Men, English, and international romance

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

“Japanese guys aren’t the most popular creatures on earth when it comes to romance. Sad but true.”

That’s the claim of Meiko Mochizuki Swartz, self-professed bilingual, bicultural ‘expert’ and author of an online book titled Nihonjin no Otoko wa Motenai (Japanese guys aren’t popular) that I recently stumbled across. The book is essentially billed as a guide to assist Japanese men establish and maintain relationships with ‘foreign’ (read here ‘western’) women. It claims to offer instructional advice regarding such things as:

  • How to read facial expressions and body language
  • How to read verbal clues in English
  • How to make a good impression even with weak English skills
  • Where to go and what to do on a first date
  • Learning when a good-night kiss is appropriate
  • How to apologize

The Japanese web page has several glowing testimonials from satisfied readers. T-san, with 20 years’ experience living the United States, for example, is quoted as stating

「これ、東京のアメリカ大使館のビザ申請窓口に積み上げて無料配布するべきです。モテなくて人生無駄にする人が多すぎる。男がだらしないから可愛い日本人の女の子はみんなアメリカ人に取られちゃうし。」(This [book] should be placed free at the visa application counter of the American Embassy in Tokyo. There are too many guys wasting their lives. Because of such slovenly blokes, the Americans are taking all our cute Japanese girls [my translation].)

While the subject matter and underpinning premises that seem to drive Nihonjin no Otoko wa Motenai are perplexing enough, the warning posted on the book’s web page left me gob-smacked. In red font (!), it cautions that the book

“…is written entirely in Japanese. If you don’t read Japanese, this book is not for you…But let us emphasize again, if you don’t read Japanese at a native level, this book is useless for you. We only have this information page in English because the US-based store system requires us to have it. This page is not meant to invite non-Japanese speakers to purchase the book. If you are one of our potential readers, we invite you to go to our Japanese page…”

Huh?!? This must be the oddest blurb in publishing history! Why would any publisher go to such lengths to dissuade a potential customer?

I, for one, was intrigued! Their website got me thinking about how interlingual relationships are frequently portrayed in Japan. As Piller and Takahashi (2006, p. 60) point out, Japanese women’s relationships with western men have received substantial interdisciplinary attention in both the academic and popular literatures. In such discourses the women have frequently been problematized as possessing questionable sexual morals (as per Shoko Ieda’s (1991) yellow cab motif) for seeking relationships with foreign men. The western men in these relationships have also been the object of derision. Charisma Man, a comic strip character of an expat magazine in Japan, for example, is a skinny, ineffectual, sexually inexperienced, nerdish loser from Canada who suddenly transforms himself into a handsome, desirable stud when he comes to Japan to work as an English conversation teacher (Bailey, 2007; Appleby, 2009a, 2009b). Substantially less contemptuous in tone, Oguri Saori’s (2001) best-selling Daarin wa Gaikokujin (My Darling is a Foreigner) series uses a comic strip format as the medium through which to both romanticize and unveil the seemingly impenetrable mysteries of international relationships. Incidentally, Oguri’s book has recently been adapted into a film and is enjoying solid commercial success.

But what’s the score concerning interlingual relationships involving Japanese men and foreign women? Such discourses deserve our attention too, because, despite the dominant stereotype, the majority of foreign spouses in Japan are women (Jones & Shen, 2008, p. 12). These wives of Japanese men originate primarily from Korea, China, Thailand and Brazil. Many of them are so-called nooson hanayome (non-Japanese Asian wives of Japanese farmers) who are expected to ‘learn’ how to be just like a Japanese wife (Piper, 2003; Suzuki, 2005). To be sure, Tokyo Terebi’s Okusama wa gaikokujin (The wife is a foreigner!) was a popular television program that ran in a weekly prime time slot for several years. Each episode featured a Japanese man and his foreign wife. The program’s format was simple – it focused on how the couple met, an evaluation of how well the foreign wife had become accustomed to life in Japan and the extent to which she could meet the needs of her Japanese husband. Each episode included a cooking challenge in which the foreign wife was presented with 10,000 yen from which she had to prepare a dinner party for the interviewer and invited guests. At the close of the show, a well-known celebrity invariably offered some pious, painfully condescending and patronizing advice to the foreign wife that would supposedly help her better adjust to life in Japan (“It is important to wash before getting in the bath” “Japanese people take their shoes off inside” etc…).

As I have argued elsewhere (Jackson 2009, pp. 43-44), discourses of interlingual relationships are also noticeably racialized. Japanese-hakujin (white, Caucasian) unions seem to imply a presumed social status (i.e. English-speaking, romantic) not associated with relationships with non-whites. In contrast, non-white foreigners in interlingual relationships are often portrayed as economically poor opportunists who exchange reproductive, sexual and domestic labour with Japanese partners in order to alleviate their own economic hardships (Piper, 1997, Kojima, 2001).

The book mentioned at the start of this blog is somewhat different from the dominant discourse of Japanese men-foreign women in that it insists that Japanese men have to improve themselves if they are to ‘get’ western women. And one way to ‘get’ western women, the book suggests, is through language (“reading verbal clues in English”). Here’s the deal: non-western women in relationships with Japanese men are expected to learn Japanese, while Japanese men who want a western partner will need to utilize English in supposedly skillful and complex ways. Go figure!

I’m glad the publisher doesn’t want me to spend $25 on Nihon no otoko wa motenai because I can do without this concoction of essentialism, sexism, and racism all tied up with English language teaching. I’ll be happy to ‘endorse’ this book in English and Japanese: Don’t buy this book! この本を購入しないでください!

ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:

Appleby, R. J. (2009a). Charisma Man: Discourses of desire and western men in Japan. Discourses and Cultural Practices Conference. University of Sydney, July.

Appleby, R. J. (2009b). Reflections on ‘Charisma Man’. The Teaching-Learning Dialogue: An Active Mirror. 35th Annual international Conference of Japan Association of Language Teaching. Shizuoka, Japan. November.

Bailey, K. (2007). Akogare, ideology, and the ‘Charisma Man’ mythology: Reflections on ethnographic research in English language schools in Japan. Gender, Place & Culture 14(5), pp. 585-608.

Ieda, S. (1991). Ieroo Kyabuu: Narita wo tobitatta onnatachi. Tokyo: Kodansha.

Jackson, L. (2010). Bilingual child-rearing in linguistic intermarriage: Negotiating language, power, and identities between English-speaking fathers and Japanese-speaking mothers in Japan. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Queensland.

Jones, G. & Shen, H. (2008). International marriage in East and South-East Asia: trends and research emphases. Citizenship Studies 12(1), 9-25.

Kojima, Y. (2001). In the business of cultural reproduction: Theoretical implications of the mail-order bride phenomenon. Women’s Studies International Forum, 24(2), 199-210.

Piller, Ingrid & Takahashi, Kimie (2006). A passion for English: desire and the language market Aneta Pavlenko. Ed. Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 59-83

Piper, N. (1997). International marriage in Japan: ‘Race’ and ‘gender’ perspectives. Gender, Place, and Culture, 4(3), 321-338.

Piper, N. (2003). Wife or worker? Marriage and cross-border migration in contemporary Japan. International Journal of Population Geography, 9(6), 457-469.

Suzuki, N. (2005). Tripartite desires: Filipina-Japanese marriages and fantasies of transnational traversal. In N. Constable (Ed.), Cross-border marriages: Gender and mobility in transnational Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Author Lachlan Jackson

More posts by Lachlan Jackson
  • cba

    Great piece! I wonder if the differences you suggest in the penultimate para do not turn exclusively on the issue of language, but also expectations regarding the subjectivities of women, both western and asian. For some bizarre reason, I suddenly have a line from Leonard Cohen running through my head, about the “homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat”….but then again, I could just be thinking like a western woman.

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  • Congrats, Lockie! A great post, well deserving the editor’s selection! おめでとう:-)) Re your comment “non-western women in relationships with Japanese men are expected to learn Japanese, while Japanese men who want a western partner will need to utilize English in supposedly skillful and complex ways”, another place you can look into is the online dating sites for Japanese men looking for foreign partners/wives. Check out the description of foreign women (usually Asians and Russians) as potential partners, particularly comments on their ability and willingness to learn Japanese (e.g. I’ve seen, “they will learn Japanese in three months!” hence the male consumers won’t have to bother making an effort in learning their partner’s language). Looking forward to more posts!

  • Lachlan Jackson

    Thanks cba and Kimie for yor kind feedback. Perhaps you might be interested in several articles on the Charisma Man phenonemon that appeared in this mornings Japan Times. See the links below:

    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20100713zg.html

    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20100713a1.html

    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20100713vf.html

    Hope you like ’em!
    Lachlan Jackson.