Thursday, April 14, 2005

A view inside a Japanese man's head

Something's been troubling me about young, married Japanese men. Several times now I've had students who have told me "their wives were expecting" babies at any time. In the United States we've become used to the notion that both parents were expecting the arrival of their child. It's actually not such a big deal that culturally the Japanese still refer to only their wives expecting a baby.

What really has me scratching my head is how often I hear that the father-to-be isn't that involved with the birth of his child(ren). Usually I hear something like this:

Me: So, it must be getting really close to the time for your baby's birth?
Student: Yes, my wife's gone to stay with her parents. (Note: this is often a few hours away)
Me: You mean she's going to go through labor and have the baby without you?
Student: Yes, but I'll go see her on the weekend (presumably after she's had the baby).
Me: You won't be there for your baby's birth?
Student: (With a puzzled look on his face) No, her mother will go to the hospital with her.
Me: Wow! So you'll miss out on your baby's birth?
Student: (Another puzzled look) No, I'll see the baby probably over the weekend.
Me: Yeah, but you won't actually be there when it's born.
Student: No.
Me: Is that because your company won't let you take time off to be with your wife when she's giving birth?
Student: (Yet another puzzled look with a very long "ehhhhhhhhhhh?")
Me: You know, time to be with your wife during the birth and a few days after to help take care of her and the baby?
Student: Well, I could probably take time off from work, but I don't really need to do that because her mother will take care of her and the baby.

Apparently Japan has never heard of the Family Leave Act which allows both new parents to spend time together adjusting to their new life with their baby.

Last night I had another student, a mature business man in his late 40s or early 50s who wanted what's called "free conversation," where we can talk about anything instead of having a regular lesson. We talked about all sorts of topics. Then I happened to bring up the topic of "what is the most exciting thing that every happened to you?" He told me about a time when he was a teenager and got into a fight where his nose was broken.

I told him I was really thinking of something wonderful that had happened, "You know," I said, "like when your children were born." Again, I saw that same strange look come across his face. He was puzzled. I asked him if he was present when his children were born (they're 14 and 5), and he told me the most amazing thing.

"In Japan, to see a woman screaming 'gaaaaaaaaaahhhh' and giving birth, with all that blood and nakedness, destroys a marriage," he said.

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"It ruins it for a man," he said.

Still not understanding, I pressed him for more information.

"You never think of your wife as the beautiful woman that you married once you see her that way."

Apparently to validate his story, and to address the stricken expression that must have been on my face, he said, "It's true! There's been a survey that says almost all men who see such a thing later divorce their wives."

The bell rang and class was over.

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