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The Mustache and the Marriage

wild fox staring straight ahead

Re-reading this, 26 years after publication and over 45 years from the actual events, I am startled as to how well the contents still match my now much older and somewhat foggy memory. This is pretty much how it happened. A bit of background information:

An ofuro is a Japanese bathtub, always deep and, when bathing, filled to one’s shoulders with steaming water.

My mother-in-law, who figures prominently in this column and some others that will follow, would eventually live with us. She passed away approximately five years after this edition was published.

In Japan, fox are generally viewed with disdain. They are tricky creatures, not to be trusted. I once had an American acquaintance whose surname was “Fox.” His Japanese wife’s family would not permit her marriage unless he legally changed his name, which he did. True story. So is the column that follows.


The Mustache and the Marriage - June 30, 1998


I asked my future wife to marry me while we were in the ofuro.

For over a year, I had been driving down from Kumamoto to spend weekends in her sleepy fishing village on the East China Sea.

During that time, I made friends with Protestant missionaries who lent me use of their house while they were in the States.

They had one of those old-fashioned, gas-fired ofuros, which used a switch, a crank and a prayer for an igniter. It would work for them, pious folks that they were, but not for me.

I tackled this problem by the tried-and-true method taught by my dear old dad.

I banged the thing with a wrench and swore at it.

My one-day bride-to-be helped. While I whacked the heater, she turned the crank and encouraged me to repeat more new vocabulary.

After a while, I tried taking things apart and we both ended up standing in the empty ofuro.

It was there, with sweating streaming down my forehead and my teeth locked in frustration, that I shyly popped the question.

You might think no one could refuse such a romantic devil, but to this day I sometimes wonder if she said “Yes” out of love or due to respect for the wrench in my hand.

My mother-in-law, however, was not so easily persuaded.

Even now she must wonder how it happened that her daughter married a foreigner. Not to mention wondering how she ended up residing in that foreigner’s house and having to laugh politely at his jokes.

When my future wife first told her of our desire to marry, my mother-in-law’s reaction was far less complicated. She forbade her daughter to ever see or speak with me again.

Yet, young lovers are slippery critters and we met her decree with subterfuge.

I would telephone and hang up after two rings. From this signal, my wife knew I was home and she would buzz me back as soon as her mother took her nightly bath.

Lucky for us, her ofuro worked much better than that of the missionaries, and my mother-in-law would soak for an hour, never knowing treachery was afoot.

What she did know was that her daughter was not bending in her desire to marry – and that her telephone was ringing wildly.

She could not ask her husband to lay down the law, for my future father-in-law was hospitalized and had been so for years, the victim of a brain tumor and the brain surgeon’s scalpel.

So Mom did the next best thing. She cashed in some favors and in a twinkling most of the influential residents in the village were lined up against our marriage.

My wife’s old school teacher counseled her. So did her boss. Even the missionaries chimed in, perhaps upset that I had ruined their ofuro. The message?

Rethink what you are doing. Wouldn’t it be more harmonious to marry someone close by? Someone your mother approved of? Someone who could speak Japanese better than a cat? Someone, perhaps, with a better mustache?

One fellow hinted I was sure to be unfaithful. Weren’t all American men? Look at the movies!

And didn’t my hairy face resemble that of a fox? A crafty, cunning, conniving fox! It was a face that could not be trusted.

What I had, my wife scoffed, was just a crummy mustache. Shave that and the animal I would most resemble would be a chimp.

Hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil. What animal could be safer?

As for being unfaithful, my wife knew I stuttered for an entire week any time a girl even smiled at me. Even if just in a photograph. I was much closer to a boy scout than a playboy.

Yet, the pressure didn’t go away. I certainly wasn’t tough enough to withstand it. How then were we able to weather the winds of culture and family and finally get married?

The answer is perhaps better framed by one of the speakers at our Japanese wedding reception a year later.

Stretching for profundity, the gentleman instead pulled down that wooden saw about heaven being a Western house, Chinese food and a Japanese wife. Why a Japanese wife?

“Because Japanese women are so meek and accommodating.”

Half of the married men there laughed aloud at that line. The other half wanted to, but could not do so without first asking permission from their wives.

We diffused the pressure against us because my meek Japanese girlfriend refused to give ground. She was about as accommodating as a wall. A character trait I have often noticed since.

My mother-in-law fell into a funk of resignation. A Japanese woman herself, she never really said, “Okay.”

But after a few months, she turned to her daughter and announced, “He might indeed look better without that mustache.”

The next time we met my future wife brought me a razor.

From that night on, we were officially engaged.

©Tom Dillon

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