Saturday, February 21, 2009

British Woman is Japanese Buddhist Priest

We often hear about Japanese racism. The Japanese, because of their homogeneous culture, are both fascinating and repulsive to the west. Many westerns are drawn to Japanese traditional culture in the abstract, but in reality they want to impose a strictly western view of life on the Japanese cultural tradition, with certain feminist, multicultural overtones. And so we come to the tale of a British woman who became a Japanese Buddhist priest.

A recent article in The Japan Times Online describes her journey:

“Victoria Yoshimura, 38, from Peterborough, England, started her life in Japan like many foreigners. Twenty-two years old, two weeks out of university, she came over on the JET language program.”

The JET Japan program, if you didn’t know, is a Japanese government program that recruits recent college grads to teach English in Japan at the jr. high level. It’s a pretty cushy gig to teach English abroad with government help, decent pay and not many teaching hours. If you want to teach English overseas, JET Japan is a nice deal.

She wanted to teach English and probably learn Japanese. I respect that. Yoshimura then began dating a Japanese man, which is somewhat unusual. In Japan, Japanese dating usually means western men with Japanese women. The feeling among western women is that Japanese men are unromantic, unfaithful and somewhat intimidated by western women. She says of her now husband:

"Junsho was the first Japanese guy to talk to me normally, and not treat me like a freak; he taught me all the saucy, rude words I know in Japanese."

Her comment reveals something quite true about the Japanese cultural attitudes and their dealings with foreigners. Many Japanese do think of foreigners as freaks, meaning people who are vastly different from the social norm, and the norm in Japan is the Japanese way of doing things.

They dated, and it turned out that her boyfriend was “the 17th generation in the family of priests for Shonenji, the 430-year-old temple nestled in this rural town of Miyazaki Prefecture.” It turns out for the two or three people who actually care about Japanese Buddhism in the area – Japan religion these days is about as healthy as the world economy – were against the marriage. Despite what may be common in Southern California and London, Japanese Buddhism and Zen is not seen as something white people do.

I’m assuming that she wasn’t Buddhist at the time. You’d think if Buddhism means something to her boyfriend, he’d strive to find a Japanese Buddhist wife, but love is love, of course. Yet it’s predictable that her western feminist consciousness would be aroused by this opposition:

"Sometimes I wonder whether all the opposition to our marriage actually pushed me into it further. I wanted to prove them all wrong."

Feminism in Japan is not typically about pushing for equality in the sense that “I want to do everything that men do.” That’s not the goal (this is foreign to Asian culture in general). Japanese women simply want emotional and financial support for being wives and mothers and the ability to work after giving birth. Japanese women, on the whole, understand that they are smarter, more practical, more open and stronger than Japanese men.

She married her Japanese boyfriend and eventually had children, which brought up the issue of “interracial children” in Japan. While the Japanese have a great admiration for western people, they are a bit squeamish about Japanese children who have a mixed racial background. "Some of the community even warned that our children would be deformed," she said, which is a pretty accurate sentiment.

But then the writer of this article, Kris Kosaka, who is probably a Japanese American writer, gets back to the mission of the article, which is to conduct a western feminist critique of Japanese cultural life:

“She was expected to settle down to life as a mother and temple accessory, fading to the background in demure contentment in this happily ever-after.”

Of course! Nothing could be more oppressive than to be a wife, mother and behind-the-scenes supporter of her Japanese Buddhist husband. The article goes on:

“Only that fairy tale did not fit Yoshimura. ‘I'm the kind of personality type who sees a 'Wet Paint. Don't Touch' sign, and I have to go up and touch it, just to make sure for myself.’ Yoshimura again challenged expectations.”

Ah, yes, we have a rebel. A British woman comes into the den of Japanese traditional culture and “challenges” a culture thousands of years old. In its on way, this is a subtle form of western racism that presumes that the Japanese way of doing things is a real drag for women.

From my understanding, being the wife of a Japanese Buddhist temple priest in Japan is kind of like being the First Lady in the U.S. It is a challenging, busy life with many social and religious obligations, requiring social acumen, tact and intelligence. There are many Japanese women who would hesitate to marry a Japanese Buddhist priest precisely because of these challenges. But I digress.

Yoshimura the says: "Motherhood is great, but I was losing myself, and my brain cells were rusting." Ah yes, “The Sex and the City” view of life. As much as our British hero wants to explore the exotic far-east and traditional Japanese culture, it must in the end bow to western feminist realities.

And then, in what can only be understood as a repudiation (or at least a misunderstanding) of marriage, she says: “I realized it was important to make my own roots, separate to those of my husband. I needed to be happy here because I like it here, not because I like him."

My understanding is that marriage is not about “doing my own thing,” but about sacrificing for my spouse. I wonder if that’s why half of marriages fail in the west, and divorce in Japan is still rare.

She eventually becomes a Japanese Buddhist priest – just like her husband. She said, "Suddenly everything became clearer once I started to learn why things were so, instead of following like a lemming."

Again, to simply be a mother, wife and English teacher in Japan wasn’t enough, one had to be equal to her Japanese husband. What we see is that, instead of living in Japanese culture and accommodating its differences, she had to “change it” as if she was some agitator.

Go here to read the full article on the British Japanese Buddhist priest.

You can also go to to check out a classic book on Zen and Japanese Buddhist culture in Japan: Zen and Japanese Culture


Wendy Nelson Tokunaga said...

I enjoyed reading your take on this article. However, I disagree with your assertion that the writer is attempting to espouse a Western feminist critique of Japanese cultural life. She's simply reporting how this woman felt and what she chose to do about it. It also might be the fact that the author is a Western woman married to a Japanese, not necessarily a Japanese-American as you seem to assume.

Your characterizing Victoria Yoshimura's feelings as a "Sex and the City" view of life sounds like stereotyping to me, which is something you don't seem to like people to do in regards to Japan.

As for her choices, aren't the roles of a particular marriage up to the husband and wife? Who gives anyone the right to criticize how people want to run their lives whether in Japan or anywhere else in the world? Wouldn't you rather that all people, both women and men, have the opportunity to realize their full potential? :-)

---Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, an American married to an Osaka-born Japanese, the opposite of the stereotype of the Western man with a Japanese woman couple.

Katherine said...

Very interesting article--well written and, for the most part, perceptive. However, since I have been teaching here in Japan (if you think that being a conscientious and mentoring teacher is a cushy job, may I suggest that you try it?) on university level, I have found that many of my Japanese girl students want to marry and have a family but also to practice their chosen profession. Japanese society lacks sufficient child care facilities and does not encourage having a family with such long working hours and reluctance to seriously consider professional women as valuable employees. The reasoning seems to be that if they are single, they might get married; if they are married, they might get pregnant and so why bother with them. Half of the valuable human resources of Japan are Japanese women; they are capable, strong and not at all like the Madame Butterfly stereotype often portrayed in movies. Why is it heresy for a woman to want to develop and use her brain when God has endowed her with the same mental abilities as men? If a man is capable of engendering a child, why not describe men as baby-making machines, too? Men and women are essential to the society, as individuals, parents, and have potentially equal contributions to offer the society. Why does the society seem to balk at recognizing their equality and their brains and their capabilities? Also, each marriage is different and each married couple gradually works out what works for them in roles they play and in how their personalities mesh. Whether one marries the boy next door or the boy from the other side of the world, there are adjustments to be made; what differs in each marriage is how many and how ready to compromise the couple is. I am a Connecticut Yankee who is happily married to a delightful Japanese born in Shikoku. We have non-cushy jobs as university teachers. I came to Japan as a spry sexagenarian and while, as gaijin wife and Japanese husband we are less frequently encountered than Japanese wife and gaijin husband; this also means that our roles in Japanese society are quite different. Frankkly, I admire Victoria Yoshimura for the intense effort she has put into in adapting to Japan, studying and progressing to be able to offer more to her adopted country in her profession, and concurrently raising a family, being a wife, daughter-in-law and friend and neighbor and teacher. It is not easy to adapt to Japan since no matter what we foreign wives do; we may be liked, admired, appreciated and our abilities accepted for the good of the society, but we will never be accepted as equals or as Japanese even if we give up our own native citizenships and carry a Japanese passport and live here for almost a lifetime. Our children born here in Japan will never be accepted as "real" Japanese. This is very sad and is a loss for Japan.

Mande's J-Life said...

A well-written critique, indeed, but exactly who are you critiquing? Yoshimura herself? Buddhist lifestyle? Foreign woman who come to Japan? Foreign women who then end up marrying Japanese men? Women in general?
It is interesting to hear a man's point of view on all this, but I think you need to hear more stories (not just Victoria's) before you assume we are all rebels trying to change Japanese culture.
We are foreign women who happened to fall in love with Japanese men and who ended up living in Japan and raising our bi-racial children here. We are simply trying to survive, and most of us end up trying to make a place for ourselves here.
Whether that "place" involves volunteer work in the community, developing a career (English-teaching or not!) and/or focusing on raising well-adjusted children - well, that is up to us as individuals.
What you are perhaps not recognizing is that Victoria is not trying to change the face of Buddhism. She has allowed it to become a part of her life. She has accepted it as part of her role in her family and community. I am sure that she would tell you Buddhism has changed her, not the other way around.
Westerners (both men and women, rebels & conformists alike), enjoy knowing the reasons behind any given cultural norm. For Victoria, learning more deeply about Buddhist customs allowed her to accept them more readily. This is something that I am sure you do in your daily life - try to find the cause of things rather than follow along with them blindly.
I do not know Kris Kosaka, but when I saw her name, I assumed she was a foreigner married to a Japanese. My second thought was, "Wow, what a great job! Instead of teaching English, she is writing for the Japan Times." Perhaps you feel she is one and the same with Victoria though.
- Amanda Yoshida, a perfectly satisfied wife and mother, English teacher and blogger who understands the amazing strength that Japanese women display in subtle ways every day.

Mr. Kato said...


I appreciate the last three thoughtful and passionate responses. I'll try to respond to a bit in each:

To Wendy Nelson Tokunaga:

Thank you for comment. I think you may be right that the writer is not consciously trying to impose a western feminist view on her subject, yet I would argue that feminism is so fundamental to many women's views, that they don't even know they are doing it.

Also, to your comment: "Wouldn't you rather that all people, both women and men, have the opportunity to realize their full potential?" Yes, I would. But when you get married you must sometimes sacrifice your potential for the good of your marriage. If one is only interested in one's potentional, then perhaps being single is a more appropriate station in life. Thank you!

To Katherine:

I appreciate the time and length of your comment. You ask: "Why is it heresy for a woman to want to develop and use her brain when God has endowed her with the same mental abilities as men?" I think the unspoken assumption here is that being a full-time mother is a dull, boring, waste of a women's life. I fundamentally disagree. We must face the reality that men can neither give birth nor be a mother. This biological fact, however, does not excuse men from being poor fathers or absent husbands.

Japan does err when it doesn't recognize that men and women are equal in human dignity, but it is correct to recognize that men and women aren't interchangeable - they are different. I chose to write about this British women because it spoke to a general feminist desire to do just what men do. Women don't need to act like men to discover their incredible value.

On another note, I agree that your children won't be accepted as "Japanese." This is sad, yet true. I wish you and your family the best of luck.

To Mande-J:

Thank your for your comment. To your question. I suppose I am critiquing this: it's okay to go to Japan, marry a Japanese man, become a Buddhist, have children and become a Japanese Buddhist wife. That's great! But this British women made it clear that this was a kind of "dead end" where her brain would rot. How is that? What is nagging at her to make her think that? Her life is extremely fascinating without her becoming a Buddhist priest. I fear that women in the west have been told that they have to "do it all" to be happy. I think this is model that dooms one to unhappiness. That's the idea. Thank you!

Chocolate Teapot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Kato said...


Thank you for your comment. I agree that Victoria is leading a rich and full life...But I think the underlying ethos of the article is that women who choose simply to be a wife and mother are somehow not leading a rich, full life...right now in Japan and Western Europe the birth rate is plunging below replacement levels. This is a very serious problem. And the only human persons who can give birth are women. If we continue seeing the vocation of motherhood and marriage as dull and unrewarding, we will have societies without the manpower to support our elderly, our disabled and those who relay on social welfare programs. Feminists glorify everything but motherhood and marriage - this is my larger point. I think to address this issue head on, is to be someone who has the best interest of women in mind.

I appreciate your input to my blog. Best of luck to you!

Chocolate Teapot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Kato said...


I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this article...There is no doubt that Victoria Yoshimura is an accomplished and interesting woman, but my focus is more cultural than personal...Having said that, I'm honored to have such an intelligent and articulate woman reading my blog entries. Please continue to share your thoughts whenever you can...And good luck on your upcoming marriage.

umeboshi said...

Mr Kato wrote in his reply to Courtney:
"If we continue seeing the vocation of motherhood and marriage as dull and unrewarding, we will have societies without the manpower to support our elderly, our disabled and those who relay on social welfare programs."

Perhaps if society (run by men in Japan) offered more support for mothers and homemakers, women would not view the job as being "dull and unrewarding". Would you volunteer to stay home to look after your ailing mother-in-law, feed the kids and sweep the genkan? My Japanese husband does all that. He grocery shops, cooks, does the PTA stuff and everything else a proper shufu should do. And I go to work full-time, bring home the money to keep us financially secure and send our son to college.
Nothing wrong with that.
Choice is the key. Not everyone thinks the same way about life.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr Kato,
I don't think all Western Women go to Japan to search for a boyfriend. I think mostly it's for the career opportunity or interest in some cultural-art based things or friendship. Tadashi Suzuki Statues, Kabuki Theatre, Shodo and ANIME ect are very well know here...

The first time I went to Japan I was fifteen years old, turning sixteen, and terrified because I was very young and didn't know what to expect. I had a very basic and vague idea that Sailor Moon, Astro Boy, the Final Fantasy and Kingdom of Hearts Games, Sumo Wrestlers ect came from Japan. I had watched Sailor Moon when I was very small. I had loved reading the book 'Hannah's Winter'. It was a very different experience to go to a different country without my family. I was excited to see my female friend from Japan who had lived in Australia with my family (on exchange, 3 years ago). The experience was unforgettable!
My host sister is like a sister to me!
I remember the father had to work very long hours to support his family, so I didn't see him often.

After that, I was interested in learning more about Japan. I lived in Japan for 10 months as an exchange student. At times I discovered this could be very difficult because I lived in a very remote prefecture. I was the youngest there, even though I went to a girl's school I received harrassment from older men on the trains and from a teacher at school. A male teacher looked down my dress. I was terribly upset and felt lonely, but no one would believe me except for a very young Japanese female teacher (who'd eperienced harrassment from the same person) because he was a very powerful person. Eventually, I began to wonder if that kind of harrassment was normal in Japan and wouldn't sit next to men on trains ect. I suffered nightmares and the stress and lack of sleep triggered a chest infection and extreme miagranes. I collapsed a few times.

I changed schools and moved to a different area. My host father was a very kind man, married to a very kind Gaijin woman from Ukraine (she had come as an English teacher). He had been on exchange too and had a very cute little toddler that I adored. I began to feel a little more comfortable talking to Japanese men, but after what had happened before, it was still difficult for me.

That's why when I first met my boyfriend at high school I wouldn't give him any contact details when he asked for my mobile number. Or the next time. In fact, it took over half a year for us to become a couple and we're planning to date when I go back to Japan in four months time. He must be a very patient person! ^_^
Of course my opinion has changed, but I have heard some similar stories from other young female exchange students. From my experience, I think your perception of Gaijin women is different...