In Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s novel, Sasameyuki (serialized 1943-1948; translated The Makioka Sisters by Edward Seidensticker, 1957), the action centers around finding the third sister a suitable marriage partner.  Matchmakers busily scour the field in search of eligible bachelors willing to overlook the third sister’s advancing age (she was 30!) and questions about her health (she was rumored to have TB.)  Poor Yukiko has to produce x-rays in addition to the standard portrait photograph.  Throughout the course of the novel, Yukiko is bombarded with photographs and dragged off to awkward dinners.  All, it seems, to no avail.  

Hakata ningyō, Fukuoka 1977

When I first read Tanizaki’s novel in the mid-1970s, I assumed these meetings to interview potential marriage partners, known in Japanese as omiai (literally: a meet and see), were largely relics of the past.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself the subject of just such a meeting.  

Here’s what happened:

My parents were missionaries in Fukuoka, Japan.  I was spending my junior year of college with them and attending a program at Seinan Gakuin University for international students (mostly American).

I came home from school one afternoon a little earlier than usual and found a number of women gathered in the living room with my mother.  They were enjoying their weekly Bible Study.  When their sessions ended, I poked my head in to say hello.  I had been in Japan for over six months by then, and managed to introduce myself in Japanese.

Enticed by a Dancing Doll

A few days later, when I came home from school I found a middle-aged woman seated in the living room with my mother.  On the coffee table between them was a beautiful Hakata doll. My mother’s face was pinched with worry. But my eyes were drawn to the doll, as it was in the shape of a dancing woman.  The doll was over twelve inches high, dressed in a glistening white kimono with a soft pink design at the hem.  Her obi was gold and featured a large butterfly. In her left hand she held a dancing fan and in her right a black lion’s mask with a long red ribbon that streamed over the doll’s shoulders.  She was beautiful.

“Becky,” my mother sounded nervous.

“This is Mrs. T.”

I bowed politely to my mother’s guest who was looking me up and down with a surprisingly eager smile.

“Now, I’ve explained to Mrs. T. that American young people do things differently.”

That got my attention.  

“She wants to know if you will meet her nephew and talk to him about America?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“It wouldn’t be a date exactly.  I mean, I’ve told Mrs. T. that American parents don’t arrange marriages for their children.”

What? I shot Mother a questioning look.  Who said anything about marriage?  Mother was beginning to look panicked.

At that point, Mrs. T., apparently having gotten what she came for, prepared to leave.  Mother saw her out and came back to fill me in.

A Plan is Hatched

When Mrs. T. saw me the other day at the Bible Study, she hatched a plan.  Her nephew was finishing medical school and wanted to train in the United States.  Of course, she decided, he would need an American wife.  And of course, she decided, that American wife would be me.  As Mother recounted, she was adamant.  

I told Mother in no uncertain terms that I would not have any part in this crazy scheme.  And she understood.  She seemed genuinely embarrassed that I had gotten roped into the situation, but she also seemed genuinely perplexed about how to handle it.  

Mother was a very polite and gentle soul. She never wanted to offend anyone.  And sometimes that meant her children had to work extra hard or go without so that others were not inconvenienced.  But this time, Mother uncharacteristically put her foot down. The next time Mrs. T. contacted her, Mother told her I was not interested in meeting her nephew. Ever.

And so we assumed that was that.

But it wasn’t.

Read the post for October 21, 2020 to find what happened next….

Photo by Charles Van Miraflores on Unsplash