Letters from Japan: “Hidden Past”
Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a lovely, wonderful, boyfriend; we’ve been dating for over a year now, and we’re planning on getting married in the near future. The only problem is, he doesn’t really talk about his past. Not his childhood, teenage years, or even recent past like adult years before we met. It was stressing me out because even though I know that he’s a good person, it makes me feel like I still don’t really know him.
So a few days ago, I finally told him that, and that I don’t feel comfortable marrying someone who is sort of, still a stranger. He thought about it and said that he agreed with me and that he’ll try to tell me more about his past. But he also said that this is common for Japanese. That for Japanese people, the past isn’t important. The present and the future are important. Is this true? Do most Japanese couples not tell each other about their pasts? And if so, why?
You have every right to be confused! You’ve only been dating for a year-ish and know next to nothing about how your partner came to be the person he is today. That is a hurdle for any relationship regardless of culture or nationality.
Yes, some people are uncomfortable talking about their past. This could be due to trauma or honestly for any number of reasons. That being said, people are typically capable of saying why (even in general terms) they don’t want to talk about the past. It’s their right not to talk about it, just as it’s your right to feel and react in whatever way you do about their decision.
Wholly avoiding the subject of one’s past is definitely cause to put the brakes on any marriage plans. Hiding—intentionally or not—your past or anything about your life that could affect another person is potentially dangerous. For example, an unfortunate American friend of mine married a man who had an extensive list of debts he had kept hidden—he disappeared one night and she was left dealing with debt collectors and government agencies aplenty trying to save herself.
In your case, I highly doubt it’s anything as serious as that, but it’s still something that you feel is important to discuss, and luckily your partner is willing to be more open about his life.
It’s their right not to talk about it, just as it’s your right to feel and react in whatever way you do about their decision.
I’m glad you communicated to him that you were uncomfortable and he is willing to try harder to share more about himself. That must have been stressful but ultimately shows how serious you both are about the relationship.
If you need help starting those conversations, simple questions or comments on things happening around you can get the ball rolling. Such as, if you’re having breakfast together, asking what his favorite breakfast as a child was, and so on. Even commenting on favorite songs or games could make it more comfortable for him to speak about his past.
You don’t need to interrogate him on any subject. Just keep it lighthearted and be understanding that it might be hard for him to talk about things simply because he doesn’t tend to think about them as often as others might. It’s a learning process for you both but a great way to build your communication skills, which is vital if you two are intent on marrying one another someday.
If you need help starting those conversations, simple questions or comments on things happening around you can get the ball rolling.
As to your question, “do most Japanese couples not tell each other about their pasts?” however. The shortest answer to this is that no, they share that information. In fact, I can’t think of a single couple across any age group that I’ve known who didn’t tell each other about their past to some extent.
While I can’t speak for all Japanese couples, the ones I am close with know a great deal about each other’s lives, up to and including the names of their significant other’s elementary school teachers. Several of the couples have been to each other’s school reunions or at least met people from their partner’s past as well.
They might not talk about it in great detail, but they know enough of their partner’s life to understand how they became the person that they married.
As one much older friend told me years ago “If you are ready to marry someone it’s because you know them, good and bad, and still love them” (Japanese, then 85).
“How can you marry someone if you only know what little they’ve shown you? That’s like deciding to buy a house because the photo was pretty” (Japanese, 30s). “My wife knows how much of a brat I was and she was still willing to have kids with me so it does matter” (Japanese, 40s). “Honestly if I didn’t know what I do about my husband, I wouldn’t have kept dating him” (Japanese, 30s).
These are only a few of the reactions that solely Japanese couples shared with me but generally speaking, all said that in order to marry their spouse, they shared what they could about themselves past, present, and future.
“If you are ready to marry someone it’s because you know them, good and bad, and still love them”
Mixed ethnicity couples tend to be clued into details of their partner’s lives as well, but may be reluctant to share information specifically because of the culture gap. For some, it can be hard to see the point behind sharing this information with someone who didn’t share a similar experience growing up. The songs you grew up with, the now out-of-stock candies you enjoyed, even the toys you played with could have been entirely different. However, this is all the more reason to share this information! It’s intriguing to compare differences, and I hope you can convey that to your partner.
“He hates showing me his old photos, but if I ask he’ll roll his eyes and do it” (British, 30s). “I’ve never met his best friend in person, but I’ve talked to him on Skype with my partner before” (Australian, 20s). “We put photos of us at the same age in our wedding collage. It took us like a week to finish it because we couldn’t stop reminiscing together” (American, 40s). “We realized when we were dating we used to play the same online game and now video games are a major part of our marriage” (American, 30s).
As you can see, both mixed and Japanese-only couples tend to be comfortable with sharing information about their past. It’s a natural part of getting to know someone, especially if you are intending to marry them.
Hopefully the two of you can have some great conversations about your pasts together and reach a deeper level of understanding of one another. Best of luck.