“Don’t stay here, don’t go there, say this, say that!” These were careful instructions from my husband during my first few days in his parents’ home. My “why” questions were always answered with “this is the way the things are done here.”
There are rules regarding footwear (and taking it off) when entering a house, restaurant, a doctor’s consulting room or a kindergarten. It is normal to greet people coming into an elevator and to say bye while you leave. Common Japanese etiquette calls for a person to sit when everyone in the room is sitting and maintain silence when everybody is silent.
When a husband goes to work each morning, a wife should tell him “Go, and come back home.” The husband would then be reassured that his wife is waiting for him at home. At the end of each working day, bosses thank employees, to ensure that they feel valued.
I was initially apprehensive about meeting my husband’s family. I thought that I was doing everything wrong and that my ignorance could make my in-laws angry. Descendants of samurais do not forgive an offence. I knew this from books.
We met for the first time in ‘real life’ after seeing each other during an online video-chat a year earlier. The ceremonious first meeting was at a European restaurant with polite staff. A firm-looking elderly woman examined me, her foreign daughter-in-law. She asked me about my family, my job and my hobbies. I wasn’t stressed as my husband and I had acted out the scene well in advance.
In keeping with the Japanese tradition, as I was the youngest female newcomer to the family, I poured the tea during the dinner and gave hot towels to my in-laws. The head of a Japanese family gets the most attention. The cup and the plate of the oldest man must be filled first. Women patiently wait their turn and are served after men. The same rules are followed at home.
The in-laws were happy with my gifts, such as an Orenburg shawl and socks (famous Russian handicrafts made from a blend of silk and indigenous goat fiber in Orenburg, in the southern Urals) and the Gzel ceramics. They liked the socks most, as it’s hard to stay warm in unheated Japanese houses in the winter.
When you meet people in Japan, you should always keep in mind that many of them are enigmatic. You will never know what a Japanese person thinks, but they will read your face and observe all your emotional nuances and draw a conclusion out of it. People in Japan don’t like any negative emotion coming from the person they are communicating with and especially don’t like rudeness. They think that silence is golden and really adore nice and good-hearted people. I initially made it a point to stay silent and smile. My new relatives appreciated it.
Sometimes, a foreign fiancée comes to Japan unprepared. One of my Russian friends, when first visiting her boyfriend’s home, saw a big aquarium and blurted out, “Oh, sashimi!” Long after that incident, her boyfriend’s parents were on guard near the aquarium fearing that she will eat the pet fish for dinner.
Another friend of mine gave her in-laws lanterns as presents, not knowing that they are used as decoration during the Obon Festival, when people honor the spirits of ancestors. Her mother-in-law still remembers this flaw.
Historically, family is a strong institution in Japan. Marriages are meant to last forever. Even now, despite the fact that divorces have become more common, Japanese people believe that their marriage will not end even after death. And for this, they are ready to be patient and take responsibility for their actions.
Family values are handed down from generation to generation. People here pay great importance to inheritance and property. As it was a hundred years ago, the elder son is obliged to look after his parents. He will inherit his parents’ property after their death. His wife lives with him in his parents’ house and this ‘position’ is never given to foreign women. The Japanese believe that foreign women won’t be able to maintain family values and venerate traditions. And if the elder son falls in love with such a foreigner, he could be threatened with being stripped of his privileges. If my husband were the elder son, we would not have been able to get married. His brother faced this situation.
Heartbreak has always been a popular theme in Japan. Books, films and songs of the last few centuries talk about the very same story of two lovers who can’t live without each other, but also can’t be together. They live their unhappy life, not daring to break the societal norm.
My case shows that a foreign woman can become part of a Japanese family. If you try to understand the culture of this country and be kind to your relatives, the love will be mutual.
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