the Little Red Reviewer

The Secrets of Mariko, by Elisabeth Bumiller

Posted on: July 30, 2012

The Secrets of Mariko, by Elisabeth Bumiller

written in 1995

where I got it: purchased used




And now for something completely different, non-fiction!




The Secrets of Mariko isn’t scifi or fantasy. It isn’t even fiction (although that would be a hella cool name for an SF book, wouldn’t it?).  this book is exactly as its subtitle explains – it is one year in the life of an ordinary Japanese woman and her family.

I’ve always been interested in other cultures, particularly how women in other cultures live their lives. In high school my foreign language was Japanese, and I spent two weeks in Japan after 10th grade. I still have a soft spot for all things Japanese – the language, the culture, the music, the religion, the food. So Yes, when a family member suggested a slower paced book about normal life in Japan, I jumped at the chance.

the author, Elisabeth Bumiller, is a professional journalist, and as such she isn’t afraid to ask tough and sometimes awkward questions. While in Japan for three years in the early 1990s, Bumiller decided to profile a completely ordinary Japanese housewife, to give Americans a view of how women in Japan live. Yes, I know this book is over 15 years old, and so may no longer be a completely contemporary view on Japanese society, but it was still a very satisfying read for me.

Through a translator friend, Elisabeth Bumiller is introduced to 40-something Mariko Tanaka, who lives in a suburb of Tokyo with her husband, three children, and aging parents. The Secrets of Mariko is equally about Mariko’s life as it is Bumiller’s reaction to many aspects of Japanese culture that us Americans find, for lack of a better term, foreign.

I was happily surprised at how well organized the book was. Each chapter focuses as much as possible on one subject, such as Mariko’s parents and their war memories, marriage in Japan and gender roles, cram schools and the Japanese school system, local cultural festivals, Mariko’s husband at work, and so forth, often in appreciatively extensive detail.  Mariko may be an ordinary housewife, but she works two part time jobs, is active in the local PTA, takes Shamisen lessons and performs with her musical group, and travels to nearby religious parades to participate with complete strangers. Bumiller sees a side of Mariko that her husband and children don’t even know exists.

When Bumiller first meets Mariko, Mariko is happy to judgementally tell her how much happier and healthier Japanese people are as compared to Americans. In Japan, the crime rate is lower, the divorce rate is lower, the unemployment rate is lower, people are healthier, the school system is better, etc. And Bumiller is inclined to agree, as how can one argue with statistics? As the author gets to know Mariko, she finds that yes, the statistics are true, but that’s barely half the story.

The divorce rate in Japan is so low because they have completely different expectations of marriage, and Mariko and her husband barely knew each other when they married at her nearly spinster age of 24. The school system focuses on rote memorization with little to no expectations of critical thinking from the students, and students learn early on to not ask questions. the unemployment rate may be lower, but many “salarimen” sit at their desks all day doing nothing, and the rate of alcoholism is through the roof as the way to be social with your co-workers is to go drinking after work, every evening. I love learning about Japan, and would love to visit again, but I’m not sure I’d want to live there.

If you come across a copy of The Secrets of Mariko, I highly suggest giving it a try. It is an intimate look into a way of life that is so very different from anything I’ve ever experienced. I always forget how different reading non-fiction is from reading fiction, but even this book had an unexpected twist at the end.

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16 Responses to "The Secrets of Mariko, by Elisabeth Bumiller"

I almost never read non-fiction myself because I never know what to look for, but I love learning about people’s way of life, especially from cultures I don’t know. I hope you will do more of those so that I can mark down new books to borrow at the library!


Next time you’re at the library, look for The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf, I read it back when it came out, and it has stuck with me all this time. it’s a novel, but it was very eye opening into the lifestyle of an observant Muslim woman living in midwestern America. Another culture I am fascinated by, but know very little about.


Oooh, this seems fascinating. I haven’t read much about Japan that isn’t either about Geisha or WWII.


Yeah, that seems to be what’s mostly available, and there’s so much more to their culture than that. Are westerner’s interests so narrow? :(


Clearly we’re all Philistines.


This sounds like something I would enjoy. I love reading about different cultures. The book I just read, although fiction, was based, primarily in China dating back over many years. It was really interesting. I don’t normally read non-fiction but I might just give this one a go (if I can find a copy that is!)
Lynn :D


ooh, what was the book you read on China? i’ve been having trouble finding China books that aren’t military history based or based on Dynastic families. I’d like to just read about a normal family’s experiences.


The book I read was called The Book of Crows – it was four different stories all bringing together one theme. I just really enjoyed it. It wasn’t really about a normal family’s experiences though – although it was a little retelling of each of the four individual’s stories.
Lynn :D


thanks, i will keep my eye out for that one. Sounds like a nice and gentle, but educational read.


Japanese culture fascinates me as much as you said it does, so I should definitely read this one. Although I am not sure to enjoy it as much because being French, the comparison between American and Japanese culture would not really strike me…
I’ll give it a try though, I think I have never read anything that gives such an overview of the contemporary Japan.
Thanks you for the review ;)


I still think you’d enjoy it. American culture and French culture are different, but we have more similarities than a lot of Japanese culture. You’ll still be shocked by how many hours per day Japanese students spend at school, and then more school after that!


In college, I took a Japanese culture class and became fascinated with it. It’s been years since I read anything relating to Japan though. I should see if my library has a copy.


this would make excellent (and easy) required reading for a college course on Japanese culture, even tho it’s a little older. Def see if your library has, or can get a copy. In fact, if you live near a University Library that allows guest borrowers, they may be more likely to have a copy. this isn’t college level reading by any means, but it’s something a Japanese studies dept or even an International Journalism college dept would be interested in.


Wouldn’t it be a good idea if the author decided to do a “Mariko: 15 Years Late”? Most of what I know about Japanese culture comes from years and years of being a fan of Manga movies (never really got into the comics), especially Studio Ghibli ones.


I would read that in a heartbeat!! I want to know how her older children did in college, and how the younger one fared as well. I want to know if her and her husband figured out some of their marital problems or not. I want to know her thoughts on a more modern Japan, where young women are deciding to wait until their mid-late 20s to get married (if at all).

I got into manga after taking a few Japanese language courses. it’s funny, these days I’m learning more conversational Japanese from anime than I ever did in school!


[...] old school art deco building and interior, and a good mix of locals and tourists.  ♥ my book, The Secrets of  Mariko by Elisabeth Bumiller.  A year in the life of an ordinary Japanese woman and soooooo interesting! [...]


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