Other day, I went to have a hair cut. It´d been while since I had a Japanese hair-stylist. He was away for quite a while as he got married and had to wait in Japan until he got a new visa, which took him nearly a year.
We started chatting while he cut my hair. Then he mentioned his wife. He said "my OKUSAN" and somehow this word stuck to my head.
It´s nothing wrong with okusan, it´s just because I hadn´t heard that word so long. Then as I was having a hair cut, I started thinking about this word.
Okusan is one way of saying "my wife" in Japanese and is written 奥さん. Oku means at the back and in this case, back of the house. So okusan refers someone who stays at the back of the house and doesn´t come out to the front, someone hidden. This concept came from Sengoku jidai (戦国時代 / the warring state period in Japan, 1467-1568 approx.). During this period women stayed inside the castle at the very back of it and there, served their master, shujin (主人).
And this custom remained as many Japanese wives call her husband "my shujin (master)" by meaning "my otto (夫 / husband)".
According to the dictionary, oku-san or oku-sama are used by referring to someone else´s wife or to the females who look like they are married. Yes, the key is "looks like" which defined by age. When you go to a grocery shopping and you´ll hear a fishmonger calling the middle aged women "okusan" as they don´t know the name, and this is very habitual.
Then I started thinking about other way of calling their wives. Another common one is kanai (家内), it´s written as inside the house and the meaning came from the person who runs inside the house. This word, too came from women´s role. You may hear men saying "uchi no kanai ga… (うちの家内が．．．)".
Nyoubou (女房) is also common. Nyoubou originally was the women in a high status who worked in the court. Bou (房) is a room and these women were given their own room and took care of the Emperor. They were the court ladies in high positions but not the wives of the Emperor. So in theory, it´s not right to call his wife Nyoubou but…. if he consider the woman whom he lives with is just someone who is in charge of him rather than his life company, perhaps it´s OK.
And those husbands who lord over their wives are called Teishu Kanpaku (亭主関白), well in other word, sexists who doesn´t even bring his plate when he finishes eating. Those husbands are still out there in Japan, surprisingly.
But I´ll talk about Japanese men and husbands in another occasion. This time, I stick to the way of saying "my wife" in Japanese.
In Kansai area, you may hear them saying "uchi no yome (うちの嫁)". Yome is a daughter-in-law and grammatically incorrect but especially among Japanese manzai comedians, it´s quite common to say. Or they call their wives kami-san (カミさん), but this word refers to the wife of merchants or the head woman of the place such as ryokan and restaurants.
The right translation of "wife" in Japanese is tsuma (妻). You do hear this word but yet, you hear another names much more often. Historically men were the front of the house and women were the back of the house. Is Japan still a feudal society? Or just the words?
I don´t see my hairstylist so sexist. But who knows. Once he enters the house, he may be a little emperor. Hope slowly but soon, Japanese men can call their wives watashi no tsuma without being embarrassed and realise that their wives can bow properly by themselves.
Okusan, Kanai, Nyoubou, Yome, Kamisan are the words you always hear from Japanese men´s mouth and not something you think about the meaning twice. But when you see how to write, then it might tickle your curiosity to find out the structure of Japanese couples or families.
In the next article, I´ll talk about Japanese "macho" husbands.
More Japanese behaviour
More Japanese costum