Adultery: the other heat of summer
Way back when, before jet airliners and air conditioning, foreign wives and families headed for the Yokohama docks as soon as the international schools let out, leaving husbands to face the gloom of rainy season, the searing heat of August… and the temptation of forbidden local fruit. Summer was a season when the devil had no problem finding work for idle hands.
Today, kokusai kekkon (international marriage) is so commonplace that it’s easy to forget there was a time in living memory when interracial bonding was termed “miscegenation,” and frowned upon by Western and Japanese societies alike. One might have had one’s native mistress, but it simply wasn’t done to take her to the club.
Japan’s laissez-faire attitude to commercial sex had shocked and titillated the Western imagination since the 19th Century. It probably took just weeks after the Black Ships arrived home for “geesha girls” to reach the imagination of teenage boys in Kansas.
But in the sultry summers of the 1950s and early ’60s, subtly and subversively, something changed in the relationship between Western men and Japanese women.
It is social history that was emphatically not meant to be recorded and only snatches remain in dimly remembered war stories from the era.
Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s infamous red-light quarter, was the old paradigm. In long-ago summers, expat husbands used to troop there to revel gleefully in professionally administered sin.
To celebrate his kanreki (60th birthday), one Tokyo-based American journalist, since deceased, famously treated his two closest pals to 90-minute romps at a deluxe Yoshiwara soapland. (Alas, by around 1990 most of the district’s erotic bathhouses closed their doors to gaijin due to fears over AIDS contagion.)
Even before AIDS, though, there was the risk of bringing home an unwelcome omiyage. Kamikaze!, a 1966 book of satirical cartoons on Japan by French illustrator Daniel Zabo, recounts the seduction of a young and innocent-looking Japanese female. At each stage of the relationship the girl is shown repeatedly giggling, blushing and murmuring “hazukashii” (I’m so embarrassed) until the final frame. Then the tables are turned and Zabo mutters “Sensei, hazukashii” to his Japanese urologist, who is about to inject penicillin into his bicep.
Before the advent of the internet and Craigslist casual encounters, lecherous gaijin summer bachelors learned that it pays to advertise.
“Once I ran a classified ad in the Okinawa Morning Star (a long-defunct English daily published in Naha) for a ‘live-in secretary,’” an American businessman once boasted. “I got ten responses to my ad and went to bed with all ten of them.”
Somewhere along the way, though, the focus shifted from professional service to amateur encounters at home. This led to more than one brush with disaster.
Boye de Mente, author of the long-selling Bachelor’s Japan and a great raconteur, may (or may not) have been the source of a story that involved the most dangerous of philandering activities – a husband inviting his Japanese paramour to his own home for some extramarital whoopie during his wife’s absence.
As it turned out, the wife returned home earlier than expected. The mistress had already departed and the husband was convinced he’d erased all evidence of her visit, until he noticed, to his horror, that an ashtray beside the bed was full of Hi-Lite cigarette butts bearing telltale lipstick imprints.
Scooping up the ashtray, he made a frantic dash to the toilet, dumped them in and flushed. But his wife heard the commotion, dashed past him into the bathroom and smirked in righteous triumph as she caught a final view of the crimson-stained evidence, swirling in the final orbit around the commode before descending into the Tokyo sewer system.
The late Corky Alexander, publisher of Tokyo Weekender, relished a good controversy. In the weekly’s October 22, 1976 issue, columnist Joan Itoh related a tale of the “little brown wren” that set mouths wagging in the cocktail party circuit for months afterwards.
The story involved an expat couple, John and Mary, and Miss Suzuki, John’s secretary.
Mary was an attractive, outgoing woman busy with raising their children and her club activities. Moved by a nagging feeling she’d been neglecting her husband, Mary decided to surprise him by meeting his flight as he returned from an overseas business trip. But she was aghast to find John exiting Customs carrying two suitcases, and Miss Suzuki in tow, carrying his briefcase.
Mary had been caught off guard because she did not see the “drab” and “not very pretty” Miss Suzuki as a threat. She underestimated the power of a secretary doting on her boss. This, Itoh noted, was a “clear case of a little brown wren building her nest in another woman’s territory.”
“Japan,” wrote Ito, “is no place for the foreign couple with a shaky marriage.” And when things develop to the point that the little brown wren is giving the man a head and shoulder massage after a day’s work, Ito warned, “the foreign wife can almost start packing.”
In a rebuttal to Ito, fellow Weekender columnist Danny Callaghan (nom de plume of the late Carl Hansen), asked “Why is it that foreign women – American women in particular – so consistently underrate the Japanese women. As women that is?
“Kindness begets kindness… not contempt, and if sewing a button onto a man’s coat turns him into a male chauvinist pig, I for one have been sleeping in the wrong part of the farm for years.
“Yessir, when it comes down to it, I’ll take a soft-voiced little brown wren to a big white hen anytime. Come to think of it, I already have.”
FCCJ life member Jean Pearce liked happy endings. Her variation on Joan Itoh’s tale, which appeared in her “Getting Things Done” column in the Japan Times, is also fondly remembered. Once again, the wife met her husband’s return flight only to discover he’d been traveling in the company of his Japanese secretary.
After the predictably noisy scene at the arrival terminal, the man was informed he was persona non grata at home. He checked into a local hotel and after a week-long cooling-off period, the couple agreed to meet in a restaurant. Once seated, the angry wife began pouring out her feelings of betrayal and disappointment. Her husband, in an unemotional tone, responded that he loved her and their children deeply and had no desire to leave them; but the extramarital fling with his secretary was a perk that he simply wasn't prepared to give up.
At loggerheads, the two sat in cold silence until the wife’s eyes wandered to a corner of the restaurant, where she spotted her husband’s boss enjoying an intimate tete-a-tete with his own secretary. Noticing his wife’s expression, the husband looked over his shoulder and saw them as well. When he turned back, his wife had reached across the table and grasped his hand in hers.
With a bittersweet expression she told him, “Ours is cuter.”
In this decadent latter day, with nary a taboo left to break and adult friend-finding websites but a sinful keystroke away, it is rumored that the August tradition of adultery persists by a new name: the Summer MBA Program… as in, “married but available.” ❶
Former Tokyo resident “Dan Zaemon,” says he is too compromised to use his real byline.
THE LITTLE BROWN WREN: an expat wife’s bird-watching guide
(excerpt from Joan Itoh’s “Blue-eyed View” column, Tokyo Weekender, 10/22/1976)
Strangely enough, little brown wrens are rarely very pretty by Western standards. Although she is always younger than the wife, the fact that she doesn’t turn any heads throws the wife off her guard.
Little brown wrens excel in playing ‘Miss Goodie Two Shoes.’ She rarely drinks or smokes and she doesn’t go in too much for makeup. She acts pure as the driven snow (but not too cold), and she is extremely neat and clean about her desk and her personal appearance.
A little brown wren is usually rather small and slim. She speaks in a very small, sweet voice. She is a good listener and knows how to give little compliments to the man she is interested in without saying much. She knows all about a man’s ego (something all Japanese women must learn in order to survive) and is very skillful at giving massage.
When it develops to the point where she is giving the man a head-and-shoulders massage after a day’s work, the foreign wife can almost start packing.
Wako department store is the favorite shopping place for the Japanese little brown wren. She likes quality, has some real good jewelry she bought herself, several designer scarfs and at least one Gucci handbag. She may look quite ordinary… but she is attracted by what she considers class.
Her favorite target is the husband of a woman who is very different from herself. A tall blonde who smokes, likes cocktail hour and laughs loud and a lot would be ideal. With such a wife at home, it is easy for her subtly to change the man’s mind about what he likes in a woman. She will make a disapproving face at the lipstick-stained cigarette the wife might leave in her husband’s ashtray.
What she is actually doing is giving the foreign man a crash course in Confucian teaching. She may or may not be smart enough to realize it. What she does realize is the more male-chauvinism she can bring out, the more marvelous he is going to think she is.
Without actually saying it, she will somehow get the message across to the man that his wife is really too tall, too fat or that she has awfully big feet. The little brown wren can plant the seeds that make a man wonder if his wife is really appreciating his hard work or caring enough about his needs. The little brown wren is very good also at pointing out…and quickly repairing…a loose button on his jacket or a hole in his sock.Most wives put up their antennas when a glamour girl enters the scene. She doesn’t like it much when her husband is dancing with a more beautiful, younger or more sexy-looking woman than she is. More than likely the vivacious gal who is carrying on in full sight of everyone is no real threat at all, not even here in Japan.