Gaining a Country, If Not a Language

When I lived in Kyoto, Japan thirty years ago, I didn’t like it much. I had a job teaching English to engineers who didn’t want to learn it. I quit after a year and left Japan. By then, I did have a Korean-Japanese girlfriend named Kwija. We kept in touch, she eventually came to the United States and now we’ve been married for 25 years. This summer we went back to Japan to visit Amagasaki, her hometown.

Like Kyoto, Amagasaki is just one city in the megalopolis that sprawls across the heart of Japan’s Kansai Region. Unlike Kyoto and the other major cities of Kansai—Osaka, Nara and Kobe—Amagasaki has zero tourist appeal. Kyoto and Nara have temples and shrines. Kobe has Kobe beef and sweeping harbor views. Osaka has neon glitz and a hard-working, hard-drinking spunk. Amagasaki has nothing much worth seeing; it’s a nondescript middle-class commuter town of low-rise housing blocks and shopping arcades packed in under an overhead tangle of powerlines, expressways and train tracks.

But Amagasaki is where my wife grew up and we had fun touring places from her childhood: the narrow house where she lived with her mother, father and three sisters; the long road where she walked to middle school in winter and got frostbite; the optometrist where her mother finally took her to get glasses. (Her mother worried a daughter with glasses would be hard to marry off; but when I first met Kwija, I thought her oversized horn rims looked adorable with her high cheekbones and pixie haircut.)

Kwija’s three younger sisters—all long married off—still live within five miles of where they grew up. As soon as the four sisters got together, the laughing started. They sat on the floor around a low table with beer and fishy snacks, trading stories. They laughed until they wheezed and cried and fell over, sliding a tissue box across the floor to each other. “All my sisters are comedians,” Kwija later told me. But my poor Japanese couldn’t catch the jokes. I giggled when the laughs got especially loud and wondered if they were joking about husbands.

I felt bad for never learning my wife’s native language. I tried to learn when our kids were little; my plan was to pick Japanese up along with them. I kept pace with our first child, Julia, while she was a toddler. Our second child, Peter, gave me more practice. But as the kids approached pre-school, their Japanese zoomed beyond mine. Over the years, however, I did master many expressions mothers often say to children: “Pick up your clothes;” “Wash your hands, it’s time for dinner;” “Did you do your homework?”

During our visit, conversation with my in-laws often made me feel like a 57-year-old baby. Once, as I entered my mother-in-law’s tiny apartment, she handed me a pillow and asked, “Want to take a nap?” I was jetlagged, so I slept on the tatami floor while she and Kwija talked. On my way out, my mother-in-law squeezed my arm and hugged me. At first, this seemed odd because I never noticed her being this affectionate with other sons-in-law. Then I realized that I was reminding her of Julia and Peter, her grandkids back in America. She was aching to squeeze her grandkids but they were thousands of miles away. So she squeezed me instead. She doted on me like she’d dote on a child, and it made me feel like one.

One evening we went to a restaurant that specialized in chicken parts I’m not used to eating—skin, liver, cartilage. As each dish arrived, a sister-in-law asked, “Do you like this?” Half the time I had to say no, painting myself as a picky eater, especially compared to my nine-year-old niece, Hiyo.

Hiyo loved fried chicken cartilage and deftly lifted several pea-sized chunks to her mouth with chopstick skills far exceeding mine. When Hiyo was full, she borrowed her mom’s iPhone, leaned back on the floor and played a game while the grown-ups drank and talked. I couldn’t follow the conversation and wanted to lean back and read my own mobile device. Instead, I had another drink. I called over the waitress and ordered a highball, all by myself. The in-laws were impressed and praised me in Japanese: “Good job.” A verbal pat on the head.

Despite these and other small indignities (after a big Chinese lunch my mother-in-law patted me on the belly and asked, “Full?”), my in-laws helped me feel connected to Japan in a way I never did as an English teacher. Thirty years ago, Japan seemed very foreign to me, and my students seemed to regard me as foreign beyond the bond of common humanity. When students saw me do something typically Japanese—like eat raw fish—they would ooh and ahh as if I were a dog riding a bicycle.

This time, after 25 years of marriage to a Japanese person, Japan felt familiar—even if I didn’t understand 99 percent of what was going on. And my in-laws accepted me as one of them. Since I’m the husband of their oldest sister, the other sisters always called me by the Japanese honorific “Onii-san,” meaning “Older Brother”—even if I often felt less capable than a nine-year-old.

Toward the end of our trip, my sister-in-law prepared a dinner of my favorite dishes: clams in sake, fried tofu in fish stock, broiled eel. My niece Hiyo was there, too. Hiyo came to the table with ear buds in her ears and got a scolding from her mother. My manners were perfect: I ate everything and didn’t drop my chopsticks once.

Pictured above, from left: Ikue, Miho, my mother-in-law, me, Kwija (my wife), Kuni.
Photo credit: My niece Hiyo on her mom’s iPhone.

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Jourdan Arenson writes in Eugene, Oregon about science, technology and the environment.