Seeing the high economic growth of Japan, and using the country’s high tech products that are sold all around the globe, all non-Japanese people have an idea about the culture of the nation. In the international mind, Japan is highly business minded, believes in economic nationalism, and is mainly Buddhist.
All Buddhist nations in the world, except for China and Korea, are perfectly peaceful in their foreign relations, which is to say that they practice the theory of nonviolence propounded by the wisest of people. In order to practice nonviolence, any human being must act quite unfeeling or unemotional, which is actually quite beneficial in Japanese business too.
The phrase ‘cold and calculating’ is apt in describing the benefits of being unemotional in business. It is this unemotional Japanese culture that comes to the fore in Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Family Supper. The story is an exposition of the Japanese culture in the foreign mind. Given that it does not describe the culture of Japan away from the narrator’s home, it is the story of a Japanese home, which happens to be typically Japanese in the perspective of the non-Japanese reader.
The Japanese apparently do not believe in the exhibition of their emotions. If they are extremely worried, upset, or depressed, they prefer to commit suicide rather than to expose themselves to shame by revealing their emotional problems to others. Ishiguro’s story deals with two suicides, one of the narrator’s mother, and the other of his father’s friend, Watanabe.
The latter was suffering from business problems, and therefore committed suicide because of the emotional strain that he could not express to others. Business is, of course, all important to the Japanese. In the case of the narrator’s mother, we are told that she consumed the dreadful fugu fish, which everybody knew to be poisonous or highly risky to consume.
The mother used to avoid consuming the fugu fish, “but on this particular occasion,” writes Ishiguro, “she made an exception, having been invited by an old school friend whom she was anxious not to offend” (320). Obviously, the mother wanted to commit suicide.
Neither she nor Watanabe were said to use the help of a psychotherapist when they were suffering from emotional problems. In her case, “She had many worries. And some disappointments” (325). In the case of Watanabe, we are informed by the narrator’s father, “He didn’t wish to live with the disgrace” of having lost his business (320). Yet, both the mother and Watanabe feel emotions that are intense enough to call for suicide.
It appears strange that a highly business minded society is not positive enough to deal properly with its emotional problems. In other words, the Japanese society that is described through Ishiguro’s story does not always seem to struggle for survival, hoping, praying, believing, and expecting better days. Instead, everything seems to be alright for individuals until they cannot seem to deal with their emotional problems and decide to end their lives.
What is more, nobody seems to miss the people who have died with intense emotions. The narrator of Ishiguro’s story does not even recognize his mother’s face in the picture during the family supper, on which the story is based. All that the Japanese seem to feel for the deceased is rationalized sympathy. Both the narrator and his sister, Kikuko, refer to their deceased mother as “Poor Mother” (323).
They believed that their mother was poor or unfortunate because she could not deal with her problems in a positive way. Neither did Watanabe assume that he could start afresh with a new business. For him, the end of his business marked the end of his life. The unemotional nature he must have expressed in business did not help him out. Rather, Watanabe felt emotions that he found humiliating to express before his death, just like the mother who also committed suicide.
Although the narrator of “A Family Supper” is visiting Japan two years after his mother’s death, there is no family discussion held about his mother. Only facts are important to know. Anything emotional seems to be avoided at all costs.
The narrator’s mother did not confide in her children during her depressive phase before the suicide. And, if she had mentioned her problems to her husband, he is not willing to share them with the children. By underplaying emotions, the Japanese family is revealing its cultural belief in rationality that defines its economic success.
As a matter of fact, Japan is known to be a very successful nation. If the country had been emotional and violent, it would most likely have been beset by problems known to the entire world. But we do not hear about the budget deficit in Japan, neither do news reports complain that Japan has bullied another nation.
All emotions seem to be checked, and the mind is held supreme. Nevertheless, it is human nature to fail as well as succeed. Perhaps the mother of the narrator as well as Watanabe had had their minds failed. Both of them had passed the stage of youth. Still, they did not seem to have revealed their strong emotions unto others. Even Kikuko, while living with her mother, did not seem to have focused on her mother’s problems. Both the suicides seem to have been done based on the intellect alone, even if the intellect had pretty much failed. In other words, Watanabe and the mother must have lost their minds. Therefore, the reader cannot blame lack of emotions, seeing that Japan remains generally successful without them.
Kikuko does not ‘feel’ love toward her boyfriend. She is not even sure whether the boy whom she likes would be good for her to spend a lot of time with. This is another exposition of the unemotional nature of the Japanese, although the reader may assume that Kikuko may eventually start feeling enough for a man whom she would finally marry. And, she will marry – that is a certainty.
All non-Japanese people probably have an idea about the family values of the Asians. Asian societies are mostly patriarchal. Kikuko cannot speak openly before her father: “She answered him with short, formal replies” (321). Moreover, the girl must obey her father without questioning and without doubts. There is no friendliness between the father and daughter. What is more, the girl is probably not allowed to smoke before her father.
She mentions to her brother that she had been wanting to smoke for quite a while. When he asks her why she did not smoke, she simply points at her house, referring to the father inside the house. She must respect her father unconditionally, and there is no point in questioning why he would not agree to his daughter’s desire to smoke as opposed to his son’s. It is tradition, it is faith.
Japanese girls normally do not smoke before their fathers because smoking is a bad habit that girls in particular should not adopt. Kikuko is expected to cook in the home, and serve tea. Besides, she must marry soon after her education is complete. This is, indeed, a typically Asian perception of gender roles. And, foreign readers of Ishiguro’s story must be aware of it to begin with, for this kind of knowledge exists in our collective consciousness if nothing else.
Ishiguro takes the foreign reader into the Japanese home to remind him or her about the culture of Japan that the reader may already have knowledge about. In point of fact, Ishiguro’s story confirms our beliefs about the unemotional and patriarchal Japanese culture. The unemotional nature of Japan has done it good, although when a Japanese person loses his or her rationality, there may be no turning back. After reading the story, there is no doubt left in the reader’s mind as to whether Japan would show great emotions in the near future, or if the country has become modernized enough to leave the patriarchal culture behind. In truth, Japan is still holding firm its cultural values.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. “A Family Supper.”
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