Yes. Go back, re-read it, let it sink in for a few seconds. The first time in her life. In thirty six years of life, this woman has never once spent the night by herself. It's odd enough that she's never lived by herself--the idea that she'd never spent a single night alone seemed impossible. That's unbelievable. As in, I really didn't believe it.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that her situation says something really significant about Japan. This is a woman who is clearly a successful adult. She has a job, she has a good marriage, she has a house and a car and she buys her own toilet paper. Japan is a country that values community above all else, and society is, after all, little more than a giant family. There is absolutely no social sense that she should disentangle herself from her family, or that by being so closely entwined with her family she is incapable of being her own person.
You might be tempted to dismiss her as some country bumpkin who doesn't know better, but aside from the fact that she's not a bumpkin at all, her story is far from unusual. It's absolutely commonplace in Japan for someone to live with their family until they get married--no matter how old they are when that happens.
There's a new English teacher at my school who is filling in for one of the teachers on a study abroad semester in California. He's probably in his late thirties, and his English is excellent even though he's a substitute. He also happens to be fluent in Spanish because he has spent several years teaching Japanese, first in Spain and then in Peru. Compared to your average Japanese person (who can probably sum up their international experience with "I went to California once.") he's significantly more well-traveled and international. He's planning on ditching Toyama for South America again in the near future.
And...wait for it...he lives with his parents.
We have a word for that: freeloader. Here's a guy with a full-time career and plenty of money in the bank who would probably never even consider living with his parents if he were from The US. Being relegated to his parents metaphorical half-finished basement would be unappealing to say the least. If we view the basement as a shameful place, as a semi-autonomous, half-free crutch for adult children who should have moved on, there's no such thing as a "basement" in Japan. There's no shame about living together as a cohesive family. As a matter of fact, the Japanese workplace often makes it incredibly hard to be self-supporting because of how many hours each week are spent at work.
Let's take a closer look at our substitute teacher for a moment. He lives in a different city (about an hour away by car--not unusual for a Japanese teacher), leaves for school around 6:30 am and gets home around 8:00 pm. If he were living by himself, he would have to cram all of his daily housekeeping, cooking, and shopping into the three hours between when he gets home and when he goes to bed. Keep in mind, of course, that most shops in rural Japan close by 8:00. Because he lives with his family, he's able to come home to a warm meal and not worry about the daily issues that crop up at home. He's living at home because he's a full-time working adult, not in spite of it, and it allows him to focus on his already-stressful job instead.
So, let's head across the pond to America, where kids are told that being a real person can only start happening once they leave the nest. More often than not, they're desperate for that independence, and it's no wonder since they live in a country that values independence and autonomy above pretty much everything else. This means that a lot of kids are leaving their parents' house before they're financially or mentally ready to deal with the realities of supporting themselves. All their money goes towards making ends meet, and they certainly aren't thinking about savings accounts or IRAs. Seeing the Japanese example, where children are never pressured to live on their own (though they may be pressured to get married and settle down), I can't help seeing the differences.
Of course, it's not so easily black and white. The Japanese system certainly has drawbacks, and there are benefits to living by yourself. Aside from the sillier reasons why living alone is fun (impromptu dance parties or fake cooking shows during dinnertime), it teaches you how to cook and clean, how to manage money, and how to deal with a million other things you might otherwise be tempted to foist off on your parents. It also makes you think about--and gives you the freedom to dictate--what is and isn't allowed in your space. If you want to invite your date over for a movie night on the couch, you can. If you want to have dedicated vegetarian cookware (hypothetically speaking), you can. Living by myself has boosted my self-confidence in ways I never would have predicted, and I've really enjoyed it. I think it's a shame that my co-teacher has never been able to experience it. Given the way Japan functions, though, it's not actually all that surprising.
If you think about what needs to be in place for a family-focused society, Japan has it all. On a broad level, blood ties are a big deal here (one of the reasons why adoptions are uncommon), so the idea of sending your grandmother to a nursing home or your child to daycare isn't palatable. Even when someone gets married and has children, they still spend a lot of time at their parents' house, and they're more than happy to drop their children there whenever they need some free time. In a country where the good of the whole is emphasized over the good of the individual, it makes sense that the American ideal of setting out to find yourself isn't really there.
The more practical issues that crop up from living with your family are also mostly taken care of. For example, it's very rare for someone to visit someone else's home in Japan. When I was growing up, I was always at one friend's house or another, and sleepovers were a fact of life. Not so in Japan. The home is for family--if you want to interact with other people, you do it elsewhere. Japanese love hotels (pay-by-the-hour high-rises with fancy Jacuzzi tubs and flat screens) exist for the sole purpose of providing a sexy space for people who don't have the freedom to get busy at home.
This system also wouldn't work without housewives. Without someone staying home, taking care of the laundry and the cooking and the sack lunches every morning, it would fall apart. Despite the government trying to make it easier for women to break into the workplace, the fact remains that Japan is still very much a country where women are much more likely to be stay-at-home-moms than business executives. Not that I blame them, of course. The Japanese workplace is awful and would drive me nuts within a decade. In addition, Japanese women tend to have children when they're very young, so grandparents are usually young enough to have an active role in raising their grandchildren.
Living in Japan has really made me think about what it means to be independent, and about what healthy family relationships really ought to look like. One of my favorite Japanese movies is a movie from 1949 called 「晩春」, or Late Spring. It tells the story of a 27-year-old woman named Noriko who lives with her father. Her mother has passed away, and although Noriko is more than happy to continue living with her father and taking care of him, he begins to put pressure on her to get married. As much as he enjoys having her at home, he knows that her prime husband-hunting years are almost behind her. Eventually, in order to force a decision, he lies to Noriko and tells her that he's going to remarry, which means that she needs to get married and move out.
Everyone is so happy at the beginning of the movie, but by the time it ends, Noriko is married to a man she probably didn't want, and her father is left by himself, all alone in an empty house. No one dies, but it remains one of the most tragic movie endings I've ever seen. It feels so real. I think the world is filled with people who have thrown away their happiness because society told them to. While not many modern children would be interested in living with their widowed father for the rest of their lives, I think it's a movie that's still very relevant today.
I liked it so much that I recommended it to my mom, and eventually she watched it as well. I remember talking to her about it afterward and being so upset that Noriko's father had lied. If his daughter wanted to stay with him, what was so wrong with that? Who cares if she doesn't get married? Who cares if she doesn't have children? She loves her father so much that the only thing she wants in life is to take care of him. He didn't make anyone happy by lying and pushing her away.
My mom, being a parent, calmly explained that moving out is part of growing up.
Of my friends in Japan who are planning to move back to America after they're done teaching English, none of them are planning to move back home. To them, it would be like going backwards, like throwing away the independence they worked so hard for. Maybe that's for the best. Still, after seeing how much more connected and multi-generational families are in Japan, I can't help thinking that it's damaging for children to feel that growing up means closing a door to your childhood that can never be reopened. There's a finality about growing up that doesn't exist in Japan, and I think that's a good thing.
Who knows what my own plans are for when I eventually return to America. At this point I still don't know if I plan on moving back to Colorado or whether I want to try out other places. Japan has made me realize that there's nothing shameful about relying on your parents for help, particularly if you return the favor by being there for them at the same time. It might not be terribly modern, but it's something to think about. For me, being alone is a common experience. For my co-teacher, being alone is something she can hardly imagine. Maybe the truly perfect experience lies somewhere in the middle.