One sunny Saturday morning, at the end of my first week in Japan, Ms. Shinako arrived, packaged gift in hand, bowing deeply and smiling as she stepped through the door. She was in her mid-twenties, petite and a little bit mousy, with long black hair coming down to her shoulders, which she kept sweeping behind both ears.
This was the first time anyone in the family had met her, but even I had heard much about her from my host mother. She was the fiancée of my predecessor, a man they had boarded through the city’s homestay program ten years ago. Whenever she talked about him, my host mother would call out his name with an emphatic sigh: “Hak-joon!” Over the past week, the family had worked out their excitement at meeting his fiancée by telling me all about the man himself. “A good person” was the phrase that my laconic host father would use, and then my host sister and host mother would jump in with various anecdotes. “After working in Kobe for a while, he became super-Kansai-speech,” my host sister said, grinning and imitating the strong intonations of that folksy southern dialect. Later he changed jobs and moved to Singapore and then Australia, helping out my host sister when she was a college student in Sydney. “Look!” they would say, poring over Saya’s newly arrived graduation pictures. “This is Hak-joon. And here he is again.” After greeting her warmly, we moved to the living room where we had a view of the garden through the glass doors. It was the beginning of June, and the roses were in full bloom. It wasn’t a large garden: square and compact, it felt like it had been pushed into the house, like those poor commuters in Tokyo. Each morning my host mother would conduct a tour of the garden, pointing out the new roses that had blossomed over the night as we all stood in our slippers and brushed our teeth. When Ms. Shinako gasped over the roses, my host mother just about burst with pride. Saya was out so it was just four of us. Ms. Shinako was a Kyoto lady, born and raised in the traditional seat of Japanese culture and sophistication. She wore a black single-breasted jacket and below it a blouse printed with a large pink flower. Her skirt, also black, came down to her knees. She was well-mannered and feminine, maintaining a natural grace and economy of movement throughout the conversation. Most Japanese people are very expressive with their hands when they talk. While my host mother kept her hands down beneath her neck, where they had room to be tossed and flung about, Ms. Shinako liked to bring her hands up to her face, hiding her cheeks with little whimpers of embarrassment when complimented, and making small restrained gestures with her fingers drawn together to help convey what she was trying to say. When she was listening she would place her hands clasped upon her lap, on top of her legs which were kept neatly together and tilted to the side just so. Ms. Shinako and Hak-joon had met just seven or eight months ago, when Ms. Shinako had tagged along on a trip that her friend had organized. The trip was part of a corporate seminar that Hak-joon was participating in, and the weekend became more than just a free vacation for Ms. Shinako. Since then, they had been meeting whenever Hak-joon visited Japan for work, which was every other month or so, and had exchanged more than 9,000 emails. “9,000 emails!” I blurted out. The problem was, and this was the reason why Shinako had visited the Miyakawas, that the couple was having trouble getting her parents’ blessings. “At first,” she said, “I had expected Hak-joon’s family to oppose, but it went much better than I thought it would. You hear about anti-Japanese sentiment on the news…” She had visited his family in Seoul several times now, and had been welcomed and accepted each time. I was surprised, as many Koreans still strongly dislike the Japanese and everything from fishing rights negotiations and Korean-Japanese soccer matches are treated as if the nation’s sovereignty were still at stake. Her story took a stranger twist as she continued to talk about Hak-joon’s family. His father had been a fighter pilot and Major General (two stars) in the Korean Air force, and had later been promoted to Lt. General (three stars) of what would later become the National Intelligence Service. This was during the 80’s, when South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship that ranked human rights low on its list of priorities, especially in the intelligence corps. “That was where he completed his military service. It was a nine-to-five job in Seoul, and was very comfortable.” The association of the beloved Korean with that harsh period in Korean history struck me as bizarre. “But in the end,” she said, “it wasn’t so much a matter of national politics as it was a matter of individual personalities.” She was talking about her own parents. The conventional phrase in Japanese that kept popping up though out the conversation was “a hard ball of prejudice and stubbornness stuck together.” Her mother’s family were caretakers of one of the many Buddhist temples in Kyoto and Ms. Shinako’s grandfather was a Buddhist monk (In Japan, monks are allowed to marry). Her father ran a hair salon, one of the largest in Kyoto, with three stories for the salon and their home on the top floor of the building. When Hak-joon came to Kyoto to get her parents’ approval, they made him stand outside. My host father murmured and shook his head. “It was so very impolite,” Ms. Shinako sighed. He had come to the salon during morning roll call for the employees. When she heard that he had arrived, her mother said that she would commit suicide if he so much as set foot inside the house so her father left roll call to a subordinate and took him outside. There were gasps of shock all around. “Yon-chan,” This was my host mother calling me. Up to this point, I had been listening quietly as I downed my tea. My host mother and sister called me by the suffix reserved in Japanese for children, “-chan”, the closest English equivalent being “Little.” To them I was “Little Yon-ny.” They used the suffix liberally; my host mother’s married younger brother was still “Shin-chan” in his early thirties, and later during my stay the family’s six week old Pomeranian was dubbed “Pomu-chan.” “When he heard your story, Yon-chan over here said that the two of you might as well break-up.” Embarrassed, I tried to hammer together an explanation. “Well what I meant to say was that, in a situation like yours, most ordinary couples would consider, possibly, giving up.” Ms. Shinako was silent for a moment and then replied, “Speaking for both of us, we haven’t even considered ‘giving up,’ I am prepared to marry him even if, in the end, we don’t gain my parents’s approval, but we would like to try as hard as possible.” I just nodded. Much to my chagrin, my host mother brought up my words again and again, and Ms. Shinako gave the same reply each time. I gradually realized that what my host mother was actually doing was testing her resolve, trying to find any loopholes or clauses in her commitment. I was a convenient foil: I would be gone by the end of the summer, but the rest of the family might be involved for much longer. Going back to the subject of her parents, she called them a “mask husband and wife” a seemingly happy couple that hardly talked to each other. Ms. Shinako’s mother relied on her daughter, since she knew that her husband wouldn’t respond to anything that she said. She thought that he was cold and uncaring, and she had had surgery several times to correct a heart problem so she scarcely left the house. She had few friends so her only child was her entire world. Since she was a little girl, Ms. Shinako had heard that she was to “remain in the family,” married to someone who lived in Kyoto, not to this shifty foreigner who roamed all over Asia. “The sad thing is that they weren’t always like this.” Her own father had been fierce and persistent in asking for her mother’s hand. He was a renegade who had given up his job at the national electric utility in a society where being a government bureaucrat meant comfort and stability. He moved to Kyoto to start up his own hair salon, and persevered through threats and even beatings to win the approval of his wife’s family. In turn, her mother had been a devoted wife: she even started studying for a hairdressing certification after they got married, and the two ran their small salon together. When her father took Hak-joon outside, he told him not to return for three years. In three years he would consider their marriage. Ms. Shinako didn’t know why it was three years, but she speculated that this was because of an “urana.” “What’s an urana?” I butted in. An “urana” was a divination, a fortune telling. “I heard that in Korea these things are very popular, aren’t they?” I thought a while before answering. It was true that there seemed to be many places of “divination” and “Taoist philosophy” in Seoul. “Well, in Japan, they aren’t as popular as they are in Korea, more the kind of thing that lovers do for fun on dates than as a basis for serious decisions, but Kyoto people tend to be more inclined towards the supernatural. Even I feel a weight on my chest and my mind is poisoned when I walk through Gion (the ancient geisha district of Kyoto) though it’s all become high class restaurants.” It was also significant that her mother had grown up in a temple. It is commonly said that “happy” events such as the New Year or births and weddings follow Shinto rites while Buddhist rites are used in funerals and the midsummer festival of the dead. My host mother remarked, “I had a friend who was the daughter of a monk just like your mother. She assisted her father at many funerals. Eventually she started to hear footsteps going up the stairs when no one else was home. I went to Europe with her once, and at a church in Germany, yes, one of those churches with a graveyard around it, she turned pale and felt nauseous and wanted to leave immediately.” I started to rub my arm. Ms. Shinako said, “My mother is very spiritually sensitive. The day my father had a big car accident, she knew when and where it had occurred and told me that the police would call soon.” When Ms. Shinako had pointed Hak-joon out in the group picture from the seminar trip, her mother recoiled and said “don’t have anything to do with this man.” “Actually,” she said, “I laughed when I looked at the picture. I think that it was just a pretty bad picture.” It was past lunch now, and it was time for Ms. Shinako to go; she wanted to see a relative in the neighborhood before she took the train back in the evening. My host parents pledged to act as Hak-joon’s de facto parents and go visit Kyoto in the near future. I know that Hak-joon came to visit Japan for three days in early July, about four weeks later, and they came to visit the Miyakawas on the seventh evening of the month, the lovers’ holiday that the Japanese call Tanabata and the Chinese Qi xi. This is the day that Vega, the star of the weaving girl, and Altair, the star of the shepherd boy, meet at the Milky Way, the “river of the sky.” There are several variations of the legend: some say that they were separated because they were so happy together they were shirking their duties, others that they were separated because the emperor or empress of the heavens was angered that a common shepherd boy had stolen their daughter, but in any case the two are said to cross over the Milky Way on a bridge of magpies and spend just this one night together every year. I never did get to meet Hak-joon though. His visit overlapped with my break from the PII language program so I have nothing more to write.