Gently chiding Japan: `Pick up a broom, my chauvinist friend'
MRS. K. found her marriage painfully unfair. She left work to spend years caring for her husband, two children, and her infirm in-laws - with no help from her husband. She had no time to develop hobbies or outside interests; and, in Japan, she was considered too old to get her job back. Japanese advice columnists - mostly men - unrelentingly remind women readers of gaman, the tradition that women must endure their problems without complaint. So Mrs. K. appealed to the only advice column written by an American for export to Japan: ``Helen Bottel Gives Advice to Japanese,'' a regular feature in the Sunday women's pages of the world's largest newspaper, Tokyo's Yomiuri Shimbun.
The columnist, a 74-year-old, plain-spoken grandmother from Sacramento, Calif., responded: ``Let your husband know you're a person and that you expect marriage to blossom into a full partnership.''
``I also suggested that she join a local women's group or start one,'' Mrs. Bottel recalls. ``Many Japanese women want someone to encourage them to be their own person rather than `gaman-ing' their life away.''
Among the newspaper's circulation of 9 million, the advice created a stir that drew more than 1,000 letters.
In this decidedly traditional, male-dominated nation, ``Kimottama Obachan'' - ``daring old aunt,'' as the Japanese have nicknamed her - often delivers a jarring message. To a husband disturbed by his wife's unhappiness with a life relegated to household chores, she writes: ``Two-career marriages often thrive when spouses share child care, chores, and respect. They languish when husband sees wife as a mere comfort-making machine, not as a many-faceted person with ambitions and dreams equal to his own. Pick up a broom, my chauvinist friend, and help her with the housework.''
``She's straight open. ... She could be Russian or Japanese or anything. She understands other human beings,'' says Kaoru Nakamaru, a TV personality and founder and director of the Japan-based World Affairs Institute. The column's popularity is such that when Ms. Nakamaru visited California, her top three interviews were with Pat Boone, Charlton Heston, and Helen Bottel.
Dispensing advice comes naturally to Bottel, who for 25 years wrote the ``Helen Help Us'' column for King Features Syndicate, which at its peak appeared in more than 200 United States newspapers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Sacramento Bee.
Bottel was working as editor of the weekly paper in Cave Junction, Ore., in 1958 when she took up her husband's dare that she write a ``Dear Abby'' column. It was printed by the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore.
Two weeks later, when King Features advertised for somebody to go up against Ann Landers and Abby, Bottel decided to follow her own advice to ``leap before you look.'' She sent King all four of her columns. The editors liked her style and immediately signed her up as their syndicated columnist.
Yomiuri Shimbun, which subscribed to King Features, had received her column for years but never used it. Then in 1982, one of two women senior editors at the paper, American-educated Tokiko Fukao, read it and decided Japanese were ready for an American-type column. She decided to run it. Readers loved it. She asked Bottel to write a personal column especially for Yomiuri. ``Don't pull your punches,'' Ms. Fukao said. ``We want you to address our readers' problems from the point of view of a liberal American.''
``I made a hard choice,'' recalls Bottel, who quit King Features in 1983. ``I'd done King Features for 25 years, and it wasn't new anymore, and it was hard to find something [different] - and then if you did, you'd get thrilled about somebody's misfortune just because it was new. I didn't like that.''
Each month, Fukao sends her a packet of letters from Tokyo that have been translated from Japanese into English. Bottel sends her responses to Japan for translation, along with one short feature story on life in America. These feature stories, such as a recent one describing her attempt to master a personal computer, are often humorous. ``I laugh at American culture in a kind of sensitive and understanding way, to let them know that we are human,'' Bottel explains.
Her message reaches a population that is wrestling with old traditions and modern values. A 28-year-old complained about omiai, or arranged meetings, that result in formally arranged marriages. ``I cannot stand the attitude of today's young women,'' he wrote. ``Without seriousness they meet with hopeful, prospective bridegrooms and let them pay all expenses even though they too are salaried. After several costly dates, they turn him down by phone, saying contemptuously he is not their type.''
Bottel responded: ``If you don't like omiai, why cling to it? Go modern yourself and become your own arranger: Look for a woman who is interested and interesting, start a conversation, invite her out and enjoy the friendship, whether or not it leads to marriage. When you learn that dating is fun - especially if the lady sometimes picks up the tab, as a true equal should - you'll switch from desperate single to eligible bachelor, which is only one step away from `happy husband.'''
Bottel admits that she has run into a brick wall at times. Advising a man who was unhappy at work to change jobs brought a lot of mail in a country where changing jobs brings a loss of face. Her suggestion that a childless couple adopt a Korean or Cambodian orphan didn't sit well with the Japanese idea of racial purity.
Still, with the slowly changing status of women in Japan, Bottel's column seems to be timely. ``In a way, what is happening is d'ej`a vu for me. When I started my first US column, I was getting the same kinds of letters from Americans as I am now from the Japanese.''
Bottel's empathy with others' problems may come from her own difficult early years. She grew up in Beaumont, Calif., and her father left home when she was 2. Her mother died in a mental institution when Bottel was 15, and she became close to a foster mother, ``who was a real mother to me.''
She worked as a maid in a private home to put herself through Riverside Community College, where she met her husband, Bob, now a retired government employee, when he was editor of the school paper.
``I was interested in him, so I decided to follow an advice columnist's advice - you know, go where the men are,'' chuckles the soft-spoken mother of four.
Bottel and her husband practice what she preaches. Their 50th anniversary photo was taken in their tennis outfits, and she says, ``I do one new thing each week, even if it's only learning a new stroke, or trying a new dish,'' or taking a month-long photographic safari on elephant-back in India, as they did two years ago.
Although Bottel says that she has to work harder answering the letters from her Japanese readers than she did when she was writing her American column, she remarks that giving advice to people from another culture is not a daunting prospect. ``People's problems are the same all over the world.''