Mixed Marriages & How to Enjoy Life in Canada
In today’s Canada, especially in a mutli-racial environment like greater Vancouver, mixed marriages involving Nikkei Canadians and ijusha are nothing unusual.?A year ago I reported in this column that more young women were leaving Japan for life abroad, including those seeking marriage partners (September, 2010 issue). I’ve since received some comments from a few Canadian men with Japanese wives. This time I’d like to present their take on this subject and add my two cents’ worth. The classic ending “they got married and lived happily thereafter” is more of a fairy tale today than ever before, even for “normal marriages.” All the more, “mixed marriages” would seem to call for a measure of mental preparation.
The views of the Canadian husbands above can be summed up as: While Canada is more welcoming toward immigrants than many other countries, they should forget the notion that “marrying out of Japan is an ‘easy way.’“ They might do well to consider how much their lives would change,” said one “James” in his e-mail. “The cultural, language, social, philosophical barriers are difficult to overcome,” he pointed out.
I’m using “mixed marriages” as a term of convenience in a broad sense to include those marriages involving Nikkei and Japanese people in which: 1) a Japanese person marries a Caucasian or other non-Japanese; 2) a Nikkei person marries a Caucasian or other non-Japanese; and 3) a Japanese marries a Nikkei person. So 1) and 2) are marriages between people of different races, while 3) would be more accurately a cross-cultural marriage. The expression kokusai kekkon (international marriage) that’s commonly used in Japan would apply to 1), 3) and a portion of 2) as well.
By the way, I’m of course no expert on the subject of mixed marriages. I just wanted to offer my views based on first-hand experiences and knowledge. These include things concerning my father and uncle who were raised by a Japanese father and a Finnish mother, my own experiences being raised by a mixed race father and a Japanese mother, as well as those of raising my own son and daughter with a wife of Indian Singaporean origin (now Canadian). I just wanted to share my ideas with you, some of whom might have family-related experiences similar to my own.
“Separation through time, distance and cost from your family [in Japan] cannot be underestimated,” James also pointed out. That might apply to emigrants in general. One major factor seems to be differences in age and generation. “As my wife is native Japanese and much younger than the Issei who came here several decades earlier [and the Nisei], it’s not easy for her to make friends,“ James noted adding, “. . . and the working holiday Japanese are by now too young, and again are more interested in partying, socializing for the short stay, [and] have little in common with her.” As James and his wife are of the “Genereation X” age, who are number fewer than the Boomer Generation or the Y Generation, the generational gap they feel seems to get in the way of enjoying life in Canadian culture to the full.
Leaving aside the important language issue and the difference in social system for another occasion, one thing is worth considering with regard to differences in the way of thinking and values. One of the biggest differences must be that between the Japanese habit of always seeking solutions in “harmony (wa) within the group” regardless of objective reasoning, and the Western habit of basing decisions and actions on principles based on religious and other values. Basic to the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, I believe, is the “spirit of what’s fair is fair” that one supposedly picks up, as the cliché goes, “on the playing fields of Eaton.” It’s the idea that everyone regardless of age, social position and race should get a fair, objective hearing if he or she has something to say. It can become a window dressing, as long established ideals often do, but it was with this spirit that Britannia once ruled the world.
I had an opportunity to spend three days in London back in June, and there was no way I could skip making that nostalgic visit to the old yellow-brick building out in Wimbledon, where I used to live with my parents and sister in the third-floor flat over 50 years ago After some twists and turns over the decades, I ended up living in Singapore for 16 years, and since 1997 I’ve been with my family here in Canada. It seems the cultural climate of the (formerly British) Commonwealth nations suit my temperament. I feel somehow secure, knowing that that spirit of fairness is at the foundation of it all.
The spirit is alive and well whether in negotiations between governments or dealings between businesses or in the microscopic interpersonal relations of our daily lives. Relying on superior social status or “face” as many do in Asia, or citing emotional stress on one’s part usually does not produce results. For example, if one were to say—and this is where English translation becomes more difficult—”So-and-so is going around saying bad things about me, making me lose face and putting me in a very difficult position. I’m emotionally stressed and very upset,” sympathy is about all one will get. Like for a kid who fell down and hurt himself or herself. On the other hand, if one can feel that “I had my own reasons for doing such-and-such, so my conscience is clear . . . to those who want to hear it, I can explain it calmly and rationally,” and be at peace with oneself, emotional stress would also be minimized. The very bottom line is the idea that we’re all members of the same multi-racial, multi-cultural society. I know it’s easier said than done. At least that’s what I strive for in my interpersonal relations.
Next, the question of differences in age and generation. As you know, the way people think about age and generational differences in Canada is different from Japan. Generally speaking, people are not as conscious of their own age in Canada and other Western societies as they are in Japan.
Words and deeds based on individuals’ values are deemed more important. This difference accounts for the difficulty one encounters when trying to translate such common Japanese expressions like “junen hayai (literally a decade too early for someone to start doing something), “ao nisai (equivalent of wet behind the ears )“ and “akai chanchanko (literally red vest that was traditionally worn when one reached the age of 60).” Seniors, those of active working age, youth and children are all recognized as having their special roles and needs in the West too. But the society is considered to be the sum total of individual one-to-one relationships, and in those relationships, age difference is not as important as in Japan and other Confucianism-influenced societies.
In Japan, it is relatively more difficult for old folks including retirees, widows or widowers to continue to lead independent lives with a sense of purpose. There are groups, services and such for old people, but their greatest source of sadness must be not being taken seriously any more by younger people, apart from shop clerks and other service givers. Those middle aged and younger in the prime of their working years tend to feel, even if they don’t say it out loud, that “I’m too busy working and taking care of my wife (husband) and kids to bother with the old folks.” Of course, this is probably something of a universal trend in urban societies of the industrialized world by now.
We all get old. But there is an encouraging theory, supposedly fairly well-known, for Nikkei and ijusha folks living in Canada. Quote: “Nikkeijin seniors in Canada are 10 years younger than those of the same age in Japan.” (Ijusha folks who have lived here for decades with their families would also be included.) I’ve mentioned this here before, but that “theory” came from a Nikkei friend, a lady I’ve got to know through work and volunteer activities. She’s definitely more senior to yours truly in my 60s, but is full of youthful vigour as the saying goes. She travels around the country for work and volunteer activities and also regularly visits one of her sons and his family in Japan.
I’ve known her for several years, and she always looks the same—happy—while I have the impression I’m looking more like an old man all the time. By the way, I should mention that not all old folks in Japan are idle in their pursuit of the remainder of their lives by any means. In recent years, the way some lady seniors are enthusiastically tackling their work as they take part in volunteer and other projects both within Japan and abroad is apparently beginning to attract wide attention. Decades ago, they may have been labelled “pushy old ladies (sorry!),” but not any longer, not in this day and age. I heard this from a cousin recently in London, where she’s worked for many years for an agency promoting exchanges between Japanese and British businesses.
It doesn’t matter what, if it’s a hobby or avocation that enriches your life, you can seek and find people who share your interest and who don’t care how old they—or you—are. Before you make your initial approach, you should bear in mind that we Japanese as a race have a tendency to be extremely sensitive to “those around us” and mindful of our outward appearance. Forget such trivial thoughts as “am I higher or lower than them in status” or “am I better or worse at it than they are,” and take it to them straight and simple: “I like such-and-such very much too. Can I join you all?“ Of course, it might not always work out, but there’s no need to feel dejected. Remember the spirit of the common Japanese expression “damemoto,” which for once happens to translate perfectly into “there’s nothing to lose.”
When starting something new, some measure of emotional commitment is necessary. So the most recommendable are “projects” as small as possible that one can try out almost casually. Whether it involves a Nikkei or ijusha group, or entirely different people essentially doesn’t matter. Just within the scope of this magazine, there are volunteer activities and various hobby type activities like haiku and poetry circles, choral groups, handicraft , dance and even shogi and poker (the last two more for guys?) sessions. For those who prefer outdoor activities, groups are organized for long and short visits to places of cultural and historical interest. There’s trail hiking, fishing and skiing. You are bound to find like-minded souls to go with. There are also natural food enthusiasts who only eat vegetables they grow themselves Usually newcomers are welcomed. Apart from sports activities and such requiring physical strength, it very unlikely that you’ll be told: “How old are you? Oh…then you can’t take part.”
To dwell briefly on my own daily life, I’m lucky enough to be able to lead a more or less fulfilled existence doing some work along with for-all-intents-and-purposes “amateur” jazz guitar and my share of housework. I’d also like to mention two things that “I’ve wanted to do for a long time but have not been able to because of time and money.” More accurately, one which I did eventually get to do, and one which I still have not been able to realize.
I’d been interested in the activities of Japanese families who live on Salt Spring Island, that famous enclave of natural food growers and artists, but didn’t do anything about it for about 10 years. Then suddenly in the summer of last year, almost on a whim, I looked for and found one such family who take in guests at their farm house. So I took my family there and stayed for a couple of nights, our new friends showing us around the fascinating island. My circle of friends and acquaintances has expanded a bit, and it all started with a single e-mail.
What I haven’t been able to realize is sailing the strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland on a yacht. I’ve seen the activities of Nikkei and ijusha “men of the sea” who operate such yachts for fishing and for tourists on the internet. The expression on their wind-blown faces is enough to tell me they’re truly in their elements, and remind me of the blissful moments I spent sailing around Singapore.
There is no time limit. Why not try and find at your own pace a small joy or two to enhance the quality of your life in Canada? Opportunities abound. A minimal amount of creative thinking and emotional commitment is all it takes.
Allow me to conclude by observing, as someone who’s seen and experienced mixed marriage families over three generations, that one needs “love and patience” that override the value systems of individual national cultures to maintain a family life that will withstand the challenges it will inevitably encounter. If you are to ask me how we’ve managed, I‘ll spare you the details but I can tell you I’ve been amazed more than once or twice that we’ve been able to keep it together this long.
And I’m supposed to be used to living in the English-speaking world since childhood. I know I’ve had it a lot easier compared to those of you who came over from Japan as adults. It would be presumptuous of me to say “I know how hard it must be for you,” so all I can say is: “I take off my hat to you.”