then they ran out the door giggling like schoolgirls.
So that was a bit unsettling. I thought maybe I’d order a gin and tonic, just to calm the old nerves, but then I remembered Yoko might be at her apartment waiting for me, so I decided to just grab a can of chu-hi and hurry to the station.
So last week, I was talking to a couple of schoolgirls who were students of mine at the junior high.
“Ken Sensei,” they chuckled, “do you like Japanese girls?”
“Sure,” I said. “And Russian girls, and Kenyan girls, and girls from Antarctica. Seeroi Sensei does not discriminate.” It’s true, I’ll take anything.
“But Japanese girls are spoiled,” said the first girl.
“I thought you were supposed to be sweet and loving.”
“Oh, we’re neko kaburi,” said the other girl.
“What’s that?” I asked.
And they tried to think of how to say this in English.
“Putting on cats?”
“Maybe, cat costume?”
The thought of hot Japanese girls in cat costumes was sounding pretty excellent, until they explained it further.
“Ah, you mean a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” I said.
“That’s right,” replied the first girl. “You should be careful, Ken Sensei. We lie to you, you know.”
“Honestly?” I asked.
“It’s true,” they laughed, and ran away, giggling like Australian men.
The Most Surprising Thing About Japan
People often ask me, What’s the most surprising thing about Japan? It’s a good question too, since there’s a lot of strangeness in a country where a businessman drinking a can of miso soup while weaving a pink mini clown bicycle through a crowd of pedestrians isn’t remarkable. But after a few years, everything—-eating raw horse meat, that dude polishing his doorknob in the men’s room, a girl puking into a plastic bag on the express train—-came to seem quite ordinary. But above all that, one thing came to stand out as truly surprising:
Japanese women are a lot stronger than they appear. I mean, a lot.
Everything I’d read prior to coming to Japan, and continue to read in the foreign press, is that Japanese women are docile, subservient, second to men. So this was confusing. Though to be fair, I find a lot of things confusing, so maybe it’s just me.
Life in a Japanese Family
Here’s a story I hear from half a dozen girlfriends. I mean, not that I have half a dozen girlfriends. Maybe they’re just friends of friends. There, that sounds a bit better. Anyway, Mom gets up early, makes breakfast and lunch for the family, then hustles everyone out the door with their lunchboxes. After that, she washes the sheets, scrubs the bathtub, and hangs out the towels. We’re talking real 1950’s, Leave-it-to-Beaver stuff here. Later maybe she’ll go off to a part-time job, take an English class, have an affair with her English teacher, or just meet some housewife friends for coffee and cakes. In the evening, her daughter will help her make dinner while her son lays around in his underwear with a Sony Playstation doing not a damn thing. He won’t cook, wash dishes, or do his laundry. All he has to do is pass grueling entrance exams, get into some college, and go off to work in an office for the rest of his life. The mother just tells him what to do, and he does it.
After dinner, they take their baths, and go to bed. The son maybe can’t even be bothered to take a bath, except about once a week. Around midnight, Father comes home after work, having done the usual six hours of overtime and an hour commute to find everyone asleep and dinner covered in Saran Wrap. He eats alone in front of the TV, falls asleep on the sofa, then takes his bath and goes to bed for five hours before it starts all over again the next day, often six or seven days a week.
On the surface, it might look like he’s The Man in Charge, since he’s the one wearing a suit, and gets meals and laundry done. But it comes at the exchange of his paycheck, so you gotta wonder—-who’s working for whom? Personally, between staying home doing housework or driving a desk in a sweaty Japanese office, I’d opt for the apron. Plus I’m a whiz with a feather duster, really. Here, it looks like if you’re young and reasonably attractive, you just wear painfully high heels and fake eyelashes for for a few years, then never have to work again. Retired at 22. Apparently, I missed my chance. Well, a guy can dream, at least.
Now, I don’t mean to say that women have it great in Japanese society. They don’t. Because nobody has it great. People work eighty hours a week at a diminutive table with ten other people and live in apartments that wouldn’t make a decent dorm room. Clearly, women aren’t in positions of power in companies or the government, but there’s one place they call the shots, and that’s in the home. They control the money, decide what to buy, and tell their husbands and sons what to wear, think, and how to behave.
Again, you know, I’m not trying to say this is right, only that the notion of “equality” hasn’t exactly caught on in Japan just yet. Everybody’s got a different part to play. Men bring home the money, women take care of the house, and white people teach English. Yeah, don’t get me started. So equality—-who’s got time for that? Women don’t have opportunities to pursue fulfilling careers, because Guess what? nobody does. If women are prevented from advancing in the workplace, many simply choose to opt out of that miserable situation, because, unlike men, they can.
Life on a Japanese Farm
This was all very perplexing to me until I went to the farm. I spent all day thinking about it while planting onions and digging up potatoes. Nothing like a little fresh air and dirt to get your mind right. Remind me never to do that again. All that dirt, yuck. Completely ruins your nails. Whatever. So that night I was in the farmhouse drinking beer with The Tanuki and Somebody Sensei. I call The Tanuki The Tanuki because he has giant balls. Like nuts that hang down for days, but that’s a long story, so some other time. And I call Somebody Sensei Somebody Sensei because he used to be a teacher and I can never remember his damn name, so I just gesture in his general direction whenever I need to refer to him.
Anyway, as men do, we were talking about women in between slugs of beer and supermarket sashimi. You know, Japan has amazing sashimi in every grocery store, and for cheap too. The beer’s not too shabby either. What a great country, really. Anyway, I was telling them about the half-dozen girlfriend issue.
“Know the only problem with having two wives?” asked The Tanuki.
“What?” I said.
“Very funny. Well, try multiplying that by three. And they all expect me to do everything,
“Women,” said Somebody Sensei. “Can’t live with ‘em.”
“Pass the beer nuts, would you?” I said, gesturing in his general direction. “And if I don’t do what they say, they either yell or pout. Is it possible to have a conversation that doesn’t devolve into passive-aggressiveness? It’s like having an argument with Gandhi.
“What’re American girls like?”
“Ah, all kinds, really. But they might actually resolve issues through, you know, discussion.”
“Well, Japan’s a matriarchal society.”
“Say what? I thought it was the opposite. Don’t you mean ‘patriarchal’?”
The Tanuki shook his head. “Women are in charge,” he said.
“You gotta get your mind right,” said Somebody Sensei.
Rather than right, this straight blew my mind, since it was counter to everything I’d read about Japan. Thanks internet. But here were two well-respected, successful men, who also happened to be Japanese, rather than some 17 year-old Wikipedia contributor from Canada. And what they said made a lot of sense, so I asked Akiko about it.
Japan as a Matriarchal Society
Akiko’s my go-to girlfriend whenever I need to know something, since she’s smart because she’s a doctor. Plus she’s sophisticated because she drinks wine and can pronounce things like Sauvignon Blanc.
So when she came to my place for a little wine, I asked her, “Is Japan a matriarchal society?”
“I’ve never thought about it,” she said. “But baby, can you run to the store for some Sauvignon Blanc?”
“Let’s drink Chardonnay instead,” I suggested, “since I’ve got that in the fridge.”
“I don’t want Chardonnay,” she said. “Too oaky. Never mind. I’ll just drink tap water.
“It’s gotta be Sauvignon Blanc?” I can never pronounce that, actually.
“And if it has a cork, make sure you’ve got a corkscrew.
“That I have,” I said.
“Hurry back,” she said.
I hurried back. Picked up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with a screw top anyway, so there. Plus a bag of the delicious Calbee black pepper potato chips that I love. No one says Ken Seeroi isn’t a savvy shopper. Seriously, no one says that.
“Anyway,” I continued as I unscrewed the wine, “let’s say your parents were going to buy a new house. Who’d make the ultimate decision, your mom or dad?”
“My mom. And you better not eat those Calbee chips. They’ll make you fat.”
“But they’re delicious. They’re black pepper. I love them. And I thought your dad brings home the paycheck?”
“True, but it’s not his; it’s the family’s.”
“Does your mom give him an allowance?”
“She does,” she said with a smile, and this seemed to make her happy.
“Okay,” I continued. “So if they were going to buy a car, who would decide?”
“Furniture? Sofas and tables and stuff?”
“Mom, of course.”
“Washing machine? TV? Fridge? Sony Playstation?”
“Probably my mom,” she said, then added, as if surprised, “Huh, Japan is matriarchal!”
“I’m having a moment of clarity,” I said.
“You should’ve bought a bottle with a cork,” she said.
Japanese Arranged Marriage
I recently ran into a couple at a sakura flower-viewing party. They’d met through a matchmaker, and told me they were planning to get married.
“I just got tired of being alone,” said the guy.
“I made up my mind to get married,” said the girl.
“So you decided to get married,” I asked, “and then you met each other?
They both nodded.
“I think we do it the other way around in the U.S.,” I said.
In talking to them, it was clear they weren’t even on a first-name basis, literally, but they understood the arrangement well enough. He’d go off and make money, and in exchange she’d provide a sort of laundry and food service. It was financial security for her, and he wouldn’t have to come home at midnight to an apartment reeking of dirty clothes and eat bowls of instant noodles until he died. It wasn’t “equality,” it wasn’t even love, but maybe it would develop into that. Anyway, it was better than nothing, and that seemed like the best deal they could make.
“Well, congratulations on your upcoming marriage,” I said.
“Yes, we’re excited,” the woman beamed. The man looked away.
“No doubt you are,” I said. “No doubt.” I repeat myself like that sometimes.
Japan, seriously. What a country. Anyway, I had a lot more to say on this subject, like about how not all women are alike and the dangers of overgeneralizing, but I’m on the train to Yoko’s house now, so I gotta slam down this chu-hi, buy some breath mints, and get running. Maybe I’ll edit it later, once I finish cooking dinner and she’s in the tub. Jeez, I should’ve picked up some flowers too. She’s gonna be mad. Well, that’s probably not gonna change anytime soon, unless I marry her like she keeps asking me to. Then I guess that’d solve all my problems. Ah jeez.