A while back I talked about non-verbal communication in Japanese culture and Asian culture at large. Interestingly, this old post is probably the most consistently read and linked by other people over any other post I’ve written in the last 2 years, based on Google stats. I guess this is due to continued misconceptions and curiosity about how people express themselves in Japanese and Asian culture at large.
Recently, my wife and I have been watching a certain drama on NHK from here in Seattle (via TV Japan) called ge ge ge no nyōbō (ゲゲゲの女房), which covers the life of a famous manga artist, Mizuki Shigeru (水木 しげる, born 1922 to present) through his wife. The word 女房 can mean “wife”, among other things. The artist has only one arm, but overcame his physical disadvantage to make some of the most famous manga and TV shows in Japan spanning multiple generations.
Anyway, we finally watched the last episode this past Saturday, and as the two are walking together in the park, there is a scene where Shigeru reaches and holds his wife’s hand for a moment. The moment is very tender and romantic, and my wife really loved it. “素敵〜！” (suteki-!) she said in Japanese, which means “great or wonderful”. She was deeply moved, and I have to admit I was moved too. It’s TV of course, but what struck me was how different romance is expressed in Japanese culture, and it still sometimes surprises me after all these years.
My wife and I met 12 years ago in college, and we soon fell in love, but our ideas of how love was expressed were pretty different. The love itself is same for everyone, of course, but I came from a family that was very affectionate and emotional, so when we first dated I was constantly saying “you’re so beautiful” and “I love you”, etc. She came from a Japanese home which wasn’t particularly conservative or traditional, but her parents still were more reserved by American standards, so she would get so terribly embarrassed when I expressed myself like that. Sometimes just annoyed (うざい, uzai “you’ve said that already, I get it”). It baffled me for a long time, but as the years went on, she got used to my way of expressing things, and I got better at being a little more reserved and less blubbering with emotions. So we somehow worked out a happy compromise.
As a young man, I thought Japanese romance was too cold and reserved, and that Japanese women were somehow “repressed”,1 but now as I understand Japanese culture better, I believe more and more in the Asian approach of actions speak louder than words. If you say “I love you” constantly, it loses its value, but if you say it only when you really mean it, the other person will appreciate that. Likewise, if you really love a person, instead of just saying it, prove it! Help your spouse more at home, stop spending so much money behind her back, or just be more a gentleman. Being a gentleman in general, as Confucius teaches, also means being reserved when its appropriate, and not having your emotions spilling out all over the place.2 In other words, you don’t have to say anything, but wives and girlfriends will notice anyway, and will definitely feel the love.
That’s not to say flowers and something special for their birthday are not important too. It’s just that sincerity and timing matters.
So, with the TV series, Mizuki Shigeru’s character was demanding and authoritative at times; a true nihon danshi (日本男子), or “Japanese husband”. But through all their difficulties, his simple expression of love that one time showed that he really appreciated her after all this time, and that he loved her. Somehow that made it much more wonderful than the contrived, elaborate expressions of romance you see in American movies and TV in my opinion.
In the same way, my wife does not express romance much, but over the years when times have been difficult or I just really needed her, she has always been there to help me. Always. She’s challenged me, but also encouraged me too. She’s scolded me many times in private, but she’s also been quick to defend me or praise me when I am not around. I don’t think I could ever have a more dependable and reliable person in my life. So who needs the rest?
Also, while watching another movie, Twilight Samurai, I was also struck then how expressions of love were expressed by the girl Tomoe in doing things like helping around the house, and sowing up Seibei’s tattered clothing. She never came out and said “I love you”, but her actions were pretty obvious. Only when Seibei had to go and fight a duel, when his life was really on the line, did he finally come out and express his feelings. Afterall, he might have not had another chance to do so.
Love is a lot more than just saying “I love you” or buying expensive gifts. If you really value the other person, it’s something that can’t be expressed in words, but will be expressed in your actions and conduct. I promise you that this kind of non-verbal expression will carry a lot more substance.
P.S. All of this no doubt holds true for same-sex couples too.
1 Of course there are women and men who are repressed in Japan, but I would argue such people live in every country and every culture. True romance and love may be expressed differently, but in every culture it’s there. Likewise, problem relationships exist everywhere too. America’s open expression of feelings doesn’t necessarily equate to a better quality of life, or a worse one. People are just more loud, I think. Also, if you ever watch Hollywood movies, why do the white guys always get the beautiful, but repressed Asian woman while Asian men are either secondary characters or the bad guys? The Last Samurai is a classic example of this. Another is the second Karate Kid movie.
2 Confucius also taught the importance of fostering a positive, mutual relationship between husband and wife. The wife’s role is pretty well established, but I feel men are inclined to forget their role. It’s easy for men, being in a position of relative power to take their wives for granted while flirting with others girls outside home. I’ve seen this happen in the office in the past, and it is infuriating. Even when someone is very close to you, I think it’s important to still be a gentleman a little bit for their benefit. It will benefit one’s children as well, even if you can’t see the effect.