Because I was in the U.K. on the first of January, my wife’s parents invited us round to their house last weekend in order that we could celebrate the New Year with them, Japanese style. We went on the Sunday and I spent a pleasant day sitting around a kotatsu munching on sushi, sashimi, tempura, crab, noodles, and lots of the unrecognizable things of which o-sechi ryouri comprises. I always look forward to this event because, like being in an airport, it is one of the lovely times when you can start boozing before noon without the slightest pang of guilt. I also enjoy it because I am reminded of how fortunate I am.
I say this because since the day I announced I would like to marry their daughter, my parents-in-law have treated me like their very own son. Some friends of mine had trouble being accepted by their future in-laws. One father of the bride even admitted as much in his wedding day speech when he announced to the room that he had very difficult feelings about his wife marrying a foreigner. Fortunately, a creative translator was on hand to help the groom’s parents misunderstand what was being said. My wife’s parents, however, have been wonderful.
Never is it clearer that my father-in-law holds me in affection than when he has had a few glasses of his beloved shochu. He often gives up on verbal communication when he drinks and simply reverts to hand-shaking. A lot of hand-shaking. He sometimes also tries out his English, but as the only words he knows are ‘good’, ‘tomorrow’ and ‘rainbow’ it’s a rare occasion when any meaningful dialogue emerges. But, oh, the joy on the day we did see a pretty rainbow was incomparable! He was able to successfully use two-thirds of his vocabulary in one small conversational gambit.
More often, he only gets the chance to use ‘good’. This is usually accompanied with a firm handshake of excessive movement, and ‘good’ may be repeated several times due to a handshake with my father-in-law being a long lasting thing. It should be over quickly but he is never ready to let go when I am and I suspect a single shake would go on for most of the day were I not to desperately try to disengage. This is never an easy task and more often than not I try to release my grip only to find that my father-in-law is in no frame of mind to let go. He hangs on to on to my limp appendage for dear life. Eventually, I manage to pull away a little but he keeps a solid grasp of a solitary finger, which results in the quite ludicrous spectacle of my having my index finger thoroughly shaken by an elderly drunk man who won’t stop grinning and saying ‘good’. At this point, my wife or her mother will start hitting him on the arm and telling him to let go of me, as though he were a wild animal which they were trying to scare away whilst it had the family pet in its clutches. It always does the trick, but only for about ten minutes or so until a shared joke, or a bite of well-prepared food will prompt him to emit another loud ‘good’ and I will see, with some weary resignation, a hand coming across the table in my direction.
As they always do, my wife and my mother-in-law apologized for my father-in-law, scolding him for the crime of being annoying while drunk. But I didn’t mind. I was enjoying myself, eating traditional Japanese delicacies, chatting with my wife, her parents, her sister and her brother-in-law, and slowly getting merry with half an eye on the first day of the year’s inaugural sumo tournament. It was a scene that is likely mirrored in thousands of homes across the land at this time of year. For my wife’s family it was the most natural thing in the world. But I was there, a foreigner in amongst the chatter, and I took a moment to reflect that this has become normal to me, too. I am as at home with my in-laws as I am with my own family and it is easy to forget that this simple scene of familial good cheer on a tatami floor in a Japanese home is one which most visitors to Japan will never have the good fortune to experience. It’s easy to take the simple joys for granted.