Building bridges

Trends & Culture - February 15th, 1974

by Yurie Horiguchi

A foreign lady asked me the other evening if I could explain the mystery of why certain Japanese gentlemen, invited to dinner with their wives, accept, then don’t come.

Now, a mystery, according to my dictionary, is “that which is beyond human knowledge to explain,” and I am just a simple human without occult or esoteric powers to enable me to penetrate the obscure.

Theorize I can, however. In fact, I am very good at theorizing having been bles­sed from birth with a proli­fic imagination.

So let us examine this hypothetical situation:

Our hero receives an in­vitation to dinner addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Suzuki.” It is addressed to his office. Mr. Suzuki considers all mail addressed to his office to be business mail. (All personal greeting cards— such as New Year cards— wedding announcements and invitations, congratulatory messages and gifts are al­ways sent to a person’s home address.)

Mr. Suzuki makes a note of the date and eventually gets around to telephoning his acceptance, or more often waits for his host’s secretary to telephone him to ask if he will attend.

A day or so before the party, he meets a friend who has some experience of gaijin parties, and his friend tells him it will be very awkward if he doesn’t take his wife as there will then be an empty place at the dinner table. Mr. Suzuki groans the Japanese equiva­lent of “good grief!” and admits he hasn’t even men­tioned the subject to his wife. Mr. Suzuki slinks away.

He knows he cannot tell his wife on the eve of the party that he expects her to go with him. His wife would make a terrible scene. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? What shall I wear? Hair­dresser ! Baby-sitter! — the universal protests of all last-minute-informed wives. She refuses to go.

Mr. Suzuki cannot tele­phone his host to say his wife refuses to go. All Jap­anese wives are believed to be subservient by gaijin who don’t know the truth of the matter—that the Jap­anese wife governs though her husband reigns.

The night of the party Mr. Suzuki goes to his favorite bar and gets drunk in the company of sympathetic hostesses who hate all for­eign wives on principle.

End of hypothetical situa­tion No. 1.

Hypothetical situation No. 2:

Mr. and Mrs. Suzuki re­ceive an invitation addressed to their home. Mrs. Suzuki opens it. She ponders deep­ly. The date is for ten days ahead. Plenty of time.

Mr. Suzuki comes home. They discuss the invitation. Mrs. Suzuki does not speak much English but she is curious to see how the gaijin live and thinks it might further her husband’s career to go with him even at the cost of remaining dumb.

The Suzukis (as do many Japanese) live 1 1/2 hours commuting distance from the center of Tokyo. Many details must be arranged be­forehand, such as, where to meet before going to the party because, of course, Mr. Suzuki will not be able to return home to pick her up.

There are two small child­ren. Grandmother or older sister will either baby-sit or take the children to their own homes for the night.

This involves a lot of tele­phoning and time adjusting. Mrs. Suzuki would prefer grandmother to come to the house to help her dress in her best kimono while older sister has a beautiful new one she will lend.

Grandmother agrees to be there at 3 p.m. on the day of the party. She will help daughter dress, then take the children home with her. Older sister has sent the kimono over several days beforehand. Mrs. Suzuki will have to leave her home at 5 p.m. (for a 7 p.m. invitation)  in order to meet her husband at the rendezvous.

In the meantime, because very few Japanese know the meaning of “R.S.V.P.”, and even fewer the meaning of “Regrets Only,” the host’s secretary has telephoned Mrs. Suzuki to confirm their acceptance.

The day of the party ar­rives. The Japan National Railways has called for a go-slow strike. Trains are running irregularly. Grand­mother phones to say she will be late. Mrs. Suzuki begins to get nervous. She listens to the news. Trains on her line to Tokyo are running infrequently.

She phones Mr. Suzuki. No, he says, we cannot afford a taxi to get you here and take us home (it would cost over ¥10.000); try your luck at the station anyway.

Mrs. Suzuki first has to wait for grandmother. She arrives at 4.30 and just has time to help her daughter tie her obi.

Mrs. Suzuki rushes off. The Tokyo train has just left. The station master says “saa” when she asks about the next one. She waits an hour on the platform. If the train comes, it will be 7.30 by the time she gets to Tokyo. By the time she meets up with her husband it will be almost 8 p.m. By the time they get to the din­ner party it will be 8.30 p.m.

Mrs. Suzuki returns home in tears. She does not know the telephone number of the place she is to meet her husband. Mr. Suzuki waits and waits. He telephones home but there is no answer. His wife has gone to her sister nearby to weep on her shoulder and return the kimono. Mr. Suzuki slinks away.

He goes to his favorite bar and gets drunk in the company of sympathetic hostesses who hate all for­eign wives on principle.

End of hypothetical situa­tion No. 2.

Conclusions to be drawn: Send your invitations to Japanese guests to their home address if you are in­viting both husband and wife. Take into account the fact that most Japanese live in the suburbs—and some even in neighboring provinces (Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, etc.) and that cir­cumstances over which they have no control may prevent wives from coming into town at the last moment, such as heavy snowfalls, transportation strikes or breakdowns, sick grand­mother or baby-sitter, etc.

The Japanese husband is subsequently too embarras­sed to phone and apologize for their inability to attend despite previous acceptance. It is all too complicated to explain.