Devita is an American, who is married to Kenji, a Japanese. They had been living for several years in the U.S. when they decided to move to Japan to live with in his family household. They are now living with his parents, and although Devita speaks Japanese well, and has been to Japan previously, her entry into the family is turning out to be problematic. Is she uchi or soto vis à vis her Japanese husband’s family?
Entry Point Impasse:
Devita’s Entry Point confronts her with a dilemma: She has joined a Japanese household, in which her husband Kenji is the oldest son. The household consists of two couples: his parents (the older couple) and Kenji and Devita (the younger couple). Devita’s mother-in-law is a very important relationship in the household (she is the “expert” whom Devita must “follow”). As the young wife Devita knows she should be an uchi member, and as the daughter-in-law she should be helping out her mother-in-law. Yet Devita’s mother-in-law doesn’t let her help and continues to do everything herself. Devita is being “wrapped” as if she were an outsider. How can she get around being treated like an outsider when she should be an uchi member?
(See Module 8.3: Foreign Daughter-in-Law: Guest or Domestic Servant?)
Devita’s dilemma is really a Catch-22 situation. Even though Devita has some experience in Japan, and knows the language, she is still a cultural child in her new family situation. Yet, as a member of uchi, she is supposed to be a cultural adult. The difficulty Devita faces is similar for any newcomer who enters a Japanese organization as a member of uchi: How can she manage to grow up when she is already expected to be an adult? Even within uchi, it is possible to learn the “ways” of uchi. But this learning relies heavily on unspoken meaning, which Devita doesn’t grasp. So she ends up in a Catch-22 situation—She is ‘soto’ and wrapped; but it is problematic to treat a family member as an outsider and a “guest”. The impasse over whether she is uchi or soto prevents the establishment of a “pathway” for Devita to reach cultural adulthood. How do Devita and her family get around this impasse?
To answer this we will revisit the Impasse Flash segment in Module 2.3 This time we will examine the communication issues in the impasse between Devita and the Okabe family. Let’s take a closer look:
Devita: Points to take away—for Spouses and other newcomers:
Devita’s entry point challenge is all about having to accomplish the transition from cultural chlld to adult under a Catch-22 situation—when she is already supposed to be a cultural adult as a member of uchi. There is a great deal that spouses and other newcomers to learn from her situation.
- Whether you enter an organization as a soto outsider—(a guest, or someone whose status is ambiguous) or as an uchi member—you still have to “grow” to cultural adulthood. And while “growing” is difficult from a soto situation, it is even more difficult from uchi , since this already assumes cultural adulthood.
- Thus her uchi status creates certain difficulties for Devita. For one thing, she encounters uchi hazards right away, because of the ambiguity of her guesthood. Devita knew that she needed to help her mother-in-law. But her mother-in-law’s comments that she “didn’t seem to know how to do things”—even for tasks like doing the dishes—indicate that more than doing the dishes is at stake here. This is actually an uchi hazard, and Okaasan’s comment refers to the fact that Devita doesn’t follow the way things are done in this uchi. Doing the laundry also involves a similar uchi hazard, since Devita doesn’t follow the ways here either. Thus, even though she tries to help, she is caught in the dilemma of not yet knowing the “ways of uchi” which are largely unspoken, but which she must quickly master as an uchi member.
- Consequently, although Devita’s pathway appears similar to that of the other newcomers in many ways, her uchi status gives her less leeway for mistakes in managing the hazards in her uchi context. Devita took seriously what otoosan told her to do at the dinner table; she concentrated hard on her goal of learning to “follow” the ways of her household in carrying out her tasks, and managed to reach adulthood in a short time. Devita’s attitude toward her goal is a good attitude for any of the newcomers to assume.
- In actuality every uchi has new Japanese members who enter and need to learn the idiosyncratic “ways” of which they are unfamiliar. This includes new brides, permanent employees, and civil servants (to name a few). Acclimating to uchi as an uchi member involves underplaying one’s newcomer status (so that much of the acclimation is expected to take place by the newcomer “noticing carefully” his or her surrounding context). This occurs in an unspoken manner, and spoken communication (such as questions) are not highly regarded. While it is important to understand that these cultural expectations exist, it is also true that for a cultural child these expectations are impossible to follow. Some way must be found (as otoosan did) to “fill in” the cultural child on what is being assumed in uchi learning situations.
- Newcomer spouses who are NOT living with the older generation (which is increasingly common) will still have to deal with uchi. Uchi is the basic family unit (rather than the individual), as can be seen by the documentation for social identity in Japan, which takes the form of a family register, (or koseki) which includes all the members of uchi. Individuals are entered into these documents upon their entry into a family (through birth or marriage). When they leave (by divorce, or death); this information is also entered. It’s important to understand that a Japanese family (ncluding a so-called “nuclear family”) is thought of as an enduring “unit” consisting of its members. Thus individuals enter and leave a unit that endures over time.
There are three major ways in which uchi impacts newcomer spouses who are NOT living with an older generation couple: (1) Your own family unit will be considered as a de facto uchi by everyone else. (2) If the Japanese husband is considered the successor, even in the case that the two generations live separately, they may still consider themselves to be a single uchi in certain ways, and they may want the younger generation bride to learn and “follow” some of these uchi practices. (3) Even if the newcomer is not married to a potential successor, his or her new family will have a network of relatives. Each of the household units involved is an uchi, and all family gatherings will have an uchi locus. Newcomers need to gauge “where” they are vis-a-vis this uchi locus; how much they are being wrapped; and how much they are expected to “come into” uchi., (all of which are discussed in Part 2, Modules 5.2-4;). This expands upon Devita's situation, so you can see each uchias part of a context of multiple interconnected uchi units.