Happy Wives or Hungry Witches?

Non-Japanese Wives on Japanese Television

Carl Gabrielson, Lakeland College Japan Campus [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 3 (Article 12 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2014.


From 2006-2007, the Japanese broadcasting company, TV Tokyo, aired Okusama wa Gaikokujin (hereafter OwG); ‘The Wife is a Foreigner,’ which introduced audiences to the lives of real non-Japanese women who were living in Japan with their Japanese husbands. Prior to OwG, ostensibly real (i.e. not fictional) non-Japanese on television had been used largely to emphasise Japanese uniqueness, with shows generally emphasising that they were impermanent outsiders with a limited (and often incorrect) understanding of Japanese culture, language, and people. OwG also tends to depict a problematic Japanese/foreign dichotomy. However, this paper argues that OwG nevertheless represents an important step in the Japanese media’s portrayal of Japan as a multiethnic society by simultaneously highlighting the high degree to which these women have integrated in to Japanese society and been accepted by their communities and offering them a degree of agency in their own representation. This conclusion is demonstrated through content analysis of thirteen of OwG’s forty seven episodes, with particular emphasis placed on the show’s discourses of foreignness and Japaneseness and its paradoxical depiction of wifehood as a universal experience that is still subject to values that the show implicitly delineates as Japanese and foreign.

Keywords: international marriage, multiculturalism in Japanese media, Japanese identity, wifehood.

In April of 2006, the Japanese television network, TV Tokyo, started broadcasting Okusama wa Gaikokujin (‘The Wife Is a Foreigner,’ hereafter referred to as OwG), a one-hour talk-variety show dedicated to exposing viewers to the everyday lives of some of the tens of thousands of foreign-born or otherwise non-Japanese women living in Japan who are married to Japanese men. The show, which ended in June 2007, asserted that its purpose was to “introduce the crying, laughing lives of foreign brides who, from the honeymoon to the golden years, are doing their best here in Japan.”1 But why focus on foreign wives? Miller (1995) and Iwabuchi (2005) have shown that the use of foreigners on Japanese television is largely aimed at reaffirming ideas of Japanese identity, often by reinforcing gaijin stereotypes and by providing support for theories of Japanese uniqueness (Nihonjinron). Miller illustrates this by examining gaijin tarento (foreign TV personalities) and showing that they exist mainly to provide foreign affirmation of all things Japanese. Iwabuchi, in his study, describes the process of “culture war,” by which a show focused on angry and frustrated foreigners criticising Japanese culture and society is meant to illustrate nothing more than those foreigners’ inability to adequately comprehend or adapt to Japan. It is the aim of this project to show that, while OwG largely dovetails with these models that locate foreigners as counterpoints to Japanese identity, it also escapes the limitations of such formats by creating opportunities for foreigners to transcend their stereotypes. It achieves this by allowing the women to speak for themselves (within certain limits) and by showing both the foreign and the Japanese aspects of their everyday lives, thus illustrating the degree to which they have successfully established their own spaces within Japanese society. In deconstructing OwG’s portrayal of foreign wives, this paper will argue that, though Japan’s mass media continues to strive to reinforce Nihonjinronist thinking, the wives prove themselves more than capable of resisting the show’s attempts to dictate the meanings of “foreign,” “Japanese,” and “wife.” Unlike previous programs, the foreign voices on OwG contest rather than reinforce the show’s undertones of Japanese/foreign duality, suggesting a greater openness to diversity within the media and representing, through depictions of the wives’ places in their families and communities, an important moment in the wider society’s shift toward more actively embracing multiculturalism described by scholars such as Flowers (2012) and Burgess (2007: 64).

The format of OwG tends, for the most part, to follow two set patterns: one focusing on the talk-variety style of introducing and interacting with foreign wives, and one in which wives from previous episodes are sent out into the hinterlands of Japan to experience various Japanese foods. The talk-variety pattern proceeds something like this: first, the home audience is shown an image of that week’s featured wife’s home country, along with a few pieces of trivia about said country. Next, a video reenactment, peppered with a few real photos, is used to tell the story of how this woman from a foreign country came to be the wife of a Japanese man. These reenactments generally start with the early lives of both the wife and her husband, then go into such events as how the two met, when the woman came to Japan, and how the husband’s parents reacted upon hearing that their son would be marrying a foreigner. These and all other segments filmed outside the studio feature two narrators—one male and one female—along with unspoken commentary that appears as subtitles, all of which are used most often for comedic effect.

In the next segment, the couple is invited into the studio to be interviewed by the show’s two main MCs: Takeda Tetsuya and Miyake Yūji (both of whom are referred to throughout the show by their given names), and their female assistant, Masaki Asami. Later in the series, a panel of foreign wives from previous episodes also took part in these interviews. The interview first involves questions about what has just been shown in the reenactment, and then moves on to a segment in which the wife and her husband rate each other as spouses. The show then cuts to a prerecorded visit to the wife’s home. Here, the audience is shown her everyday life, including such aspects as her housework, her children, her job, her hobbies, and her relationship to her in-laws. The show then returns to the studio, where the wife is invited to ask one question about some facet of life in Japan that she finds mysterious, and then Takeda Tetsuya answers this question by way of expounding upon the character of the Japanese people. Finally, ostensibly as thanks for allowing the show into her home, cameras return to the house, where the wife is given an undisclosed sum of money with which to host a party for her friends and family, complete with supposedly traditional foods from her home country. As the wife prepares the dishes, narrators give the viewing audience the recipes. The wife is also shown getting herself ready for the party, at which time she is usually asked to give the viewers a makeup tip, or at least explain her own beauty regimen. The segment ends with the guests and a representative of the show sampling the wife’s cooking and complimenting her character and her relationship with her husband. For most of the show’s run, two such thirty-minute talk-variety sections were shown per episode, each introducing a different foreign wife.

The second pattern of OwG follows wives from previous episodes as they eat various foods around Japan. The segment, first introduced midway through the show’s run, started out as a simple five-minute video of two wives eating together in Tokyo, but by the last two months of the show it had become roughly half of every episode, acting as a replacement for one of the talk-variety segments.2 Analysis of the food segment in this paper will generally be focused on the thirty-minute version. This food segment, entitled Perori Nippon wo tabeyō (Let’s Gobble Up Japan), sends two foreign wives—most often costumed in clothes that represent their home countries—to small towns in Japan, where they are asked to sample three or four local foods. Special attention is paid not only to the wives’ reactions to the food, but to the restaurant proprietors’ feelings about having foreigners sample their wares. The wives are then shown back in the studio, where samples of the foods presented during the segment are offered to the MCs and the other wives comprising that episode’s panel.

Research for this paper was focused on thirteen episodes of OwG (out of a total of 47), all of which aired in 2007. This sample included eleven episodes that followed the normal patterns listed above, one two-hour special about the children of several of the foreign wives that regularly appear on the show (4/3/2007), and a one-hour live broadcast special entitled Nippon no kokoro wo oshieyō! (Let’s teach [foreign wives] about the Japanese heart! airdate: 3/6/2007). Both of the special episodes included elements of the regular patterns alongside new segments that will be discussed later. All episodes were viewed in the original Japanese, and all translations of the show’s content appearing in this paper are my own. Analysis of the selected episodes was based on two hypotheses: first, that OwG was designed to fit the general pattern of foreigners being used on Japanese television in the post-bubble era as a means of reaffirming an idealised Japanese identity, and second, that OwG differs from older shows that included non-celebrity foreigners in that it stresses that the foreigners it features have successfully made permanent places for themselves in Japanese society, suggesting therefore that there are in fact places for foreigners in Japanese society. In pursuing these hypotheses, three discourses received special attention: the role of a generalised idea of foreignness—both portrayed (by the show) and performed (by the wives)—in defining what Japanese culture and identity are not; the place of an essentialist portrayal of Japaneseness promoted by examining the sites where foreign wives find (or are portrayed as finding) dissonance with their Japanese surroundings; and the tension created by a paradoxical portrayal of wifehood (and motherhood) as both universal and subject to purportedly foreign and Japanese values. As the primary source for this study is a television program, it is also important to bear in mind the role of production,3 meaning that what is finally seen by the viewer has already been thoroughly edited and manipulated on a variety of levels. On the other hand, it would be wrong to consider this kind of talk show as a Foucauldian system in which everything is controlled by unseen producers; the opinions and ideas expressed by the wives are their own, and it is the ways they find to affirm their own agency to varying degrees within the format of the show that set OwG apart from earlier shows focused on foreigners. Statistical information about the show’s viewership was unavailable, but everything from the colours used to the choice of middle-aged MCs to the very genre of the show suggests that it was targeted at women in their thirties and forties,4 and sporadic glimpses of the studio audience support this assumption.

Because no academic work has been done in English that focuses specifically on the portrayal of foreign wives on Japanese television, the theoretical background for this research was pooled from a number of sources. First and foremost was the literature on the role of foreigners in Japanese television, such as Iwabuchi’s (2005) ethnographic study of foreign guests on the television program Kokoga Hen Dayo Nihonjin, Miller’s (1995) examination of gaijin tarento (foreign TV personalities) and Yano’s (2004) look at the portrayal of a Japanese-American character on a Japanese drama. Examinations of Japanese women on Japanese television—e.g., Painter (1996) and Arima (2003)—were also included, as were explorations of the lives and situations of foreign wives, as in Imamura (1988), Burgess (2007), Jones and Shen (2008), Ma (1996), and Diggs (2001). Critiques of Nihonjinron (theories of Japanese uniqueness), including discussions of language and food, were found in Cook (2006), Dale (1986), Haarman (1989), Iino (1996), Takeda (2008) and Yoshino (2002). Discussions of femininity in Japan were drawn from Ashikari (2003), Long (1996) and Miller (2006). Finally, explorations of multiculturalism and perceptions of foreign minorities in Japan included Creighton (1995, 1997), Flowers (2012), Lie (2004) and Murphy-Shigematsu (1993).

Most notably lacking from this study are the first-hand experiences of the foreign wives themselves. Because the focus of this paper is first and foremost on the uses and results of the portrayal of the women (i.e., how they are utilised by the show), ideas such as the women’s motivations for appearing on television or their feelings about how they have been represented have been de-emphasised. An ethnographic look at the show as experienced by the participating wives would doubtless offer intriguing new insight into the foreigner’s place in the world of Japanese television, but such a project is beyond the scope and objectives of this paper. Furthermore, as the analysis for this paper is based on finished episodes, all postulations on the process of production have been inferred from viewing the final, aired episodes, with no information—firsthand or otherwise—regarding events and thought processes that occurred behind the scenes. Finally, all discussion of viewers is again framed in terms of my suppositions of how they might have reacted to the images presented by the show, as this paper is concerned more with the conveyance of meanings (by the show) than their reception (by the audience).

The magical wives come in for a landing

Every episode of OwG opens with the same striking image: a cartoon blonde drifts over Japan with her pink umbrella while the narrator spells out the allusion: “These Mary Poppinses rode the winds of happiness and landed in Japan!” Thus, from the very beginning, foreign wives are equated with Mary Poppins, Disney’s beautiful (non-wife) domestic servant with magical powers who comes from a cartoon world and stays only long enough to teach the children to look after themselves. At worst, this suggests that foreign wives are temporary, nonhuman substitutes for real (i.e., Japanese) mothers. However, such a reading is belied by the lighthearted and (relatively) humanising tone of the program, as well as its emphasis on the permanence of the featured wives’ lives in Japan. Perhaps, then, a more productive analysis can be achieved if we consider Mary Poppins to be a domestic figure who was selected for two reasons: she is visually identifiable as being not ethnically Japanese, and she is exotic to the point of being fantastical.

This interpretation is supported by the show’s many intertextual references to another story about a magical, otherworldly domestic. Before a foreign wife first enters the studio for the interview portion of OwG, a disembodied male voice reads the phrase “Two people, who fell in love one day and were joined. The wife was a foreigner.” Replace the word ‘foreigner’ with ‘witch’ and we have the opening line from the Japanese-dubbed version of the American TV series Bewitched, in which a beautiful witch chooses to forsake the world of magic in order to live with her human husband. Wives on OwG enter the studio accompanied by the Bewitched theme song, and in fact, the show’s very title can be seen as a play on the Japanese title of Bewitched, Okusama wa Majo (‘The Wife Is a Witch’). This equating of foreign wives with magic and fantasy is one of several ways in which OwG highlights foreignness as outside of and even opposed to a monolithic concept of Japanese identity. The foreign wives are demarcated as racial and cultural others, allowing the home audience to identify with Japaneseness on the basis that ‘We (Japanese) are not them (gaikokujin).’

This process can also be seen in the ways that OwG uses and defines the very word gaikokujin. Technically, a gaikokujin is any person from a country other than Japan (as indicated by its Chinese characters, which literally mean ‘outside country person’), implying that it distinguishes people purely on the basis of their citizenship or country of origin. However, as Miller (1995) and Lie (2004) have pointed out, terms such as gaijin5 and gaikokujin often carry specific racial limitations, and this certainly seems to be the case with OwG. The show’s official Website boasts that, during its run, OwG hosted 94 foreign wives of very diverse ethnic backgrounds from countries all over the world, and yet no wife from China, Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula was ever featured (TV Tokyo, 2006). This is particularly remarkable considering that women from these regions made up roughly half of all incoming foreign wives during the 1990s (Jones and Shen 2008: 12). One can surmise that this exclusion of East Asian women is due to the visual nature of television, meaning that foreignness could be emphasised by favouring those who were visibly different from Japanese home viewers. However, by associating foreignness with appearance, the show inevitably makes race the decisive factor in determining who is and is not foreign.

The majority of wives featured on the show as gaikokujin have lived in Japan for years or even decades. By virtue of being married to a Japanese citizen, all are entitled to permanent residence, and it is entirely possible that some may be naturalised citizens. This begs the question: at what point does one stop being a gaikokujin? One particular episode featured a woman who was born and raised in Japan of (Caucasian) American parents, but who identifies so strongly with Japanese culture that she found she could not live successfully in the States. By labeling her and other wives as gaikokujin, OwG clearly states that residence, citizenship and even cultural identity must accede to ethnic difference in determining whether or not someone is foreign. This racialisation of nationality creates a sense that Japaneseness belongs solely to ethnic Japanese.

Race is not the only means by which OwG uses foreignness as a counterpoint to a perceived Japanese identity. Prior to introducing each of the wives, a screen is shown with a smattering of trivia about her country, while the narrator tells the audience the exact distance in kilometres between the wife’s birthplace and Japan, effectively providing a quantifiable aspect to her foreignness. Segments that feature the wives at home are also titled in the wife’s native language with Japanese subtitles added, rather than simply supplying a Japanese title. While this may be nothing more than a gimmicky eye-catcher, by simultaneously showing the two languages it nevertheless creates a visual binary in which the wife is once again cast as opposite to Japan, in this case linguistically.

It is also worth noting that, barring one exception,6 all segments filmed outside of the studio for the talk-variety portion of the show feature English-language music exclusively. While most of the songs used by the show are fairly well known in the U.S., they are drawn from a wide variety of genres (including classic rock, pop and reggae, to name a few) and are often not performed by the original artists. It seems likely, given the fact that the selection process does not seem to be based on appealing to the show’s Japanese viewership (who is not likely to be familiar with many of the songs, and will most definitely be unfamiliar with the versions used), that non-Japanese music was included in order further to foreignise the atmosphere surrounding the foreign wife as she is seen in the video reenactment, the home visit and the party. The use of only English-language music, however, seems to project a sense of universal foreignness—a suggestion that a Beach Boys song is just as appropriate accompanying a scene in Canada, Kenya or the Ukraine as it is for California. Apart from feeding into notions of Japanese uniqueness via the construction of a “Japan/Everywhere Else” dichotomy, this equating of the English language and Anglo-American culture with all countries outside of Japan illustrates one means by which OwG showcases foreignness while simultaneously downplaying cultural differences among foreign cultures. While the aforementioned segment titles and the sporadic use of wives’ native languages in some reenactments may contradict this idea, the frequency and blatancy with which such a notion of a single, homogenous foreignness appears throughout the show suggest that it is the preeminent of the two messages, at least in terms of what the show itself is communicating. However, as we shall see, the wives themselves often appear to have a different agenda.

Naturally, the central image of gaikokujin on OwG is presented by the okusama themselves, as they actively perform their foreignness for the home audience. One way that they do so is through their clothes: all wives that take part in the Perori segment and many of the wives that join the in-studio panel dress in ways that either highlight their original nationality or otherwise make themselves stand out. When asked by the child of a foreign wife why Japanese people tend to wear black clothes, MC Takeda Tetsuya answered that Japanese people prefer to be subtle in their style of dress, “unlike your mothers, whose clothing screams look at my country…” (airdate: 4/3/2007) While the clothes seen on the show may be standard dress for some of the women, such as with Sri Lankan wives who wear saris, it is more often a case of deliberate costuming, as in the case of the French wife who wears a medieval peasant outfit or the Croatian wife who dons her Croatian flag dress and hat for all of her numerous appearances on the show. In fact, MC Miyake Yūji once pointed out that the Croatian woman always wears the same dress, to which she responded “They’re the only clothes I’ve got that express my country” (airdate: 4/17/2007). In all such cases, the women are shown wearing normal attire during their home visits and parties, indicating that what they have chosen to wear on the show are not their everyday clothes. As the narrators and subtitles are all too happy to point out, the women’s costumes make them stand out—particularly in the rural Japanese settings of many of the Perori segments—creating a startling on-screen contrast between foreigner and Japanese.

Panels and food-related excursions are both staples of Japanese television, and in most cases it seems standard for the Japanese tarento (TV personalities) featured on such programs to exaggerate their reactions and behaviours for comedic effect. In this case, OwG is no exception, as outside of the talk-variety portion the wives often conduct themselves in a similar fashion, for instance by dramatically overstating the deliciousness of a food or jokingly impersonating people they meet outside of the studio. However, because the show portrays itself as a talk-variety program focused on the real lives of real women, there is a sense that such behaviours are natural—i.e., the women are acting this way not because they are on TV (since they are portrayed as real and not TV personalities) but because that is how they (foreigners) normally act. This idea that Japanese television portrays foreigners as naturally clown-like is also described by Miller (1995: 194), who points out that the “bumbling and bombastic” foreigner as a stereotype has long had a place on Japanese television, and that gaijin tarento such as Dave Spector have made whole careers out of presenting on-air personae that fit such an image.

The wives also express their foreignness in the foods they prepare for the show’s party segment. Wives generally make foods that a Japanese viewer is most likely not familiar with,7 and narrators during the cooking portion often react with surprise to the ingredients and methods they use. Once the foods are prepared, they are inevitably presented as being from the wife’s home country, though sometimes this is not the case, as when a woman of Indian ethnicity from Tanzania made samosa and biryani (two Indian foods) and the show labeled them as “Tanzanian party foods” (airdate: 4/3/2007). Such a lack of attention to detail suggests once again that the primary motivation behind OwG’s use of foreignness is to show difference from generalised Japanese norms (in this case involving foods, ingredients and cooking techniques) rather than to provide accurate information about other countries and cultures.

The wives’ children also serve to highlight their mothers’ foreignness on the show. Aside from appearing in the home visit portion of the show and occasionally being guests in the studio audience, the children of the wives who regularly take part in the show were featured on a special two-hour episode, where they appeared as a panel opposite their mothers in the studio (airdate: 4/3/2007). Despite the facts that every one of these children has a Japanese father and that most of them were born and raised in Japan (and hold Japanese citizenship), each child wore a nametag that featured the flag of her mother’s home country, thus identifying herself and her mother as foreign. The children further represented their mothers as outsiders in two special segments of the show. In the first, entitled ‘I always wanted to say this to my mother,’ the children were encouraged to criticise their mothers’ strange behaviours, while in the second, ‘Mom’s country is mysterious,’ they were asked to talk about things they witnessed when visiting their mothers’ home countries that were bizarre or upsetting. The home audience then hears about foreign wives who expose their breasts at public beaches or who come from countries where people build houses in trees.

When discussing how the wives and their children portray foreignness, it is important to bear in mind the role that production plays in shaping everything that the viewer sees. The children’s nametags, for example, were obviously prepared by the show, and their questions and statements about their mothers were also pre-selected so that they could appear on a screen next to the MCs. Though as a viewer it is impossible to know whether the wives were required to dress in strange clothes and exhibit humorous behaviours, the fact that those wives who do dress and act in over-the-top ways make more repeated appearances than those who do not suggests that at the very least the producers reward such conduct with invitations to come again. Post-production processes such as editing and the insertion of subtitles also have an effect on what the viewer actually sees.

However, for all that the content of OwG is manipulated, the words and lives of the wives are their own, and thus they do have some agency in the creation of their televised image. This can be seen most often in segments filmed in the studio, where wives on the panel may break out into spontaneous discussions of cultural differences amongst themselves, thus asserting their own country’s culture and representing it as unique and separate from the culturally-homogenous foreign bloc of non-Japan commonly depicted by the show. In the aforementioned children’s episode (airdate: 4/3/2007), one child admonished her Uzbekistani mother for picking her nose while driving, and an Armenian mother on the panel stated that she had seen such behaviour in a French film. The French wife present balked at this, quickly stepping in to say that such a behaviour would be unacceptable in France and that she did not want viewers associating it with her country. As we can see from this case, wives tend to speak up if they feel their country is being misrepresented, whether by the show itself or by other wives. Though the light-hearted atmosphere of the show and the limited amount of time allotted to commentary from the panel greatly restricts the depth with which wives can discuss their own cultures, this kind of talk may still serve to illustrate that foreignness is not monolithic.

One wife in particular stands out for the way in which she achieved agency by overemphasising her own foreignness to the point of parody, effectively lampooning the show’s attempts to foreignise her (airdate: 2/13/2007). Rachel, an English teacher from Australia, entered the studio and immediately sat provocatively on MC Miyake Yūji’s lap. Rachel spoke of her intention never to learn proper Japanese, and then proceeded to demonstrate a chant that she had made out of all of the Japanese insults and swear words that she knew: ‘unko baba unchi kuso kuso’ (Poop hag poo-poo shit shit). She next explained that she fell in love with her husband because of his dirty jokes, and then insisted upon demonstrating her prowess with nunchaku (a weapon used in Japanese martial arts). Finally, before exiting the studio, she reached over to shake Takeda Tetsuya’s hand and stealthily placed a plastic dog poop in his palm. Watching this, it quickly becomes apparent that Rachel is fully aware of the fact that everything she says or does on the show will be tied to a notion of foreignness, but rather than attempting to comport herself as a model representative of the foreign community, she chooses instead to play with the show, crossing so many lines and making herself so absurd that it should be impossible for viewers to attribute her behaviour simply to foreignness. In this way, she does not contribute to the show’s narrative of foreignness and Japaneseness because she creates a position wherein she is not comparable to either—essentially, she is simply too far outside of any standard of normal behaviour to be considered a useable example for comparison. For all that, however, the show makes it clear that Rachel has settled comfortably in Japan, implying that Japanese communities have room even for those who stalwartly refuse to adapt to the local norms.

Establishing the boundaries of Japan

The March 6, 2007 episode of OwG was the series’ first and only live broadcast, a special episode entitled ‘Let’s teach [foreign wives] about the Japanese heart!’ The two male MCs open the episode with the following exchange:

Miyake Yūji:             We’re going to look at parts of Japan even Japanese have never seen—places where the Japanese heart can be understood.

Takeda Tetsuya:        Let’s teach even our Japanese viewers about the Japanese heart!

As we have seen, foreignness is used on OwG as a means of establishing a sense of Japanese identity by showing the viewers what they are not. However, the show also places a remarkable amount of stress on defining specifically what it means to be Japanese. This is often done through the reverse of the aforementioned process—the wives are used to showcase what foreigners are not, giving the home audience the message ‘they are not us.’

Not surprisingly, most of the shows’ attempts to pinpoint that which is quintessentially Japanese fall neatly into the category of Nihonjinron—that is, they evoke the essentialist sensibility that Japan is unique and intrinsically different from other countries, often also implying that Japan is the only truly unique country. One such Nihonjinron that is often featured on the show is the widespread idea that the Japanese language is inextricably linked with Japanese culture and ethnicity, so that it is impossible for foreigners to master (Dale 1986, Haarman 1989). Such attitudes about language appear on OwG in numerous forms, most often centring on the wives’ linguistic difficulties. For example, OwG often features scenes in which a foreign wife asks about the meaning of a specific word, though neither the action of that scene nor the word she is inquiring about have any particular relevance to the rest of the segment (e.g., airdates 4/3/2007, 5/8/2007, 5/22/2007). When wives make language mistakes, the MCs, narrators and even subtitles of the show draw attention to them, often by making jokes about the wife’s language abilities (e.g., airdates 2/20/2007, 2/24/2007, 4/3/2007). On the other hand, when a wife manages a supposedly difficult linguistic feat, such as reading Chinese characters (airdate: 5/15/2007) or using a traditional proverb (airdate: 4/3/2007), she is praised in a manner that suggests surprise and condescension, giving viewers the image that she is like a child who has used an adult word correctly, with narrator commentary in such cases typically amounting to “Where did she ever manage to learn that?” (e.g., airdate: 4/3/2007). In either case, the Japanese language is treated as being highly inaccessible to foreigners.

Linguistic difference is also highlighted in the wives’ interactions with the Japanese people in their lives, such as when a narrator comments on how difficult it must be for a wife to understand her father-in-law’s thick Hiroshima accent (airdate: 5/29/2007). Likewise, the inability of said Japanese people to learn the foreign wife’s native language is also stressed, alongside assertions that Japanese people are unable to learn foreign languages. In one episode (airdate: 4/24/2007), the two-year-old daughter of an American English teacher is shown speaking a combination of Japanese and English, much to the chagrin of her Japanese grandmother, who is struggling to learn enough English to keep up. The girl’s grandfather tells the show’s on-site interviewer that he is unable to learn English because he is Japanese, and the interviewer responds by saying she agrees completely. Language differences are also underlined in discussions of names, most notably when one foreign wife suggested a non-Japanese name to another wife who was expecting a child, and the subtitles commented that such a name was unacceptable because it could not be written in Chinese characters (airdate: 1/30/2007).

Before moving on, it would be pertinent to introduce one particular case in which MC Takeda Tetsuya manages succinctly to suggest not only that Japanese is distinct from all other languages, but that it is not a normal means of communication for foreigners and that linguistic issues are directly related to ethnicity. At one point during the two-hour special that featured the children of foreign wives, the son of a Kenyan wife asked Tetsuya why he always felt sleepy in class. Tetsuya answered that Japanese is made up of very few sounds, while the languages of the foreign mothers (as he said this he gestured toward the entire panel of mothers) contain many different sounds (airdate: 4/3/2007). Therefore, he explained, children of foreign mothers are used to being exposed to a wide variety of linguistic noises, and so Japanese by comparison takes on the monotonous hum of a car engine and lulls them to sleep. While it is true that the English language contains more distinct sounds and sound combinations than standard Japanese, the panel that Tetsuya referred to also contained wives who spoke Russian, Croatian, Portuguese and Burmese, to name a few, and it is not likely that Tetsuya was familiar enough with all of these languages to know whether they contain more or fewer sounds than Japanese, implying that he was simply assuming that what was true for English would be true for all non-Japanese languages. His statement also assumed that the children communicate at home primarily in the mother’s original language, despite the fact that the vast majority of mothers on OwG are shown speaking to their children in Japanese (at least one child featured on the show had never learned his mother’s native language). Finally, he implied that the children of foreign mothers would have a special linguistic reason directly linked to foreignness to explain their sleeping in class, while the scores of Japanese children who sleep in class need no such reason.

Unfortunately, language is not the only subject that Tetsuya tackles in such a fashion. In fact, the ‘Ask Tetsuya about the mysteries of Japan!’ segment is basically a forum for Tetsuya to philosophise about the nature of Japanese uniqueness. During each talk-variety interview, the guest wife is allowed to ask one question about an aspect of Japanese life that she does not understand—which implies by its very concept that foreigners do not understand Japan. The questions, which we can assume are pre-approved by the production staff prior to the actual interview, are invariably about trivial matters. This is troubling, as it suggests to the audience that foreign wives face no problems worse than having to decide whether or not it is rude to eat the last piece of sushi at a party, when in fact many foreign wives experience loneliness, depression and anxiety connected with their lives in Japan (Asian Women’s Fund 2003).

The point of this segment, however, is not so much to grant the wives an opportunity to give voice to their problems with Japan as it is to allow Tetsuya to postulate on Japaneseness by way of answering the wives’ questions. Tetsuya’s typical pattern is to extrapolate from the questions some intrinsic aspect of the Japanese character that makes it fundamentally different from the wife’s own culture. For example, when asked why Japanese people tend to describe their children in terms of grade rather than age, Tetsuya suggested that Japanese people prefer to be doing things collectively, in the same way that cherry blossoms bloom and fade all at once, and that this somehow explained the phenomenon in question (airdate: 5/8/2007). When asked why it is common to wear a towel on one’s head when bathing in Japan, Tetsuya stated that Japanese people like to have a physical symbol connected with their activities (airdate: 5/15/2007), and when asked about nose-picking on Tokyo trains, he theorised that seeing the scenery rush past through a train window sparks a desire in the Japanese mind to let go of the past (airdate: 5/29/2007). Tetsuya’s nuggets of purported wisdom are also not limited to his segment, as he philosophises throughout the in-studio portions of the show, claiming that everything from the definition of marriage (airdate: 5/8/2007) to the function of facial expressions (airdate: 1/30/2007) is different for Japanese than it is for foreigners. In all cases, it becomes clear through Tetsuya’s unapologetic use of blanket generalisations that to him, not only are foreign and Japanese opposites, but they are also monolithic concepts—meaning neither of them carries room within itself for variation.

Though the wives often agree with Tetsuya’s theories, there have been several occasions in which they challenged his conclusions, usually by way of citing their own experiences, appealing to a sense of universalism that included both Japanese and foreigners, or simply stating that they think otherwise. In some episodes, even Yūji questions Tetsuya, often by pointing out the fact that his answer is not necessarily relevant to the question, such as when Tetsuya imparted the cherry blossom analogy described above (airdate: 5/8/2007). While these disagreements and the humorous title screen for the Ask Tetsuya segment (which shows a caricature of Tetsuya in deep thought next to a Japanese flag while Bugs Bunny cartoon music plays in the background) may serve to suggest that Tetsuya is not to be thought of as an infallible authority on the Japanese character, his rampant hypothesising about Japanese uniqueness is still problematic. For all that it is portrayed as lighthearted, by singling out one particular MC, the Ask Tetsuya segment implies that Tetsuya is an expert and gives an air of credibility to what are in all reality no more than highly questionable Nihonjinron. Thus, the audience may be encouraged to laugh at Tetsuya on one level, but at a deeper level it is expected that his statements will resonate with viewers’ notions of Japanese identity. Essentially, Tetsuya manages simultaneously to prevent OwG from becoming too serious and to provide explicit and seemingly legitimate descriptions of the Japanese/foreign binary implicit in other aspects of the show.

Another area where portrayals of Japaneseness factor strongly is in the show’s use of food. Japanese cuisine is host to its own myths of uniqueness, which suggest that foreigners cannot appreciate traditional Japanese flavours, or even that foreigners are incapable of consuming some Japanese foods (Cook 2006, Iino 1996, Takeda 2008). The show’s main food segment, Perori Nippon wo tabeyō, seems geared specifically to the purpose of reinforcing such myths. Every Perori segment features two wives of different national and ethnic backgrounds, including such pairings as a Kenyan wife with a French wife (airdate: 5/1/2007) or a Russian wife with a Sri Lankan wife (airdate: 5/22/2007). By then treating the two wives as a single unit—a delegation of foreigners sent to experience Japanese foods—OwG once again depicts a kind of universal foreignness in opposition to Japan via a bilateral relationship in which the Russian and the Sri Lankan sit together on one side of the counter, ready to try the interesting new food handed over by the Japanese chef standing on the other side.

The foods that the wives encounter during the Perori segments generally fall into two categories: obscure regional foods unfamiliar even to most Japanese viewers (such as hōtō; airdate 4/17/2007), and foods popularly considered in Japan to be unpalatable to foreigners, such as wasabi (airdate:4/17/2007) and mochi (rice-cakes made form glutinous rice; airdate: 5/22/2007), suggesting that the selection process favours foods that would be unknown to the wives, and/or would be likely to cause a negative response. Subtitles and narration often ascribe the wives’ reactions to their nationality, involving such comments as “It looks like wasabi is no good for Brazilians” (airdate: 4/17/2007). Chefs and restaurant owners are also frequently shown expressing anxiety about whether or not the foreign wives will be able to eat their dishes. What is more, playing in the background of the Perori segments is the kind of brass-heavy vaudevillian music that one would expect to accompany a Keystone Cops film, equating a foreigner’s consumption of Japanese food with a kind of slapstick humour.

There are also a number of ways outside of the Perori segment in which Japanese food is used as a site for separating the Japanese from the foreign. Whenever a family member complains about the inferiority of a foreign wife’s Japanese cooking, there is always emphatic subtitling and/or commentary from narrators and MCs (e.g., airdate: 5/8/2007). Should the wife express distaste for a specific Japanese food, then it, too, will be commented on, or even illustrated dramatically in a reenactment (e.g., airdate: 5/1/2007). Other occurrences which receive heavy emphasis include the wives’ own comments about some Japanese foods being flavourless or requiring extra ingredients (e.g., airdate: 5/15/2007). All of these examples are used by the show to suggest that the wives cannot truly recognise or appreciate the flavours of Japanese food.

Additionally, foreign wives’ variations of what the show labels as traditional Japanese foods are always greeted with shock on the part of the show. This is often accompanied with disapproval, as in when one wife made a sushi roll with curry inside and gave it to her mother-in-law (airdate: 2/13/2007). While the video itself merely showed the Japanese woman eating the sushi, the subtitles suggested that she was only choking it down in order to spare her daughter-in-law any hard feelings. However, occasionally these variations are positively received, as was the case when two wives on a Perori outing suggested pouring honey on their roasted bamboo shoots (airdate: 5/8/2007). Though the video ended with the bamboo farmer telling them that what they were doing defied tradition, the wives pointed out in the studio that the farmer had in fact admitted that their way of eating the bamboo was delicious, but that his admission had been edited out of the clip. When roast bamboo was brought in for sampling, Tetsuya himself admitted (obviously to his own surprise) that it was delicious with honey, though Yūji still asserted that the bamboo’s flavour was meant to be enjoyed unmodified. Such instances, though rare, are important because they represent a breaking down of the primary discourse of Japanese uniqueness, replacing it instead with an image of diversity as a creative force. In other words, through cases like this, the audience sees that foreigners are capable of making Japanese food more delicious.

As segments like Ask Tetsuya and Perori demonstrate, many aspects of OwG seem geared specifically toward exposing the foreign wives (and the home audience) to Japaneseness. While on the one hand this suggests that foreigners can be taught to understand Japan, it also reinforces the idea that such teaching is necessary—i.e., that these women, who are married to Japanese men and have lived in Japan for years, still do not understand Japanese culture. Whether or not the wives feel this way (and some of them have indicated on the show that they do, e.g., airdate: 3/6/2007), the fact that OwG has incorporated this idea of educating so thoroughly as to base several segments on it serves as yet another indicator to the audience that Japaneseness is so different as to be nigh-impenetrable to outsiders.

The most obvious example of such cultural education on OwG was the aforementioned live special about teaching the Japanese heart (airdate: 3/6/2007). As part of the show’s instructional mission, special segments on the episode featured wives interacting with sumō wrestlers and enka singers, but interestingly, in both of these segments, the wives resisted the education they were receiving. When a wife visiting the sumō stable questioned why women cannot enter the sumō ring, Tetsuya explained that there is a separation in such traditional Japanese spaces between a women’s world and a men’s world. The wife, jokingly upset, countered that in the twenty-first century men and women are supposed to be equal. When another wife—who is an admitted fan of the melodramatic Japanese music genre known as enka—received singing lessons from a famous enka songstress, Tetsuya patronisingly asked if she ever finds the music silly. She responded to this veiled accusation that she cannot truly appreciate the music by saying that no, she actually thinks it is very sophisticated, and then went on to refute Tetsuya’s claim that enka embodies the innate complexity of the Japanese language. Thus, the wives’ agency overcame the show’s agenda of portraying foreigners as ignorant of Japanese culture, instead allowing them not only to showcase their knowledge, but even to offer critiques.

Another meaningful aspect of the episode was when the viewing public was invited to share what they thought foreign wives ought to learn about the Japanese heart. The comments they offered, which came via email or were spoken into video cameras placed on the street in both Osaka and Tokyo, focused heavily on correcting bad behaviours stereotypically associated with foreigners. Thus, teaching the Japanese heart became “Don’t wear sexy clothes around the house,” “Don’t kiss in public when children are present,” and “Don’t select several songs back to back when doing karaoke with Japanese people.” This once again emphasised the idea that foreigners require training, as well as supporting the belief that all foreigners share the same bad habits.

A similar segment was featured on the two-hour special episode about the children of international marriages (airdate: 4/3/2007), in which women on the street were asked “If your son brought home a foreign wife, what would you teach her?” Responses were more varied than those received in the ‘Japanese Heart’ episode, but there were still many cases of behaviour modification advice based on stereotypes (such as “Use only a little soy sauce when you eat sushi”). Most other responses were also based on Nihonjinronist thinking, including the suggestion that a woman marrying a Japanese man would need to be taught the Japanese words for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ or the idea that the practice of apologising even when not guilty must be explained to foreigners and thus represents uniquely Japanese values.

Another point of comparison in which the foreign wives are held up to a Japanese model is in the show’s examinations of what it implies are the foreign and Japanese aspects of the women’s daily lives. However, while the tendency on OwG is to define Japaneseness in terms that cast the foreign wives as perpetual outsiders, these glimpses into their homes and relationships establish a counter-discourse that depicts the wives as successful assimilators who have developed strategies both for finding a place within Japanese society and preserving their own cultural backgrounds. For one thing, the show portrays the vast majority of wives as having happy, functional marriages and friendly relationships with their husbands’ families, suggesting to the audience that cross-cultural understanding, communication and even interdependence between Japanese and foreigners are not so difficult after all.

Many of the wives are also shown at work, including in so-called traditional Japanese environments such as a soba shop (airdate: 2/13/2007) or a ryokan (Japanese inn; airdate: 3/6/2007). Other women are portrayed as qualified professionals, such as one wife who became a licensed chiropractor in Japan (airdate: 5/8/2007) and another who (at time of original broadcast) was one of only two translators in the country who can translate legal documents between Japanese and Malay (airdate: 1/30/2007). Thus, audiences are shown that these women can not only function in Japanese society, but can even make their own contributions to it.

The children of the foreign wives also provide several clues as to how well their mothers are adapting to life in Japan. As mentioned previously, most of the women are shown speaking Japanese with their children, illustrating that they are sufficiently comfortable with the language to raise and discipline their children without falling back on their first language. What is more, most of the children featured on the show have Japanese names, implying that their mothers are not locked into the linguistic and cultural values of their home countries.

Throughout the series, many of the wives have affirmed—through word or deed—the value of adopting local customs and manners, some of them even going so far as to appropriate what they consider to be Japanese traditional values, such as one wife who convinced her husband that the two of them should move in with his parents and take care of them, as he is the eldest son (airdate: 5/29/2007). However, it also becomes apparent that none of them have completely compromised their own cultural roots, and so the viewer is presented with the PTA president who starts her day with a samba (airdate: 4/17/2007), or the demure African housewife who believes that her scent makes the lions at the local zoo nostalgic (airdate: 4/3/2007). In this sense, OwG is conveying a positive image in which foreigners are not only capable of living in Japan, but can do so without having to give up their own cultural roots.8 While this may yet argue for Japanese uniqueness in the sense that the women are clearly not becoming Japanese, it nevertheless suggests that Japanese society and culture need not belong exclusively to those who are ethnically and nationally Japanese. In other words, the program is broadcasting the message that there is room in Japan for foreigners.

Defining ‘Okusama’

One of the most complex aspects of Okusama wa Gaikokujin is its portrayal of wifehood. The show seems at once to treat a Japanese conception of wifehood as universal and to imagine foreign wives to be very different. A wife appearing on the show, then, is subjected to two very different sets of expectations: she must be a good Japanese wife and a strange foreign woman.

The idea that there is one universal definition of wifehood is one often encountered by foreign wives coming to Japan, and in fact many of them may start off believing it themselves (Imamura 1988). In terms of OwG, this belief can first be seen in the fact that the show attempts to portray the lives of women from vastly different cultural backgrounds using one set pattern (involving cooking for a party, interacting with her in-laws, raising her children, rating her husband, and putting on makeup, among other activities). The assumption here is that the elements of the pattern are appropriate for all women, regardless of cultural differences, suggesting that those who designed the show either did not consider the possibility that the sensibilities of some foreign women might not mesh with this model of wifehood, or did consider it but deemed such dissonance negligible. Either way, the end result is that the show appears to be based on the notion that the Japanese producers’ ideas of wifehood can be applied to wives of all countries.

Though at first glance this outward projection of Japanese marital expectations may seem to be simply another way in which OwG expresses its Nihonjinronist subtext, I argue here that this is not the case. True, the adoption of Japanese wifehood as a universal model clearly suggests that it is superior to other forms of wifehood, or is in fact the only correct way of understanding what it means to be a wife. However, the defining factor of Nihonjinron is that they assert Japanese specialness not through superiority but through uniqueness—i.e., the exclusion of foreigners. Should OwG be consciously measuring foreign wives by Japanese standards in this way, then we could expect to see an implied expectation of disappointment (since, in Nihonjinron logic, foreigners cannot master Japanese customs), and yet none is evident. As we shall see, the reactions of laughter and scorn that are dished out upon wives who fail to do things in what is implied to be the Japanese way most often start with surprise, meaning that any inability of a foreigner to live up to the show’s standards for wifehood is unexpected.

By adopting the idealised Japanese wife as a universal model, OwG opens foreign wives up to judgment and criticism should they fail to live up to this standard. This is most obvious in the way that wives who cannot or do not cook are regarded with shocked disapproval by the narrators and on-screen textual commentaries. Remarks about wives’ lack of cooking skills often come in the form of ridicule, such as the narrator saying “Is that how you chop an onion?” (airdate: 2/13/2007). Conversely, wives who are learning to cook are patronisingly praised, particularly if they are learning how to cook Japanese food from their mothers-in-law (e.g., airdates: 4/3/2007, 5/1/2007). Likewise, wives who express a desire to do housework receive positive attention, such as when a Turkish wife said she found it strange that men should even offer to do housework, and Tetsuya replied that it would be desirable to return to the tradition of women doing all of the household chores (airdate: 5/22/2007). While Tetsuya may not be speaking on behalf of OwG and its producers, he nevertheless captures the show’s underlying tone of applauding women who exhibit the behaviours expected of a Japanese housewife and condemning those who do not.

The relationship between a wife and her mother-in-law appears to occupy a central position in the bridal experience in Japan. Because of this, Painter (1996) points out that it is one of the most common themes to be utilised by Japanese television shows when targeting female viewers. OwG is no exception to this practice, as dramatic confrontations between foreign wives and their husbands’ mothers are often used to supply a climax to the show’s video reenactments (e.g., airdate: 5/22/2007). What is more, each and every wife appearing on OwG is shown interacting with her mother-in-law (so long as she is still living). The artificiality of some of these on-screen get-togethers, such as when a wife goes on an hours-long train ride into the country to see her mother-in-law, or meets her for the first time in several years, suggests that such meetings are heavily encouraged (if not required) by the show’s producers (e.g., airdate: 2/13/2007). Commentary and sentimental music are also regularly used to suggest that building a strong relationship with one’s mother-in-law is a noble and praiseworthy pursuit. This is another example of Japanese values being applied to foreign women’s lives, as many cultures may not place such an emphasis on the role of the mother-in-law in the life of the wife.

Childrearing also factors into this depiction of Japanese womanhood as being all-inclusive. In cases such as the two-hour special about the children of foreign wives, children are encouraged to point out their mothers’ shortcomings, as was the case with one child who received a lot of laughter and positive attention upon revealing that his mother had once filled his lunch box with nothing but potato salad (airdate: 4/3/2007). Such an episode is humorous because it presents an incongruity, but that incongruity is culturally informed. The implication is that any mother should know what makes an appropriate lunch, and yet a woman whose cultural background lacks the custom of packing lunch boxes may have no conception of what one ought to include. Thus, a lack of cultural competency gets interpreted as a lack of motherly competency by the expectation that motherhood is not culturally relative, placing foreign wives at a marked disadvantage.

However, not all behaviours represented as foreign that the mothers exhibit are faux pas. Several of the women featured on the show have exhibited childrearing practices that have no common equivalent in Japan, and yet do not necessarily clash with OwG’s version of Japanese values. One such practice, strictly limiting the amount and content of children’s television viewing (airdate: 4/3/2007), was treated by commentary as surprising but not unacceptable, giving it a certain degree of validation. While the astonishment exhibited in such cases still evinces the show’s need to measure its guests against a universal standard of wifehood, the implied acceptance simultaneously demonstrates that a childrearing practice may fall outside that standard without being objectionable. However, though these occurrences may help to undermine an all-encompassing model of wifehood, they are heavily outnumbered by instances in which wives are evaluated poorly for not living up to the show’s expectations.

Interestingly, the monolithic portrayal of wifehood is contradicted in a far more effectual fashion by what appears to be a set of expectations that marriage to a foreigner will be different. These expectations seem highly influenced by stereotypes, as we can see in the rating system the couples are asked to use for their studio interview. Before appearing on the show, husband and wife are told to rate each other on a scale of one to ten in ten different categories, and the results are then discussed on the show under the segment title ‘Report Card.’ Most of the ten categories relate to supposedly traditional (Japanese) notions of marriage, e.g., cooking, housework, spending habits, relationship with husband’s mother, et cetera. However, some of the categories seem to be included specifically because the wife is a foreigner, as they would most likely not be asked of a Japanese woman. One of these is ‘number of kisses,’ which references the same stereotypical view that gaikokujin are more physically affectionate than Japanese that is evident in requests from the viewers for foreign wives to limit public displays of affection. While some of the wives reinforce this belief with comments like “my husband kisses like a foreigner,” (meaning he is a talented and frequent kisser; airdate 4/3/2007), others become visibly uncomfortable when such subjects are under discussion (e.g., airdate: 4/17/2007), showing once again the problems inherent in applying a generalised set of questions to women of varied cultural backgrounds. Another item on the report card that seems particularly aimed at non-Japanese wives is ‘bathing habits,’ which alludes to the belief that foreigners are smelly by suggesting that foreign wives may not bathe enough to satisfy their Japanese husbands.

Guests on OwG are not only subjected to judgment and stereotyping as wives and mothers, they are also evaluated to a certain degree as women. Dale (1986, p. 45) points out that Nihonjinron tend to cast Japan as feminine, while (Western) foreign countries are seen as masculine. Such gendered reasoning might explain why OwG uses the unfeminine word ‘perori’ to describe the way that foreign wives eat, when such a word would be inappropriate or even rude when applied to a Japanese woman. Perori calls to mind an image of something large devouring something minuscule, such as a Tyrannosaurus Rex eating a Chihuahua, and so the implication is that a massive, almost threatening foreigner is consuming a small, helpless Japanese dish. This aggressive imagery is highly masculinising and suggests that a foreign wife is somehow less of a woman than her Japanese equivalent.

Another site in which a foreign wife’s womanhood comes under scrutiny is the show’s makeup segment, in which the wife is meant to impart a beauty secret to the audience as she gets herself ready to host the big party. Implied in the inclusion of this segment on OwG is that women from all cultures engage in beauty work, and that foreign wives are privy to exotic and unknown methods of improving their appearance. In reality, most of the women do not offer up anything more unusual than normal cosmetics or soaps brought from their country of birth (e.g., airdate: 4/3/2007), and some do not indicate that they engage in any significant form of beauty work at all (e.g., airdate: 5/29/2007). While the show itself remains neutral about those wives who do not wear makeup, it is likely that the viewing audience does not. Ashikari (2003) has found that both Japanese men and women look down upon women who do not wear makeup, and that the act of putting on foundation is seen as the fulfillment of a social responsibility. Miller further argues that in Japan “young men and women judge those who refuse to participate in active forms of beauty work… as suffering from character flaws” (Miller 2006: 202-203). Thus, a foreign wife who does little more when getting ready for a party than washing her hair or using scented soap may be viewed as a flawed individual who is failing to live up to her obligations as a woman. One foreign wife told me that she refused two offers to go on the show specifically because she felt uncomfortable about the makeup segment and did not want to be judged for not using cosmetics (Wilkinson 2009).


For the non-Japanese viewer, Okusama wa Gaikokujin is both offensive and fascinating. The show periodically features statements that seem to lump every country and culture outside of Japan together as one massive conglomerate that exists in opposition to all things Japanese. Likewise, it relies heavily on Nihonjinronist stereotypes about Japan being unfathomable to outsiders, and may even be said to objectify the foreign women by portraying them as clown-like or uncivilised. OwG also racialises the meanings of both foreign and Japanese, and specifically excludes non-Japanese Northeast Asians from both of these groups. It thus seems reasonable to say that the show confirms Iwabuchi’s suggestion that foreigners are used by Japanese television “to reconstruct national boundaries through media entertainment” (Iwabuchi 2005: 114).

At the same time, OwG offers glimpses into the lives of women who, as the program’s Web page says, are “doing their best” (TV Tokyo 2007) to make a cross-cultural marriage work while living in a foreign country. The wives on the show, though portrayed as obviously different, have successfully made lives for themselves in Japan, and thus become a visual expression on Japanese television of the overcoming of the barriers of linguistic, cultural and even dietary difference. For those foreign residents living in Japan who are frustrated by suggestions that Japan is impenetrable, the acknowledgement via prime time television that foreignness does not preclude the ability to function as a member of Japanese society can be considered a victory of sorts. What is more, though all of the wives make compromises when adapting to life in Japan, the show makes it painfully clear that none of them have sacrificed their foreignness, meaning that they will never become Japanese, but they do not have to. The message here is apparent: Japanese society is capable of supporting multiple cultures and ways of living, and in fact is already accommodating a vast number of people whose original cultural background is not Japanese. Perhaps most importantly, at no point does the show suggest that marriage with non-Japanese is undesirable; on the contrary, it sympathises with those wives who have trouble finding acceptance in Japan, and portrays their lives as romantic and exciting. While this may prove unrealistic or even undesirable, it at least suggests that the show is in full support of the opening of Japanese hearts, homes and communities to foreigners.

Given that OwG appears both to argue for Japanese uniqueness and to suggest that Japan is becoming more culturally diverse, it seems strange that the program should assume that a Japanese vision of wifehood would be universal. Though this may be a common assumption, it is problematic in that, unlike cultural or linguistic differences, the blame for failing to live up to what is deemed a universal standard of wifehood cannot be placed solely on foreignness, and thus fault may be found with a wife’s aptitude as a woman. This situation has the potential to place foreign wives in a very tight bind, where they must adopt at least the outer trappings of a Japanese model of wifehood or else face the scrutiny and judgment of their neighbours. The wife’s foreignness only complicates this problem, as it invites stereotyping, so that one foreign woman who deviates from the norm becomes representative of all women from her country, or even all foreign women. Thus, the application of a universalist discourse on womanhood may paradoxically lead to a Nihonjinronist view that only Japanese women can be proper wives.

However, watching OwG, one does not feel that the lives of the women it features are as bleak as the above idea suggests. For all its shortcomings, the show does not seem to be trying to say that the wives are inferior or inadequate, which implies that, while OwG may have been designed and produced with a universal model of wifehood in mind, the images of wifehood that reach the audience are much more complex. Viewers at home may see a wife who does not know how to chop an onion, but they also see that her husband accepts her and loves her. Thus, the humanity inherent in the portrayals of the women’s lives serves to temper the harshness of judgments made against them, and the audience is left with an image of a wife who is different and imperfect, but is nonetheless successful at being a wife. This in turn invites the realisation (for the critical viewer) that wifehood is not universal, and that foreign wives, by virtue of being somewhat outside of the Japanese view of wifehood, may even be a source of new ideas from which Japanese women can learn, making them potentially valuable members of the community.

Though a great deal of the rhetoric found in Okusama wa Gaikokujin clearly belongs to the ‘Japan is unique’ school of thinking, the complex portrayal of the wives as successful members of Japanese society demonstrates that the show does not represent the kind of ‘culture war’ that Iwabuchi (2005) describes as characterising the use of non-celebrity foreigners on Japanese television. I assert here that this contrast between a desire to humanise and to pigeonhole the wives who appear on OwG is indicative of a larger trend in attitudes toward foreigners as Japan threatens to become a more openly diverse country. Though this should not be taken to mean that the stereotyping of non-Japanese in Japan is a thing of the past, it can at least be said that some stereotypes are losing ground, and thus the acceptance necessary for diversity to truly be beneficial to society seems to be that much more attainable. By deconstructing the images of foreignness, Japaneseness and wifehood utilised by OwG, it has been my hope with this paper to emphasise that, while Japanese television is still falling into the same Nihonjinronist patterns, more space is being made for the dissenting voices of real people acting as agents of diversity, even within those very same shows. Perhaps more importantly, OwG regularly includes images suggesting the viability and positivity of the social inclusion of non-Japanese, thus marking OwG as a symbol of progress on Japan’s multicultural journey. For all its messages of foreign strangeness and Japanese uniqueness, Okusama wa Gaikokujin is at its core still a show about love, and the lasting image is one whose potential for positive impact on a diversifying Japan cannot be denied: two people from vastly different backgrounds find each other, fall in love, overcome their differences, and together begin to build something new.


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[1] Taken from the header of the official website (TV Tokyo 2007). My translation.

[2] There is some speculation that this was due to a lack of wives interested in being featured on the show (Wilkinson, 2009).

[3] It should be mentioned here that all of the show’s producers and eight of the show’s thirteen directors were male.

[4] The colour scheme (pinks and pastels), talk-show format and focus on women and marriage all suggest that the show is intended for female viewers. The use of middle-aged MCs (as opposed to stylish young men) and the attention paid to everyday details of wifehood and motherhood have led me to believe that the show was not attempting to attract younger women.

[5] It is worth noting that OwG consistently uses the word gaikokujin rather than gaijin, even going so far as to subtitle the spoken word gaijin as gaikokujin when uttered by guests and family members (e.g., airdate: 1/30/2007). This deliberate censorship suggests an awareness of the perceived negative connotations that accompany the word gaijin.

[6] The one exception was the case of a woman who married an Okinawan man, whose episode featured only Okinawan music (airdate: 2/20/2007), perhaps implying a sense of Okinawa as being foreign.

[7] Even American wives, whose diet should be largely familiar to Japanese audiences, tend to make foods that viewers will not recognize, including dishes like cheeseburger pie (airdate: 4/24/07), or a dessert called ‘sex on the beach’ (airdate: 4/3/2007).

[8] Burgess (2007: 76) refers to this process of incomplete assimilation as ‘a practical strategy of calculated conformity.’

About the Author

Carl Gabrielson (MA, Asian Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa) is adjunct professor of U.S.-Japan Relations and Program Coordinator of the English for Academic Purposes program at Lakeland College Japan Campus.

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