Letters from Japan: “Confusing Situation”

Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered

By Hilary Keyes
December 29, 2022
Ask Hilary, Relationships

Savvy Tokyo's resident "Love in Japan" columnist, Hilary Keyes, answers anonymous questions from readers on everything from dating in Japan to women’s health issues. Got a question you’d like to ask Hilary? Send it to askhilary@savvytokyo.com.

Dear Hilary,

I recently ended a relationship with a Japanese man and I’m trying to sort out if I was not understanding of his culture.

We are both in our 40s and live in Canada. He came to Canada from Tokyo in his 20s for college where we first met (just friends). Just over a year ago we started to date. In spring we decided we would move in together in the fall and have a baby. 

As this is happening he had heard from an ex-girlfriend that lives in Tokyo. He said they had broken up a few months before he and I started dating. She is 10 years older than us and she was just diagnosed with stage four cancer. He was of course very sad for her and he said she would come to visit one last time.

I was fine with her coming here. She would be staying with him in his house and they would also be spending a few days away together in hotels for sightseeing. I didn’t want him to regret not helping her and I felt sad about her situation.

At first, he didn’t tell her about me and when he did she was very upset. She thought they were still dating because he said Japanese girls don’t accept breaking up over the phone. (They were long-distance for almost five years. They saw each other three times in person.) She was insisting they break up in person. So she would still come to Canada to visit him. She still wanted to be with him but he said he would not be physical with her. 

I was willing to accept the situation because I trusted him. She was dying in a year and I feel like that would be very scary.

Initially, her stay would be for two weeks, then it was a month. Her month was six weeks long and I told him four weeks was my limit. Then he asked if I was ok with him taking wedding pictures with her. She would be in a wedding dress and he dressed as her groom. He said it’s just pictures and doesn’t mean anything. He also admitted that she didn’t want him to see or talk to me while she was here. He said Japanese girls are very special and even if you don’t talk or see each other for months you are still connected. I told him I was not ok with the pictures and it wasn’t ok for him to not talk to me during her stay. 

Her stay ended up being five weeks because she agreed he could still talk to me when she is here. I insisted that she and I meet at least once, I wanted her to know I was a real person. He wasn’t happy about it because she would be upset but he said we would meet.

When she arrived, almost a week into her stay there was a good opportunity for her and me to meet. But she refused and he also said he decided she wasn’t ready. He said I was being rude and rushing her—that Japanese people don’t like to be rushed. 

I told him I couldn’t handle it anymore. It was a stressful six months of him not always being honest and saying mean things to me after he talks to her. So I dropped off all of the gifts he gave me on his doorstep and broke up with him.

Two weeks later we talked about starting over when she goes back home. He would contact me after she left in four weeks. After I broke up with him she asked to stay longer. So he agreed. Then he told me, she would be back another six weeks this winter and he won’t ask her to meet me because she doesn’t want to. She is scared of me because I was so rude by getting mad at him and returning all his gifts. He said I probably don’t understand because I’m a westerner but it’s really offensive to Japanese to return gifts to them. 

I have since told him I never want to see or hear from him again. I think in any culture how they acted was rude and inappropriate. Everyone I talk to says they acted inappropriately but they are all westerners. But maybe that’s wrong?

What would a Japanese woman have done in my situation? If it is a misunderstanding on my part I want to know so that I can at least learn something more from this. Thank you. 

Fellow Canadian

Dear Fellow Canadian,

It took me a few read-throughs of your email to fully understand the situation and, ultimately, it would seem that you’ve not only dodged a bullet but perhaps a missile. Do not, under any circumstances, think you need to apologize for your reaction to what he brought into your life. If anything, you should be thankful this all happened before you ended up with a child with him.

This man manipulated you by skewing aspects of his culture in order to make you think his behavior was normal. He’s gaslit you and strung you along. Everyone else you mentioned talking to about this, while they might be Western, is correct. He and she acted inappropriately and neither deserves another second of your time.

The answer to your main question is that this has absolutely nothing to do with Japanese culture. As I’m sure you are aware, no one type of woman is more or less sensitive, or as he termed “special,” than any other in the world. Specific people regardless of gender may be more sensitive, but that has very little to do with their culture. I have been in the same room as Japanese women while they break up with their boyfriends by text, not even a phone call and once even by an Instagram reel, so that lie he told you is also debunked. Again, some women may not accept a phone break-up, but it is most certainly not some Japanese cultural taboo.

This man manipulated you by skewing aspects of his culture in order to make you think his behavior was normal.

While returning gifts may be seen as rude to some individuals (true around the world, not just in Japan) it’s not rude to return gifts when a relationship ends. It’s a common trope in Japanese televison shows and romance movies as well. There’s even an older television commercial that features a woman dumping a tote bag full of things outside her cheating ex’s front door, so you did nothing wrong there. It’s also just as common to sell gifts from an ex. A current television commercial shows a woman about to throw an engagement ring off a roof but she’s convinced to sell it instead, for example.

Sure, to some Japanese people, not communicating with someone for years on end can somehow mean they are still your best friend or friendthe caveat being that when they see one another, the relationship continues as if nothing has changed in the meantime. Which is fine for friends. 

For a partner though, that’s absolutely not true unless the couple is already married and has some kind of understanding/tolerance for that sort of relationship with one another. I have known married couples that lived entirely separate lives, sometimes in different countries. They were allowed to have “companions” while there, with the understanding being that the married partner came first no matter what.

From sharing your email with other Japanese men and women, the consensus is that he, while he may have been living in Canada for the long term, has had a Japanese partner (possibly wife) for a good part of the time he’s been there. There was no break-up or divorce. “I bet she only speaks Japanese too, so the two women couldn’t possibly communicate with one another and catch him in any of the lies he’s made. Makes me wonder if he even has a legit visa to be in Canada” (Japanese male, 30s).

The chances that she has stage four ovarian cancer and is dying within the year are extremely suspect as well. Naturally, if someone has cancer but wants to travel and is physically and financially capable of it, then there is nothing to stop them. That being said, there have been dozens of fake cancer scams run on people around the world within the last few months alone, so it’s best to take a diagnosis that this ex of yours told you about with a grain of salt. He hasn’t been honest about anything else thus far based on your email.

“I bet she only speaks Japanese too, so the two women couldn’t possibly communicate with one another and catch him in any of the lies he’s made…”

For someone dying within the year, going to Canada then extending their stay, demanding wedding photos with an ex when they allegedly wanted an in-person break-up, making plans to come back again in the winter, ostensibly closer to what many would assume should be time to enter palliative care if they are truly that ill…the entire timeline doesn’t make any sense. Furthermore, some countries refuse entry to people that are that sick because of the potential burden to their healthcare system.

Is it possible that she does have cancer and he wanted to be kind to her before she passes away? Yes. Would most people go out of their way to pay for and plan a mock wedding photo shoot for an ex they allegedly only saw three times in person and broke up with a year earlier? Not likely. And for the so-called ex too, if you were diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, would you want to put your health at risk during an ongoing pandemic to fly halfway around the world to see someone that dumped you over the phone a year ago?

It’s very noble of you to assume that maybe there was a cultural misunderstanding at work here, but given all the information you’ve shared, it doesn’t seem likely. Hopefully, you never hear from him again and never have to deal with a situation as confusing in the future. Best of luck.

Happy holidays and Happy New Year everyone! I hope your 2023 is filled with happiness and good health.