The Little Brown Wren

by Joan Itoh 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Perhaps the most controversial column ever to appear in our pages was this one from Oct. 22, 1976, when our regular “Blue-Eyed View” columnist Joan Itoh got it all off her chest about the drab little Japanese office girl who poses the greatest threat to the wife. It hit the fan. Letters pro and con flowed into our office; talk around town was of little else. No one was neutral. Another of our regular columnists, Danny Callaghan, took Weekender. What fun!

This is a subject that I have wanted to write about for some time but naturally hesitated. A recent “Dear Joanie” letter forced the decision.

Actually the letter wasn’ t one the writer ever wanted printed. She just wanted to talk to another foreign woman who had more experience with life in Japan than she. We met for lunch and I mostly listened. After she talked it out, she thought it might be a good thing to print her letter after all. I thought a column would be best.

Her story is not original: anyone who has lived in Japan for some time and is not deaf, blind or totally insensitive knows of similar cases. When writing about it, of course, the names are changed to protect the innocent—and the not-so-innocent.

So, this is a story—or half-a-story—about an Ameri­can couple named John and Mary who live in Tokyo. It is called “half-a-story” because we still don’t really know how it will turn out.

Anyway, John and Mary are a very nice couple…you may even know them. He is a businessman of ability and has a responsible position he takes very seriously. Mary is an attractive, outgoing woman and is kept busy with their children, women’s club activities and a more active social life than she knew in the States.

Like other couples in their set, their children go to a foreign “international” school and they live in a luxury apartment. They have a full-time maid, a car with driver and membership m the American Club. All is paid for by John’s company.

Mary now admits that before they came to Japan they did have some personal problems. They raised their voices at each other from time to time, but nothing she considered serious. Recently, however, John became nit-pickingly critical of her and they raised a a little more often. What was worse, is that he didn’t raise his voice at all, but put the message of disapproval across with a kind of smirk and a shake of his head. If Mary had been more aware of the danger, she would have recognized the signs of the presence of a “little brown wren.”

Like other businessmen, John goes out of the country on business often. He says “Goodbye, dear” and gives her a peck on the cheek at their door. She  never went to the airport either to sir him off or greet his return. She offered,but he said it wasn’t necessary and there were always things to be done concerning the children. Mary didn’t understand about living in Japan.

Last month she really missed him while he was away for two weeks. Somehow, she had a nagging feeling that he felt she was neglecting him, so she decided to go to the airport to show him she really cared. It was supposed to be a nice surprise for John. It was Mary who really got the surprise!

When John came through the door after Customs at Haneda, he was carrying two suitcases instead of his usual one. Right behind him, carrying his brief­case, came little Miss Suzuki, his secretary.

Mary didn’t know Miss Suzuki had traveled with John. Like a typical American wife, she showed her irritation and hurt, right there in the airport lobby Miss Suzuki seemed upset, too. She suddenly remembered she was not going to Tokyo after all. She remembered she had promised, she said, to go to her sister’s home in Yokohama right from the airport to spend the night.

In the car, John said he didn’t feel that the fact his secretary was traveling on the same plane with him was important enough to mention to Mary. He said she just happened to take this time while he was away for her own vacation. There was a small scene in the car in full ear-shot of the company driver. Since that time, it has been “tensionville” at home.

Until this happened, Mary never thought much about Miss Suzuki. She’d met her at John’s office where little Miss Suzuki (as Mary called her) hardly ever said a word to her. She did notice that when little Miss Suzuki came to their home for a Christmas party, little Miss Suzuki waited hand and foot on John. Mary thought it was fine for her husband to have such a devoted, efficient, drab little secretary.

Now as she looked back she saw things that never impressed her before. Like the tie John wears so much. Wasn’t that the one little Miss Suzuki gave him for Christmas? And didn’t he mention that the wonderful medicine he takes faithfully for his high blood pres­sure was something little Miss Suzuki bought for him in a Chinese herb shop? By the time Mary and I had lunch, she was a worried woman. “But Joan,” she said, tears filling blue eyes, “that girl isn’t even pretty!” Ah, some of us have heard that before. Maybe many of you reading this know of one or two or five foreign women who have been down the road Mary is now traveling. A very clear case of little brown wren building her nest in another woman’s territory. The damage done by the local little brown wrens is often irreparable.

Now, before someone misinterprets this as an attack on all Japanese womanhood, let me make it clear it is nut. There are “little brown wrens” in New York, London and probably all over the world, but somehow the Japanese variety of the species seems to score a higher percentage of damage. In other words, Japan is no place for the foreign couple with a shaky marriage.

The chances are if the foreigners’ marriage sur­vives a couple of years in this country, it will probably survive anywhere.

Strangely enough, little brown wrens are rarely pretty by Western standards. Although she is almost always younger than the wife, the fact that she doesn’t turn any heads throws the wife off her guard.

Little brown wrens excel in playing “Miss Goodie Two Shoes.” She rarely drinks or smokes and she doesn’t go in too much for makeup. She acts pure as the driven snow (but not cold) and she is extremely neat and clean about her desk and her personal appearance.

A little brown wren is usually rather small and slim. She speaks in a very small, sweet voice. She is a good listener and knows how to give little compli­ments to the man she is interested in without saying much. She knows all about a man’s ego (something all Japanese women must learn in order to survive) and is very skillful at giving massage.

When it develops to the point where she is giving the man a head-and-shoulder massage after a day’s work, the foreign wife can almost start packing.

Wako Department Store is the favorite shopping place for the Japanese little brown wren. She likes quality, has some real good jewelry she bought her­self, several designer scarves and at least one Gucci handbag. She may look quite ordinary…but she is attracted by what she considers class.

Her favorite target is the husband of a woman who is very different from herself. A tall blonde who smokes, likes cocktail hour arid laughs loud and a lot would be ideal. With such a wife at home, it is easy for her to subtly change the man’s mind about what he likes in a woman. She will make a disapproving face at the lipstick-slained cigarette the wife might leave in her husband’s ashtray.

What she is actually doing is giving the foreign man a crash course in Confucian teaching. She may or may not be smart enough to realize it. What she does realize is the more male-chauvinism she can bring out, the more marvelous he is going to think she is.

Without really saying it, she will somehow get the message across lo the man that his wife is really too tall, too fat or that she has awfully big feet. The little brown wren can plant the seeds that make a man wonder if his wife is really appreciating his hard work or caring enough about his needs. The little brown wren is very good also at pointing out—and quickly repairing—a loose button on his jacket or a hole in his sock.

Most wives put up antennas when a glamor girl enters the scene. She doesn’t like it much when her husband is dancing or laughing with a more beautiful, younger or more sexy-looking woman than she is. More than likely the vivacious girl who is carrying on in full sight of every­one is no threat at all, not even here in Japan.

It would be better if she paid more attention to the drab little creature sitting in one corner carrying on a quiet conversation with her man. This could be a little brown wren in action.

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