Not Your Kind of Feminist
Growing up I didn’t know much about my grandmother’s life in Japan. I knew she was from Japan. I knew that she met my American soldier grandfather after WWII. I knew her family was very wealthy and conservative. That was about it.
We were discouraged from learning much about our Japanese heritage. My siblings and I were not taught the Japanese language (I didn’t learn until college), we were not taught how to cook traditional foods (my aunt taught me years later), we did not talk much about Japan. But, my childhood home was distinctly Japanese. The smells, the decor and the tv were all very much Japanese.
We celebrated our Japanese heritage by going to festivals and markets. My grandmother told us about Japan’s history, we ate Japanese food almost daily, she watched Japanese dramas every day but she never spoke about her life there. I wrote an essay about her in the sixth grade and I had to interview her. That is when I became interested in her former life.
My grandma told me about her upbringing in Japan, stories about my dad as a young boy, her decision to leave and that time she thumbed her nose at an entire tradition. The tradition of arranged marriage. And, the tradition of a woman knowing her place.
I was shocked by every story. It went against everything I thought she was teaching me to be. She told me of a spoiled little girl who never saw money and knew nothing about its use. My favorite story was of her throwing herself on the floor of a store in a full tantrum because her mother (a woman she rarely saw) would not buy her a leopard skin coat! She got the coat. It was inconceivable to me not to know what money was. She explained to me that she or her nanny would charge what she wanted to the store and the store sent her mom the bill.
Not all the stories were so funny. Her stories about the war were heartbreaking. My grandmother live in Yokohama during the war. She spoke of food shortages and seeing her first dead body. She was on a bridge when it was bombed; from that day on she was afraid of heights and bridges. The first or second floor was all she would do.
Throughout my childhood, she taught me to be obedient but to have my own opinions. The fact that I don’t cook dinner every night for my husband drove her nuts. I never told her I don’t do his laundry; I think it would have done her in. She firmly believed in gender roles, but one of the last conversations we had she encouraged me to always have the ability to be independent. My grandma always encouraged me to further my education, be an entrepreneur and she got a kick out of my blog.
I remember as a child getting irritated that after a meal the girls all cleaned up and the men watched TV. The women cooked the meal while the men watched TV, too! I hated doing dishes and just wanted to watch TV. My brother was treated like a precious gem his whole life. He still is; he hates it. One of my grandma’s final sentences to him was if he wanted her to make him a snack. He told her it was fine he can make himself a snack. It was a cute moment.
If you knew my grandmother you never would think of her as a feminist. In my opinion, she is one of the originals. In Japan, pre-WWII arranged marriage was still a thing. My grandma had a fiance that was chosen by her family. There were a lot of customs around it that I still don’t get. She was fully prepared to marry him; she didn’t think there were any other options. But, the war happened and he died because of it.
Her family quickly found a suitable replacement. She wasn’t having it and told her mother. Unfortunately, she did not have a choice. On the day of the meeting, the would-be fiance and his family sat down to get to know each other. It was during this meeting my grandmother showed true courage. She told them she had tuberculosis! It made her undesirable as a potential mate. Her mother was irate. She was threatened with disownment and told to take back the lie. She held firm and the marriage never happened.
The other family back out of the agreement and she met my grandfather shortly after.
Her next act of feminism was even bolder…