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.
My father’s hair started thinning in his late
twenties and he has become bald by his mid-thirties.
As a child, I knew him only as a bald
man. One day, I came home from school, and
found that my father’s head was full of hair all
of a sudden. I was so surprised that I asked
him what had happened. “Nothing,” he replied.
I rushed to my mother and asked the same
question. She said, “His hair grew back today.”
I wondered how long I had spent at school. My
conclusion was a toupee, except for which
there was no other explanation.
But my mother bluntly denied it. She
reiterated his hair had simply grown back in
one day. From her tone, I sensed that this was
a sore subject I shouldn’t mention further.
Back then, it had been my favorite trick that I
quietly slid the bathroom door open and
startled my father while he was taking a bath.
I played the trick one evening and saw him
covering his removed toupee frantically with a
basin. Unfortunately, the basin rolled down
from the toupee, making it lay bare. His
embarrassed eyes met mine. I closed the door
without saying a word and never played the
I had lived with an unaccustomed-looking
father in an awkward atmosphere for a next
few weeks. Then, his toupee days came to an
abrupt end and he returned to a bald man as if
nothing had happened. We’ve never talked
about it to date.
A couple of years ago, I had a chance to see
my cousin and we talked about our childhood
memories. He said he hardly remembered his
childhood, but did remember one thing vividly.
His only memory was that my father showed
up at his house wearing a toupee…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
The house where I spent my childhood was very old. Half the floor in it was bare earth and my family lived like in the way of the Wild West. With our shoes on, we walked around the house and ate meals. It was all right to throw away the rest of a drink from a cup directly onto the floor.
My father used to smoke. When he smoked, he would light a cigarette with a match and toss the match to the dirt floor. It burned itself out. That is probably my earliest memory. I remember a thrown match was burning out on the floor and I said “Ah…” According to my parents, I uttered “Ah…” every time my father threw away a match as if I didn’t approve it. And my tone was always tinged with disappointment. I guess I was already cheap as a child and couldn’t bear a thing to be thrown away after just one-time use. I was nagging at my parents about everything all my childhood, and even my earliest memory is something critical about my parents. No wonder we’ve been on bad terms for such a long time…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hodemi Woods
I was raised by my grandmother on my
father’s side. She was a very strict and
unsociable woman. She led a secluded life and
spent most of the time retreating into her
room. She would take a trip or go to the
theater with my grandfather only once or twice
On those rare occasions, she always wore
glasses that she usually didn’t at home. A pair
of glasses was a must for her to dress up. She
had only one pair with gold rims. Although
they were an essential item of her best
clothes, she looked terrible with them. She had
a stern face by nature but the pair made her
look fearsome. Everyone in my family knew
that she looked much better without them, and
yet, none of us had the courage to say so to
Consequently, on every important,
memorable event in her later life, she had an
awful look by putting them on. She did it not
just outside. When there was a guest or I took
my friends from school to our house, she
always greeted with the glasses on. She had
great confidence in glasses. Shortly before her
death, she even urged my father to wear
glasses because she believed they would help
him look grand and dignified. Her treasured
gold-rimmed glasses were put into her casket
when she passed away. The unpopular pair
went to heaven with her. I know she’s wearing
them up there still…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
When my grandfather was young, his father wanted him to be a schoolteacher. He had been visiting schools to have his son hired. Behind his back, my grandfather, who didn’t want to be a teacher, secretly applied to the biggest department store in the city and got accepted for the job there without any connections.
It was a famous, long-standing department store and before he started his job there was a three-way interview, the company personnel, my grandfather and his father. Now he came to a point to tell the truth to his father. Because he knew how much his father wanted to see him as a teacher, he braced himself for a stormy opposition. Instead, his father came to the interview, suggested to eat out on their way home, and ordered unusually expensive dishes for both of them, saying, “This is the best day of my life. I’ve never been this happy.”
My grandfather was quickly regarded as an executive candidate at the department store for his earnest and diligent work. But only a few months later, his father suddenly died. He was a farmer and the family lost its breadwinner and the master of the house. My grandfather had no choice other than quitting his job to take care of the family as a successor. He gave up his dream, became a farmer and dedicated his life solely to succeed the family, which I left although I was supposed to succeed…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
It was my grandfather’s birthday on Sunday. He would be 100 years old if he was still alive. His motto was to live until 100 years old. The reason was simple. A TV show. There was a show in Japan that introduced people who were 100 years old along with their family and their daily life. My grandfather’s dream was to appear and be introduced in the show.
He always had to be the center of attention. Every time his name happened to be mentioned in a local paper or a community bulletin, he would underline his name, clip the article, and show it to everyone. To me, it looked so stupid because he kept pointing at the underlined name although I knew his name duly. He craved to be famous. So, to be 100 years old was the chance of a lifetime for him to be on TV. He instructed us to be prepared for the filming. For instance, he told me to return home on the day of filming and answer questions about him from a reporter in front of the camera. His dream didn’t come true and I was the only one who celebrated his 100th birthday…