The Japanese woman wears a lavender kimono and sits on her knees by the irori—the sunken hearth—stabbing at the fire, using the force of kuyashimi. The English language fails the Japanese woman who sacrifices her life to her cheating husband, for no single English word expresses her experience. No word captures how the Japanese woman feels as she continues with her duties, tends to the household, stays silent, and maintains an impeccable bun. She does not take herself to bed, wail, or throw dishes. No. She is polite to her cheating husband. She disrupts nobody’s life. She bears all the grief alone. She does not share her struggles with anyone; the irori is her only witness. Kuyashimi evokes the physical resistance required of the body to hold this all in; no English word has such power.
This Japanese woman is not me, nor is she anyone I know. It is true that when I was sixteen, my friend shared with me a story about how he had witnessed his mother’s kuyashimi. In 1988, though, his mother was not wearing a kimono and tending the irori. The Japanese Woman is purely fiction: a powerful fiction.
The Japanese Woman was a dominant image of who I was not—who I never could or would be. Born and raised in Skokie, Illinois, I grew up an Oriental Girl, or maybe a Japanese Girl. Then, when I was 15, I moved to Japan and stopped being an Oriental Girl or a Japanese Girl. I became the Kikokushijo Girl—a returnee, a child who lived abroad because of her father’s work. When I went to a high school exclusively for returnees, I stopped being a Kikokushijo Girl, which would have been a redundancy. I should have just become Girl, but I was too daitan—written 大胆. Deconstructing the characters reveals much. The first letter simply means big. The right side of the second letter is clearly a sun above the horizon—dawn. At first glance, the left side looks like the opposite, or moon; but it isn’t. The two inner strokes were originally angled, not horizontal, a radical form of肉. 肉means flesh, meat, body part. The second letter is the simplified version of gall bladder, courage . . . or “balls.” Combined, the letters “big” and “gall bladder” create a word that translates as “big bravery.” In the context of Japanese culture, which depends on conformity, however, the word evokes dis-ease. Its very anatomy leaves no room for the feminine, if the feminine is defined by submission.
Without ever being quite Girl, I graduated from high school in Japan and started college there. I quickly became depressed about my future as Woman. As a female in Japan, I could be a Wife or I could become Office Lady—making coffee for male bosses, trying to find the Husband who would make me Wife. I could fathom myself as neither Office Lady nor Wife. Where would I put my “big balls”? I knew I couldn’t continue living here much longer. Then my lungs caught on. I ended up in the hospital, unable to breathe, my oxygen level low enough to require a mask. I left Japan so I wouldn’t die.
I ended up in Germany, where I met a Boy. He was Japanese, but wore bright yellow pants and spoke loudly—so un-Japanese. I mistook him for the Sun and followed him. Soon, I was Girlfriend. Then I got knocked up. We married, and I found myself back in Japan—this time in rural Mishima with Boy’s family. During this time, Boy tried to make me Yome: Bride, but really Servant. At twenty-two, I said with absolute certainty, “I will not be Yome.”
Eventually, we returned to the United States. I refused being Yome, but became Wife. I tended a home for Husband and Baby—soon Babies. I began to lose myself. First, I gave up my bookcases; Husband saw no reason for me to read. Then, I gave up my own taste—Husband deemed it bad. Quickly, I gave up my time, waking up at 3a.m. to have enough of it, but none to spend on myself. I gave up eating, too. I came to accept that the burden of all the things was for me to bear, and the bad behavior of all the people was for me to bear, and all of me was to be given up, and I became the one with no voice. I became the one clad in a metaphoric kimono, with no one I could confide in about my despair. Somehow, I had managed to become Japanese Wife.
I never became Japanese Woman, however. Japanese Woman would not have left her husband. I left my husband, even though he didn’t cheat on me. He did hit me, but that wasn’t the reason I left. I left because I was bored—something I know Japanese Woman would never have done.
When I left my marriage with two young children, everything unraveled. I lost friends, family, savings, and profession. I kept only a car and my children. I moved across the country, stopped teaching, and took a job changing bedpans in the Emergency Department—so I could be home when the children came home. My meal plans involved charging cocktails and fried mozzarella sticks on my credit card at Happy Hour. The kids learned how to do their own laundry and to not ask me for homework help. After they went to bed, I talked on the phone with my college-age boyfriend. Then I stayed up until midnight writing stories about my life as Japanese Wife. To pay for my son’s braces, I sold my eggs for $5,000. I was a minority, female, poor, single, raising children alone, breaking taboos, working a menial labor job, and writing at night.
In other words, I was liberated.
Finally, I found my authentic Self. I found my community among the nurses who had my back. I took pride in paying the rent on time. My young boyfriend adored me. I published a story, then another, and another. I once eavesdropped on my daughter telling my son, “We used to be poor, but now we are rich.” The truth of this moved me: We used to be poor, but now we are rich. For the first time, my identity wasn’t determined by the value of others. My life was rich and beautiful, and I loved being a Solo Mom with all my heart.
Mika Yamamoto is a writer and Public Assistance Guide for ESME.com. Her work can be found in Noon, Nelle, Hawaii Pacific Review, Rumpus, and others.