Why the Japanese have no problem asking about your marital status.
As I looked in the mirror, I gave myself a quick, appraising look. I had decided to go with the black knee-length dress, tailored blazer and long, gold pendant. Professional but not your regular boring corporate wear. In short, the perfect outfit for a kindergarten entrance ceremony. A ceremony in which after giving a speech to a room full of hundreds of strangers, I would have to go and meet the parents of my new children for the first time.
Naturally I was nervous. These mothers and fathers already expected a lot from me. They expected me to take care of their 3 years olds without incurring serious injuries and they expected me to teach them English to a native level of fluency. They also expected me to do all this with poise, love and kindness, as should be expected from a kindergarten teacher.
Of course, I was ready for the barrage of questions they would have for me. “Where are you from?” “What did you study?” “Have you taught kids before?” “How long have you lived in Japan?” Those important questions that you should be asking the people who you are entrusting with the lives of your children.
My preparation it transpired, was all in vein. Instead of all the questions I was ready for, I had to settle for questions like “How old are you?” and “Are you married?” which, after my reply of “No” was followed by “Do you have a boyfriend?” also followed by a resolute “No.”
My answers seemed to elicit a lot of pity. One mother even said that she was surprised that I didn’t have a boyfriend because I seemed like the type of girl who has many boyfriends. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or flattered. To this day, I’m still not exactly sure what she meant by it.
As a foreigner in Japan, we can spend an usually large amount of our time answering questions. The Japanese are always curious about where we come from and what brings us here. They crave to know more about us as a person, what our home towns are like, whether we eat Japanese food and can we use chopsticks. All relatively easy (yet repetitive) questions that I don’t mind answering over and over again.
Yet, I will never understand the Japanese preoccupation with age and martial status. Where I come from, these two ideas are quite personal and usually have no bearing on a conversation between two people who have just met, other than if they are hitting on each other. Asking someone’s age, in both eastern and western cultures is considered a personal question, and yet the Japanese sometimes seem to feel that this privacy does not extend to foreigners living in their country. When I tell Japanese people my age, their reactions is the same “oh, you’re so young” and when I tell them that I’m single, the reaction is always a mix of confusion and pity. Not exactly reactions I enjoy.
Cultural researchers have always commented on the indirectness of Japanese communication. Whether this is due to an inherent shyness in Japanese culture or a more linguistic phenomenon is still much debated. In his book Japanese Culture and Communication: Critical Cultural Analysis Ray T. Donahue says,
“We can reasonably expect that verbal indirectness may be more characteristic of Japanese than of North Americans, but not always. Sometimes Japanese can be quite forward with foreign acquaintances in asking them personal questions about age or marital status.”
And it is quite true. I find that the more I live here, the more my personal life seems to be open for discussion among people who I’ve hardly met. While this may have bothered me in the past (and perhaps still irks me today) there is also a bright side. A Japanese curiosity of foreigners can only lead to a more open and welcoming place to live in. The Japanese are of course very friendly and accommodating people and starting with these albeit personal questions may of course lead to more interesting conversations in which we can learn from each other.
However to these mothers that had never met me and were placing the wellbeing of their children in my hands, the personal questions seemed like the most important questions in the world and though I didn’t take pleasure in replying, they listened to my answers way more attentively than they had listened to my speech.