Interview with author Wendy Nelson Tokunaga on ‘Marriage in Translation’

"I think it’s a gift to experience living in another culture, and if everyone in the world could have the chance to live in another country for a time, the world would probably be a better place." Credits: Courtesy of the author

By Justin Tedaldi (JETAANY) for NY Japanese Culture Examiner

A “certified mad Japanophile,” San Francisco-born and bred writer Wendy Nelson Tokunaga has lived her whole life in the Bay Area, save for a stint in Tokyo in the 1980s after winning a songwriting contest sponsored by Japan Victor Records. Since then, she has penned two Japan-related novels, Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation.

Her new book, Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, is a series of illuminating interviews conducted by the author with Western women who talk candidly about the challenges in making cross-cultural marriages work both inside and outside Japan, and the joys and frustrations of adapting to a different culture. Tokunaga explores the theme of why some people feel the need to trade in their native culture for a new one, revealing new insights about Japan and married life. I caught up with the author in this exclusive interview.

What made you decide to write about this topic?

I’ve dated Japanese men and am now married to a Japanese born and raised in Osaka. I’ve always noticed how there are many more Western man/Japanese woman couples than the opposite. Even today, with the Internet and social media and the world shrinking, this pairing is still relatively rare and I think the reasons why are intriguing and fascinating.

The book originally started out as blog entries. When did you get the feeling that it deserved to be a book?

These series of interviews elicited a lot of interest from my blog readers and I got contacted by a couple of small publishers asking if I wanted to make it into a book.

Why did you choose to publish it as an eBook?

I’ve had experience with a traditional publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for my two novels, Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation. I know how long it takes to get a traditional book published and I wanted to get this book out into the world while the interest was still high. I also wanted to dip my toe into the burgeoning world of eBook publishing and thought this would be a great opportunity.

The list price of $2.99 is certainly attractive. What’s your impression of the sales so far?

I think my sales have been pretty good thus far, especially when you take into consideration that I basically have only marketed this book via Twitter and by doing a bit of other online publicity. It’s a niche book for sure and I’ve also been donating 50% of the sales to Japan Relief. I certainly am not in it for the money!

What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing an eBook over the traditional paper-and-glue route?

This is a big question and I have had extensive experience with both of these methods. I actually self-published a novel in 2000 (trade paperback) called No Kidding, which I published through the POD publisher iUniverse. Then in 2007 my novel Midori by Moonlight was published by St. Martin’s Press and in 2009 they published Love in Translation. These two books were done the old-fashioned way: I got an agent and she got me a two-book deal. That’s a real feeling of accomplishment and something I wouldn’t trade for anything. There’s a lot of hard work and perseverance involved and it gives you a certain amount of credibility: someone wanted to publish your work! That’s a great feeling.

And I think with fiction, for a new author with no track record, traditional publishing is a good way to go. But there are other reasons to self-publish (especially non-fiction) and it certainly is exciting how eBooks are revolutionizing the publishing industry. Of course you have to do your own marketing when you self-publish, but you have to do a lot of your own even if you’re traditionally published. I feel fortunate that I have had these disparate experiences and there are advantages and disadvantages to all these methods. But with Marriage in Translation there was something very liberating about being able to put this book together and get it out immediately and know people could buy it so easily online.

Besides your own profile in the book, thirteen other women are interviewed here. How did you select them?

I’d put the word out in various social media outlets and got quite a good response. I also knew of some women and asked if they wanted to participate. The interviews were all done via e-mail.

You said that your husband Manabu felt he never “fit in” in Japan. Would you say this is a common trait among Japanese men who settle down outside of their home countries or cultures? Do you think this might hold less true for Americans who move to Japan?

This is another big question! I don’t have statistics to prove this, but through my own anecdotal evidence and observations over the years I have found that not many Japanese end up moving abroad permanently. There are many reasons for this. First, they don’t have the economic issues that many other immigrants face, and of course there is the tendency to feel that Japanese society is “unique” and can’t be duplicated anywhere else, so why leave?

So I would assume that for a Japanese man to move away from Japan there has to be some pretty compelling reason, especially since they also don’t tend to marry foreign women (though in Japan there are more Japanese men married to non-Japanese than Japanese women married to non-Japanese men. However, these women are usually of Asian ethnicity).

As you probably well know, an American man’s experience in Japan is often quite different. He can be seen as exotic and desirable (at least in the honeymoon stage of his stay) and even though he might undergo a lot of culture shock, things can be quite comfortable for him. Of course I have no choice but to generalize, but I have to say that the differences in experiences between an American man moving to Japan and a Japanese man moving to America couldn’t be more striking. There is nothing special about a Japanese man here in the States, but a gaijin in Japan still causes excitement to this day. On the other hand, to briefly open another topic, we certainly know of the quite different reasons why Japanese women would want to leave Japan. I explore that theme in Midori by Moonlight.

Many of the women interviewed discuss something of a loss of identity after moving to Japan, especially with the pressure of adapting to more traditional roles as women, wives and mothers. Do you think the husbands tend to experience a similar type of culture shock here in the States? How do they cope with it?

I think there is a different kind of culture shock that Japanese men might experience in the United States and it would be similar to what Japanese women would also encounter. Things like having to be more assertive, to speak up to get what you want and adapting to the concept of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Also, just coping with the sheer size of American society and the many different ethnic groups and cultures one encounters here can be overwhelming.

Aside from exoticism or the desire to learn more about another culture, why do you think people can be strongly attracted to those outside their race? Do you think it can be innate?

I don’t know about innate, but I think people fall in love with whom they fall in love with, but they’ll only have the opportunity with someone from another race if they are exposed to and have encounters with a variety of people. Certainly in Japan one’s chances of having friendships with people of different races and cultures is more remote unless it’s sought out.

At least one of the interviewees served as a participant of Japan’s global exchange initiative, the JET Program. Tell us about the personal value of living in another country as a young adult compared with being a bit older and moving there with the intention to raise a family.

Well, for one thing a person coming to Japan on the JET Program is usually only going to be in Japan on a temporary basis and, from what I understand, the program purposely hires people who know little about Japan. So they come with no expectations and quite often leave with a wonderful experience. The Western woman coming to Japan to raise a family with her Japanese husband is in a much different situation. And I think the experience will have its differences whether she has been interested in Japanese culture all along or only came into contact with it by meeting her husband abroad. Either way, I think it’s a gift to experience living in another culture, and if everyone in the world could have the chance to live in another country for a time, the world would probably be a better place.

You asked this question many times in the book, but what attributes do you feel are the most important for a successful cross-cultural marriage?

I think people have to be flexible—they can’t expect their partner to understand their culture and communication methods. We already have the saying that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. When you add different languages and cultures to the mix, things get even more complicated! And especially with Japanese, which has so many unspoken nuances and language cues that it seems that people often use mental telepathy to communicate half the time.

What were your biggest personal takeaways from writing this book? What new things did you learn?

I guess it validated to me that my hunches were right—that the Western woman/Japanese man pairing is uncommon and that some of the issues I encountered are what others encounter as well. I think it also brought home the need for Japan to try and change its tendency to look at foreigners and English speakers as “different”—to get rid of that tendency to notice the person who doesn’t look like they do. There was a great article the other day in the Japan Times that addressed this. It really says it all.

What are you going to write about next?

I have an essay coming out in an anthology next year about Madonna and her impact on society. Meanwhile my agent is shopping my latest novel to publishers, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.