Residence: Naha-shi, Okinawa, Japan
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/27/12
Primary Language: Japanese
In Japan, married couples who have children often begin to call each other 「お父さん」(otousan) and 「お母さん」(okaasan) which translates to “father” and “mother.” The apparent strangeness of this phenomenon is illuminated only when one tries to apply it to American society, where parents generally still call each other by their names or pet-names. An American mother, for instance, although she may say to her child something like, “Look, your father is over there!” would never, when speaking alone with her husband, call him “father,” just as her husband would never refer to his wife as “mother.”
My informant, who has spent her entire life in the city of Naha-shi in Okinawa, Japan, was extremely surprised when I told her of the apparent strangeness of this folk speech. Her mother has always called her husband (and my informant’s father) “father,” and her father has always called his wife “mother.” It was always perfectly natural for my informant and for everybody else in Japanese society to hear parents talking to each other as if they were each other’s children. Though they refer to each other by their names occasionally, they very rarely stray from this folk speech, which seems to characterize the relationships between most parents in Japanese society.
Though Japan has a very low divorce rate, research has shown it to have one of the highest percentages of unhappily married couples in the world. This percentage, though partly a result of women lacking the economic independence to free themselves from an unhappy marriage, also arises from the prominence of children in Japanese married life. According to my informant, many a Japanese couple, after they have children, shift towards investing their entire life and love towards their children, becoming not man and woman but “father” and “mother,” defining themselves solely by their positions as their children’s caretakers.
When my informant came on an extended visit to America, she was perplexed to see, on some American TV show, an episode when the parents leave their kids with a baby-sitter and go off on a night of their own. The concept of a baby-sitter barely even exists in Japan, where usually women serve as housewives and are always home, and where the possibility of leaving the children behind to go on a date as man and woman feels like some kind of betrayal of the family system. 「結婚したらロマンスなくなるよね〜」was what my informant’s mother had said, which, roughly translated, means You can’t expect the romance to keep going after you get married and have kids.
That parents have–always, it seems–called each other 「お父さん」 and 「お母さん」referring to themselves only as “father” and “mother” in relation to their children, seems understandable then, in the context of Japanese society. Perhaps this folk speech derives itself from the very culture and sensibilities of the Japanese people. In Japan, perhaps, nurturing children and creating a cohesive family with clearly defined roles is seen as more important and easier, perhaps, than a passionate love between parents, hence the reason why so many people disregard their names (and subsequently, perhaps even their individual identities) to adopt the generic roles of mother, and of father.