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 Amazon.com to check out a classic book on Zen and Japanese Buddhist culture in Japan: Zen and Japanese Culture