Marriage in Japan
I went out for lunch with my partner at a cafe the other day that stood across the train station in a Japanese desolate rural town where I live. To call it a cafe is a bit too fancy. It’s not the likes of Starbucks but rather a small old mom-and-pop diner that was built well over 30 years ago and remained as it was, which perfectly matched this old town itself.
We sat at the table and overheard a conversation from the table next to us. Three old women in their eighties sat around the table by the window. “She has passed away, too.” “This could be the last time we get together.” Although they were exchanging a downright sad conversation, they were talking in a matter-of-fact way and their chats were lively.
While we were eating a salad with watermelon that came with our main dishes of curry and rice with a fried pork cutlet, a family of three came in. A boy about ten years old and his parents in their thirties sat at the table near ours. As soon as their orders were taken, the boy started reading one of comic books that the diner placed for customers, and his father went outside to smoke. His mother was staring into space.The father came back in when their dishes arrived on the table but they didn’t talk while they were eating. Except that the parents occasionally said something to the boy separately, there was no conversation between the parents. After they finished eating, the father went out again to make a phone call, the boy played with diner’s puzzle toys, and the mother stared into space again. I saw through the window the father talk with someone over his phone pleasantly while smoking and laughing. He came back in and also began to play with a puzzle toy. I thought it was much more fun for him to have lunch with a person on his phone.
Quite too often, I see a married couple having almost no conversation at a restaurant. I wonder if people stop talking each other when they get married. While they must have clicked each other enough to get married in the first place, what makes them fall silent? Since I have never been married, I have no idea whether it’s because they have changed or they have lost interest in each other after marriage.
The closest married couple I know is my parents, which means my knowledge about marriage is a generation old. My parents are from farming villages in Kyoto that is the oldest city in Japan. According to the old custom, their marriage was arranged by their families’ intention not their own. Inevitably, they were strangers with no affection whatsoever. In my childhood, my mother used to say, “I wouldn’t have married such an ugly guy like your father unless he had money.” Times have changed, and people get married by their own will in Japan. Nevertheless, if a couple who liked each other finds it difficult to talk once they marry, I don’t understand what marriage is for. The mystery deepens still more.
The family of three left hastily after they were done with the toys and staring. The party of three old women ordered refills of their soft drinks repeatedly and lingered at the table with their conversations, as if they were reluctant to leave the diner.
There’s an old Japanese custom called ‘Age of Thirteen Visit’. A child who reaches thirteen years old by the traditional system of age reckoning visits a specific local shrine to receive wisdom.
The important event has one critical rule. The thirteen-year-old visitor should never look back until they pass through the shrine’s gate after the visit. If it happens, wisdom they’ve just gotten is returned. Every time a topic of the visit was brought up by some chance in my childhood, my mother would strictly instruct me not to look back when my visit came. It had become a repeated threat for me. After those years, I reached eleven years old, which is thirteen by the traditional system, and the day for the visit arrived.
I was so tensed and nervous because of years of my mother’s threat. I got dressed up with kimono and my mother put a wig on my hair to make me look grown-up. While I was greedy enough to look forward to getting wisdom, I was anxious about looking back as much. From the moment we left home, my mother kept reminding me not to look back at the shrine. As the pressure had accumulated, a sense of panic had been built inside me. By the time we prayed at the altar in the shrine and started leaving, I was panicky. On the spot about only several yards to the exit gate, I couldn’t stop myself and looked over my shoulder. I blundered away my once-in-a-lifetime visit. My mother made sure I didn’t look back when we passed the gate. I lied and said no.
On our way home, we dropped by my aunt’s house. She noticed that I was wearing a wig. But when she pointed it out, my mother instantly denied it. I didn’t understand why she had to lie about such a small thing like a wig, but she just insisted it was my real hair. My aunt slipped beside me when we were about to leave and asked me if it was a wig. Although I said yes indifferently, she triumphantly uttered, “I knew it!” She sounded as if she had beaten me and I felt annoyed. I hated my mother’s totally unnecessary lie. And as for me, I went through a terrible teenage life with my own trifling lies. I believe that was because I had returned wisdom at the shrine on my Age of Thirteen Visit…
In voice mail, there was a message from my father that said he needed to be called back immediately. I was chilled to the bone. I have never received a single phone call from him that’s not disturbing. When he calls me, he does it to vent his spleen about his daily life and about my career as a musician. What comes out from the receiver is his lengthy verbal abuse. Nevertheless, I mostly return his call because things get worse if I don’t. This time was no exception and I called him back fearfully with trembling hands. Instead of a spurt of anger, he told me to come home as soon as possible and stay for a few days. I asked him what happened and he didn’t answer that. As his request sounded urgent, I repeatedly asked for the reason. He just dodged and kept saying that he wanted me to come home right away. I hung up and felt alarmed. Something must have happened. Since he had never given me good news, that something was most certainly a bad thing.
My parents’ home is located in Kyoto that is 500 miles away from where I live. It takes me over five hours to get there by bullet train. I don’t have so much free time to take that long trip without the reason. Besides, such an unusual request requires extra caution. I called my mother’s cell phone and asked her what was all about. She told me that they had decided to sell their house and move out. They were looking for a condominium to buy and moving in as soon as the house was sold. The house could be sold next month at the fastest, and they wanted me to sort out my stuff and spend time together under this house’s roof for the last time.
The house was built when I was nine years old at the place where our old house was torn down because it was too old to live in. That old house was built about 100 years ago. My ancestors lived at exactly the same spot generation after generation for over 1000 years since my family used to be a landlord of the area. We are here for around 63 generations. My father succeeded the family from my grandfather, and I would have been the next successor if I hadn’t left home to be a musician. Because my father failed the family business and didn’t have the next successor for help, he had sold pieces of our ancestor’s land one by one. Now his money has finally dried up and he can’t afford to keep the last land where the house stands.
When my grandfather passed away nine years ago, he complained to me again about financial help I wouldn’t lend. I promptly suggested that he should sell the house and its land. He got furious at my suggestion. He shouted, “How could you say something like that? Do you really think it’s possible? All ancestors of ours lived here! I live to continue our lineage right here for my entire life! Selling the house means ending our family lineage! It’s impossible!!” He bawled me out like a crazy man while banging the floor repeatedly with a DVD that I had brought for him as a Father’s Day gift.
But nine years later, the time inevitably came. Considering his mad fury about selling the house back then, it was easy for me to imagine that he planned to set fire on the house during the night I would stay and kill my mother and me along with himself. That seemed the true reason why he wanted me to come back. Those murder-suicide cases sometimes happen in Japan, especially among families with long history.
But the first thing that I felt at the news was not fear but relief. As I had known my father wouldn’t sell the house, I had thought that I would end up reaping the harvest of his mistakes as his daughter even though I didn’t succeed the family. I would have to liquidate everything in the house to pay his debts and sell the house and the land by myself after I would argue with all my relatives in the family’s branches who would most certainly oppose strongly. That picture of my dismal future had been long hanging low in my mind. But now, completely out of the blue, my father was taking up everything and I was discharged…
Japan experienced the biggest earthquake in its history. When it occurred, I was in the room upstairs of my apartment. At first, I felt faint quivers and went downstairs just in case it grew stronger and I needed to escape outside. As soon as I reached the foot of the stairs, it showed its main force.
The building began to shake violently and I held the LCD monitor with my right hand and the toaster with my left hand without thinking. The shaking got even stronger and it was hard to stay standing. As a native of Japan, I was supposed to be accustomed to an earthquake since we have one quite regularly. Nevertheless, this scale was surreal. The room swung right and left fiercely and it lasted long. Two heavy pots on the top of the toaster went flying along with jugs and thermoses, as the toaster I was holding with all my strength kept moving madly.
Even things upstairs were tumbling down the stairs. Until the shake finally stopped, I was vaguely thinking Tokyo was being destroyed completely. While I was still in shock trying to comprehend what had just happened, a strong aftershock came. It was as big as the first one. This time, the big tall shelves fell down throwing everything on them to the floor. I had never been so scared in my life. I was actually crying during the shake, shouting “Help! Help!” When it was over, the whole floor of my apartment was covered with things and there was no place to step on. I wondered what I had done so wrong that I should have such a terrifying experience…
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