Trousseau of Change for Japan


Xenophobic rural Japan is in the throes of an import craze that is challenging its most intimate traditions. Deep in the mountainous heartland, the most sought-after commodity these days is a foreign bride.

“When I turned 35, I started trying hard to get married and I tried for 10 years, but I couldn’t find a wife,” said Eibi Igarashi. The shopkeeper, now 51, faced the cold facts: No modern Japanese woman would live with him and his mother in isolated, old-fashioned Tadami, population 5,804 and falling.

“I realized that if I didn’t get a bride from Thailand, I would spend the rest of my life alone,” he said.

Igarashi got two Thai brides. He spent more than $23,000 to marry the first one, who refused to move to Japan even after he had given her family elaborate presents, causing him to lose face in his village and fall into a funk. Realizing it could be his last chance, Igarashi returned to Thailand and picked out 20-year-old Mui from a group of 30 eligible women assembled for him by a marriage broker.


Six years later, Mui has finally stopped complaining about the cold in Tadami, which is in snow country. She has learned to cook Japanese food well enough to satisfy her live-in mother-in-law, earned a driver’s license and produced two daughters.

The Igarashis are one of the success stories in tiny Tadami; of the eight foreign brides who have come here, two have divorced and the marriages of two more are reported by neighbors to be in trouble. About 100 other single men over 30 are trying to get married but have so far been unable to snag Japanese brides.

The number of marriages between Japanese men and foreign women--which typically involve impoverished, divorced or widowed young Filipinas, Thais or Chinese marrying much older rural Japanese--began to rise sharply in the late 1980s. The past five years have brought a surge of mainland Chinese brides. Ethnic Japanese brides from Peru and Brazil also are considered desirable by men who want their children to look Japanese.

According to the Justice Ministry, nearly 245,000 foreigners, including children, were living in Japan on spousal visas in 1995, up from 130,000 in 1990.


In 1995, more than 19,500 Japanese men married women from the Korean peninsula, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil or Peru, accounting for about 2.5% of all marriages, according to the Health and Welfare Ministry. There was a twentyfold increase in foreign brides from 30 years ago, when most international marriages were Japanese women wedding American or European men.

Moreover, 1.7% of all babies born in Japan in 1995 had a foreign parent. The statistic is puny compared with the immigrant United States but significant in this island nation that barred foreigners from entry for 219 years, banned intermarriage with foreigners until 1873 and still clings to an ideal of ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

A New Look at Laws

Gradually the presence of these foreign women and their children is forcing a reexamination of Japanese laws and attitudes--not only in cosmopolitan Tokyo but also in tradition-bound farming villages where until 30 years ago many residents had never seen a gaijin, or foreigner, except on television.

Feminist critics see these arranged marriages as a nasty byproduct of the improving status of Japanese women, millions of whom would now rather stay single than submit to a subservient, demeaning or merely boring role as rural bride.

“Wives here are wanted primarily for their labor; that’s why no Japanese women want to do it,” said Takiko Kawahara, who has seen about 60 foreign brides, mostly Chinese, arrive in her farming town in Yamagata prefecture, northeast of here. “Japanese women have better options.”

Japanese men do not, especially if they are the oldest sons of rural families. These men are duty-bound to carry on the family line and care for aging parents--which traditionally meant finding a wife to perform the task for them.

The selfless bride, or o-yome-san, was expected to be the first up in the morning and the last to sleep at night. In between, she worked in the home and fields, served her mother-in-law and her husband, raised children, tended her new family’s ancestral grave and kept her opinions to herself. In conservative areas, she is called the o-yome-san until her mother-in-law dies.


“There are families here where the great-grandmother is still living, and the 60-year-old grandmother is still the o-yome-san, and the great-grandmother still controls the family purse strings into her 80s,” said Miho Yoshioka, 34, who lives in Katsunuma, about 55 miles west of Tokyo in a grape-growing area of Yamanashi prefecture.

In many farm families, mothers who remember their harsh experiences as brides want something better for their daughters. “They want to get an o-yome-san to come marry their son, but they want their daughter to marry a salaryman,” Yoshioka said.

Although Katsunuma is a two-hour train ride from Tokyo, its 250 bachelors are having trouble luring Japanese women. For the past two years, the town has been inviting single women for an autumn leaf-viewing and sightseeing tour that throws them together with the local Romeos. But the matchmaking has had little success.

And because of a demographic quirk, Japan has a surplus of 2.5 million single males ages 30 to 59--just as Japanese females, armed with college degrees, better jobs and more independent and fun-loving spirits, are deciding to marry later or not at all.

Between 1985 and 1995, the percentage of never-married Japanese women in their 20s jumped from 30% to 50%, while the number of single females in their early 30s doubled to 20%.

‘Christmas Cakes’

Women unmarried at 25 used to be called “Christmas cakes,” in danger of being left on the shelf after their season ended. “Now the women’s magazines all say the best time to get married is when you want to,” said Shokichi Fujisawa, whose Tokyo marriage agency sets up as many international matches as Japanese ones.

With the male-female power balance tilting in their favor, many daughters of the rising sun refuse to live in the hinterlands.


Two-thirds of Fujisawa’s male clients come from the countryside, where the “marriage crisis” is most acute. But many foreign brides do go to the big cities--often marrying men who work in the entertainment industry or who are suspected of having ties with the yakuza underworld.

They are also marrying burakumin, members of Japan’s outcast group, said Takashi Uchino, a spokesman for the Buraku Liberation League. Overt discrimination against the former “untouchables” is fading--but not in marriage, Uchino said. It is still quite common for Japanese families to hire detectives to research a potential spouse’s family history to ferret out burakumin or ethnic Koreans trying to pass as Japanese, he said.

Even guys like Igarashi don’t stand a chance of securing a Japanese mate. He left school at 15, and only about five of his 30 female classmates stayed on to marry in Tadami, in Fukushima prefecture about 120 miles northwest of Tokyo. He lives with his mother behind the family store in a rambling home that lacks central heating. Igarashi said he once proposed to a divorcee with children--whose marriage prospects are judged by Japanese society to be dim-to-nil--but even she refused to marry him unless he agreed to move to a small city nearby.

But Mui, the oldest of six children from a poor family in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, was happy to have him. “I had heard about Mt. Fuji, and I wanted to see cherry blossoms and other things we don’t have in Thailand,” she said in passable Japanese, of which she spoke not a word when she arrived. “When I met him, I thought he was very nice so I wasn’t afraid.”

Mui appears to have adjusted to her role as o-yome-san. Her husband admits he tries hard to accommodate his wife’s different customs because otherwise he fears she will leave him. Perhaps more important, Mui’s mother-in-law approves of the bride.

“She does everything, so I am very glad she’s here,” said Haruyo Igarashi, whose legs are giving her trouble. “When you get old, it’s really a problem if you don’t have an o-yome-san.”

Married life is not going as well for Luo Ling, a 25-year-old Beijing native whose first Japanese husband died of lung cancer last year three months after their wedding. She aborted the child she was carrying and accepted another marriage proposal from one of four single Japanese men who began courting her immediately after the funeral.

Luo is now called by a Japanese name. She spends her days caring for her bedridden mother-in-law and an ailing father-in-law, both of whom show dissatisfaction with her. Her husband wants a child right away, but she is secretly trying not to get pregnant because she is unsure whether the marriage will work out.

“I don’t know what he is thinking,” she said. “It’s because of the language barrier; it’s difficult to be close.”

In China, Luo’s image of Japan was of a land of skyscrapers, Sony Walkmen and abundant yen. Asked what her Chinese friends, who have found themselves in a rural land of mountains and modest means, think of the Japanese men they married, she replied, “They think they are stingy.”

Her husband gives her an allowance of about $100 a month, so she has begun to assemble electronic components at home for money.

“I chose this, so I will try to make it work,” she said. “But to tell you the truth, sometimes I want to go home.”

Mayumi Kawabata, 44, a Japanese activist, was shocked when she moved to Nagano prefecture from Tokyo 10 years ago and was asked by neighborhood women, “Whose o-yome-san are you?” Now she runs a network of volunteers in the prefecture, about 100 miles west of the capital, that provides support and counseling to 40 to 50 miserable foreign brides, including a number who have fled abusive families.

She said she believes the majority of the hastily arranged marriages are exploitative and doomed. And she views the widespread practice of giving Japanese names to the brides as an unpleasant echo of Japan’s colonialist past.

“In truth, they don’t like Filipinas or Koreans or Sri Lankans, so why do they marry them?” Kawabata said. “They don’t look at marriage as a social contract between two individuals--they look at an o-yome-san as a piece of acquired property.”

Moreover, the women are under terrible pressure to produce babies. “One Korean woman told me that every morning her in-laws would ask her, ‘How was last night?’ ” Kawabata said.

Many Fake Marriages

But others note a large number of fake marriages by women angling to get into one of the largest and most lucrative illegal labor markets in the world. Some of the “brides” have paid their husbands for their marriage licenses, while others dump their duped spouses the instant they get their feet on the ground in Japan.

“Their goal is not to get married but to come to Japan,” said Hideyuki Kobayashi, a legal advisor who has arranged 50 international marriages in the last three years.

Kobayashi claims a high success rate because he deals only with ethnic Korean women from rural China, who he says have similar food preferences to Japanese and have similar traditions of filial piety and living with a husband’s parents. Moreover, he will only introduce plain, divorced or widowed women who he believes are likely to be contented with his not-very-rich and less-than-glamorous male clients.

“These 50- or 60-year-old balding shrimps, why are they marrying beauty queens from Shanghai and Beijing to begin with?” Kobayashi said.

Blame the language barrier, the age difference, the o-yome-san system or the naked ambition of poor immigrants. Whatever the culprit, the large number of divorces where children are affected--as well as a surge in the number of out-of-wedlock half-Japanese babies born to foreign workers, prostitutes and entertainers--forced Japan to revise its immigration laws last year to allow the mothers of half-Japanese children the right to permanent residence in Japan.

And in myriad ordinary ways, rural Japanese are trying to cope with the gaijin in their midst.

The Thai brides of Tadami put up their own food stall during the town’s snow festival, and Chinese brides in many towns have been invited to give cooking classes. Another district that is home to more than 1,000 foreign wives has begun a program of international cultural education for residents, in part to make sure that the children of non-Japanese mothers are not subjected to bullying by classmates.

“The towns do change for the better; they internationalize at least a little,” Kobayashi said. “People who never bought a dictionary buy a Chinese conversation book. In these little villages, 70- and 80- and 90-year-old grannies are saying ‘Ni hao’ [‘hello’ in Chinese].”

In some families, the notion that foreign brides should not be treated like the Japanese o-yome-san of 50 years ago has even been taken up by the chief enforcers of tradition, the mothers-in-law.

Aiko Hoshi, 36, a Korean Chinese woman who married a Tadami carpenter two years ago, said she is trying hard to become Japanese. “I want to learn the language and the customs and be a good wife,” she said. But because Hoshi works, when she comes home her 77-year-old mother-in-law does not let her cook, clean or do laundry.

“My mother-in-law’s only daughter married an American and went to America,” Hoshi said. “She said she wanted this woman who came from China to be her daughter.”

Chiaki Kitada of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


Foreign Brides

Japanese men are turning increasingly to foreign brides as better-educated and more affluent Japanese women refuse to live in outlying areas.

Japanese Marriages, 1995:

Total marriages: 791,888

Japanese-Japanese couples: 764,161

Japanese bride and foreign groom: 6,940

Japanese groom and foreign bride: 20,787


Origin of Foreign Brides:

Philippines: 7,188

China: 5,174

Korea: 4,521

Thailand: 1,915

Brazil: 579

U.S.: 198

Peru: 140

U.K.: 62

Other: 990

Note: Figure for Korean brides includes South Koreans as well as ethnic Koreans who have lived in Japan for several generations.

Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare, Japan