At first glance, the only thing linking the stories in Rebecca Otowa’s new book, The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper, is that they all take place in Japan. Yet although they span 17th-century Edo to the present day, two themes recur in most: women’s hardships and the fears of ageing. It quickly becomes clear how, in Japan at least, these two themes are closely related.
In “Genbei’s Curse”, a young housewife waits on her father-in-law day and night. Like most first-born Japanese sons, Sachiko’s husband is expected to care for his ageing parents. But since the husband works all day, Sachiko is left to change her father-in-law’s soiled clothes and bedding when he can’t make it to the bathroom in time. On top of that, the father-in-law blames Sachiko’s cooking for his toilet troubles. But what is Sachiko to do? Caring for one’s in-laws is a duty Japanese women are expected to accept without complaint. Silently she speaks to a photo of her deceased mother-in-law:
Why did you die and not me? You were the one to tend to Father’s every need, to make the delicacies he loved, to arrange his teacups and futons and hibachi just so. You were the one who spoiled him, treating him like an invalid even though he isn’t. And now you’ve deserted me. You’ve gone to the Pure Land and I’m left in hell.
Fifty years later, Sachiko is an old woman tended to by her own daughter-in-law. She finds herself with the same incontinence as her late father-in-law. But what bothers her even more than that is the way she’s taken on her father-in-law’s abusive ways when it comes to interacting with her daughter-in-law. Sachiko sees that it’s up to her to break that cycle of daughter-in-law abuse.
Not all in-laws or parents come to the same realization as Sachiko. In “A Year of Coffee and Cake”, Amanda is a young foreign wife who becomes friendly with her next door neighbor, Yoko. Amanda is particularly drawn to Yoko because the latter studied in London for five years and speaks English fluently. Even though Amanda has lived in Japan for ten years, she’s still excited to find fluent English speakers. Yoko is always cheerful and eager to bring cake to Amanda’s, but her life is far from sunny. Instead of opening a bakery—her dream since her London days—Yoko married, became a housewife, and now cares for her two ageing in-laws, both of whom require regular medical care. When Amanda wonders if Yoko and her husband should hire professional caregivers, Yoko laughs. “Oh, no, I can manage. In any case it’s my duty to care for my husband’s parents.”
When her in-laws eventually die, Yoko finally has time and energy to devote to her bakery. With her husband’s support, she returns to London for a short-term course. But when Amanda rings Yoko’s doorbell upon her return, Yoko’s demented mother answers. The bakery plans are on hold once again. Even with the encouragement of her husband, Yoko is still bound by tradition to care for ageing parents. Otowa shows how this is such a difficult concept for foreigners sometimes, for at the end of the story Amanda panics that the same fate awaits her.
Originally from Australia, Otowa has lived in Japan for over forty years and has been married to a Japanese man for almost that long. She isn’t shy about sharing some difficulties that arise in cross-cultural marriage, especially in the way women are expected to follow rigid gender roles in Japan. And it doesn’t just occur in the care of elderly family members. In “Rachel and Leah”, Rachel is a foreign wife married to a Japanese man. They met in Hawaii, presumably as students, but have settled in Japan and after decades of marriage, Rachel starts to see that she and her husband have different ideas of marriage.
Because of his upbringing, at certain times he wanted a typical Japanese wife, someone he could take for granted, slumping in his chair as he waited for the meal to be prepared even when they had both been working hard—sometimes shoulder to shoulder—all day. Other times he wanted a colorful foreigner, whose outbursts he could enjoy watching as though she were a fireworks display. Someone he could try his sexist comments on, waiting for her explosive reaction to his little-boy misbehavior, although lately she couldn’t seem to summon up the energy.
Rachel finds many positive attributes in her husband, namely his help around the house, his laissez faire attitude toward their finances, and his clean behavior compared to other salarymen (no drinking, smoking, or other women). Yet she still feels like she can’t be herself, that her husband expects her to be two different women at once: the Japanese housewife and the exotic foreigner. “She was sure there was a true relationship, true camaraderie and concern, under all these games of his, but sometimes it was difficult to find.”
If one hadn’t already guessed, Otawa writes that “Rachel and Leah” was based on personal experiences, giving the story particular bite.
His mother had been an angry woman trapped in an arranged marriage, hemmed in on all sides by The Way Things Were; therefore it was natural to him that his own wife should feel angry and hemmed-in. It was his only experience of what being a wife meant.
Otowa’s unique insights are informed by a forty-year marriage which has provided her with a rich family history from which many of these stories originated. Another side of Otowa’s mother-in-law is shown “Showa Girl”. At the age of sixteen, her mother-in-law became a bride to a man of thirty-two. It was just after the War and Misako’s soon-to-be husband had just returned from a Russian labor camp in Siberia. Misako didn’t want to marry this man who had been a house guest of her family’s before he moved to Manchuria to teach, but this decision was not hers. It was her duty to accept an arranged marriage. The couple’s relationship would be tainted by violent outbursts due to the husband’s PTSD from the war.