Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Okay, so do you remember what my mom said? What I asked?” I said.
“Yes, yes, babe. I’ll wear a long sleeve shirt when I meet your grandma,” said my husband.
It’s summer 2011, a few months before Brent, my husband, proposes to me and my family is visiting from Japan. Covering his tattoos (especially his yakuza-style sleeve) was a conversation we’ve had a few times before but now she was actually going to be in town and with nearly my entire family. My O-mama, that’s my mother’s mother, is a traditionalist and is very much against tattoos. Brent is a typical local boy with the standard amount of local boy inkwork: a very large piece plus several medium-ish tats that he got when he was still testing the waters when he was younger.
The day he met my family, it was the end of July and admittedly very hot. We were meeting my family for brunch in Waikïkï and I had gone with my mom. As we are all seated and my family is starting to inquire about “the boyfriend,” Brent wanders into the buffet in a tank top, showing his sleeve, part of his back, and chest piece to boot. I instantly give him the wide-eyed “WHAAAAATTTTTTTTT???” stare. He shrugs.
My uncles were impressed and instantly loved him. “Kakkoii~!” they said as they’d ordered a round of beers that would later become whisky; a Japanese-style family initiation. My cousins were jaws-to-floor shocked, and my aunts giggled, but it took several years into our marriage to get O-mama to stop calling him “Tattoo Boy.” [Insert eye roll and head smack here].
It’s hard to believe that the end of this month marks our 11th wedding anniversary, the years flew by. Brent and I have been together for over 16 years now, and we’re lucky to have a happy marriage; even luckier still, we are both close with each other’s families and we love and get along great with our in-laws. Even so, while you’d think that Brent, with mainly Japanese ancestry, would understand Japanese norms a bit more. You’d assume that having attended local weddings, I’d get the gist of the traditions here. However, the wedding planning process showed how hilariously lost in translation, and often chaotic our wedding expectations and traditions could be.
Since we’re entering wedding season, I thought I’d share a few personal anecdotes that helped us bring our families closer together.
1,000 Paper Cranes
When I first visited Brent’s family’s home, I remember spotting a gold and silver-foiled artwork that upon closer inspection turned out to be 1,000 paper cranes that were made to look like two large cranes flying in the sky, and set against a matte black background. I knew that local Japanese families often folded paper cranes, and yet, I was still a little surprised and touched when his mom offered to help me fold cranes for our wedding, too.
It was something I didn’t want to do – not because I was lazy – but because in Japan, folding 1,000 paper cranes was associated with praying for recovery from serious illnesses that kept you hospitalized. I couldn’t bring myself to do the cranes, and when I asked Brent if he would be offended or hurt in some way about this decision, he thankfully felt it wasn’t the most important thing for our up-coming nuptials.
I also made sure to talk to his mother about it – she offered to help after all. When we spoke, she laughed and said no worries, and we all had a conversation speculating on when that tradition changed to a wedding thing in Hawai‘i.
Kampai vs Banzai
In Japanese weddings, the reception is often a long, long affair riddled with speech after speech after speech. In Hawai‘i, we love our speeches but we’re happy to keep them short for the sake of other festivities. To the sheer fascination and delight of my family visiting from Japan, Brent’s family arranged a banzai toast in which someone representing the family said a salute in Japanese followed by three “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” This is then followed by a representative of the guests to state something back in Japanese and that is also then followed by “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!”
While I don’t remember what was exactly said in the speeches, I found out from my giggling cousins later that the speeches were something similar to what a military captain would shout to his soldiers in victory rather than something a guest, or family representative would say to polite company. Still, they were thoroughly entertained as were the rest of the wedding guests.
Win Over the Family with Beer
Circling back to the story of O-mama’s strong disapproval of Brent’s tattoos. In Japan, tattoos are still associated with yakuza and shady people. As I’m her first born granddaughter, O-mama didn’t love the idea that I may be connected to someone that was less than stellar. For me, it wasn’t that I thought he needed to hide his tattoos from her forever, it was just that I thought she should get to know him first before she automatically judged him on his ink work. “Welp, guess this is called ripping off the Band-Aid,” he laughed.
But, her opinion of him mattered deeply to me. So, a couple of years later, we visited Japan for the first time as a married couple and got the chance to stay at her house for about a week. We even took her with us to Universal Studios in Osaka and rode the Jurassic Park ride with her.
Since we were visiting in the fall, we had the opportunity to enjoy seasonal beers. I knew that O-mama enjoyed Asahi so Brent kept her fridge well stocked with the seasonal and regular version of that brand. As a result, by the end of the trip she was affectionately calling him “Bure-chan,” the same nickname my mom (who’s always been in his corner) gave him when we first started dating.
Moral of the story: it’s okay to forego or embrace a tradition that means something totally different to you as long as you are respectful. And when in doubt, bring beer.
Join me on my journey to self care and happiness along and see how I do with the rest of my goals. You can find me at @saschakoki on Instagram for more.
Sascha Koki is the vice president of Media Etc., a PR & Marketing company based in Honolulu. As a Japanese and Black hapa bilingual woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and Japan, Sascha has a unique perspective on growing up with three rich cultures; she sees herself as a bridge that connects these worlds through her career and in life. Happily married and a mother of two humans and one pup, she strives to raise her pack of wild cubs into compassionate beings that wield their powers for good while enjoying all that life has to offer. Passionate about fashion, beauty, wellness and good (okay, and bad) TV in near equal measures, this former Miss Waikiki and UH Rainbow dancer is a true Aquarius.
In her column, she plans to write about “lifestyle” which really means anything and everything, all at once. Her wish is to inspire and shed light on everything from cultural issues to hilarious culture shock moments through personal stories.