Christmas. Depending on who you are, it can be a time for getting together with family and friends, attending religious services, or maybe just drinking a lot of egg nog. But while all of those are activities of profound cultural and spiritual importance, not everyone has a song in their heart at this time of year.
For a certain set of Japanese women in international marriages and living overseas, ‘tis the season for venting about how Americans and Europeans spend Christmas, and here’s their list of grievances.
The collection of complaints comes by way of blogging internationalist, and overseas Japanese wife herself, Madame Riri. In contrast to the myriad delights of the “12 Days of Christmas” (with the exception of those weird leaping lords), Madame Riri identified six problem areas while sifting through online comments from Japanese expats.
1. Christmas dinner issues
Japan tends to eat smaller portions than the west to begin with, and that difference gets multiplied when it comes to celebrations. “I don’t like meat very much,” begins one woman, “but my American husband, his British mom, and his American dad all love it. But I can’t tell them ‘I don’t want any turkey,’ so I force myself to eat it.”
▼ Honestly, this woman would probably have a similar problem in Japan, where the traditional Christmas dinner is the even heavier fried chicken.
Even some more carnivorous women find the holiday menu doesn’t suit their tastes. “It’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” exclaimed one exasperated woman. “The amount of cream, cheese, and sauce in the recipes! I love Asian cooking, so it’s exhausting for me to make them.”
Speaking as a guy who thinks the two best places for cheese are on top of a pizza and absolutely nowhere else, I can sympathize. Still, it’s just one meal a year, and if she’s really that loath to give up the foods she loves, why not incorporate them into the meal, like many American families do with dishes from their ethnic backgrounds?
▼ It’s not Christmas at the Baseels without a bowl of Lebanese hushwe!
2. Choosing presents is a pain
Many women have a bone to pick with picking out presents. In Japan, young couples typically exchange Christmas gifts, and Santa usually brings something to the homes of small children. Extended family members generally don’t give each other anything for the holiday, though.
Instead, relatives often send mid-year (ochugen) and end of the year (oseibo) gifts to each other. These are often practical things, though, like detergent or rice.
▼ Or, most useful of all, beer
So it can be kind of a high hurdle for Japanese wives to suddenly have to think about what to get for each and every one of their spouse’s aunts, uncles, and cousins, especially since in some countries consumables aren’t quite as accepted as proper presents as they are in Japan.
▼ But trust us, your husband’s uncle would love to find this under the tree.
3. Pushy present requests
Sometimes, though, the problem is knowing all too well what someone wants. “My brother-in-law’s ex-wife used to send emails with a list of options to choose from for gifts for her and their kids,” remembered one woman. “And she’d always add, ‘Oh, and don’t forget the gift receipt!’”
Umm…I hate to spoil anyone’s cross-cultural epiphany, but that’s not exactly most westerners’ idea of particularly polite behavior either, and plenty of non-Japanese people would be just as irked by it.
As long as the prices are in line with what the family tends to use as its gift-giving budget, though, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to get worked up about here. Actually, since this is something the brother-in-law’s ex-wife did, there doesn’t seem to be anything worth still getting worked up over at all.
4. Wrapping gifts is a hassle
We’ll start with the head-scratcher here. One woman said, “Because Japanese people have an allergic reaction to wastefulness, no matter how many years I spend overseas, using wrapping paper still doesn’t sit right with me.”
The complaint about the trash generated by wrapping is a valid one, but it’s a little hard to swallow that Japan has an “allergic reaction” to excessive packaging, as anyone who’s torn into a bag of two-dozen cookies each with their own individual plastic wrapper can tell you.
A more legitimate cultural difference is the other complaint Japanese wives had: having to do the wrapping themselves. After all, in Japan, where retailers take customer service very seriously, you can get just about anything wrapped for you by the store clerk. Overseas, though, when they’re buying stuff for everyone in the family and wrapping it themselves, that’s a lot of time spent folding and taping paper, no matter how festive the pattern on it may be.
▼ Of course, you can sidestep this whole problem with gift bags.
5. Getting stuck with presents you don’t like
Again, this really isn’t something that’s exclusive to international relationships, as even when both parties are Japanese, some people’s gift-selecting skills are far from world-class. Still, the above-mentioned gift exchanges between extended family members, who might not see each other that often during the rest of the year, can make for an increased chance of miscues. “Every year, my mother-in-law sends me so many clothes, cosmetics, and decorations, but they’re not really my style…I can’t bring myself to throw them out right away, but after they sit around in my closet for two or three years, I toss them.”
6. Exchanging and returning gifts
After all the effort that they put into choosing a present, some women were miffed at the ease with which they could be returned or exchanged, giving special mention to the ubiquitous of gift receipts. “I work part-time at a retailer in Europe,” shared one woman, “and every day we get one or two customers coming in to exchange a Christmas gift they don’t like. It’s usually wives with things they got from their husbands.”
Part of the reason Japan doesn’t have as much of a culture of returning gifts is because, like we talked about above, gifts between people that aren’t especially close are often consumables. Even if the dish soap your relative sent you isn’t your regular brand, you’ll still use up the bottles, right? Ditto for cans of booze.
▼ Among the three kinds of beer, good, bad, and free, the third is by far the tastiest.
It’s also worth noting that Japan tends to be a bit less fragmented than many other countries in terms of pop culture and fashion. Combine some fairly uniform clothing tastes and trends with the fact that a huge portion of the population is of similarly slender build, and you’ve got a much higher chance of picking something the recipient will like, and that will fit, in Japan than elsewhere.
It’s also hard not to feel like complaint #6, gift returns, and complaint #5, getting things you don’t want, kind of cancel each other out. Ditto for numbers two and three, not knowing what to buy and people telling you what they want.
International marriage is all about adapting to each other and mixing your traditions. Picking which side of the two lines above you feel more comfortable on immediately cuts the list of problems down from six to four, with one of those being as simple as putting up with a single dinner you’re not crazy about. When you stop and look at the big picture, that doesn’t seem like enough to outweigh the positives of the holiday season, and besides, after Christmas, these Japanese wives can have their husbands return the favor with a traditional Japanese oshougatsu New Year’s celebration.
▼ Like Christmas, it features decorated trees.