|3/1/2014. We didn't hug or kiss for the last two years of dating/engagement so our pre-wedding photos were a bit awkward.|
In Japanese, people use the word usually translated as "common sense" or 常識 joshiki a lot, though more often and in a wider variety of contexts than we use the English phrase.
You might recall the idea of a "high-context" culture from that college course Intercultural Whatnot 101. In contrast with low-context cultures (America is often held up as a textbook example), high-context cultures rely less on clear spoken or written communication to enforce behavior, and more on concepts like joshiki "it's common sense, everyone knows you're supposed to do/be ____" In three years of marriage and three years as 社会人 "employed members of society" in Japan, we've had an awkward dance with this joshiki, and I'm thinking it's time for a new dance partner.
First, how we tried to be normal:
We both went to college, Yuya got his Master's, then we started looking for jobs. We didn't question it at all. After education, one must work, and work=being employed. In Japan, this joshiki is narrowed more strictly to being employed full-time by a reputable company for life. Yuya pursued this and after a long two years job searching was finally employed by his current manufacturing company. He is what the Japanese call a salaryman, a white-collar employee of a company. We continue to put up with horrible working conditions without complaining all that much because "it's par for the course here, a lot of people are much worse off." As it turns out, the culture we found ourselves in pulled some mean punches that woke us up a bit.
Here's how it all fell apart:
Punch #1: You're Doing it all Backwards
Our falling out with Japanese common sense started when we got engaged and announced our wedding date. Japanese friends and acquaintances were less concerned with our international marriage and more shocked at the fact that we were marrying before Yuya's job started. The Japanese way requires the man to be an established employee with a happy savings account before getting married. It didn't matter that I had graduated and was working full-time, that Yuya had completed his Master's degree (all that was left was the graduation ceremony two weeks after our wedding), or that he had accepted a formal job offer from the company and his job would be starting exactly one month from our wedding. We were committing "student marriage." For Japanese salarymen, marriage is not traditionally a private matter but you have to invite your boss (who comes to the wedding to give a speech saying thank you to the parents for raising a son with potential as a worker, though he does nothing but make mistakes and is useless in the office, hahaha, however he can greet people correctly so I'm happy to help raise him to be a real adult, blah blah blah) and give and return expensive presents from your workplace. We knew we didn't want to bother with all that and wanted to get married in my hometown, so we purposely decided to tie the knot before all those other obligations came into play. Over and over in the coming months we'd be so glad we decided to marry when we did, but we really had no idea how bad the next punch was going to be.
Punch #2 It's for Your Own Good
I still remember that June evening in 2014, when Yuya came home from work one Monday after midnight, in tears. I work from Tuesday to Saturday, and Yuya the traditional Monday to Friday, so on Mondays since I have time I usually cook something nice while waiting for him to come home. Our newly married life was going pretty well. I'd recovered from a bad case of influenza I contracted right after returning to Japan from our honeymoon, and was enjoying cute little details of our life together like having to buy two icecreams for dessert instead of one. Yuya usually came home from work at 6pm. That day, I made his favorite hamburgers and even put together a colorful salad. Like, way more food groups than I usually bother to cook for one meal. I had it all out on the table and ready to go by 6:15. Maybe Yuya had stopped by a convenience store. 6:45 came, and I put saran wrap on our food. At 7pm I put it all back in the refrigerator. At 8pm I tried calling him, no answer. I forgot all about the dinner I'd made. I knew something had gone very wrong. When he came home at last at around 12:15 am, he explained through tears what had happened. He had suddenly been given an impossible amount of tasks to do, berated for not doing them faster, and when he finally finished at 9pm, he was treated to a 3-hour "training lecture" from his boss, an absurd performance that included screaming, dehumanizing insults and personal attacks, slamming hands on the table and kicking the walls. Watch the movie Whiplash, by the same director of the current hit La La Land. The "professor" character in it has a lot in common with a typical Japanese manager (usually without the physical violence however). This after-hours lecture was to become a weekly ritual and the work load was not diminished. Yuya never came home before 10pm after that. The hammer had come down. We were now true salarymen.
Related: Overwork in Japan, and my view of the education system that creates it.
Related: Overwork in Japan, and my view of the education system that creates it.
Punch #3 Married Couples Spending Time Together? How Dare They.
So here we were in 2014 and for half of 2015, in no good emotional state (Yuya getting the brunt of it before he managed a transfer to a slightly better division), hearing "Oh isn't it great he's got steady employment and already married at his age, you lovebirds must be happy" from all sides, and mostly from our church. No, it's not like that, I wanted to say. It's not material happiness in "beautiful Japan," it's a wasteland. Maybe you see the tiny, shiny gold nuggets but what I see is just that ugly monster No-Face (if you get that reference, let's be friends). We asked for prayers sometimes. But our church has a lot of wealthy people in it, bosses and managers and even presidents of companies, people who've "been there, done that" the whole length of the corporate ladder, and given their youth to their beautiful Japan they love so much. I was shocked to tears in front of everybody when it was decided by vote that Yuya had been chosen as a deacon. Apparently in our denomination, one can't say no to something decided by popular vote. Being a deacon meant long Sunday meetings with Christian salarymen from the end of the church service until evening. "Being young is tough, but he's married and an employee now, it's time he took on more church duties. Isn't that what a pure faith demands? It's God's will." I was extremely angry, actually. They knew our only day off together was Sunday. They knew his workplace was toxic. They asked for our prayer requests but they obviously didn't care a fig about them. They assumed that to be young was to suffer, to suffer was to be made holy, that as a matter of course married couples didn't need to have much time together, that we were interested in being unselfish people who put the needs of the organization over our personal ones. I had always thought church was a safe place and that a shared faith transcended cultural differences, because that's how it had been when we were children (i.e., unemployed students) and between Yuya and me. Now that was shown to be a delusion on my part. In the years since then I've been invited a few times to the Ladies Fellowship. "I don't have time," I'd growl to Yuya, "Even if I did, why would I want to spend it exchanging pleasantries about what a good woman Ruth was, after what they've done? They don't even like their husbands. We have nothing in common." My own sin is I haven't yet figured out what forgiving our church looks like. It will definitely not entail going along with their salaryman family value system. It probably means I should swallow my hurt and pride and spend a bit more time with them, listening to them.
Recently, I was "head-hunted" and invited for an interview with an executive trying a new business venture. I explained I wasn't seeking new employment but I'd consider it if the conditions were better for me than my current employer, and that most full-time English teaching jobs require work on Saturdays but that left only one day off with my husband, so ideally I need a job with Saturdays off. The exec and her cronies burst into squeals. "Aww, lovebirds!" "How sweet!" "Newlyweds? How long have you been married?" When I said, "Three years," the room went silent. Shrinking ice cubes tinkled in lipstick-stained glasses. "Well dear, you'll find out life isn't like that. The only thing you should care about is if your husband is healthy and employed!" The cronies laughed uproariously, but I couldn't find anything funny about her comment. Apparently any lovebirding beyond the first year is socially unacceptable.
Related: How I experience Collectivism in Japan
Related: How I experience Collectivism in Japan
Punch #4 We're Not Alone
Our Japanese friends from college days started working and getting married around the same time we did. Just like us, they started dropping like flies, running into similar and even worse problems in their churches and workplaces. I'd thought Yuya had just gotten stuck with a really rotten (but rare) psychopath boss, but more and more it looked like his methods were being employed in varying degrees across all industries and work environments. Turns out, it's joshiki to "train" new blank-slate employees with what would probably be labelled harassment, hazing, and bullying in America. Our female friends experienced rampant sexual harassment and sexist discrimination as well. One friend was hospitalized for extreme work-related stress. Another frequently got tears in his eyes when we asked about his job. The younger generation is changing, however. Most have quit at least once, some have started their own businesses or joined NPOs. One shocked his company by reporting a supervisor who "jokingly" waved a box-cutter at him (no one had ever bothered considering such a thing criminal before), resulting in the supervisor getting fired, also rare in Japan. The bottom of the totem pole is getting fed up.
Since dating and getting married, we've met and come into contact with many couples like us: foreign wife, Japanese husband, living in husband's country Japan. One day I mentioned to Yuya, "Come to think of it, not one of the international couples we know is doing the salaryman thing here, except us!" It was a lightbulb-floating-over-our-heads moment.
Punch #5 "I Had to Work with a Bunch of Foreigners!" "お疲れ！”
As much as I try to be normal and respect the Japanese way of doing things here, my very different value system means I'm often blind to expectations of me, or simply unwilling to fulfill them (not a legitimate excuse here at all). I will never attain native-level Japanese language and communication skills. My non-Japanese body is in itself a disqualification from true membership in society. It's not like in America, where foreigners are praised for becoming American and integrating into society. It's expected here that foreigners are different and "not one of us," nor can they ever be. I am made to think my own company considers me a nuisance that must be borne to make a profit, since one can't really compete among English schools without a foreign face. One of my students is working for a company that in cooperation with an NPO has hired some adults with various disabilities. She often complains about how hard it is to communicate with them, how frustrating they can be, how very lacking in joshiki and the most basic skills. "They sound like foreigners in a Japanese company," I thought to myself, shocked at both the offensiveness of the thought and also the implications of it I could see played out in the society around me.* The words of an activist for universal rights made me think long and hard: "Disabilities are not in people, but in the environment." What if, for example, there was a society made exclusively for and by people in wheelchairs? Or one for blind people? Those of us considered "able" now would be at a disadvantage there. Another lightbulb was flickering on.
*note: I don't mean to compare foreigners in Japan or myself to people with disabilities. I don't have any at the moment, and I'm aware my status both as foreigner and as abled grants me many privileges from society.
Conclusion: Maybe We Don't Have to Be Stuck
Our American friends are shocked to hear these things and say, "If you don't like it so much, why don't you move/quit/leave? It's your life, you can live it your way and do your own thing," unaware of how that concept just doesn't exist in Japan and how hard it is to actually do, once entangled in various webs of obligation and expectations that come with being a member here. But we are realizing, since I'm not Japanese, we are forgiven much. The crushing burden of duty and joshiki that irks Yuya so much, he already cast aside long ago in choosing to become Christian (a foreign religion) and marrying me (a foreign wife). Maybe we don't need to keep trying to force square pegs into round holes and keep doing what everyone else is doing. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" --maybe, the hand holding the hammer was of our own creation-- "but the nail that sticks up too much is left alone." We have to stop kidding ourselves and realize we started off abnormal here, and if our plans and dreams for the future work out, we are tumbling toward entropy, at least as far as "normal" is concerned. If we succeed, our sweet revenge on common sense will be less sweet because "Oh well foreigners and the Japanese weird enough to marry them are always doing wacky stuff" will be the excuse made for us. But on the other hand if that's the case, why in the world are we not doing the wacky stuff, like married date nights, starting our own business, or living in a third country, or adopting? That escalated quickly, I know. But maybe, the wacky is closer to our true joshiki, which in the end for us as Christians must be in submission to Christ, not to the cult of the American Dream or of Japan the Beautiful Country, or even of Millennials Changing the World. I'm getting tired of feeling stuck, anyway. Time for some new 常識。