The Secrets of Mariko, by Elisabeth Bumiller
Posted July 30, 2012on:
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.