Japanese life through an American filter
Book review by Geraldine Sherman

(The Globe and Mail December 2, 1995)

The Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family
by Elisabeth Bumiller
Random House, 338 pages $35

In her study of a contemporary woman's life in Japan, a subject largely hidden from the West, Elisabeth Bumiller makes two unremarkable discoveries. First, things are not as they appear. Second, the North American ethic doesn't work for everyone, even Americans. In 1989, when her reporter husband began his assignment in Tokyo, Bumiller and her interpreter found what she hoped was a typical subject - Mariko Tanaka, "a stocky, earthy, overscheduled and sleep-deprived" 44-year-old mother of three with two part-time jobs and an apparently disengaged husband.

She chose Mariko as a stereotypical housewife, consigned to a subordinate role by the workaholic society that is both feared and derided by nervous Americans. On Mariko's life the author would hang fragments of Japanese history, education, religion, food, and national prejudice. Working as a journalist and ersatz anthropologist, Bumiller extensively interviewed Mariko, her parents, husband and children as well as local teachers, politicians, priests, even a leader of the yakuza, a Mafia-like organization. She visited schools, local festivals, concerts and a glitzy television show Mariko adored.

The Secrets of Mariko tells quite a lot about the Japanese but considerably more about American attitudes to the superpower nipping at its heels. Near the beginning of her inquiry, Bumiller wrote: "In the strictest sense of feminism as practised in the West, Mariko was an oppressed person belonging to an aggrieved, exploited group." Her marriage, while not formally arranged, was propelled by social pressures: the couple went to school together and when they both turned 20, Takeshi, a forlorn engineering student who "didn't have time to know other girls," asked Mariko to marry him. Romantic love was never part it. At best, Mariko felt motherly towards her salaryman husband, and tolerant of his drinking - which, even by Japanese standards, spiralled out of control.

After visiting both partners at work - Takeshi was idle after his company lost a big contract while Mariko bounced around her neighbourhood reading water meters - Bumiller was forced to conclude that the wife was better off. Her husband was away from home 18 hours a day, six days a week, but Mariko was independent and resourceful, gifted in weaving her country's past and present in a peculiarly Japanese way.

Using her own money, she studied the shamisen, an ancient three-stringed instrument, and performed with a group of kimonoed ladies who celebrated their successful concert with beer and cigarettes in a karaoke bar. Neither husband nor children attended the performance, and Mariko raced home to make dinner. She didn't seem to mind. When Bumiller asked her if she ever felt coerced by her society, she shrugged and answered, " 'Of course.' She seemed to understand that we are all coerced to some degree by the expectations of the people around us, and that coercion is not necessarily enslavement."

If anyone seems enslaved by national assumptions, it's Bumiller. She constantly compares Japanese education with American, as though America had provided the Platonic ideal of creative freedom and academic excellence. She visited three schools attended by the Tanaka children, ages nine to sixteen - an elementary school "with none of the rote learning that one hears about," a junior high school that emphasized effort over talent, and a cram school, a private academy drilling students for college entrance exams. Bumiller concedes that rote learning is necessary to master difficult Japanese script and maintain a one per cent illiteracy rate, compared to 21 per cent in America. She worries, though, that Japanese education is "depriving people of their childhoods."

Bumiller is reluctant to admit that Americans can learn anything from Japanese family life or education. Although Japanese mothers are "virtually single parents", fathers live at home and support their families in far greater numbers than in the United States. And even when she's critical of aspects of American life, she bitterly resents the contempt the Tanaka show for everything American except sports and popular culture. When their teenaged daughter thought McDonald's was a Japanese chain, Bumiller was "strangely irritated. Not only did the Japanese make perfect cars, now they were taking credit for one of the brilliant American innovations of the era, the Big Mac."

Not surprisingly, problems arise in extrapolating truths about culture from a single specimen. How typical was Mariko? It turned out she had unusual tastes and a secret passion. Each year, against her husband's wishes, she joined "the biggest, noisiest - and raunchiest - religious festival in Tokyo . . . wedged in with gangsters and drunken construction workers in the frenzy of carrying the mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine, through the streets." She also confessed to a recent love affair. When Bumiller asked why she didn't leave her husband, as many American wives would do, Mariko replied, "It would have been like throwing my own history away."

When confronted with a depressed husband who threatened suicide, aged parents who fell ill, and her own menopausal depression, Mariko was, in the author's eyes, transformed from mere subject to fellow human "with longings for intimacy and hopes for her family like anyone else." Late in the project, Bumiller notes that "people are not always what they seem, and that even exemplary lives are rarely tidy in private."

As with all studies, this one had to end. Fourteen months after the inquiring author entered Mariko's life, Bumiller's husband was recalled to New York. She packed her bags, her children, and headed home. If she noticed the irony in her own wifely situation, she wasn't telling.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1995

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