Rebecca Otowa on Writing at Home in Japan

by Avery Udagawa

What is it like to be a foreign-born wife, daughter-in-law, and mother in a 350-year-old Japanese farmhouse? To undergo years of traditional training before becoming the chatelaine?

And what is it like to write and illustrate a book about this experience? To have a review and one’s wedding photo published in the New York Times?

Rebecca Otowa titled her June 17 speech to SWET “Writing from the Crucible of Culture,” and began by explaining the two C-words in the title. Culture, in her case, means the culture of Japan, specifically the rural village in Shiga Prefecture where she has lived for thirty years. Crucible means a small vessel to which heat is applied in order to refine metal—a metaphor Otowa applies both to her adulthood in Japan, and to the process of publishing At Home in Japan.

A Personal Crucible

Otowa noted in self-introduction that she has been writing and drawing since she was old enough to hold a pencil; she has penned mainly private diaries as an adult, but has also published numerous columns in the journal of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese (AFWJ).

Born in the U.S. and raised in Australia, Otowa studied Japanese in high school and at university, and during a six-month homestay in Tokyo in 1976. During the homestay, she studied language at Tokyo Japanese Language Center and developed interests in both tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism.

After university, Otowa received a grant from the Japanese education ministry to study Buddhism in Kyoto. While pursuing a master’s degree and further studying the tea ceremony, she also met her future husband and visited his family’s country house. They got engaged the day after her graduation in 1981, and were married later that year.

Otowa and her husband then lived for three years in Kyoto and two years in Pittsburgh, finally returning to the family home in the countryside in 1986. They represented the nineteenth generation of the family to live in the house, then run by Otowa’s mother-in-law, who had grown up there and lived a very different life, being married at age 15 to a 30-year-old teacher and former soldier. Though proud to have a foreigner in the family, she seemed to want her daughter-in-law to become Japanese as soon as possible. This created Otowa’s personal crucible.

The fire beneath the crucible, Otowa added, was the fact that everything around her was a mystery. Her husband’s family spoke an “intense version” of Kansai dialect that she struggled to understand, despite her language training. In housekeeping, everything she knew seemed to be wrong, and her mother-in-law struggled to explain tasks that, for her, were second nature.

Otowa’s mother-in-law viewed the home as her own until her death in 1999, and when arguing with her daughter-in-law would firmly declare makenai zo (I won’t give in!). Otowa herself was at first regarded as self-centered and outspoken, while she found her in-laws evasive and opaque; she was perceived as “angry and hot-tempered,” while she sometimes saw the family’s demands as unreasonable. She chafed at feeling she had to be “cute” and deferential, and longed for privacy in the “goldfish bowl” of the house.

Although she assimilated into traditional Japanese life in many ways, Otowa noted that she “never gave in” to pressures to conform on certain matters. Some of the ways she stood her ground were refusing to wear black to celebrations and speaking English with her children.

Besides family challenges, Otowa also faced the hardship of living in isolation, in a neighborhood some 40 minutes by car from the nearest JR station and one-and-a-half hours from Kyoto. Otowa had few excuses to leave the neighborhood, and felt a gap between herself and other local wives, many of whom were becoming westernized as she received old-fashioned treatment.

Nonetheless, Otowa grew to prize her ties to her village, which she describes as pretty, quiet, and peaceful, as well as secluded. Many of her current friends are women from her mother-in-law’s generation, who received training similar to hers (see “The Vegetable Patch,” pp. 47–50).

Endurance and a Promise

Otowa said that several things kept her going during the most challenging years in her house. One was the beautiful countryside, a place of dramatic seasonal changes, clean air, and refreshing quiet even at mid-day. Another saving grace was the house itself: peaceful, serene, and welcoming, it seemed a presence in its own right.

Friends, especially in AFWJ, helped to give Otowa a sense of perspective and remind her of her real self. Books and movies in English and, finally, writing, helped her to maintain her equanimity. Writing her column for the AFWJ Journal, entitled “Life in the Do-inaka” (meaning, “life in the sticks”), helped her to see even painful and infuriating situations in a humorous light.

And when it came time to pass the generational torch in the household, Otowa joined her husband in vowing to care for the house and pass it on to their children. Though pushed to her limits over the years, Otowa had determined that after 19 generations, she “did not want to be the one to quit,” and found “tremendous energy in commitment” to her role in the household.

After many years of training, Otowa finds that her relatives overseas are impressed at how beautifully she can arrange food, and she marvels at how certain tasks have become automatic, such as placing floor cushions properly. As her book notes, however, such skills are a mere hint of what she has gained from her experiences—chronicled now in a publication that, itself, required years of effort.

A Publishing Crucible

In 2003, Otowa began to work with a counselor to address issues with her mother-in-law, which she says freed creative energy. One day, she sketched her house.

She then began to compile essays and companion sketches for a book that took shape as a chronicle of a year in the house. Entirely handwritten, the manuscript featured Otowa’s color illustrations of the home, its surroundings, and its contents, ranging from tea sets and fans to bathing equipment and school supplies. Chapter heads, one for each month, incorporated her younger son’s calligraphy. Otowa decided to call the book In the House (a translation of the word for her role as wife, kanai 家内). The title was one of many elements that would change in the editorial process.

Otowa finished creating her book in March 2008 and proceeded to send proposals to several publishers, only to receive a string of rejections. In July of that year, however, a friend from AFWJ introduced Otowa to an author of architecture books for Tuttle Publishing, who in turn introduced CEO Eric Oey. Oey expressed interest in Otowa’s book but said that substantial changes would be required. Otowa said the previous rejections had prepared her to respond openly: What changes?

Oey advised that the text in the book should be typed rather than handwritten; that Otowa should expand her essays; and that she should add about ten new essays and organize the book by topic, not by month. (The published book contains more than 40 essays grouped under seven themes, such as “Family and Neighbors,” “In the Midst of Nature,” and “Lessons from Japan.”) Tuttle would ultimately include a number of Otowa’s illustrations, though in black and white, and provide a section of color photos in the center of the book, which feature Otowa’s home, village, and family. The jacket cover features a stock photo rather than a photo of Otowa’s own house, which she would have preferred. Happily, the endpapers feature a pattern reproduced from some under-kimono fabric in the Otowa family collection.

Happiness Decided Within

Otowa concluded the prepared portion of her talk by mentioning a plaque in her house that says happiness (shiawase) must be decided in one’s own heart. Otowa said that her ideal is to accept everything in her life, practicing friendliness toward herself and her circumstances.

During the Q-and-A portion that followed, Otowa said that her home community has asked for a Japanese-language version of At Home in Japan, and that a friend was translating two of her essays for a talk at the local library.

Asked about the state of her village, she said that it consists of about a hundred houses. Some stand empty. One hurdle of living in the village is having to “do all the stuff”—time-consuming volunteer work that can seem endless (described in the essay “Off and Running,” pp. 54–56). Preservation of old houses presents a challenge, as well; thousands of historic homes are disappearing in Japan due to lack of funds and inertia, Otowa said, especially in rural areas. The Otowas have restored their genkan and kitchen areas with satisfying results, but found the work expensive; repairs for the roof, covered in hand-made tiles crafted more than a century ago, have proven costly. The Otowas will soon hook up to the local sewage system (“Hooking Up,” pp. 27–28).

Otowa reported that her elder son and his wife and daughter will soon return to the family home, remaking the oldest building on the property for themselves. (Ii naa, she commented, envying their privacy in retrospect.) She confessed to a bit of worry, wondering if she will be pressured by her conscientious daughter-in-law as she once was by her mother-in-law.

Currently, Otowa enjoys blocks of creative solitude amid her many household, village, and professional duties (she also teaches English part-time at a university). She completes morning pages but does not stick to a strict writing regimen; she drafted At Home in Japan when “in the mood,” especially early on. Discussing future plans, Otowa confirmed that she is “playing around” to prepare for her next project; she is fighting the urge to focus on the final product, hoping that the content will shape the form of the work.

One listener asked how Otowa felt about her book being reviewed in the New York Times Travel section (on June 4, 2010), in an article that was not strictly about travel, but rather about staying put. Otowa replied that she was “very pleased and totally shocked” about the review: “I’m still pinching myself about that.”

Otowa commented that ways of learning in Japan often center on observing and imitating, or on “stepping into someone else’s body” (see “The Learning Process,” pp. 146–148); the method is profoundly effective but often stifles innovation. She has found over time, however, that there are reasons for under-explained and seemingly pointless customs and rituals, and that “it really does take ten years to learn anything.”

Listeners to Otowa’s talk appreciated both her book and her insights on its birthplace. The evening included readings of unpublished poems she had written in tribute to her home, and a chance to view her original manuscript and illustrations in full color.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 126, November 2010)