Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Soap Opera Continues...

Culture clash is something I've had to live with for almost two decades now. Things have certainly gotten easier since the early nineties when I was seriously running around bumping into things (and vice versa), but I still keep managing to run up against unwritten rules. Well, now I'm finding out the hard way that culture clash can often happen within the same country.

The Tohoku (literally "northeast") region of Japan has always been quite different from the Kanto region, where I live. It is often said that the coldness of the climate, the ruggedness of the land, and the rich agricultural and timber produce that still manages to grow there have all shaped the people up there. All I know is that my father-in-law's family, who hail from the Tohoku region, never cease to amaze me. With a couple of notable exceptions, they have always been a close-knit group, always quick to come to one another's aid when need arises. They are generally as skilled as they are motivated, armed with a "screw the 'experts', let's do this" attitude that I have come to appreciate. They are also a fascinating and colorful group of people.
(Now...if only I could understand their dialect better...a common complaint among Kantoites!)

Our recent family crisis has shown all these facts clearly. As I mentioned in the last post, my wife's uncle who is a carpenter/farmer up in Hokkaido didn't hesitate to come down to our place to help out. An aunt came up from Matsudo (Chiba Prefecture) for a short but very helpful visit. Then the two cousins I mentioned came up from Tokyo. A couple of days after they left, an aunt flew down from Iwate Prefecture (in the Tohoku region) as promised even though a massive earthquake had struck her area the night before, arriving with her daughter who lives in Yokohama. The daughter put in a full day's work in our yard before work obligations made her go back home, but the aunt continued to stay, helping us take care of garden and house work that should have been done ages ago but wasn't on account of our current family situation. The aunt is still here even now, cheerfully asking what she should do next.

I'm told that this is a tradition in many if not most parts of the Tohoku region. Friends and family are considered a treasure not to be taken for granted, so someone in need tends to bring in a whole mass of people ready and eager to lend a hand.

The problem is that this is NOT a custom here in Kanto. Here in Namegata City, at least, people are much more walled off from each other. Human relations are also dictated much more by pride. Anyone who is not a member of the immediate family is a guest and therefore must be waited on hand and foot for the duration of their (hopefully short) visit. If someone is in trouble, others might express their condolences either during a three-minute stopover or when passing each other in the supermarket, but real help is unlikely to be offered for the expressed reason that the helpee will then wind up feeling obligated to repay the debt.

In other words, we've hardly seen spit of any of mother-in-law's many relatives who live in our area. They ask how she's doing in passing, and then they promptly disappear. This despite the fact that she was always very active in our community, in our neighborhood, and among her family. But as far as my mother-in-law is concerned now, that's just fine. She has done nothing but gripe every time she has found out another relative of my FIL has shown up to help. Today she told my FIL to buy a return ticket for the aunt who is staying with us now and send her home on the earliest possible flight. And since she said that, my wife immediately backed her very vociferously.

This evening I politely informed the aunt that we wanted her to stop cleaning the in-laws' house. She said she understood, but she also said she felt sorry for me. Actually, though it may surprise some people, the one I really feel sorry for right now is my father-in-law, who is caught between his loyalty to his wife and his loyalty to his family, not to mention his own Tohoku-shaped sense of right and wrong. Watching his longtime closest companion melt away into oblivion before his eyes has been hard enough. Having her and then my wife bite his head off for observing what he was raised to believe is a matter of course...and insist he spit in his family's face...left him clearly devastated.

(Considering my MIL has been in no condition to do anything around the house or in the garden for months now, and the place wound up in a pathetic state despite our best efforts, I'm really not sure what her problem is, but anyway...I'd rather not make things any harder. As much as I appreciate the relatives' generosity, I guess I'll have to forgo it.)

P.S. I can't find my camera, so no pics of the lilies and gladiolas yet. They are beautiful, though.


  • Oy ve. I guess we'll have to keep you busy gamemastering so you have other things to think about.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 11:31 PM  

  • Hang in there. Focusing on your FIL may help you get through this, just as focusing on MIL is helping your wife get through this. It's going to suck no matter what for everyone. Making sure no one is left out in the cold to face things alone is the best anyone can do under the circumstances.

    By Blogger Kami, at 1:59 AM  

  • Let me get this straight. People actually go out of their way to help others? Just can't imagine that happening here in the US...

    By Anonymous Dave, at 4:44 AM  

  • I gotta say, if I'm dying, I would VERY MUCH like my relatives to go and clean my house, and do whatever else they can find to do. I know my family will appreciate it, as there will be so many other things to do after I'm gone (so to speak).

    Not having to worry about housework is a great gift to a grieving family.

    I can understand about not having them stay in the house though...sometimes you just need your privacy.

    By Blogger ladybug, at 9:40 AM  

  • Hope that everything is doing fine at your side... and also that you can find your camera :)

    Would love to see the beautiful lilies and gladiolas.

    By Blogger Selba, at 8:06 PM  

  • 難得有親朋好友可以在這段時間幫忙, 應該感到欣慰才是.

    不必再因你岳父的事而煩躁! 凡事都應體諒, 容忍. 只要你做好在你家庭裏的角色應做的事就可以了!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:06 PM  

  • Just because I don't read chinese, I decided to translate the previous comment, keeping in mind that the translation is likely not perfect:

    "Friends and family are rare in this period can help, should be welcomed. Do not have to because of your father-in-law of the matter and irritable! Everything should be understanding and tolerance. As long as you do in your family's role should be done on the matter Can! Care of your people"

    ...and that's where I completely agree: "Care of your people".

    By Blogger DewKid, at 9:53 AM  

  • Hello Dewkid:

    Let me help you a bit.
    As for the last line[[ 關心你的人上 (means 寫 wrote)] is an appellation of the commentator should be used at the end of a comment or in a letter.

    By Anonymous L.C_D, at 6:31 PM  

  • Don
    I appreciate it. Really, I do.

    Thanks a lot. The problem is when people's wishes are diametrically opposed...

    Yep! Whodda thunk?

    That's the way I felt about it, too, but my wife and her mother definitely have their pride.

    Anonymous / Dewkid / L.C_D.

    Judging from my knowledge of Chinese characters (at least from their Japanese meaning), I think the best translation of that signature line "關心你的人" would be "Someone who cares". I really appreciate "anonymous'" sentiment, Dewkid's effort, and L.C_D's assistance. These are examples of 關心你的人.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:51 PM  

  • This is a good reminder that Japan isn't quite so homogenous as one would think. It's also a good reminder for the Japanese that other countries have different traditions in different areas too.

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 12:38 PM  

  • i tried leaving a comment a few days back and couldn't get my laptop to work... then got busy and forgot.

    i'm sorry for your loss and i hope that your family's pain is lifted in God speed.

    when i first started w/ this post, i really found myself feeling for your FIL...even w/ all the things from the past, i really liked learning how his family is and such, but i didn't understand why he'd go to his wife and tell her that you were buying pants for the funeral! but... i guess he had his reasons which may never be known.

    i found myself not understand your MIL and wife in the beginning but as i thought about it and put myself in their shoes, i think i would have responded the same way... not wanting others coming and cleaning the house and such... filled w/ pride and probably getting angry, like them. plus, death can bring out such strange emotions in ppl.

    hope you're doing ok.. your children are well and your wife is healing.... i also wish only the best for your FIL. what will he do now? stay in the house by himself or move in w/ you guys?

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 1:42 AM  

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