BY A’ISHAH LEVINE
The amazing thing about my betrothal to a Japanese man is how normal our marriage is. As an American child from a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, I’ve had ample experience with multiculturalism. So, naturally the idea that I would probably marry a Japanese man in the end was always somewhere there in the back of my mind. My husband’s family, however, is from Fukuoka. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Japanese culture, I should explain that men from Fukuoka are known as Kyushu-danji, an epithet denoting a most traditional type of Japanese man. You can imagine the look of surprise that I received from Japanese friends and co-workers upon hearing the news that I would be marrying a Kyushu-danji. Yet, never have I known such a thoughtful and caring man. When we were only engaged, Taka selflessly accompanied me on a midnight flight to Arizona after my mother passed away, since he didn’t feel that I should be travelling alone at such a sad moment. As it happened, this Japanese man found himself one rainy afternoon in the border town of Nogales, a pall bearer for the Mexican mother-in-law he had never met. Life is strange, wonderful, unexpected.
I have been in love with Japan for most of my life. My father, an enthusiast of Japanese history and art, inculcated in me a respect for Japanese civilization and fostered my interest in the language since I was only twelve years old. Dad, not actually knowing any Japanese at all, attempted to teach me the language by using a textbook, trying to learn one chapter ahead of our current lesson plan. While not learning much (sorry Dad!), I did develop a familiarity with the language such that in college it was like an old friend from the start. I spent my junior year of college in Hiroshima, and upon graduation spent three years working for the Kameoka City Government on the JET Programme. I was recruited by my current company, a Japanese advertising agency, in 2005 and have happily and productively worked there ever since.
I was introduced to my future husband Takahiro Kawakami at a nomikai (drinking party) organised by a co-worker. Taka runs a computer company specialising in fascinating web design motifs, servers, iPhone applications, and other realms of the online world that I only wish I could begin to comprehend. Yet his very noble dream is to use his team’s exceptional technological skills to help every person in every country communicate clearly and effortlessly with anybody around the world. He has had many conversations with my father—a linguist—about how one could go about bridging the linguistic and technological gap that is still so prevalent despite our highly evolved technology. Alas, they have yet to reach any agreement and so Taka’s research continues.
Needless to say, we are both vastly interested in global business (he from an Eastern-to-Western viewpoint, and me from a Western-to-Eastern viewpoint). We often find ourselves in hours-long conversations about our dreams to start new businesses together—businesses which will help either localise foreign cultures in Japan or export Japanese ideas to the West. Somehow our conversations always end with us talking about how my knowledge of other cultures can help him in his endeavours, or how his advanced knowledge of technology would help me in mine—a match made in business heaven!
When we’re not talking about business, our weekends are spent visiting different areas in Tokyo and meeting with friends. Saturday afternoons always seem to draw to a close with a long chat over a cup of coffee at a nice café. As we are both interested in the others’ point of view and culture, our conversations at said coffee shops often can get very heated (to the chagrin of the poor soul sitting at the table adjacent to ours). Yet, every day is like a new adventure as we are in a continual state of awakening to other points of view. Mainly, both of us are good listeners and good friends. He is gutsy, not afraid to gamble for all the stakes (I mean this quite literally); a strong, patient, and handsome man who is intensely hard-working. While these might be some of the traits of the Kyushu-danji, none of them have to do specifically with his nationality or with where he was raised. They do, however, have everything to do with the simple fact that “he is Takahiro.” Nationality aside, he is the man I fell in love with.
While at first there was a considerable amount of hesitation on both our parts because of our immense cultural gulf, the moment of truth came for Taka when he was faced with a life-threatening tragedy. This enlightenment occurred when his family’s 400-year old home (jikka) in the mountains of Kyushu accidentally burned to the ground one night, and he and his family barely got out safely (losing priceless possessions and artifacts). He came back to Tokyo two nights later, with only a wilted, empty backpack, a pair of sandals he had bought after the fire consumed his expensive Nike sneakers, and the intention of asking me to marry him. This taught me that fate exists also in a country like Japan where function and prudence can conquer all.
Taka’s family once belonged to the Kuroda Clan, and were samurai for many generations. While maintaining their traditional way of life, they uniquely welcome new ideas. Their wish to be open to the world is symbolised by the acceptance into their family of a gaijin. However, as Taka is the chounan (first born son responsible for the continuation of his family’s centuries-old legacy), there are still some obligations to his extended family. This became apparent when we were planning our wedding.
While we would have been content to have had a simple no-frills marriage, the family opted for an expensive formal affair in Fukuoka. Looking back on this, though, I have nothing but fond memories and a greater respect for the finality of the experience in both of our lives and for its sustaining power in our marriage. It created, as it were, an unalterable destiny inscribed in the immemorial family tree—a tree which now contains a name forever engraved in katakana.
Taka enjoys my style of cooking and we prepare a hybrid cuisine ranging from Japanese to Mexican and American style dishes. Since I have no inherent Japanese culture of my own to bring to the family, many of the usual mother and daughter-in-law troubles have been circumvented from the start. I am more than anxious to learn from his mother how to make for Taka some of the delicious home-cooked Fukuoka specialties that remind him of home—not to mention that every conversation with her is like a densely-packed Japanese lesson about the language and traditional way of life here. I do believe that she too is glad to teach me her family’s customs.
We have recently moved into a beautiful condo and are busy furnishing it. That too will be eclectic: comprised of American furniture, some European art pieces, and of course one room in the washitsu or traditional Japanese tatami style. Laughter washes over our new dinner table and long talks on the now chilly veranda fill our Friday nights.
I understand that successful international marriages such as ours are rare, especially when it is a foreign woman who marries a Japanese man. Much depends on the liberal character of the man and the willingness of the woman to understand the obligations and joys of being bound forever to a unique and noble culture, one without peer in the world. It’s all about mutual acceptance. I have never been happier.
Our marriage has been enormously liberating, providing an opportunity to expand horizons and creating a new generation who will live in a brave and hopeful world of expectations and fruitful dreams.