I Married The Man My Mom Told Me To

Irene Nakamura recounts how Japanese traditions sent her into a life with a man she didn't love.

Irene Nakamura was just eight years old when she was told whom she would be marrying.

“Growing up in the U.S., I didn’t think it would be real,” she tells HelloGiggles. As a Japanese-American in Los Angeles, Nakamura knew about her family’s stringent traditions, and always made a point to honor them. Even when it was time to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Nakamura was introduced to John* at a mutual friend’s party. It was there that they sparked a friendship — and also where Irene’s mother began grooming her for the future union.

While so-called “arranged marriages” or what the Japanese call “miai” became a lot less common after the 1960s, it was not unheard of. Surveys by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research indicate that 69 percent of couples got married through a miai in 1930— but this figure had dropped to just over 5 percent by 2015, and this was the 1990s.

“I didn’t have strong feelings for him but my mother convinced me that love would grow with time, and that him being a nice person was enough,” says Nakamura. “She touted his high education, his strong connection to and understanding of the Japanese culture, as well as his proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking as important factors. She explained that he would be well-suited for our family, and would be able to provide for me,” she tells HelloGiggles. 

Nakamura shares that John soon became a frequent visitor to their home, and while she was allowed to date other people, she began to realize that one day, she’d be told it was time to marry John. “My mother and my grandmother had thoroughly investigated his background,” she recalls. “John’s ancestor held a prestigious position at the Bank of Hirohshima. My mother wanted to ensure that all the necessary criteria were met.”

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She dreamed of going to college and one day owning a business, but those efforts were thwarted by her parents who told her she was to marry who they selected for her, and be taken care of by him. “My mother had raised me to be a ‘proper lady’, directing me to the ‘acceptable’ activities of her choosing — playing the violin instead of the drums, learning how to play the piano instead of dancing, forbidding me from cheerleading and certain sports but learning how to sew instead. I must be in a controlled ladylike environment or how will she be able to select a suitable husband for me and make the family proud?”

At 28-years-old, that day came. “I knew I would honor my obligation, even though I didn’t love him,” explains Nakamura.

Irene Nakamura
Irene Nakamura

In 1998, on her wedding day, Nakamura describes herself as “emotionally detached.” “I did enjoy being surrounded by family and friends, but I was going through the motions,” she explains. “Despite his kind nature and overall being a good person, I didn’t experience the excitement or passion of being in love. Instead I felt numb and lacked any kind of emotional connection.”

Two years into the marriage, Nakamura attempted to express her discontentment to her family, but those feelings were completely discounted. “I confided in my mother that I wasn’t happy and I wanted a divorce. She told me that only his feelings and happiness mattered.”

Nakamura fulfilled her familial obligation for the next 15 years. “He did take care of the financial things, my mother, house and cars, among other things, as my mother had said,” she shares. “Since we didn’t have that spark most couples have, after a while, we were living like roommates and going through the motions. Our relationship had become more of a practical arrangement, rather than a passionate and fulfilling partnership.”

Over time, Nakamura learned to suppress her own wants, goals, and desire for freedom. “There is a word in Japanese ’gaman’ (pronounced gah-mahn) which means to tolerate or put up with. The idea of ‘sucking it up’ was part of my DNA,” she explains.

Unfortunately, Nakamura never quite understood how much she’d have to “suck it up.” At 40-years old, the worst happened, and Irene was diagnosed with breast cancer. During that time, she went through several rounds of IVF, became pregnant and ultimately lost the baby. “My husband did not react in a supportive way and had other things on his mind that he felt were more important than comforting me,” she explains. “I found myself alone on the worst days of my life.”

It was then that Irene decided to end her marriage, despite her family’s wishes. “I divorced him and kept the truth hidden from my family for two years. Eventually, my mother asked about his whereabouts so I finally revealed we’d divorced. Her response was ‘your poor husband.'”

Although she feared the unknown and faced criticism from her family, Nakamura finally had the freedom she’d always yearned for. She went to school to learn how to be a court reporter, becoming the first JA Official Court Reporter for the USDC, Central District of California. Nakamura went on to start her own successful business iDepo, which now has locations in three states.

Now, at 52-years-old and living in Hawaii, Nakamura uses her past experiences to mentor and guide other minority women in starting their own businesses, and pursuing their dreams — no matter what their circumstances are.

“I found that owning my own business gave me that say I never had before, and that sense of empowerment and independence. I was able to make my own decisions, and chart my own course.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Jené Luciani Sena
Jené Luciani Sena is an accredited journalist and internationally-renowned bestselling author, regularly seen on national TV outlets such as Access Daily, Today and Dr Oz. Touted as one of Woman’s World Magazine’s “Ultimate Experts,” she’s a TEDTalk speaker and a busy Mom of 4. Read more
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