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Off to Market


I bumped into Isomoto-san in the supermarket yesterday. Her family lives upstairs in our 'mansion', and like us, they are one of the few 'originals' still living here nine years after moving into this then brand new building. We were both carrying shopping baskets, standing somewhat aimlessly in the middle of the produce section, and consulting similar ragged slips of paper ... notes on possible menus for the evening dinner. I frequently bump into local housewives in such a fashion, and the comments they make to me are invariably of the same sort, just as hers was this time ... "Buru-san wa erai desune ...!" They think I am pretty 'special', because I go shopping ... because I make dinner every day ... do all the laundry ... keep my house clean ... etc. etc. When I laugh and reply with words to the effect that they must be 'special' too, because they are doing exactly the same things for their own families, their answer is of course very predictable ... "But you're a man!"

Thinking and writing about this kind of topic poses an interesting question. I am just a man going through a simple daily routine taking care of his family (I was divorced a couple of years ago, and live with my two elementary school age daughters), and to my mind, there is nothing particularly 'good' or 'bad' about these housework chores, but to many of the people around me, my activities carry quite a large 'meaning'. And this 'meaning' differs hugely from person to person. I am thinking in particular of four particular groups of people, each of whom seem to have a fairly predictable viewpoint on my situation: the local Japanese housewives, the local Japanese husbands, western women, and western men. Which of the four quite disparate opinions is 'right'?

The local women, especially the older ones (those about my own age, that is!), watch me go about my work somewhat wistfully. "If only my husband would ...", is of course their main thought. They grew up in an era in which men worked exclusively outside the home, and women in the home, and although such patterns are now slowly changing, very few of them have any experience of seeing their husbands do more than the odd token gesture of housework. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have bumped into a male acquaintance shopping in the supermarket. These women can only dream about having someone help them with work around the house.

Wistful is not the word that adequately describes how the local husbands see my behaviour. Just a short while ago, I was chatting with one of them, a man with whom I have become fairly friendly during these nine years in this apartment, and his comments ran to the, "Jeeez ... You sure are making life difficult for me recently ..." sort of thing. I guess the wives have been holding me up as a kind of example. "That guy downstairs does all the housework in his place. You could at least take out the garbage once in a while!", etc. etc. But these men honestly don't feel that sharing the housework is their responsibility. They mostly work long (hard?) hours at their company jobs, and when they get home, they certainly don't want to get involved in more work. This was the 'deal' they made when they got married - a pretty much complete division of labour. In their eyes, I am thus a bit of a 'troublemaker', blurring those previously clear roles, and stirring up problems.

I don't have much contact with western women recently, so perhaps I'm going out on a limb a bit here, but it seems to me that this group's attitude to this is also quite predictable. "So he goes shopping and does the cooking ... so what. What's the big deal? Some people feel he is virtuous because of that? Get real!" It's been a decade since I've been in a supermarket in Canada, but I'm sure that in any checkout line now, the numbers of men and women are probably not very far off fifty-fifty ... And I guess the word 'househusband' now appears in most dictionaries. My activities would not raise any eyebrows in Canada, and indeed, would not even be worthy of comment.

It is the thoughts of that fourth group, the western men, of whom I suppose I am one, that are perhaps the least 'visible' to me. I say 'I suppose I am one' because although of course I am clearly both 'western' and a 'man', the fact that I have lived buried quite deeply in this Japanese society for so many years now has certainly tended to affect my ways of thinking. I guess my basic view on this is that there is nothing particularly special about my housekeeping activities ... each member of a family should contribute to such chores to the extent that other factors (jobs, school obligations, etc.) allow. My 'real' work, woodblock printmaking, is done here at home, and doesn't demand all my time, so naturally I do housework as well. I don't have to particularly like it, simply that's just the way things are.

But interestingly enough, when I dig down a bit deeper inside, I find that my thoughts are more complicated than that, because actually, I seem to share the viewpoints of the other three groups as well ... all of them! Those Japanese women think I am 'special' ... Well ... I do too! It would be a lie to deny that. Not only do I provide a living for my family, but I do all the housework too. Is it so bad to feel pride at successfully handling both these jobs? When people like Isomoto-san make their supermarket comments, I politely 'brush them off' and outwardly deny the praise, but I would be less than human (less than male?) if such comments didn't make me feel good about what I was doing.

But do I also share the view of those Japanese men? Yes, absolutely. The situation they find themselves in is much like that of someone who starts playing a particular game, and then finds out that the rules have been changed while play is under way. The social contract that was in force during the time these men were growing up and getting married was, I believe, not such a badly written contract. Despite the image widely held in the west that Japanese women have been heavily oppressed and dominated by men, the reality of the situation has been (and is) quite different. Very few women indeed (I speak again of my own age group ...) had any interest in entering that male world, and found a very high level of fulfillment in taking care of their family responsibilities. This social contract is now under attack from many causes, most noticeably the general economic changes that are sweeping the world (and also the radically altered attitudes of the younger Japanese women), and this has left many of those men somewhat embittered. The more sensible and realistic among them will simply accept that their behaviour will have to change to some extent, but after growing up in one world they obviously find it difficult to live comfortably in a new one ...

And the third group, the western women ... Do I also share their views on these matters? Well, I guess enough of them are doing exactly the same thing as me - working all day and doing all the housework, that I can feel a fair amount of empathy with their position. Really of course, there is nothing special about my activities at all. But I do wish that some of them weren't quite so bitter about things ... "So ... welcome to the club!" was a comment from one woman I was speaking to a couple of months ago ... The quite pronounced feelings of bitterness and cynicism that surround many of these women leave me generally feeling quite uncomfortable in their presence, and I can't help feeling that they are in a way a kind of 'lost generation', people who have succeeded in overthrowing the old way of doing things, but who have yet to establish a satisfactory replacement.

I am sure that I can guess one of the questions that has come into your mind as you have read these words: "So what's this all about? Any of us do the cooking and cleaning when there's nobody else around to do it! Just how much housework did this guy do back when he was married?" Well, I didn't do much. My ex-wife and I had a division of labour sort of arrangement (unspoken), much like those I mentioned earlier. In the years we lived here in Japan before she left to return to Canada, I taught English classes, re-wrote translations, and made woodblock prints and wooden toys, while she did the first level of work on those translations, and also took care of the housework. We both took care of the kids, pretty much equally. I can't say whether one or another of us had a 'tougher' job. We both worked all day long. I don't recall that she ever complained because I wasn't sharing the housework, nor did I ever feel that I was doing the lion's share of the work. Things seemed to be in balance.

But now, after having this experience as a househusband, and demonstrating that I am perfectly capable of both providing a living for my family, and doing all the chores as well, what would happen if I was to find myself living with someone again? Would I slip back into my previous pattern, and never go near the stove again, or would she (perhaps having read this essay!) sit back and expect me to do everything! Of course, I don't expect that either of those scenarios would come about. The actual level of cooperation between us would depend I think, mostly on her desires. If she was heavily involved with 'outside' work, then I would do as much of the housework as was necessary, all of it if need be. If she felt less inclined to work at other things, but was more of a homemaker type, then I would find no problem in relinquishing the home chores. There is in my mind a huge list of things that I would like to do, and I would certainly not slide into 'couch potato' habits.

I guess that all in all, these years of being a 'solo' housekeeper, however long they may turn out to last (now four years and counting ...), will have been a valuable experience, whatever the future may hold. It can't be good for anyone to go through life being fed and cared for entirely by other people, and I had certainly been well down that road ... But now I see that it's time to put away this word processor, and head over to the supermarket ... Kitchen duty calls ... But maybe if I'm lucky again today, I'll bump into one of my neighbours. "Buru-san wa erai desune ...!" Music to my ears!