There are three types of marital status situations in Japan for foreign females. Single, married to a Japanese person, and married to a foreign person. The first two make up the vast majority of foreign women in Japan, at least outside of the posh gaijin ghettos. Those lucky women, who tend to live a life similar to that in the U.S. with cars, foreign grocery shops and expense accounts, generally aren't here for a long time because they move back home when their husband's work here is done.
I am most definitely in the minority when it comes to being foreign, female, married to another foreigner, and having lived here for a long time. This sort of makes me wonder if no foreign woman in her right mind would live here for so long if she didn't have to, but that sort of indicates that I'm very much not in my right mind (which may already be obvious to some of you).
Japan can be a very hard place for foreign women because the culture is still male-centric. Even if your husband is a perfect specimen of equality, the world around you and very likely your Japanese in-laws will not be (if you've got a Japanese hubby). I have often said that I could never have married a Japanese man because there are so many issues. One of them is the mother-in-law issue can be much worse here than the bad in-law situations back home. The main reason for that is exemplified in something one of my (still single and in her 40's) student told me. We were talking about relationships and she said she never wanted to marry. When I asked her why, she said that her mother was "bullied" by her paternal grandmother and aunt and she saw the stress and difficulty that put on her mother. I asked her what they criticized her mother about and she said 'anything and everything.' She went on to say that she believed it was the "custom" in Japan for female in-laws to rag on the wife of their darling son or brother.
While I'm certain that this situation is not the case for everyone, I'm also sure that there are status issues at play and a different role for in-laws in Japanese culture. In my absolutely anecdotal and statistically invalid experience, about 30% of married Japanese women have no or few in-law issues and the rest find it to be one of the most onerous aspects of marriage. These in-law problems don't tend to extend to foreign men who marry Japanese women though since the culture doesn't have a "custom" of criticizing and interfering with husbands like it does with wives.
Wives have the unfortunate burden of having to prove themselves on multiple levels (in all cultures, but more so in Japan in my opinion). They have to cook, clean, give birth to and raise kids, and, if necessary, work part-time to contribute to the family income. Men essentially have to be healthy and work. Mainly, they have to work full-time and make enough money to support the family. Being a successful Japanese housewife and mother can be a pretty high bar to get your chin up to in the eyes of a mother-in-law and Japanese society. I'm guessing this is why marriage rates are dropping in Japan and women are marrying later. Now that many women can work and have careers in Japan, they're not so keen to toss it all aside for the burdens of marriage.
Several weeks ago, I was recommended a blog written by a foreign wife of a Japanese man through Google Reader. If you don't use this function, I recommend you do as it'll point you to blogs similar to ones to which you're already subscribed. If you subscribe to your own blog, you can get ones similar to your type of writing as well. It's an excellent way to find new content of the type which you already enjoy.
Getting back to the point though, this woman is living my worst image of what life would be like with a Japanese husband. Please don't get me wrong. I don't think that there aren't women who have problems with foreign husbands, but just that your options are different in a relationship with a Japanese person because of cultural issues and different expectations. If you're married to a foreign fellow and he's a jerk, you have a support network that believes he is also a jerk because they have the same values as you when it comes to marital roles. When you're married to a Japanese man, you get less support when he is slack about doing his part with housework or kids because you are perceived as a failure as a wife. He is not likely to be perceived as a failure as a husband if he works full-time and is seen as making a decent living.
This morning, I read a piece by this woman and she was attempting to put together one of those elaborate bento chock full of fully-cooked little tidbits elegantly arranged in a bento box which Japanese wives are supposed to do without difficulty or complaint. All she asked was that her husband lend a hand with their kids in the morning while she tried to whip up his requested lunch box (which he was taking along on community event, he wasn't working). He shirked the responsibility he agreed to by running off to the toilet five times and generally finding ways not to take care of the kids for a short time.
Now, this stood in exceptionally sharp contrast to my morning where I slept in 20 minutes later than my CH and woke up with a backache. This isn't unusual for me these days as I tend to have back pain every morning but it wears off in about 15-30 minutes and I usually wake up before the CH so it passes and I take care of business before he heads off to work. Keep in mind that the CH works full-time from Wednesday to Sunday so he's got a full day of work and a commute ahead of him whereas I've got just 4 hours of private lessons in the apartment. Because I have a backache, he prepares his own coffee, gets his own lunch together, and serves me my coffee in the 15 minutes he's got before he has to rush out the door.
I can't help but compare the other woman's harried morning to my morning occurring in the same time frame. Hers ends with a big fight and a cathartic blog post. Mine ends with me eating a chestnut pastry that the CH picked up especially for me last night on his way home from work along with the coffee he served me (including microwaving milk for the coffee to just the right temperature). I can't help but think that I'm living a life which is a dream and she's living my nightmare.