The Japanese word for “husband” is shujin, which literally translates to something akin to “master of the house.” Shufu is the word for “wife,” though it accurately refers to an old-fashioned idea of “housewife,” implying a degree of subservience. This information, which can’t help but land with a thud on modern ears, comes courtesy of The Good Shufu, a memoir by Boston-native Tracy Slater that tracks her experiences marrying a Japanese man. There’s an implicit conflict in the title and premise, a clash between one’s personal beliefs and the impulse to respect a foreign culture. As a worldly liberal, Slater is reluctant to judge, but as a feminist, how should she feel about her husband’s marital title outranking her own?
Shufu’s central flaw is that Slater never digs too deeply into her feelings about this issue, merely hinting at the complexity of her reaction. While the title implies a consideration of what it means to perform a traditional role well in this day and age, the book itself is mostly an account of a largely successful marriage. The biggest issues Slater and her husband Toru face—fertility woes, aging in-laws, he’s less social than her—occur worldwide and aren’t terribly informed by their backgrounds. Yes, having loved ones in both Osaka and Boston creates issues of distance, money, and time. But Shufu illuminates nothing new about this scenario, basically boiling down to how overseas travel is expensive, it’s hard to be away from family or your spouse, and having limited options for switching careers or relocating will put a strain on a relationship.
Because Slater isn’t inflexible when it comes to adapting to new cultural norms, and because Japan isn’t oppressive for women the way other countries would be, The Good Shufu is less a fish-out-of-water story than a story where a fish explores a different bowl. But because she doesn’t interrogate the extent to which her values fit into a new environment, the book ends up saying little about her or Japanese culture.
Consider this: Toru wants her to cook regularly, for practical reasons (it’s cheaper and she has the time to cook) rather than sexist ones. He dismisses her political argument—basically that cooking for one’s husband represents outdated gender roles—implying that she’s spoiled or lazy. “I considered the possibility that he could be right,” she writes. “Maybe alongside my political argument—or rather buried secretly beneath it—was a classist irresponsibility I’d inherited in the large suburban house where I’d grown up.”
Later, her father-in-law comes to dinner. Tradition states that she honor him by cooking, serving, and cleaning up after him by herself. She goes along with this rather than demanding that the men (or just Toru) help. When her brother expresses surprise at the traditional role she’s inhabiting, she tells him she doesn’t mind, it “feels almost like an act, just a role I’m playing.”
She goes on:
Ending up in a life with Toru that seemed so… so retro, where he gave me money because I couldn’t communicate with bank tellers, where he handled all the logistics of our existence while I played housewife, had made me reconsider what it meant to be independent. Sometimes, I was learning, what mattered most wasn’t the category of our roles, or even the limitations we confront and the sacrifices we make, but whether we’ve chosen these roles or sacrifices and have some way to shape them ourselves, whether we’ve been given alternatives and still found a way to make the more traditional fit us. Instead of always needing to be a completely autonomous woman in total control, maybe I could even be a housewife, at least part-time—as long as I chose that existence and could mold it into my own.
It isn’t that this reaction is invalid, but from the point of view of a reader, if there’s no compromise or struggle, there’s no drama. While Slater faces real problems—language barriers, loneliness—the book lacks the sense that she’s conflicted about Japan’s way of life. (At one point she raises the intriguing idea that vacating “the privilege and potential of [her] American life” was “terribly seductive,” but this idea isn’t developed either.) Going with the flow is fairly dull, and without a cultural critique against her or Japan, it’s just a story of living far away from your friends and family. You have to be an incredibly gifted writer to make something that familiar compelling.
Unfortunately, neither half of the marriage emerges as a strong personality. Slater’s depiction of herself is too scattered to make much of an impact. Because her values are moving targets, the whole premise of the book feels hobbled. Rather than her contradictions adding up to complexity, her character feels undefined and unreflective, crippling traits for a memoir.
Toru never emerges as fully-formed either. He’s quiet and reserved, a good husband but indistinct as a person. Does he share Slater’s take on gender equality, only going along with tradition to avoid ruffling feathers, or does he want to be the master of the house? That’s never clear. He remains a cypher, and Slater does him no favors by only giving him simplistic dialogue in fractured English (“I feel proud you”), a tic that was no doubt meant affectionately, but comes off as patronizing.
The Good Shufu promises an examination of how marriages fare in a culture clash, but it only delivers a faint echo of the marriage, little of the culture, and none of the clash.