issue 260 - October 1994
Bridge of Love
Having a relationship across race is becoming more common.
But it is still viewed as ‘asking for trouble’.
Tomoyuki Iwashita describes his own experience.
My name is Tomoyuki Iwashita. I am Japanese and I married a British woman, Michèle le Roux, in 1991. International marriage is no longer an unusual event in Japan. However, I was the first person to get married to a non-Japanese person among my family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances.
My parents told me: ‘If the two of you have decided we have no objection, but you have to be prepared for the difficulties you will face from now on...’ Most of our friends seemed to be quite surprised and pleased. Some of them said: ‘Can we have free English lessons?’ And most of the men I worked with said: ‘Can your wife make a Japanese meal?’ They seemed to think that an international marriage is very different from an ‘ordinary’ marriage.
Many people expect us to experience difficulties resulting from the clash of two different cultures. Of course we do have disagreements involving the ‘culture gap’ but most of these stem from habits taught by our parents when we were small. These may be influenced by local custom and superstition or are even specific to our particular families. For example, I always say to Michèle, ‘Cover up your stomach when you go to sleep, or you will get a stomach-ache,’ and she always refuses to do it, but I still think it’s good advice...
Small things like that do not really cause difficulties because we knew from the start that we were from different countries, from different cultures and were different from each other as individuals. We do however have a similar sense of values, for example in our attitude to the environment or to human relationships, and that is one of the reasons we got married. Of course we have serious arguments from time to time but most of these are due to individual misunderstandings. They could happen between any married couple. The major difficulties in terms of cultural and racial differences occur not between the two of us but between us as a couple and our families, or our friends, or the society around us.
Japanese society is very ‘outsider-unfriendly’ and there is strong prejudice against foreigners. Even though Japan has a long history of exchange with foreign countries the majority of Japanese people think it is still a monolingual, monoracial country.
This prejudice is epitomized in the word gaijin, which means ‘foreigner’, ‘outsider’, ‘alien’. Though not in itself considered pejorative by Japanese the word may express many stereotypical images of non-Japanese people. White Westerners, for example, are seen as tall and huge, the men are very hairy, the women are blonde and very sexy...
With such stereotypes many Japanese have prejudices about international marriage as well. In general it is much commoner for white Western men to marry Japanese women than the other way around. However, it is more common for Japanese men to take partners from non-Western countries than it is for Japanese women. These gender prejudices may arise from notions of conquering and being conquered.
The gender issue interacts with racial prejudice. In general marriage with white Westerners is quite accepted, even welcomed, but marriage with black people or other Asians provokes different reactions. The Japanese see themselves as separate from the rest of Asia, perhaps with some sense of superiority to other countries. Such feelings are not openly stated.
When we got married we were living in Japan. Despite the fact that women have improved their position in many aspects of Japanese society since World War Two, they are still expected to give up work outside of the home upon marriage. There is perhaps the expectation that international marriage involves the non-Japanese wife coming to Japan, giving up her culture and devoting herself to the adoption of Japanese ways. Like other women who want to retain an independent identity after marriage, my wife wanted to keep her own surname. This upset my family. They kept asking: ‘Doesn’t she like the Iwashita family?’ I had to explain and I think some of them understood what I meant, but some didn’t.
In our case, most of the problems have been caused by a combination of cultural differences and our individual different characters and tastes. Both inter-cultural and intra-cultural variations are complex and multi-faceted. What is often referred to as ‘racial prejudice’ may in fact be a whole mixture of cross-cultural difficulties, involving attitudes to the family, to food, to health, to hygiene... There is also so much variation within any culture, with people coming from different backgrounds in terms of ‘milieu’, ‘class’, ‘education’ – all the factors which create different interests, tastes, senses of values and priorities. Sometimes it is hard to know if a particular difference is culture specific or if it stems from intra-cultural variation. Michèle comes from a very small family while I have dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins. Do we have different attitudes to ‘the family’ because of this, or because I am Japanese and she is not?
Misunderstandings are harder to deal with the closer one’s relationship is with other people. Especially with members of one’s own family or very good friends, problems become emotionally complicated.
The best solutions are those in which somebody is willing to make a compromise. The question is who? and how? I think the answer is: ‘It depends’. For example, my family accepted Michèle’s decision to keep her own name. But if somebody in the family addresses a letter to us as ‘Mr and Mrs Iwashita’, we see no need to make a fuss.
Compromise is not always easy to achieve; it can be painful and involves making sacrifices. In the issue of Michèle’s name, the Iwashitas had to sacrifice their pride as a ‘traditional Japanese family’. Michèle has to put up with continued mute appeals and some disapproval. And I am often stuck in the middle.
Sometimes we ask ourselves: ‘Why do we have to put up with all these problems?’ Sometimes I even think: ‘Perhaps I should have married a Japanese woman who would have agreed with everybody’. But maybe that is just my stereotypical and racist view of Japanese women!
We continue making efforts to bridge the gaps. This is something that needs to be done within our relationship together and in our relationships with others around us. If we succeed, it will be because of something I haven’t mentioned at all so far – love.
Tomoyuki Iwashita is a freelance writer. Michèle and he now live in Paris.