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Japan Reading: the Modern Madame Butterly
  The Modern Madame Butterfly
by Karen Ma
Tuttle Publishing
1996, 296 pages

"Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Cross-Cultural Relationships."

A white man visiting Japan, far different from his home. Alone, he is isolated by language and cultural difference. He meets someone who is attractive for him and works to solve the mysteries and difficulties of everyday life abroad. The relationship is forged by difficult circumstances and since Asian women are submissive family-raisers, and Western men are kind-hearted gentlemen from a wealthy land, these relationships are a natural successful coupling across cultures.

Karen Ma puts this forward as an increasingly decrepit stereotype and then works to show how Japanese women in particular are working to defy it. Between the gender differences between men and women in Japan, and the cultural differences between foreigners and Japanese, there is a lot of ground for her to cover.

Japanese women have been sequestered in the home, granted domain over child-rearing and family finances. Men have been driven to work, relentlessly. As they have acceded all familial duties to their wives, many have developed a sense of alienation, that they are no longer welcome:

"as matrons from a culture rooted originally in a matriarchal society (which lasted until AD 650), Japanese women have been accorded a kind of emotional autonomy from their men that is not readily understood by foreigners. The society is, for example, epitomized by the mother-child relationship, not that between man and wife. This makes Japanese men somewhat peripheral in matters except in their roles as sons." (page 10).

Men have been encouraged to merge into their work family, away from their home family. These clear roles contributed in large part to the surge in the production power of Japanese industry, but over the years, Japanese families have suffered.

Meanwhile, since they must go it alone, women have a declining interest in making babies. With access to money and no expectation from society that they should be wrapped up in a career, increasing numbers of women have explored foreign education and travel. As a result they've come in contact with foreigners and romance has blossomed.

She quotes a man running a dating service in Tokyo, specializing in relationships between Japanese women and Caucasian men: "the three types of women who are particularly interested in marrying Western men: women from wealthy families who are not interested in living a Japanese lifestyle; women with experience working and studying overseas, who look to benefit from this experience; and Japanese women who are looking for something different." (page 137)

Romance between Japanese women and Foreign men is not new - certainly hundreds of thousands of American armed forces members living on Japanese soil after World War II spawned many cross-cultural matings. What interests Ms. Ma in this book is the tension between some of the residual stereotypes and the changing roles for the partners in the modern age:

"the problems within these marriages result largely from a general lack of understanding between partners of each other's culture and social circumstances. Worse yet, many couples also do not take the time to know the real person they are marrying. Instead, they often marry a set of cultural beliefs or conventions that they think are automatically coming with the package. Just as the husband may underestimate the rising economic independence of the wife, so the wife may overestimate the socioeconomic power of the husband." (page 167)

This book is comprised both of quoted studies and statistics, intermingled with anecdotes and profiles of marriages. This gives a good overall view, though the materials and the book have a decidedly small feel to them - the sampling sizes are just a few dozen, maybe a few hundred. You don't have the sense Ma is examining a large global population, but rather friends of friends, or at best a group of people that would fill a single auditorium somewhere.

A few funny stories arise from people's misconceptions; here Ma quotes from a Kayoko, in her mid-thirties, who is not happy living in Morrison, Colorado: "When I was in elementary school, I used to dream of coming to the United States. I watched the TV series Lassie and saw a boy drinking milk from a gallon-sized container. Since I was drinking milk from a tiny glass bottle, I thought it would be great to live in a wealthy nation like that." Unfortunately, that's not quite what she found: "In Japan, people wear name-brand clothes and stay at expensive hotels. Here in America, what you have instead is just a massive amount of land and food, that's all." (page 171)

Stories shared throughout the book make these relationships seem extremely difficult. Granted the high divorce rate even within America, it doesn't seem surprising that a language barrier and cultural difference would make for difficult bedfellows as well. Reading this book was the first time I imagined what it would be like if I tried to bring home a Japanese-raised girl to my family Thanksgiving dinner. Would she be able to speak English? Would she get the jokes? Would that matter to me?

She cites a doubling in the number of divorces in Japan between 1970 and 1993: from 95,000 to 188,000. More than 70% of divorce lawsuits were initiated by women. (page 176) Increasingly educated, employed, self-sufficient, or living at home - Japanese women are choosing to enjoy their lives and choosing their partners. "While in 1970, only 18.1 percent of all women in their late twenties were single, by 1990 that figure had risen to 40.2 percent among the same age group." (page 50). Ma sees a rise in the self-determination of women as individual economic and romantic entities. Dating and marrying foreigners is just one assertion of their developing independence.

Ultimately this book sets out to assert the emergence of a new character for Japanese women, as they defy the demure, deferent role ascribed to them in the media and the western imagination. Part of that is a taking down of men who fall for these stereotypes, as they are at worst idiots to expect any woman to be subservient, but at least perhaps they might be pitiful for allowing themselves to be trapped by these older ways of looking at gender. For example, the way she explains hostess clubs urges us to see them as places for overworked under-emotional men to seek compassionate refuge because they had been turned away from their own homes by a society intent on a rigid division of labor. But elsewhere this sort of detached distance is missing; there are times when she seems to be denigrating men for participating in oppression. As a reaction to masculinist subjugating views it's probably in line, but it's not terrifically compassionate or insightful.

When I was first headed for Tokyo I read in Culture Shock: Japan a proverb about gender in Japan: something like "men are like little boys in suits of armor; women are a velvet glove over a fist of metal." If you bear this in mind, Ma's work of reversal doesn't come as much of a surprise but rather an affirmation. But while I was reading the Modern Madame Butterfly I talked to one young American male who was excited to someday come to Japan to date the "subservient" women, so clearly Karen Ma is working to correct some mis-perceptions that are still quite current.

Links (November 2001)

index.html A loaner from Mizuko Ito
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European men have been interpreting Japanese ladies for quite some time:
Vincenzo Ragusa sculpture
"Japanese Woman"
by Vincenzo Ragusa (1841~1927)
Dated 1881
Tokyo National Museum
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