Uchi Hazards:

Being “swept into uchi” is just what you wanted, right? Yes and no, because coming into uchi puts you right back in the realm of those hazards depicted in Module 4.3. Because uchi is the family’s inside realm, this makes it the primary realm of unspoken meaning (and cultural bubbles) for families. So, just when you think things are going fine, suddenly something you do triggers an unseen trapdoor that opens up beneath you, and down you go!   What’s up with these hazards? It happens that your own primary realm of cultural bubbles doesn’t fully coincide with those of your family’s uchi. So what to you is like hitting a trapdoor appears to your family like you’re failing to see what’s right in front of your nose!  

How can you deal with these hazards? The cases below give examples of incidents which seem innocuous, but trigger major pitfalls for guests abroad trying to conform to uchi expectations.

1. Homestay guests often act in ways that make it appear to their host families that they are ignoring their uchi responsibilities when in fact, they are not aware of their uchi relationships at all. This is illustrated in Sophie and Theo below:

  • Accepting a ride to her program barbeque seemed an acceptable thing for Sophie to do, especially since it was raining. In doing this what uchi expectations did Sophie violate that made her okaasan so angry with her?

  • After the bike episode, Theo remarks that: “At the time I thought such risks as getting lost and becoming ill were my own. Now it seems like there is no such thing—especially as I was a guest in their home.” What aspects of uchi did Theo fail to consider in wanting to ride the bike to town?

2. To further illuminate what went wrong in the cases above, Janine and Li Ming’s cases bring home a crucial aspect of the homestay learning curve: the necessity of grasping what being a member of uchi really involves. You can see from the incidents below how much is riding on this.

  • Why were Janine’s family members so concerned about Nobu’s exam? What does this tell you about uchi?

  • What was wrong with both Janine’s and Li Ming’s original plans to negotiate what they wanted for their homestays? How did each have to transform her relationship to the family in order to manage her request?

3. Putting the pieces together. . To avoid major uchi hazards, keep the following in mind!

  • Coming into uchi involves a transformation of sorts: from thinking of oneself as a lone individual, to thinking and acting as a member of a social whole. This entails taking responsibility as a part of that social whole in everyday actions and decisions.

  • This transformation is actually what is required for the host family to be able to stop wrapping their guest. Yet all the guests in the cases above fail to realize this. They want to be free (to act independently of uchi) at the same time they want to be inside uchi. In fact, it is exactly this failure to consider themselves in relation to uchi (and to accept responsibility for this) that produced the problems of Sophie’s gaffe, Theo’s bicycle backfire, the delayed okay of Janine’s homestay extension, and Li Ming’s too-strict curfew.

  • Ironically, for Li Ming’s family, sanctioning her participation in activities outside the family depended on her establishing a relationship (and accepting responsibility) within the family’s uchi. From Li Ming’s perspective, her freedom to go outside of uchi depended on her participation within uchi . You will see further examples of this in cases to come.    

Main Takeaway:

We can’t say this too often–coming into uchi involves a shift from thinking of oneself as an independent individual to operating within the context of a group.

Sophie 3: Accepting a Ride (and Hitting a BIG Hazard)

I had a mishap with my host family over a barbecue I was going to at my university. At first the okaasan in the Ogata family (who was also hosting a homestay student) was going to pick up my host sister and me to take us to the barbecue. However, for various reasons, my okaasan called the Ogata san okaasan and refused the offer. After my okaasan left to run errands, my host sister and I received a phone call from the Ogata okaasan asking if we were sure we didn’t want a ride to the barbecue.

I took the phone call. Because I needed time to study and it was raining so that from my interests taking the bus was going to be a hassle, I said okay, and offered my arigato gozaimashita (thank you) for the ride. However, when the okaasan came home and found out that Ogata san was picking us up she was furious.

At first, I did not in the least understand why she was so furious. After all, it was easier for me and my host sister, and Ogata san had to pass our house anyway to get to the barbecue. But from her point of view, by accepting the ride I had sided with the wrong uchi . Instead of joining the collective decision of my family (which was not to accept the ride), I had sided with the other group which put me on the soto side of my family.

As my okaasan put this to me: “Are you a Sakaki or an Ogata? You’re a Sakaki, so why don’t you act like it? As she yelled at me she removed deference in her treatment towards me. I apologized to the best of my ability for making such a terrible mistake (over which I had no clue of course). But in fact, I could see that this incident was a great break-through for me, because in getting mad at me, the okaasan treated me like an uchi person. In fact, things haven’t been the same since.

Theo 1: My Bike Riding Backfires

In 1996 I took a ten-week language immersion program in Kobe that included an eight-day homestay in a small town two hours away by bus. To be honest I was ambivalent about the homestay. My wife, then fiancée, is Japanese and I had already been to Japan a few times. I felt I already had a fair amount of cultural access, but what I really needed was language training.

For the most part the homestay went okay. Every morning at ten o’clock the group of nine students, each staying with a different family in this small town, gathered at the community center, and from there a driver would bus us to various places. We met a calligrapher; were taken to the home of a potter, where we learned how to throw clay; and even went to a middle school. Once we went to the nursery school (hoikuen) where my okaasan Yoshiko works.

The evenings we spent with our “families”. Mine was pretty interesting. The otoosan worked in the town office, and he would drink sake in the evening with his father, then retire to his study to listen to jazz. In addition to okaasan there were three children, two girls in high school and a boy of eleven.

Looking back I can think of a lot that is worth being embarrassed about, even in that short time, but I’ll just share one short example that sticks out in my mind. The Ueharas lived about four kilometers outside of town, and both parents started work early. Due to the timing of my schedule, that meant either otoosan or okaasan would have to take time off work to drive back, pick me up, and bring me to my scheduled ten o’clock meeting. I thought I’d be less of a burden if I could get around on my own and asked to borrow one of their mountain bikes that, as far as I could tell, no one ever used. Besides, I liked the idea of the ride, with a little time to myself, and a little bit of “freedom”. Of course they insisted that driving me was no trouble, that it was too far for me to go by bike, and what if I got lost? But I was adamant and they gave in.

Then, after three days of commuting on my own, I got sick. It was nothing more than an attack of hay fever, and it turned out that a day off the travels with the other students and having a little time to myself was just what I needed to get back on track. But after that I didn’t go back to using the bike.

Of course, it wasn’t until much later that I gave serious consideration to how that episode had appeared to the family. And how I had made them look to their community. At the very least it was probably embarrassing for them that I was riding four kilometers into town on a bike, rather than them taking proper care of their newly arrived guest by driving him where he was supposed to be. Even worse, after allowing me to run loose on the bike I then became too sick to attend the daily activity. Even though I thought I was “helping them out”, by riding the bike, they obviously felt responsibility for my going to town by myself on the bike. In fact, getting sick was like having all the okaasan ‘s worries coming true. She in particular seemed to take responsibility for my allergy attack, and it struck me as curious that no amount of assurances seemed to allay her concerns.

If I had it to do over again, I would have accepted the ride and arranged for some other mountain biking experience, perhaps with their son. At the time I thought such risks as getting lost and becoming ill were my own. Now it seems like there is no such thing—especially since I was a guest in their home.

After living with my family for about three months the okaasan came to me and told me that as a member of the household I would have to start adjusting to their life a little bit more by helping out. This statement utterly appalled me, because I thought I was helping out and was functioning as the other members of the family. In this sense I (as someone supposedly astute to the situation I was in) didn’t even realize the extent to which deference was being shown to me. As a soto (outside) person I had been kept in a cocoon. As I had learned, soto people are not let in on the fact that they are being deferred to, nor are they allowed to see the inner workings of the family.

Module 9.2
Uchi Hazards:
Comments (1)

Foreign guests in a Japanese homestay very often run into problems because they misunderstand the family’s uchi. They may fail to understand how their “responsibility” to the host family is connected with uchi, and that they, too, need to think of themselves as part of a unit that is “uchi”, rather than as individuals steering their own canoes.

Uchi is, in a sense, a “whole” in which the individuals are parts. What the individual says and does is grounded in this relationship. The uchi member is NOT free to “do his or her thing” because each must ALWAYS take into account what he does in relation to the “whole” of the uchi. A rebellious teenager who stays out late is not just overstaying her curfew, but defying the uchi “whole”.

“Coming into uchi”, then, means becoming a part of the uchi “whole”. Sophie violated this in deciding for herself to accept a ride that the okaasan had already turned down. (Here she went against the decision of her family’s uchi). Theo’s decision to ride the bicycle appeared reasonable from his individual perspective, but his family’s uchi perspective was different, and he hadn’t been with his family long enough to understand this. Theo thought he was being helpful; once again the problem was timing.

Janine 3: I Want to Stay Longer, but There's a Hurdle

My first homestay with the Shinoda family was originally set up for just three weeks. However, I enjoyed it so much that I asked if I could come back, and returned for another 10-day visit at harvest time. The family then invited me to return for New Years, and at this point I decided I really wanted to stay with the family for a longer period. I liked the family a lot and I felt I was learning a tremendous amount. The family were wonderful language teachers, and I felt my Japanese was improving enormously. And besides all this, I was learning a lot about the village the family lived in. At New Years I asked if I could stay through the winter.

The family told me they would have a hard time managing this. The problem was that the youngest son, Nobu, was taking his high school examinations in March, and he wasn’t a particularly strong student. If he failed the exam, there was no alternative in this rural area, and he wouldn’t be able to attend high school. The exams had become a matter of concern for the entire household; all the family members seemed to worry endlessly about whether Nobu would pass his exams. Each confided to me his or her deep suspicions that Nobu wasn’t actually studying effectively, or possibly that he wasn’t studying at all.

One night my host sister, Katsuko, and I thought up a plan for my staying on in the family, which would cause the minimum amount of intrusion to the family. I would stay in Katsuko’s room, would study there (rather than at the main family kotatsu), and socialize with the family only during the evening. The okaasan agreed to this plan, but said she had to talk it over with the others (which I knew must mean the otoosan).

The next day we were all sitting around the kotatsu, feeling tired at the end of the day. The okaasan was laying beside the kotatsu sleeping, the rest of us were watching TV. The otoosan was out. Suddenly we heard a shout from the gate: “Oi! I’ve brought guests! Ooi! I’ve brought guests home! The house had no phone, so the otoosan ‘s shout was the first warning we had about the guests. Muttering about being tired, the okaasan got up and trudged toward the kitchen to prepare some food.

The otoosan invited the guests around to the best parlor, and motioned for me to join them. “They want to meet you.” Sympathizing with the okaasan I grumbled, “Why does the otoosan always bring guests home? It’s like a zoo here; we’re all on display.” Katsuko and my homestay brothers, Tadao and Nobu, all picked up the on the idea, and began to complain about how we were all treated like elephants, stared at continually by the otoosan ‘s guests.

The otoosan kept coming back into the kotatsu room to invite me to meet the guests. I resisted at first, helping Katsuko and the okaasan in the kitchen. But finally she told me I should go, so I reluctantly obliged. I found the guests extremely interesting and easy to talk to, and soon was immersed in the conversation. Too soon the sound of a car horn intruded and the guests rose to leave. “It’s too soon!” I complained. “Why can’t they stay a little longer? They were really interesting to talk to.”

Obviously pleased, the otoosan assured me that we would meet again, as they ran to catch their taxi. Just then Nobu came in from the kotatsu room. “It’s just like a zoo in here, and we’re all like elephants on display!”

The otoosan silenced everyone emphatically. “No, that isn’t the way it is here at all.” He commanded us all to sit down in the parlor kotatsu where the guests had been, and proceeded to lecture us loudly on his intentions, which we he said we had all seriously misunderstood.

“You see,” he explained, “all those people were from the city office, and they were the people who read Janine’s application from her Japanese teacher in Kyoto last summer.” (The otoosan worked in the city office and these were his colleagues). “Together we tried to figure out which house she should stay in.” Since the otoosan had had a good quantity of sake his voice was much more impassioned than usual, and was accompanied by theatrical innuendos and gestures. I felt as if I had narrowly averted disaster by obeying the otoosan and going in to meet the guests.

The okaasan took this opportunity to bring up the question of my staying longer. “Janine wants to stay,” she explained, “because it’s much better for her to study here than in Kyoto . She’ll spend most of her time studying, so her being here won’t interfere with the rest of the household.”

“That’s fine,” began the otoosan . But we all have to remember that Nobu’s examinations are important.” (Nobu was not at the kotatsu at this point, having once more retreated into his study room.) “We all know that his emotional attitude is all here and there and everyplace. While he appears to be in that room studying–he gave a dramatic flourish–we don’t know what he’s doing. He probably isn’t doing ANYTHING.”

“That makes us very worried about Nobu,” he continued. “And Janine, since she’s here and we have to take care of her in the same way as our own children, we now have two to worry about, and two is very much, it’s too much.”

By this time the otoosan , carried away by his own speech, was endlessly repeating his concerns about the household taking care of me and how much parental worry that involved. The okaasan and Katsuko, who were sitting with me in the kotatsu, laid down their heads on top of the kotatsu in exhaustion and moaned: “Wakatta. . . WAKATTA.” (We understand. . . we underSTAND).

I realized that I would have to give up my place at the center of the family to Nobu if I stayed. That meant I would have to do things more the way the family did them. I would have to accommodate myself to them . I was glad of the chance to stay longer with the family. But all this time I thought I had been accommodating myself to them. Now I could see that I hadn’t done so at all. I had barely managed to comply with the otoosan ‘s wishes by talking to the guests; this episode was an example of how things worked in the family. The otoosan ‘s word was final in everything, but he exerted little overt authority, except on rare occasions like this. Even at such moments he reiterated his responsibility to us, and the need for our cooperation; we had to carry out our part of the bargain. Nobu’s exams were included in this general scheme—he was supposed to study as his part in making the household run smoothly.

Li Ming 2: I Hate my Curfew!

Everything is ok except for my curfew. My family told me directly that it would be at midnight on week-ends. Originally they told me it was because they are worried and didn’t want me to walk home alone. But through subsequent events I’ve discovered that Haruko just doesn’t like me to go out because she thinks that defeats the purpose of the homestay.

I come home early on weekdays and so far I’ve only come late (around 12:00) 3 times. This is beginning to really bother me since it’s making me feel a bit trapped. Haruko gave me all these examples of other students’ lives at their homes (from my same program) to indirectly tell me that she only wants me to go out about once a month. I’ve tried to tell her that I want to go out with Japanese people and learn the young college students’ culture and the language. But I don’t think that really helped—I really hate the indirectness!

My host father (“Tom”) is a regular salaryman, who comes home about 10:00 on weeknights, and leaves at 6:30 a.m. I spend time during the week with Haruko, who tries to talk to me in Japanese. But because there is no child and Tom always comes home late, it’s quite boring. Also, because they are a young couple, I sometimes feel like I am invading their privacy, and at times feel uncomfortable, especially in the evening when he returns. I wish I had a family with children (which is what I requested).

I don’t have much time on week-ends to spend with both of them because I often have field trips on Saturdays and on Sundays. But even when I don’t go, they go to the gym and work out most of the afternoon leaving me at home by myself. And when Tom is home he speaks mostly English to me. So I’m really not learning much about the culture from him, although Haruko tries to tell me things on weekdays in Japanese.

After writing this I just realized I’m quite unsatisfied with my family! What should I do about the curfew? (which isn’t really a curfew) I’ve talked to many Japanese students and adults about this and everyone thinks that being able to stay out til 12:00 only once or twice a month is ridiculous for a 23 year old. I did tell Haruko that no one has a curfew but she always has a line ready for rebuttal.

I only have about 1 1/2 months left and I really would like to see everything I can and because I’m so busy on the weekdays with school, I just want freedom on week-ends, especially Saturdays. I do have a plan to go out with some Japanese friends and Americans this weekend in Tokyo and I’m still thinking of a way to tell them. I may be late or stay out all night for that matter. And my so-called “mongen” (curfew) is becoming a real obstacle.

Homestay Program Director’s Comments:
The following is a summary from the Homestay Program Director whom Li Ming went to consult with about her problem:

Li Ming came to me feeling unhappy that her family didn’t want her to go out much at all on week-ends, and she was feeling trapped. I asked her to tell me how the homestay was going in general, both on week-days and week-ends, and she gave me an account of the general situation, that she was unsatisfied with her family, especially over her curfew.

Then I called the Uchidas, her host family, and spoke with her host mother. I inquired about the general progress of the homestay, and whether the family felt things were going satisfactorily. The host mother felt that Li Ming conveyed that she was bored in the homestay, and she didn’t seem that interested in learning from them, or talking to them. The director then asked about whether Li Ming had a curfew and whether there were any problems around the curfew. The host mother said there was tension because her husband came home late on weeknights, so the only time they had to spend together as a family was in the evenings on weekends. But those were the very times that Li Ming wanted to go out with her friends. If Li Ming went out every week-end, the family would have no time to spend together with her, so she thought it would negate the purpose of the homestay. That was what was behind the curfew.

Li Ming and the Curfew Problem: Mutual Compromise
As director, I decided to try to work out a compromise. I didn’t think that Li Ming should just “tough it out” (gaman suru) in the situation she is in now until the homestay ends. I discussed with her the host family’s viewpoint about why they wanted her to spend time on weekends with them. I also explained that even leaving the curfew aside, I didn’t think from what both Li Ming and the family told me, that “everything else really was going ok”. In other words, the curfew wasn’t the only problem (and probably wasn’t the main problem) with this homestay. Because the Uchidas weren’t the type of family she had requested, Li Ming felt unhappy with her situation. Because Tom spoke English with her, she considered this to be a loss in learning about Japan. And although Haruko did speak Japanese with her, she was bored being alone with Haruko during the week.

I first suggested that even though Li Ming was disappointed that her family wasn’t what she requested, she didn’t have to let this disappointment define her attitude toward them. If she tried to take advantage of the family that she does have, she might find more there than she has seen so far. For example, I encouraged her to take the opportunity to speak with Tom in English about things she wanted to know about Japan. There would be a payoff in speaking English, since she could get more depth in her conversations than she can at this point in Japanese. Li Ming agreed to try this out.

I then suggested the following compromise to both Li Ming and her family: Li Ming needed to take a more active interest in her family during the rest of her homestay, so I suggested she should spend time with them on some weekend evenings. But she should also try to keep some evenings free to go out with her friends, and to do this, both she and her family needed to try to open up other times on weekend days for doing things together. For example, Li Ming could stay home from a field trip now and then so that she and her family could go places together on Saturdays. Or sometimes the family might take Li Ming to the gym with them on Saturday afternoons.

I thought that if Li Ming really tried to become interested and involved in the Uchida family, and managed to be with them at times other than week-end evenings, this would remove the barriers the family had to her going out with her friends on those evenings. Both Li Ming and the Uchidas agreed to try to follow these suggestions.

Module 9.2
Uchi Hazards:
Comments (2)

Both Janine and Li Ming’s problems also centered on their initial focus of trying to negotiate what each saw as an individual “request” (an extension of the homestay; an extension of the curfew). But each of their families viewed the situation differently. Rather than complying with either petition as a “request”, each family wanted their guests to take more responsibility as part of uchi. This came out most clearly in the challenge that Janine barely manages to scrape through, when the otoosan wants her to talk with his guests, but she doesn’t feel like doing so. After the guests leave, and while still drunk, he loudly lectures the family making explicit what is required: Janine must comply with the demands of uchi if she is to extend her stay in the family.

Coming into uchi is actually the “flip side” of being wrapped. The family expects Janine to help them wrap others (including the otoosan’s guests and Nobu, in his exam preparations). Li Ming’s family wants her to spend time with them, and accept the responsibilities that coming further into uchi entails. For them easing up on her curfew was closely tied to her accepting her responsibilities to uchi. Ironically, coming into uchi is what ultimately allows her to go out with her friends.

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