March 25, 2005
Love and Marriage - Japanese and American
Sometimes I receive email or comments asking about marriage, specifically about being married to a Japanese woman. I've been meaning to write something about this. Not that I'm an expert, but for those who are asking, here it is.
I went to a wedding in Tokyo last weekend. It was beautiful. The bride and groom (both Japanese) looked great together. We've known the bride for years, and we were very happy for her. I loved the food! During the reception the hotel staff opened the window shades along an entire wall and revealed a panoramic view of the Imperial Palace grounds below. Wow. The wedding ceremony took place before the reception on another floor of the hotel, and (as the invitation said) it was optional. Shinto wedding ceremonies are private, so the reception party is traditionally considered the main event. But this couple, like many Japanese couples, chose to have a "Christian" style wedding. Why? Brides often say they want to wear the white dress. Many want a public ceremony where they can invite their family and friends. It's romantic; western, now. Few Japanese have faith in Shinto or Christianity, and they don't seem bothered by the religious trappings. When I asked my friend if she were having a "Christian" wedding, she said, "Yes, well, a fake Christian wedding." And indeed it was, with a robed priest (either a fake or real Catholic, I don't know), two robed singers in the choir, and robed musicians and ushers. The Bible was read, prayers were prayed, and crosses were displayed in abundance.
Japan certainly doesn't have a monopoly on fake Christian weddings, by the way. I've been to fake Christian weddings in the USA. But seeing the whole shebang in Japan -- the mini version -- is uniquely perplexing.
I've said all of this in order to say that I have a Christian view of marriage. Not a "fake" Christian view (and not necessarily an American-cultural, Bush voting, gun toting, red state Republican point of view). But my best attempts at love and marriage come out of a relationship with Jesus. One of the Biblical writers, Paul, once wrote that, "If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then we are the greatest of all fools." I agree. As you read, please keep in mind that my faith in God is behind what I think, and you might consider me a great fool if you really stop and think about it.
Now that I've got here, what I'm about to write seems so simple. I'm tempted to stop now. Not literally "tempted" -- but, ok.
I met my wife in 1996 in the USA. We were both studying in the same graduate school, and we often studied at the same coffe shop on campus. I had talked with her a few times. One day, in a spontaneous moment, I invited her to go kayaking. I owned a big, yellow kayak for two. She agreed to go with me, we had a great time, and we got married one year later (to the day).
I was not pursuing a Japanese wife. I wasn't even pursuing her -- not yet. I didn't learn until later about guys who go looking for a Japanese wife. I wouldn't say that's always "bad," though it may be an under-developed idea (how's that for a sensitive phrase?). I think Japanese women find these guys kind of spooky though (no offense), and I don't really want to be seen that way. In terms of dating and marriage, I wasn't that hopeful at the time. I had spent the summer working in a community center in a poor neighborhood, and I had just returned to school with no real prospects. Perhaps I had given up on marriage, for the time being, and shifted my eyes off myself a bit (just a bit). At any rate, I thanked God that Hitomi came into my life, and for once I didn't engineer the process.
We had a few things going for us. My wife is basically bilingual and bicultural. She lived in the USA for four years during elementary school then returned to Japan and stayed there through university. She came to the USA to attend our graduate school in 1991, so she had been there for five years before we met (getting a masters and starting her Ph.D.). We both shared the same "foolish" faith in Jesus that I mentioned above, along with a common sense of purpose. I had never lived in Japan and didn't speak a word of Japanese, but I had spent a lot of time somewhat outside of my own culture (at the time I was living in East LA). I thought that I was pretty adjustable and good at learning new cultures and languages. To an extent, that was true, but I've honestly been stretched further in the past few years than I anticipated.
Practically speaking, marriage is hard work. Of course, you can hear this a thousand times, but when you're "in love" you'll know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it doesn't apply to you. That's a mistake. It applies to everyone who wants to build a great marriage. There will come a day in the future when you look at the other person and think, "Who is this that I have married?" "What have I done?" And that's when you really begin something extraordinary. Or it's the beginning of the end. Hopefully, you'll be ready when that moment arrives.
If being married to someone from your own culture is hard work, then being married to someone from another culture is harder work. Committment and communication (not the warm feelings of first love) are the keys to making a marriage that will last. But effective communication will require overcoming language and culture gaps -- and you may not see the gaps in advance (even if you should). These gaps are significant even for my wife and I. She is fluent in English and quite attuned to American culture, but we still have different ways of seeing and saying things that have deep roots in our identities. We must make an intentional, ongoing effort to communicate to overcome the gaps and communicate well. I can't imagine where we would be if we didn't share at least one strong language and culture between us. Or where we would be without our committment to marriage and our common faith?
What does all this mean? I think most marriage counselors would encourage a couple to spend time before marriage learning how to communicate, working through some conflicts and talking specifically about the future. Common sense says that a cross cultural couple should spend more time and effort working through these and other practical issues -- at least enough time to get past the feelings of "falling in love" and find out what's really there.
My wife and I got married after just one year. Did we break the rule? Well, it's not really a rule, but yes. We had a lot going in our favor, as I said above, but we took a risk deciding to get married early in our relationship. We have learned so much together in the midst of being married, and our marriage is very strong. But the story doesn't always have a happy ending. Honestly, the majority of American-Japanese marriages that we've seen have been difficult. Some have ended in divorce, and others just don't thrive. We know a few American-Japanese couples that DO have strong marriages. I'm pretty sure they have all worked hard at their marriages, and in all cases either the husband or wife (or both) speaks the other's language well. I should add, the people who I'm thinking of also share the same faith, but that by itself isn't enough to make a marriage work.
Before wrapping this up, I think I should write out a few practical ideas that anyone can take or leave. I feel under qualified, but here goes.
1) Talk specifically about marriage and the future. What does marriage mean to you? What about fidelity in marriage? How many kids do you want? When? What language will they speak, where will they go to school, etc? Where will you live? (One of you will be separated from his/her parents, and the kids will be separated from one set of grandparents.) Who will cook, clean the clothes and wash the dishes? How much income will you need, and how many hours will one or both of you work (a big deal in Japan)? Preferably, talk through all these questions with an experienced marriage counselor. If you have "Christian marriage values," (e.g., even if you don't have faith in Christianity) why not talk with a Christian counselor or pastor and get his/her perspective?
2) Don't get married on the basis of a long distance relationship. Somebody move to the other country and spend a long time getting to know each other in real life. Don't say, "She can't get a visa unless we get married." People work out visa/immigration problems every day. If you love each other, find a way.
3) Spend time together with each other's families. You will learn a lot about each other this way. If one or both of you come from a family that is so unhealthy that this is not possible, then delay getting married for an extra year or more, and get counseling. I'm not trying to be hurtful, but coming from an unhealthy family means the challenges will be even greater.
4) If you are a Japanese woman reading this, be careful about any guy who thinks Japan is perfect. Give him time to really figure out the good and the bad. And be super careful about any guy who constantly looks down on Japan (because he WILL look down on you, too, once it sinks in that you're really Japanese).
I'm going to stop now. Not because I think that I'm done. I'm tired of thinking, my wife is cooking dinner (this time), and I'd like to do something useful. Please feel free to write a comment or question. Or tell part of your own story (good or bad) and what you've learned from it. I'd like to think we could learn from each other.
Posted by jw at March 25, 2005 06:34 PM
It'a good writing with great thoughts.
I'm Japanese woman who is living in Japan as returnee. I am working in strong American influenced environment. There are some Japanese-American couples around me. Since I am living in close to US armed force base, I see interracial couples more than others.
There are some couples have troubles all the time, some people keep breakup&makeup cycle or wandering dating market.
From my perspective, we Japanese are Americanized a lot, however, most of us are still very much Japanese. Outfit, music, movies whatever seems like westernized though, Japanese mentality has not changed since decades ago. It causes misunderstanding, conflict et al. I am returnee but I still have very traditional Japanese parts in myself.
Being with ex-stranger is hard work as you say. All relationships require struggle. You need to work to get in and work to stay in.
Coco - Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Interesting word choice: "ex-stranger."
Your experience of Japanese-American marriage echoes my own. I also agree that a shared faith and the shared values that arise from it are a great blessing and help through difficulties. I have often thought that in many ways my wife and I have more in common in ways that really count because of our religion than we would have if we were from the same country but of different religions.
Happy Easter to you an your family.
An observation: there's a flip side to Point 4 (and maybe 2). From my perspective as an American in Japan, there seem to be Japanese girls who think a Western/American life is the life for them, because they spent some months overseas and really loved it. ..however, from seeing the result of my friend's marriage, it is usually _really_hard_ for a Japanese girl to actually move to America. It was the first time I heard "Moving to American was a step down in my quality of life, you know." I guess.. it's one more thing your readers might consider. Talking seriously about money and work (and everything in #1) is important, because westerners and Japanese expect different things. ...Nice post--one I will reread.
Thanks, and good point. Japan and the USA are worlds apart in many ways. Just thinking about it makes me feel kind of queasy (I've been here for 3 years and I'm still rocking on the sea of change). And students or short term workers/tourists, etc. (Japanese in the USA or vice versa) have a very limited experience. By the way, I don't remember the exact percentage, but I once heard that 80 percent of people from China who study in the USA immigrate if they can (to the USA or Canada). But I think 80 percent (or more) of the Japanese people who study in the USA return to Japan. There are many factors beyond preference, of course, but I think it generally shows that either Japanese people mostly prefer to live in Japan OR they have difficulty adjusting to life in the USA (or both).
Some very good points. I married a Japanese woman on the day this article was posted. We married in the Shinto tradition in Tokyo. Neither of us are devoted Shinto adherents, but the rites of the ceremony were sincere and meaningful to both of us. The option of a "fake" Christian wedding was considered, but rejected as an empty expression.
Your insight on the cultural aspects of Japanese-American relationships is very well thought-out, even if this was done without conscious effort. I have known the woman I married for 25 years off and on, with many years of accumulated experience on both sides. Those years together and apart made us finally suited for a lasting and committed relationship. She is absolutely Japanese at the core and it is only by living in Japan that I have come to truly appreciate that. She has also been overseas for her job dozens of times, spending months at a time in Europe, Asia, and both North and South America. She also spent a year in the United States during high school. I think that prolonged exposure to different cultures helped her to appreciate and to view critically both her own and my cultural perspectives. This ability to look critically at cultures, especially your own, is key in my opinion. By critically I do not mean with distain, I mean having the ability to see the good and the bad and accept both.
All that said, I know the next several years will be the most difficult and most rewarding years of our lives. We have the advantage of being in our 40s and having tons of relationship experience to draw lessons from. Most importantly, we have talked about the future together extensively and agreed to a plan concerning where we will live, jobs, and children (no we are not too old, one is on the way).
Thanks, and congratulations. It sounds like you have both learned so much about each other -- and very much about this topic of marriage across cultures.
When we had our first baby, I said it was a bigger change in my life than getting married. Be prepared, well, as well as you can. :)
It's very interesting to read your views on two-culture marriages. I myself am American and married to an Englishman. We live in England. Perhaps because I travelled to foreign countries (including Japan)as a young person I learned to accept different cultures from an early age. I have had virtually no problems adjusting and I've lived here 5 years now. And before someone thinks that there isn't much difference between America and the UK, think again. I have seen many members of my ex-pats group very upset because they just can't grasp living in another country. We are two countries divided by a common language. I am also an exception to the rule. My husband and I married one year after meeting online and after a few visits with each other. We just knew it was meant to be and 5 years later we are still very happy and in love. I am a Christian, my husband is agnostic. It works for us. Communication is the key to any successful relationship.
Thanks. As you point out, there are exceptions to every rule -- although I didn't set out to define any rules, just to write from what I've seen. And communication (along with many other "com" words) is definately crucial to any successful relationship. That's why normally, if someone asked, I wouldn't recommend your particular pathway to marriage. You must have done some great work communicating during those visits and after getting married! I'm glad it's going well.
Hi - I have nothing to add because I'm not American, Japanese, or married. But I enjoyed reading your insights. I am a Christian and have spent a year in Japan. I hope one day to return as a (potentially) long-term missionary. I'm not looking specifically to marry a Japanese girl, but given the direction my life is going it could be what happens (if the Lord blesses me with a wife at all). So it was great to read about your experience. Thanks!
First of all I wanted to say hello to Andy and thank you for the insightful posts. I am a white American male, who has had a long distance relationship for almost a year, with a Japanese international student, who is attending school halfway across the US from me. She has only lived in the US for a couple years, and speaks rather poor English- but good enough to survive and get around town by herself perfectly fine.
Your points 1-4 and Lance's post really stuck in my mind, because they reflect exactly what I'm going through right now.
Not to sound like a whiner (she is a very intelligent, beautiful, and swee girl- but these are the main problems:
1) She wants to quit school halfway through, to be with me- thinking she can just pick up where she left off at some college in my city.
2) For her to move here without being already registered as an international student, I would have to MARRY her immediately- not that I'm against the idea of marrying her- I just don't feel like marrying on a certain date due to legalities!
3) She doesn't have a car or driver's license, and has never driven on the right side of the road in her life. I'm in a big city with public transportation, but unless you live and work on a bus route, you're pretty screwed here if you don't drive...especially if your limited English skills prevent you from being able to work at 95% of businesses here.
4) Her parents were alarmed when she told them about me, so she told them I'm a lawyer, which is not true! I have expressed my desire to go to law school someday (if I could get in, that is!).
5) I have made it clear that I would like to buy a house in a few years, which she thought was completely unneccessary (apparantly a much smaller percentage of Japanese own homes). She seems like she'd rather spend the money traveling back and forth to Japan.
Basically, I have to hmake a decision in the next few weeks, because she is visiting me next month, and wants our permanent life to begin at the end of the summer.
Any thoughts would be extremely helpful. I feel like a jerk for even posting this, but none of my friends have been able to offer much help, because they've never been through anything remotely like this.
I just checked this thread and read your comment. It's great that you've written this, because I'm sure others will come along and relate with your situation. My thoughts...well, my sense is that you are hesitating to think about marriage for good reasons. In fact, some of these things stick out like enormous red flags to me. Here are some impressions.
Saying you would "have to" marry her -
I would hate to consider marriage from that perspective. It's amazing to realize how easy it would be to get married, isn't it? You could actually get married this summer. Wow. But after a year or two of marriage, all those exciting feelings will have passed, and you'll realize that time is one thing you have in very large supply. You will have decades together potentially (hopefully). I'm pretty sure that you'll eventually wish you had taken more time dating, building trust, working through many issues (including issues you still aren't aware of).
"She doesn't have a car...etc." -
Sounds like she'll be unhappy, and she may be unhappy where she is now. She's got things to learn and work through in order to flourish in the USA, and she may never be really happy there. You may seem like a person who will fix that for her, but you can't. I'm worried for you if you try to fix this hard situation for her.
"Her parents were alarmed..."
Of course they were. She's studying abroad and talking about marrying somebody there (who happens to live on the other side of the country, etc). The fact that they are shocked is a red flag, of course, but the part where she tells them you're a lawyer... I don't know her or her family situation. It may be messed up, or maybe she just over-reacted. Either way, if it's messed up: I hope you'll take things (everything) super slowly. If she just over reacted: start making plans to go to Japan, spend some time there, meet her parents and win them over if you possibly can. Your marriage will have a much better chance of lasting if you have their support. If you can't get their support, don't take "no" for an answer. Work hard to earn their trust. Maybe you will, maybe you won't, but you'll learn a lot about your relationship in the process. And you have time for all this...time in which she'll be learning so much about herself, you, English, etc.
"I have made it clear..."
If you get married, IMHO, it's all on the table. Owning a house, where you live, etc. If owning a house and living in the USA is non-negotiable for you, then make it clear. If she doesn't agree with you 100% on the point, then why not end the relationship now for both of your sakes. Or at least put off marriage in hopes that one or both of you may change his/her position in time. That may sound harsh, but if you pressure her into going along with your "idea" for now, she may plan to raise it again later.
"She seems like she'd rather spend the money..."
It sounds like this is an area where she is still a great mystery to you. A huge part of her identity is not just culture or language -- but a geographic place and all that's there. This stuff is what I really wrote about in my post. It's deep, complex and you won't get it quickly.
I think either she needs time to really, deeply learn (and make peace with) all about living in the USA (including English). And/or you need to learn Japanese and Japanese culture (and come to peace with it) by moving to and living in Japan. Of course, this is in addition to building trust and good communication (and all the other work that goes into a healthy marriage). This may take a couple of years, or more, and it will be worth it if you end up having a great marriage or avoid a really bad one.
Sorry about writing such a book. Normally, I would go back and edit this down and take out anything that seems to cross any lines. But for the sake of going to bed, I'm leaving it 'as is'. Feel free to comment again or send me an email if you'd like (to andy at japanwindow - com).
I read through the entire post, and I think it's a beautiful one, as are the pictures on the site. Keep up the good work, ^_^
I just turned 25 yesterday, I'm American & just recently finalized my dissolutionment on the 14th. Now considering my first marriage with my American high school sweetheart has just ended, my confusion is even more immense than most (together 8 yrs total & 3 married). I've lived in 4 different states, moved a total of 12- 13 times (getting a "little" culture shock in CA). You may relize my necessity for a constant in my life considering my past.
Anyways, I met a Japanese woman in high school. She is almost my same age, her family moved to the US when she was 8 & we got along very well. We spoke for 2-3 years in high school art class, but she never had to worry about me asking her out. We both went to separate art colleges & graduated. Both moved back to our (highschool) home town to live with parents. We also have alot in common considering we both love art & went to the same school. She seemed to be the only woman I knew I had a lot in common with or somewhat of a past with (very important to me). I feel like she could be the one & that all the other junk going on with me is messin it up. We went out "as friends" several times, got along great & it seemed as though she was throwing out signs. Then (the signs) kinda stopped when I told her about my dissolutionment the 3rd time out. I said I didn't want to put a damper on the mood & talk about the ex. She said it was fine & that I could talk to her about it & it wouldn't put a damper on the mood. She still came out twice since I told her.
I thought since she had said she wasn't looking for anything short term she assumed I was. I know she is very independant and has said she has never had boyfriends. She has also said that growing up her parents gave her # out & showed her picture to doctors & lawyers, trying to find her a husband. So in a sense the Japanese factor/ cultural thing I think is throwing me off considering I just got back on the dating scene since 8 years ago. Her sister has a fiance (traditional japanese guy) & said she hoped they work out cause it would get her off the hook.
The signs vs. what she says later vs. how I react or don't react at all. Cause I feel I'm not ready or that she should think it's too soon for me. I know relationships do take time & compromise. Now I'm more willing than ever to compromise for true love and a constant. I know that no career or amount of money can compensate for an empty home. Japanese or not it doesn't matter to me, but I know it has an effect on her, the way she was raised and the way she thinks. Although I think her parents who lived almost their entire lives in Japan have more of an effect on her.
I haven't asked her yet because of the topic. I'm confused, really bad confused. I think confused in the worst possible way. Hope you have some insight to drop on me. Cause anything I've received from friends has confused me, pushed & pulled me 1 way or the other. I do know I can at least say I've been trying to take it slow considering. Love yes marriage sure, as far as she goes I'm trying to figure it out. I'm really just not trying to mess up what I beleave to be my last chance for true love & a constant that I have some past with.
Would have edited but still feel I left out out a ton
sorry so much writing & so confused.
An exceptional entry. I'm sorry that I didn't read it sooner. Your words offer a practical and realistic point of view that often is forgotten during the 'bliss period'. I've had long term relationships with American women as well as an Indonesian (where I've been for 3 years) and can testify to what you've said. No matter what you feel at first, you should keep in mind that relationships are work - plain and simple. Mixing cultures opens up a whole new world of curiosities, difficulties, and hilarious circumstances. I've chosen to accept those differences and hardships - but not eveyone will be able to.
Thank you for expressing your thoughts in such a clear and matter-of-fact manner.
From my experience I have found that Chinese women lie for unnecessary reasons, but Japanese women are truthful. I am a native born caucasian male with many visits to Japan and China. I almost married a Japanese women, but made the mistake of marrying a Chinese woman.
I don't think either statement -- that Chinese women lie or that Japanese women are truthful -- is generally true. I've known Chinese women with great integrity and Japanese women who can't be trusted. It's too bad your marriage turned out to feel like a mistake though.
First of all, thanks for sharing so much. I am highly impressed by your faith and tact, and especially the care you have taken to answer each post.
I don't know if you have any insights for me, but I would appreciate it if you would discuss my situation with your wife and answer me in an effort to deal with my circumstances as an american ex-wife with 2 children whose father recently exchanged "vows" in a symbolic ceremony, with their new Japanese step-mother and little sister.
I'm baffled at the cultural barrier that seems to separate me further from my kids--I'm afraid I don't know a thing about Japanese culture--however; I truly want to share my sincere congratulations with this new couple as the primary parents for my children. This is extremely emotional for me as a mother.
I want her to know that I respect her and LOVE her for loving our children. As their primary residence, she is the woman of the house and will be a second "mom". I don't want to isolate or offend her. I want to make a sincere gesture to show my support and appreciation [as well as congratulations and best wishes & prayers]. Since Mother's day is this Sunday and they were only joined together last Sunday, I thought a mother's day card expressing my feelings would be appropriate.
I've only been divorced for a year +1/2. My emotions are mixed but I am seeking through prayer and communication a way to be "one big happy family".
Please, I would appreciate any comments you and your wife may have regarding this particular situation from both American Male and Japanese Woman as husband and wife.
Thanks and God Bless! **Blaze**
This is really a crazy world.
How can anybody understand all this crazy stuff all around?
It's so meaningless, but in one way it's fantastic!
Sorry this took awhile. I don't often check comments on old entries though. You are obviously in a really hard situation. Even a Japanese person would struggle to figure out what to do. Here are a few thoughts that may help.
First, so much depends on the character and values of your ex-husband and his wife.
Character - Hopefully the new wife is open minded, adaptable and secure. Some readers may laugh and say these words do NOT describe a typical Japanese housewife. But I've seen many moms who would rise to this situation. Even if the new wife's character is not prepared for having these kids, hopefully she'll rise to a new level (ideally with support and encouragement from your ex-husband). Much will depend on her (assuming your ex-husband will be working late on weekdays).
Values - Japan is an insider/outsider culture, and there is no tradition of raising other people's children (e.g., adoption is almost unheard of). That's why character is so crucial. The new wife and your ex-husband really must map a course, and they will face pressures, gossiping and second-guessing from friends, neighbors and possibly from family, etc.
With all this in mind, my wife and I both think the new wife's sense of personal SECURITY is critical. You can't make her feel secure, but you should at least be careful not to damage her sense of security (as a wife or mother). I know you wouldn't do that intentionally, but you may do that unintentionally. You are somewhere between 'insider' and 'outsider' now, and that's got to feel very uncomfortable. She needs to know that she is the wife, and that you will not do anything to come 'into' her home. Japanese people don't maintain boundaries in the same way Americans do. An American will directly tell you when you "cross the line." A Japanese person may smile and pretend nothing is wrong for awhile, but if the 'offending' person doesn't realize they are crossing a line and stop, then the solution is to cut off the relationship completely.
Keep in mind, she may perceive your existence as crossing an emotional line and wish you were cut off -- and if she feels that way you can't do much about it other than try to respect her wishes. But if she doesn't want to avoid you completely (or even if she does), then here are some practical suggestions:
- Send her a letter and tell her what you would like to do in order to be involved with your kids. My wife suggests that you state specifically what you plan to do. For example, tell her specifically when you plan to send gifts (e.g., for their birthdays and Christmas). You can state your support for her (although I wouldn't say you "love" her, or use any emotional language, but that you support her).
- I wish I'd said this sooner, but my wife thought it's best not to send a Mother's Day card. It's just too mysterious and prone to be misunderstood.
- You obviously have to work out other details. For example, when and how often you'll talk to the kids on the phone, etc. We don't know enough about the situation to say much, but a) don't overdo talking with your ex-husband on the phone (the new wife may feel insecure if you talk too long) and b) let the new wife control where your relationship with her goes. MAYBE if she understands you support her and will not threaten her security, she'll be open to talking with you (that is, if you both speak a common language).
I've said lots about the new wife's sense of security. In American culture, we really don't worry much about the other person's security (being 'insecure' is the other person's problem). If you have the attitude with a Japanese person, you really risk being cut off (unless the Japanese person is cross-cultural him or herself). In Japan, you must guard the other person's boundaries and personal security -- and, as I've also said, this is a very challenging case for that. And in that regard, this wouldn't be complete if I didn't say, 'Pray.' For her, for the kids, for your husband and yourself. We truly both wish you well.
i am nepali boy.i am 27 years old.i like trust,helpful,and good japanese girl to marry.