Module 12.4

Devita, Foreign Spouse

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 9.3: 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 uchiHow 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:

Beyond the Entry Point: Devita’s “in-house training”

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Newcomer spouses who are NOT living with the older generation (which is increasingly common) will still have to deal with uchiUchi 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.

  6. 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.

Devita (female, US)

1. Foreign Daughter-in-Law: Guest or Domestic Servant? (8.3)

I’ve been feeling like I should be doing more to help around the house. After all, at home I’d do more to help, and I know that a daughter-in-law is supposed to do a lot of things to take the load off the mother-in-law. But every time I try to be useful, okaasan always tells me it’s “no problem” and then does everything herself. Like when I tried to help clear the table and wash the dishes—I didn’t know where the dish rack went and I guess she didn’t like the way I stacked the dishes because she redid them as soon as I left the kitchen. I got the distinct impression that she thought it was much easier just to do it herself. My sister-in-law, Keiko, who’s still single, says I shouldn’t worry about it, okaasan‘s always like that.

It’s been over two months since we got married and moved in here, now and I’m beginning too see how Keiko doesn’t do much to help, just lets okaasan wait on her (let alone the guys!). But I don’t feel right doing that. I do pick up our futons and pile them into the closet when we get up, but lots of times when I come back from class they’re hanging outside over the wall to air. The one time I did lug everything out there, it clouded right up and I just managed to get it all back in before it rained.

So I decided to do something for everybody—not just take care of my own stuff. I figured I could do the laundry because even though okaasan does it practically every day, it always starts to pile up again right away. I thought I had watched her do it enough times that I could do it by myself. I knew she would take over if she saw me doing it, so I waited until Saturday when she went out shopping after lunch. It isn’t a big machine and it was harder to figure out than I thought, so it took a lot longer than I expected. They don’t have a dryer so I was out back hanging out the clean things when okaasan got home. I could tell right away she wasn’t happy but she didn’t say anything. She put away the groceries and started dinner and I finished hanging the laundry.

Because it was Saturday, we could all eat dinner together. Keiko came in and asked how come the laundry was still outside even though it was getting dark. All of a sudden okaasan started to cry. I think everyone was as shocked as I was. Otoosan asked what the matter was and she just said “Devita did the laundry in the afternoon.” Otoosan and Keiko looked at me and okaasan cried. I had no idea what I did wrong. Then I couldn’t help it—I started crying too. I said, “I just wanted to help.”

Okaasan finally calmed down enough to tell me that it’s bad, for some reason, for the laundry to be hanging out in the evening. I apologized and told her I didn’t think it would take so long. Then otoosan jumped in and said of course I would be slow because I was new at doing things. He told okaasan that she had to stop treating me like a guest and start treating me like a daughter-in-law: teach me how to do things the right way and stop doing everything herself. Then he turned to me and said “And you just be sure you do things the way she shows you!” The rest of dinner was really quiet.

But this week has been much better. I’m helping around the house and okaasan is teaching me how to do things and letting me help. We get along much better than before and she seems much more relaxed around me.

2. An Unexpected Test: Okaasan Collapses (10.1)

Things have been going smoother since the “blowup” at dinner, but even though I’ve learned a lot about how to be a proper daughter-in-law, I still felt like we were kind of tip-toeing around each other. Plus Okaasan is up early and has the laundry hung out and the yard swept every day before I even wake up. Everybody said not to worry about it, but I still felt like I wasn’t doing my share.

Well, all that changed last weekend. Saturday I woke up earlier than usual because of an ambulance siren, really close. Then it stopped out front. The men came rushing into the house, loaded Okaasan onto a stretcher and took off! Before I could even find out what was wrong, everybody was heading off to the hospital. All I got was a quick “I’ll call you as soon as we know something. Take care of things here.”

So, I started with the laundry and sweeping the yard. I took the garbage to the collection place. I put the futons out to sun, then fixed some food for when they got back. The newspaper man came to collect and I paid him. I talked to a door-to-door insurance saleswoman. A neighbor brought the circulating neighborhood announcement folder. I looked it over, stamped it with our family name, and took it to the next house. Nothing very crucial, I thought.

Just before noon, everyone came home, even Okaasan . She had gotten an I.V. drip treatment for a bout of low blood pressure—nothing serious. So everything turned out OK, but the best part for me is the change in everyone’s attitude. You’d think I had saved the day single-handed by holding down the fort. Okaasan is back to her usual routine. And, they’ve started telling me to do things when they want me to do something. I feel much more relaxed.

3. I am Introduced to the Family Spirits (10.2)

Today we went to visit the family’s grave. We went a few months ago too, but I was very new then and didn’t really know what was going on. It took a while to figure out that the whole family has only one grave with one gravestone and, as family members pass away, their ashes are all put into the same grave. Also, I felt a little strange because they are Buddhists and I’m not, so I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be doing anything. I thought they might not like it because I’m not Buddhist. But today was completely different. I got introduced to the “rest of the family”—the grandparents who passed away, quite a while ago, I think.

Just like last time, they pulled weeds and washed the family gravestone, but now I feel more comfortable with the family, so I helped. When we finished cleaning, okaasan poured a can of beer over the gravestone and started talking. At first I thought she was talking to one of us. She said, “Here we are, back again.” But then she went on, “We brought you some beer. We remember how much you like it,” and I realized she was talking to ojiisan, the grandfather who they had said was a real beer lover. I thought it was interesting that okaasan was talking to someone who was dead, like he was right there and might answer, but then she introduced me as a new family member!

She said she was sorry they hadn’t introduced me the last time, and he and obaasan, the grandmother, must have been wondering who I was, but I was their new daughter-in-law. The thing that really grabbed me was her saying they probably had figured out that I was one of the family because I was there cleaning the grave too. She called me uchi no mono (an “inside” family member). Then otoosan lit a handful of incense sticks and we squatted down in front of the gravestone and prayed. They didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t a Buddhist. It was more like remembering the grandparents, who they were, and what they were like.

Tonight during dinner everyone talked about ojiisan and obaasan. Now, in a strange way, I feel like I’ve met them too. Today was the first time since I’ve been here that I really felt like they were including me as a family member.

Module 12.4
Devita, Foreign Spouse
Summary of Devita’s Trajectory from ‘I’ to ‘Uchi’

While Devita’s trajectory to uchi resembles those of the other newcomers, it differs in one important aspect. Out of all the newcomers, only Devita is a full uchi member upon her arrival in the family.  Thus Devita’s membership in uchi is unambiguous yet ironically, she doesn’t have the cultural competency to be able to perform as an uchi member. This sets the stage for her difficulties, since upon realizing that she is a “cultural child” the family responds, first by Okaasan’s “wrapping” her; then by Otoosan’s mandate to teach her the things she needs to know to “be” an uchi member. She ends up getting a short period of “wrapping” when she first arrives in the family, followed by a “crash course” to allow her to make the transition to where she’s been all along. Thus Devita’s trajectory from “soto to uchi” actually takes place within uchi. For families who are unable to figure out a way to give the cultural child a chance to “grow up” within uchi, as Devita’s did, this could be a difficult situation. 

1. Ambiguity of Devita’s Entry Point:  As the young wife Devita 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?

2. Helping Out / 3. Dealing with the Expert: (See Module 9.3: Foreign Daughter-in-Law: Guest or Domestic Servant?)
Devita attempts to deal with the situation by helping out—she tries to do the family laundry while her mother-in-law has gone shopping. But this backfires. Okaasan is upset when she returns and begins crying at dinner and Devita, who has no idea what she has done wrong, is in tears as well. Finally Okaasan tells her that it’s bad (for some reason) to have the laundry hanging out after dark. Otoosan now takes things in hand to break this impasse. He first defends Devita as a newcomer: “Of course she’s going to be slow at doing things because she’s new”. He next tells Okaasan to stop treating Devita like a guest and treat her like a daughter-in-law. She should teach Devita to do things the right way and stop trying to do everything by herself. And finally, he tells Devita to do things the way Okaasan shows her. Although this seems like a dose of common sense, something more is involved. As an uchi member Devita is supposed to already know things like not having the laundry hanging out after dark. She is supposed to be able to adapt well (without spoken instruction) and assist the expert (Okaasan) in running her household the way she is used to doing things. Since Devita can’t manage to adapt without explicit instructions on things “everyone is supposed to know”, Okaasan has simply “wrapped” her, and proceeds to continue to do everything herself. Otoosan manages to get Okaasan to start giving Devita a chance to learn what she needs to know, and Devita feels they are beginning to get along better.

4. Growing Up  (See Module 10.1: An Unexpected Test: Okaasan Collapses)
Devita turns out to be a quick learner and she soon has a chance to make use of what she’s learned, when Okaasan is suddenly carried off to the hospital in an ambulance early one morning. Everyone else goes with her, leaving Devita at home to “take care of things”. She proceeds to do everything that needs doing, effortlessly. This includes doing the laundry, sweeping the yard, taking the garbage to the collection point, putting out the futons, fixing lunch for everybody, and taking care of myriad people who come to the door with things she must sign, pay for, or stamp with the family name and bring to the next house. Devita’s competence is not lost on the family, nor on Okaasan, when they all return from the hospital at noon. From this point on the family asks Devita to do things as they normally would, and she is treated as an uchi member and a cultural adult.

5. Honne Messages / 6. Uchi Ties (See Module 10.2: I Am Introduced to the Family Spirits)
Devita’s entry into uchi is brought home to her when she goes with Otoosan and Okaasan to visit the family grave. She has gone there before, but this time Okaasan speaks to the ancestors, apologizing for not introducing her sooner, and explaining who she is. What especially struck Devita is Okaasan’s saying that “they (the ancestors) had probably already figured out that she was one of the family (uchi no mono—an “inside” family member) because she was there cleaning the graves too. In other words, she was doing things that “inside” family members do. This is a honne message, spoken in a “public” situation. (See Module 10.4)

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