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Transnational Marriage between Strangers

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How did two strangers at the time of transnational marriage come to see one another as marriageable?

“Is he/she the right person?” “Do I really know him/her?” “Will my parents accept our marriage?” “Will this marriage make me happy?”… and so on. These are common frequently asked questions for people considering marriage. Indeed, marrying someone remains a big decision. And when the marriage in question is with someone you have only met briefly at a meeting arranged through an agency, someone with whom you have only spoken via translator, these questions become particularly serious.

In Marriage and Marriageability: The Practices of Matchmaking between Men from Japan and Women from Northeast China, I examine transnational matchmaking practices between Japanese men and Chinese women. Between 2009-2013, I traced the experiences of participants from transnational matchmaking agencies in Tokyo to several-day matchmaking tours to northeast China, from Japanese language lessons for new Chinese brides in China to marital life back in Japan. In the process, I came to learn how the Japanese men and Chinese women involved came to see marriage to one another as possible.

Japan’s transnational matchmaking industry emerged in the late 1980s, originally catering to men in rural Japan. But by the time I began my research, it was not men from the countryside, but mainly middle-aged, white-collar businessmen living in urban areas who were engaging their services to find Chinese brides. The majority of bridal candidates were from northeast China. Not having professional skills or education, many of them believed that marriage offered them a path to a more secure life.

Japan’s transnational matchmaking industry emerged in the late 1980s, originally catering to men in rural Japan.

Economic inequalities are a necessary, but not sufficient factor in explaining these Japanese-Chinese marriages

Why did both sides choose to seek a partner through a transnational marriage agency? This is probably the first question that many of the readers will have. Certainly, the economic inequalities existing between Japanese men and Chinese women are a crucial part of the story. Moreover, it was always Chinese women who moved to Japan, never the reverse. Correspondingly, it was Chinese women who needed to learn a new language, new customs, and sometimes even take on a new Japanese name. Yet, as one marriage broker told me, “these marriages should not only be about yen (Japanese money) but also about en/yuenfen (fate).” In other words, money was essential but not everything. The participants needed to make sense of their own marriages on their own terms. They wanted to find meaning for their relationships, they wanted to be able to cast them as legitimate and even natural.

Not having professional skills or education, many of them believed that marriage offered them a path to a more secure life.

What I wanted to show in Marriage and Marriageability is that the Japanese-Chinese cross-border matchmaking practices I examined are not simply another form of gendered migration rooted in global economic inequalities, they are also inextricably a form of marriage. It seems obvious, but by looking at these matchmaking practices through the lens of marriage, we can see how these men and women relied on, appropriated, and stretched local marital norms creatively in efforts to render their marriages acceptable and even ordinary.

The Japanese-Chinese marriages were brokered based on historically and socially created conceptions of similarity, familiarity, and proximity

Instead of desiring exotic or traditional partners, which scholars have observed in other types of transnational intimate relations, the participants I followed sought the similar and familiar. They used perceived physical, racial and cultural similarities strategically. They concealed undesired differences and inequalities. And sometimes they just reframed their differences as those ordinarily exist between men and women.

Interestingly, instead of treating the history of Japanese colonialism as a cause for antagonism, participants framed it as a source of historical ties and feelings of familiarity between Japan and northeast China, with the flows of people between Japan and northeast China being a natural outcome.

Instead of seeing their marriages as exceptional or transgressive, they tried to frame their relations as “almost” like other domestic marriages. Japanese men would describe Chinese brides are “almost” like Japanese women. Chinese women thought that they were marrying into a proximate community with a similar lifestyle, albeit located across a national border. Indeed, they did not want to transgress local norms concerning marriage and who counts as an appropriate marriage partner but rather sought to realize these as closely as possible on a transnational scale.

Did these marriages have a happy ending?  

The answer is yes for some and no for others. Yet, do marriages generally have happy endings? Probably the answer is the same. Why is this question more frequently asked of transnational marriages? They are seen as based on multiple inequalities, which is true. However, inequalities—particularly gendered ones—exist in many marital relations, and inequalities exist between the married and the unmarried as well. It may seem that for the Japanese-Chinese marriages I studied these inequalities were particularly glaring, but by looking at how participants coped with these and sought to conform to social norms and expectations about marriage, it also sheds light on how much we take for granted about the pressures and inequalities that also exist in so-called normal marriages.

*Featured photo description: traditional Japanese wedding. Credit: Marisol CasBen on Unsplash.

Chigusa Yamaura is a sociocultural anthropologist, specializing in contemporary Japanese and Chinese society. She is currently a Departmental Lecturer and Junior Research Fellow at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, the University of Oxford. She has published on topics including cross-border marriage between Japan and China, colonial memory in East Asia, and, more recently, childcare provision in Japan.

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