I was cooking in the evening with the sound of the TV in the background, when a funny use of words caught my ear. I looked at the screen and saw a nervous-looking sturdy young man in a dark suit standing there. He had said, “I decided to tell the truth after talking to [my] ‘oku-san’ * and parents.” According to the program, he was a professional Yomiuri Giants baseball player, who had been involved with gambling on baseball, although in an investigation by the Giants he had denied any involvement. But he had been stressed-out by the lie and had taken advice from his “parents and ‘oku-san’.” I wondered for a moment whose “oku-san” it was.
* In Japanese, “oku-san” literally means “a person at the back [of the house]” and is the most common word for another person’s wife.

In that kind of situation, does a man call his wife “oku-san”? A middle-aged or elderly man would say “I talked to my ‘kanai’ …” (which literally means “inside the house,” a humble version of “oku-san”). These days some men might say, “I talked to my ‘tsuma’ …” (which is one of the most formal and neutral words for wife in Japanese). On the other hand, younger husbands tend to call their wives ‘yome’ (which is a word I don’t like, and literally means “daughter-in-law” from the perspective of the husband’s parents). So they would say “I talked to my ‘yome’ …” But surely the baseball player knew that “oku-san” should be used for another person’s wife, didn’t he?

One might well say, casually, “I got home drunk and was scolded by [my] ‘oku-san’,” in fun or in embarrassment. But it sounded very peculiar to me when the young player used the word in a public apology at a press conference in front of many reporters, which was aired on TV and would be covered in the newspapers.

In the past, I’ve read an interview with a candidate care worker visiting Japan from Indonesia under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) program. Here is a translation of a part of their Japanese conversation.
Interviewer: “What would you do if accepted? Are you thinking of bringing over [your] ‘oku-san’ or living in Japan for some time?”
Candidate: “I haven’t talked to [my] ‘oku-san’ about our future, and I don’t know yet.”

This candidate called his wife “oku-san,” just repeating what the word the interviewer had used when he referred to his wife as “oku-san.” Beginners of Japanese make this kind of mistake a lot, and it’s quite normal. His use of “oku-san” occurred in the development of his Japanese language learning.

I don’t know why the baseball player used the word “oku-san.” But the allowance of such inappropriate use of language by an adult – not only the word “oku-san” as in this case – may be showing the tolerance of Japanese society.

Just in case you misunderstand me, I’m not saying that it isn’t strange to call another person’s wife “oku-san.” Today few women would/could just stay at the back of the house. Perhaps, “osoto-san” (a person staying out) might be a better word.

Original article written by Orie Endo
Translated by A. Tawara

ことばとジェンダーの未来図 (明石ライブラリー)

著者:遠藤 織枝

明石書店( 2007-11-14 )