When people hear that my research topic is international marriages, a spark lights up their eyes, quickly followed by the comment, ‘Oh, living with a foreigner must be difficult...’ When I ask, ‘Why do you think so?’, people quickly answer with ‘cultural differences’, but pushing further, language differences is also mentioned as one of the biggest issues that concern people. So, what is it about language and culture that make it difficult for people to understand each other? Don’t we all have different cultures? Will knowing a spouse’s language help? Is there anything else that makes it difficult for people to connect and understand each other?
Having those and many other questions in mind, I conducted my research on marriages of Russian-speaking women from former Soviet Union countries, who live in Japan and are married to Japanese men. I did not intentionally ask participants to talk about differences in customs or ways of living, but no matter what we discussed, the conversation would eventually reveal how spouses experienced and compared each other’s languages and cultures.
My Identities article, ‘International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union’, introduces the voices of Russian-speaking wives and Japanese husbands, and explores their thoughts about marriages and culture. I analyse some of my participants’ remarks about their communication with spouses, such as Lyubov, who described the way she talked with her husband:
Well, now [we speak] in Japanese, but it happens on very rare occasions, because we are ‘ideal Japanese family’, where everybody lives in their own space. We barely talk, only about children and whether there is enough money for living. That is more or less it.
I was wondering how this is an ‘ideal Japanese family’, when in another interview, another participant, Alexandra, said:
I don’t bother him [her Japanese husband] with every little thing anymore: when he forgets to turn off the light, or doesn’t clean the sink after shaving… I do it ‘like a Japanese woman’, [silently] clean it after him. He must have felt horrible in the first year of our marriage…
Why does doing things silently or not talking to a husband seem to be interpreted as an ‘ideal Japanese family’ or ‘ideal Japanese wife’? How did they come up with these images? How is an ‘ideal family’ different from the ‘ideal Japanese family’? And, what do Japanese husbands think about their marriages with these women?
I respond to these questions by analysing how women from former Soviet Union countries and their Japanese husbands think of and use culture in their everyday lives. In my analysis, I utilise Ann Swidler’s (1986) concept of culture shaping, a repertoire or ‘toolkit’ from which people construct ‘strategies of action’. Women in international marriages faced the burden of recognising their original cultural repertoire and the need to reshape it to create new strategies of action to fit into the life in Japan. On the other hand, their husbands lived in familiar environments outside the family, but had to deal with different ideals and customs inside their international marriages.
Thus, the correctness of husbands’ cultural strategies was reinforced by the Japanese society, while they had to negotiate cultural differences inside the international family. Having different social and cultural backgrounds, Japanese husbands and Russian-speaking wives had difficulties performing roles as their spouses expected. Their perceptions of marriage and customs differed, and therefore the rules they followed in the relationships were different and could lead to conflict. For this reason, it was important to analyse how international couples navigated and restructured their toolkits, and what values shaped their new strategies of action.
I hope my research sheds light not only on the many facets of such seemingly simple notions as ‘family’ and ‘marriage’, but also provides readers with an insight into how spouses in international marriages rationalise these differences; the way in which they change or persist in their habits; and how their ideas evolve and grow with new understanding.
Swidler, A. 1986. Culture in action: symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review 51: 273–286.
Blog post by Viktoriya Kim, Osaka University, Japan
Read the full article: Kim, Viktoriya. International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1677325