Mount Fuji

Speaking a different language 


(This article originally appeared in the October 1994 edition of the
now-defunct but sorely missed local magazine Kansai Time Out)

Japanese and Western cultures are different — and nowhere do they come closer than in a marriage. The author, a psychotherapist, examines how East and West communicate, and suggests how we can understand each other better. All names mentioned are pseudonyms.

Tom and Yoriko had been married five years when they came for counseling. "We hardly speak anymore without fighting," Tom said. "She’s obviously unhappy but refuses to talk about making things any better." Yoriko, no less discouraged, wondered how talking about their problems could improve things. "He’s changed so much. He used to be so considerate and kind — now he’s always angry."

As a therapist at the Aoibashi Family Clinic in Kyoto, much of my practice is with Japanese-Western couples, the Western spouses coming mainly from the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Many come to therapy discouraged and frustrated with their relationship, and fresh out of ideas to make things better.

I have been struck by the common themes and concerns expressed by these couples who seek counseling, and I suspect among many of those who do not. I have also been married to a Korean-Japanese for almost ten years, and many of the issues expressed by my clients ring true on a personal level.

International marriages are on the increase in Japan. In 1992 there were 25,862 new international marriages, almost three times that of 1982. With the world getting smaller and more interconnected, this number is bound to increase.

Japanese men make up more than three-quarters of the total, but Japanese women are far more likely than their male counterparts to consider a spouse from the U.S.A. or United Kingdom, and account for 78% of these marriages. Eighty-two percent of the Japanese men who married foreigners sought brides of Korean, Chinese or Philippine nationality.

Marriages between Japanese men and Western women are not only less common, they appear to be most at risk — they are twice as likely to end in divorce as marriages between Western men and Japanese women.

This may reflect the difficulty that some Japanese men have in accommodating the greater need for independence of Western women. It could also be related to factors outside the relationship; many Western women feel less accepted in Japan, and this unhappiness can easily spill over into the marriage.

There exists a special attraction between Japan and the Western world. We romanticize each other in film, art and literature; the freedom, fairness and expressiveness of the West, the depth and mystery of the Orient. Not surprisingly, these expectations are often transferred to Japanese-Western love relationships. Ask any group of young Japanese women what they like about Western men, even if they do not know any, and they are likely to list characteristics such as equality and directness. Western men return stereotypes of co-operativeness and femininity.

Japanese and Western cultures are different, and dramatically so. Attitudes about family, child rearing, communication and community contrast sharply. Japanese-Western marriages include the dynamic of all these cultural differences, and because these differences are significant, so too can be the problems.

To an extent these differences attract us initially. Most love relationships, intercultural or otherwise, are characterized by romanticism in the beginning stages. We see our partners tolerantly and are more likely to excuse or accept differences. The dynamic of romance is to an extent the process of transferring our own ideals and wishes onto another. For example, if we seek kindness and acceptance we are more likely to see this in a partner. This dynamic occurs generally in relationships, but is perhaps more powerful and long-lasting in Japanese-Western couples.

If romanticism is to an extent the absence of reality, it is also the absence of hard information. Language limitations, living abroad and a lack of socialization in a partner’s culture can result in less background knowledge.

In same-culture relationships, this information helps orient us to who a lover is. Meeting their family and friends, understanding their education, employment background and mannerisms within their cultural framework may be superficial, but it is also helpful. A thousand small clues are available to us within our own culture that we may miss, or misinterpret, in intercultural romances. This lack of data increases the possibility of romantic idealization; we tend to fill in the blanks somewhat generously when in love.

Most clinical research into marriage breakdown links inappropriate expectations before marriage to eventual disappointment or conflict. The lack of information many Japanese-Western couples have about each other increases the risk to the relationship.

As they evolve, Japanese-Western relationships, like all others, become less romantic with the acquisition of experience. While there may be some loss of romance in the strictest definition of the word, the maturing of the relationship can also lead to increased and rewarding levels of intimacy and understanding. It is by no means the beginning of the end.

Often, however, it is at this stage that some of the cultural differences begin to be less of an attraction and more of a problem. Some of the fundamental differences between the cultures are no longer in the abstract, but must be somehow negotiated and applied to the basic questions of family life. Challenges such as setting up house, managing finances and raising children bring into sharper focus some these cultural differences. We may have seen our mates as untypical representatives of their culture only to be surprised (and we shouldn’t be) that they have internalized many of the values commonly held within their society.

In some cases serious conflict arises, and both partners may become entrenched. Interestingly, as the relationship worsens some of the earlier generalizations about the partner may be reversed. The Japanese partner may begin to view their Western mate’s expressiveness as egocentric or immature. The Japanese may be seen not as poised and subtle but as evasive, cold or indifferent. The same behaviors receive a completely different interpretation. Just as romance can lead to inaccurate assessment, so too can feelings of disappointment and confusion.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. To find it requires looking past the present context of conflict, towards a mate’s own emotional uniqueness and the operative cultural influences. Perhaps as a product of more general discouragement, people well informed of their partner’s culture sometimes understate or fail to apply this knowledge to their own relationship.

There are some key areas that affect East-West relationships:

Communication: Like Tom and Yoriko, many couples have difficulty working through troubles once they arise. Tom had become increasingly frustrated with Yoriko’s reluctance to discuss the problems between them. His wish to improve things was shown by his frequent overtures at discussion. Feeling rebuffed, he became angry at what he saw as Yoriko’s unwillingness to discuss the problem.

For Yoriko the existence of the conflict was a disturbing signal of a failure of the harmony between them. Her silence, misinterpreted by Tom as anger or indifference, was more rooted in her belief that this was not something to be solved by discussion, but re-establishing the sensitivity and understanding between them. She too felt stuck, and distressed by Tom’s angry outbursts.

Each culture’s style of communication is designed to prepare its charges for the demands of their environment. Westerners value directness. The sender of the message is basically responsible for its success. Skills of clarity and range of expressiveness are distinguishing points of good communication in Western culture. Precision with language and the ability to logically delineate a point of view are essential in a culture that links success in establishing oneself independently.

Japanese place more emphasis on indirect, implicit communication. Like many Eastern countries, it is a ‘high context’ culture, meaning the situation, hierarchy of relationship and countless other factors are more important to the communication than the actual words being exchanged. Meanings are seldom conveyed explicitly; it is more or less the responsibility of the listener to interpret the meaning. Successful communication depends on skills of intuition and empathy, assets in a society where the priority is on integration, not differentiation among people.

Both cultures rely on empathy and clarity in communication, but there is a significant difference in the emphasis. Each culture has a preferred style of communication, and they are quite different:

Comparing Japanese and Western Cultures
  Japanese culture Western culture
Communication Indirect
Problem-solving Silence
Child-raising goal Assimilation Autonomy
Primary relationship Mother–child Husband–wife

The Japanese accentuate receptive skills, Westerners accentuate expressive skills, and both are raised to expect similar styles in those they communicate with. When applied cross-culturally, particularly during stressful points of a relationship, there exists much room for error. In effect, we may miss each other’s signals. Although Tom and Yoriko were both working to improve things, they were escalating their efforts in their preferred style, a style their partner was unlikely to respond to. Discouragement quickly followed.

Being human, we are sometimes quick to interpret conflict as a sign that our partner has lost a measure of love for us. Tom and Yoriko both believed this, and both were wrong. Yoriko over-personalized Tom’s anger, reading it not as a sign of frustration because of his desire to communicate, but as a diminishment of his regard for her. Tom misjudged Yoriko’s withdrawal as an absence of concern, when in fact it reflected an overabundance of feeling that left her confused and depressed.

The Western approach to solving problems involves understanding expectations, defining issues and getting things out into the open. Some of this flows from the Christian idea of confession as a step towards healing. Western therapies also follow this approach, pursuing hidden or painful material and talking things through. Externalizing issues, acknowledgement and acceptance is seen as the pathway to recovery.

By contrast the influential Japanese Morita therapy, borrowing heavily from Buddhism, stresses meditation and the private contemplation of painful issues, in some ways the internalization of troubles. Through this it is believed you can see the correct direction. Behaviorally this involves a degree of silence or withdrawal.

This can cause conflict in Japanese-Western marriages. Westerners see their partner’s behavior as avoidance, or worse the silent treatment. The problem, they feel, is that the matter has not been sufficiently discussed.

For many Japanese, directness is a sign that the level of intimacy or understanding is breaking down. If things need to be made explicit, then something is wrong. Words carry far less weight, as do apologies, as many Western partners are frustrated to find out. Talking about these issues directly can be very intimidating.

The ability to send and receive messages effectively in a partner’s cultural style seems fundamental to healthy Japanese-Western marriages. In most cases this means the Western partner’s ability to communicate intuitively and the Japanese partner’s ability to be explicit. If both partners continue to communicate in opposing ways, the potential for conflict is higher — and the potential for problem solving is lower.

Commitment to change: The reality of Japanese-Western marriage is that it will probably never be the type of relationship that is idealized in the partners’ cultures. In the West this is often represented as having direct, up-front communication — being able to talk about anything. For the Japanese, it is the presence of omoiyari, the unspoken anticipation and sensitivity to each other’s wishes and feelings. It seems obvious enough, but many couples remain fixed for years in distance and disappointment.

Japanese-Western marriages have the potential for something else — a diversity and richness of communication combining the strengths of both cultures. To achieve this, it is first necessary to accept the loss of some expectations, and prepare to change behavior.

It is possible to modify the style of communication, to increase empathic and expressive abilities. Intuition is not a supernatural ability but rather a collection of skills. Interpreting context, gestures, facial expressions, body language and voice tone may be less critical in Western communication, but everyone uses them daily. Expressiveness is mostly a combination of self-awareness and vocabulary. All of these things can be improved: sometimes through study, sometimes in counseling, often just by trying harder.

Acceptance of the partner’s culture: Marriage is not just to a person but to a culture, and it is important to be attracted and committed to both. People are products of their environments, and the influence runs deep. Those who have strong feelings of dislike or discomfort with their partner’s culture are more likely to find eventual disappointment in their mate.

Those with genuine attachment to their partner’s culture are more likely to make necessary accommodations, and welcome the alternatives in lifestyle and problem solving that an intercultural marriage is capable of providing.

Bob and Machiko came to counseling three years after the birth of their son Jun. Among several issues was Bob’s complaint about Jun sleeping with them. "It is a sign of the problems between us. I love my son but believe this is abnormal; I want him to be independent. It’s just Machiko’s way of avoiding sex, of avoiding me."

Machiko did not see the issue of Jun sleeping with them as unhealthy, or as a sign of a bad marriage. She worried less about creating dependence because the Japanese place less value on independence. Since the primary relationship in Japanese families is thought to be mother-child, not husband-wife, she was more willing to accept disruption in this area.

Bob enjoyed many aspects of sleeping with Jun. And admitted he would miss him when he eventually moved to his own room. In effect, he was more disturbed by what he believed the behavior meant, since in the West it would be regarded as unhealthy, as sign of a failing relationship. This was distressing and prompted feelings of anger and insecurity, which often flared into flashes of temper.

Neither party was viewing the problem biculturally, but instead through their particular cultural interpretation. Once framed more broadly, the situation became less personally threatening and more a question of making practical accommodations as parents and partners. Difficult to be sure, but less loaded with feelings of rejection.

One mistake some couples make is becoming overly critical of their partner’s country. While criticism is natural, and such discussion is frequent among most intercultural couples, most of us are defensive about our country. It is a little like having one’s family criticized: we may ourselves find many faults but feel a measure of resentment when they are identified by others.

Family mobility: It can be very difficult to accomplish, but families who can live for extended periods of time on both sides of the ocean experience countless advantages. One partner is always a foreigner and dependent on the other for many instrumental and social details. Since both roles have their own burdens, reversing them raises empathy and equality in relationships.

Deepening relationships with extended family, richer cultural understanding and broadening language and career skills are all beneficial, not just to partners but to children also — who, it must be remembered, look to their parents for leadership in resolving these intercultural dilemmas.

At the least, visits home should be as frequent and extended as finances allow. This not only keeps old ties active but also reduces the feelings of anxiety and depression that take deep tolls on Japanese-Western marriages.

Language proficiency: This is a basic but frequently underdeveloped area of the couples who come for counseling; sometimes their time and money would be better spent in language study.

It is important that couples be able to communicate with a reasonable level of precision in one language, and a further advantage if they can do so in two. Increasing language proficiency results in greater accuracy in communication, lower levels of frustration, and more natural spontaneity. Without this, they are more likely to be limited in the areas of problem solving, child rearing and lifestyle choices. Attention given to this area is usually well rewarded.

Emotional vocabulary is particularly important. One partner is always operating in a second language, and unfortunately, when emotions increase, fluency usually decreases. This can feed into a dangerous pattern of disengagement before anything begins to be sorted through.

The success of any marriage depends on the ability, or perhaps willingness, to adapt to a partner. Japanese-Western marriages offer more challenges and choices than same culture marriages. Whether they are successful or not seems to depend on many factors, but the ability to accept loss and commit to change seems primary.