Men Disabled and Loved

Among the women i reinterviewed, in at least two cases the men for whom they lived had died or become disabled. In 1990 i interviewed a mother of three small children. She had had problems in her marriage, but she said that even though the relationship still had its strains, “Our children now bind us.” Subsequently her husband, a computer specialist, started his own business and was remarkably successful, but in 1999 he was diagnosed with brain cancer and then subsequently had a stroke, robbing him of the ability to speak, read, and walk. For seven years she took care of him, living at the hospital and nursing him at home, devoting herself wholly to this task and to defending her husband's pride—puraido o mamoru, his pride as a man. She is well aware that everything she has—her children and her financial well-being—came from him. He died in 2006. She is studying for a graduate degree at present but says that it really doesn't matter much to her; what's really important is the memory of her husband—a man who seemed to have played an emotionally more important role in her life when he was helpless than when he was able-bodied and able-minded, judging from all she told me.

I interviewed a couple in their fifties in 1990, who, two years after our interview, suffered a family catastrophe. Their daughter gave birth to a son who was severely brain-damaged; shortly thereafter, the daughter's husband died. The daughter then moved back to live with her parents; she works for A management company by day, and the three of them devote themselves to caring for this child-becoming-a-man of sixteen, a very sweet-natured being who can neither talk nor walk. The elderly couple told me that without their grandchild with disabilities, they really wouldn't have anything to live for. But as i observed them, it seemed clear that grandmother and mother were totally devoted to this child with disabilities, leaving grandfather out. He gets angry and does not know how to respond to their grandson's epileptic fits, he admitted to me. When i interviewed him and his wife twenty years ago, he was the patriarch, the center of the household, but now he is at its fringes. What we thus see is that a man who had supported his family for forty years was now displaced as the center of the household by his daughter's child with disabilities. This displacement no doubt has much to do with the role of caregiver in a Japanese context (Long 1996), in which caregiving, whether for a frail parent, a spouse, or an ailing child, may eclipse all other relationships. But in this case, it also seems to represent the wife's response to a less-than-fulfilling marriage over many decades; rather than care for an ailing husband, she chooses to devote herself wholly to her grandchild with disabilities.

Borovoy, in discussing the wives of alcoholics in Japan, notes the difficulties these women face in breaking free of their culturally imbued solicitousness toward their husbands; for these women, “the work of caregiving was their central source of validation” (2005, 101). This culturally imbued solicitousness seems apparent in the women i have here described. Caregiving may sometimes transcend gender: a husband may devote himself wholeheartedly to a stricken wife, for example, in return for all the care that she has given him over the years. But both the cases described above imply a rejection of men and masculinity, in that love toward thinking, responding men is problematic, while men who are unable to think, walk, and talk are loved unconditionally, or at least cared for wholeheartedly. These cases imply that it may be easier for a woman to love a man who does not wield any power over her.

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