The interesting thing about Japanese mothers
When I do face-to-face speaking interview tests with my Japanese teenage students I usually begin with a spate of simple self introductory questions:
What’s your name?
How old are you?
When is your birthday?
Where do you live?
How do you come to school / get to school / go to school?
Who is your homeroom teacher?
What is your favorite school subject?
Who is te teacher?
What is your favorite sport / animal / food , etc.?
What is your hobby?
Do you have a school club?
What club is it?
Who is the club teacher?
After that I might ask some basic vocabulary questions
What is the date today?
How is the weather / what is the weather like today?
How do you say ____ in English?
Then I often get around to a couple of family questions:
How many people are there in your family?
Who are they?
The reason is, first, I want to hear the students correctly answer a question beginning with “How many?”, a test not just of numbers but of countable and uncountable nouns. And, second, I want to hear them recite family relation words like “father,” “mother,” etc.
Here is the interesting thing. I think that in North America most people - if they come from a two-parent home, not a single-parent home - are prone to start their list with “father.” “Five people: my father, my mother, my two brothers, and me.” It’s kind of traditional, isn’t it? I mean, the father as the head of the household. But in Japan the overwhelming number of students begin their list with “mother,” even if they do hail from a two-parent home: “Five people: my mother, my father, my elder sister, my brother, and me.” Sometimes father comes in at the end of the list. Sometimes grandparents feature in the list. Multi-generational, extended family living was the traditional norm in Japan and although things are changing and it is less common today it remains much more common than in North America - where it also persists, but as a distinct minority among families. I have met a lot of Japanese students from single-parent, divorced homes. Divorce is not as common in Japan as it is in North America, but it is becoming more common. Similarly, there are single, teenaged mothers in Japan - I have met some, and their babies. But it is still quite a rare phenomenon.
Clearly mothers feature so large in young Japanese lives that they habitually list her first among their family members. But why? I doubt very much that it is a pathology, indicating some kind of mother complex - although in the past some foreign Japan watchers have written exactly that about the adult Japanese male. Traditionally, Japanese salaried husbands are workaholic absentee fathers, leaving their housewife spouses to run the home. That is slowly changing as well.