By Melissa Feineman
Even before watching Robert De Niro induct Ben Stiller into the “circle of trust”, I was aware that meeting the parents of someone you’re dating is a big deal. One of my exes kept our relationship of several years a secret from his parents, fearing their reaction. When we were living together, I once casually answered the phone, only to be suspiciously grilled about my identity by a nosy uncle. I never picked up after that, living in fear that we would be “found out”. Oh, and did I mention that this all took place in America?
Here in Japan, I’ve discovered that things aren’t all that different from back home. The time-honored tradition of being taken home to meet Mom and Dad is still a faux pas minefield. Over the years, I’ve done things the hard way… so you don’t have to repeat my mistakes! Here are some of my observations:
Lesson 1: Japan’s real estate situation has a direct impact on how soon you’ll be taken home to meet the parents.
Since most people tend to live with their parents until they get married (or if they happen to move to the big city for college), you may find yourself being taken home to meet ofukuro and oyaji much sooner than you’d expect. That, or you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time at your place and/or love hotels. It’s best to begin mentally preparing yourself for the big meeting sooner rather than later.
Lesson 2: Don’t assume that being taken home to meet the parents (or not) is indicative of the seriousness of your relationship.
One of my friends just told me about her roommate, a guy who has been dating the same woman for 7 years and has yet to meet her parents. On the other side of the spectrum, SM took me to his house only a couple of weeks after we started dating (due to the housing situation mentioned above). His mom happened to be there, but since my Japanese skills were limited to “This is a pencil” at that time, we didn’t really progress beyond identifying what writing implements were handy. It didn’t matter anyway, though, because SM’s mom barely looked up from the TV and didn’t seem to care who I was one way or the other. Which leads nicely to…
Lesson 3: If a random person off the street is more interested in you than the mother of your boyfriend/girlfriend is, this doesn’t bode well for the relationship.
Lesson 4: Japanese language makes addressing your partner’s parents a nightmare.
Sure, I can talk to them, but I have yet to figure out the best way of referring to my boyfriend’s parents. Think about it: let’s say your love interest’s family name is Tanaka. If you use the standard form of address – “Tanaka-san” – you’ll have Mom, Dad, and your honey turning their head questioningly. Using first names seems way too casual for Japan, and calling them Okaasan and Otoosan seems to be pushing your luck, to say the least. For the record, when SC and I talk about his parents when they’re not around, we call them by their first names (plus “-san”, natch), but when I meet them in person, I basically avoid addressing them by name at all costs.
Lesson 5: With Japanese families, when you’re in, you’re IN.
When SC’s older brother got married a few years ago, I was initially told that I was invited to the wedding, but we would have to tell everyone I was SC’s “friend” instead of his girlfriend. This seemed like a not-so-subtle way to un-invite me, but instead of making things awkward, SC and his family did everything they could to make me feel welcome. Not only did his mom let me wear her beautiful seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day) kimono, she took me to the salon to have it professionally tied and my hair perfectly coiffed. And, when it came time to formally introduce the families to each other, SC’s dad introduced me as none other than his younger son’s kanojo. I don’t know what prompted the change of heart, but I wasn’t complaining.
Finally, when I decided to go back to the US last year for an extended stay, before I left, we went to dinner with the whole fam. SC cleared his throat and announced that I was going back to America and may or may not be returning to Japan. His parents promptly produced a sakura-engraved music box as a going away present. And when I returned a few months later, they welcomed me back with open arms (well, metaphorically speaking; they’re not really big into hugging here) and it was as if I’d never left.