Don’t tell papa

Back when we still watched TV, I channel surfed to some kind of Japanese program with the usual mix of ‘talent’ panelists talking with an invited guest, a youngish looking president of a family construction company. He was relaxed and friendly and handsome-ish, the kind of handsome that comes from character more than looks. “I bet he’s gay,” I said jokingly. “Actually he is, I know him. He’s a really nice guy,” said my partner and told me the whole story.

There is a Japanese word 跡継 (ato-tsugi) that doesn’t translate well in English. Heir is the most common interpretation but it has a lot more cultural connotations for family run businesses and the family name attached to it. There are interesting legal institutions attached to it as well, such as a groom marrying into his wife’s family business and adopting her family name and adult adoption. These practical institutions have allowed family businesses to thrive for generations and survive all kinds of challenges.

The young man in question was due to take over the family business at some point but there was one little snag, he was gay. Like other gay men in similar ‘ato-tsugi’ situations, he didn’t really hide it, but out of respect to the family business, he wasn’t open either. He went to gay bars, hung out with gay friends, brushed off ‘when are you getting married’ questions with his friendly easy going good nature. But his mom knew, as all mothers in the world know, and knew what to do. She made a bargain.

“Look, I know you’re gay but if you find a lesbian friend who’ll agree to get married (into a family with money) and have a kid, I’ll raise the kid and you guys can live your private lives however you want.” My partner said, “His mother must have come from a samurai family,” because women from samurai families are famous for being ruthlessly practical keeping the family intact. There was one condition: don’t tell papa.

And so the young man’s gay friends all pitched in helping him find a suitable marry-able partner and planning the wedding. The couple to be went on a trip to ‘practice’ and make sure they could hold up the procreation side of the bargain. The wedding banquet ceremony was a great success with a well known tv announcer gay friend doing MC duty. Mom eventually got her wish fulfilled, twice over. Papa retired, the son took over running the business. Word on the grapevine is that everybody is happy. Papa none the wiser though I suspect he probably knows but plays it dumb.

I’ve always liked the story. To me it illustrates a surprisingly flexible and practical side of traditional Japanese culture. On the surface what seems monolithic and rigid is surprisingly loose on close inspection with lots of safety values. But that’s not really surprising, given the Shinto-Buddhist cultural foundation where nothing is absolute or black and white especially when dealing with human nature. It’s a sentiment by partner expresses from time to time in these pronoun gaga times. “I don’t want to be defined by somebody else’s idea of sexuality whatever, I just want to be me, a human being.” That’s enough for me.