Thursday, November 10, 2016

My Japanese In-laws

Mother-in-law, Father, Me, Father-in-law

One of the things I was most worried about when I started dating Kazu was not the language barrier or cultural differences, but how his family would react to him dating and potentially marrying a foreigner. Kazu is the oldest son (he has two younger brothers, who are 22 and 20, I believe) and I've heard many, many horror stories of foreign girls who either married an "eldest son" and had a hard time dealing with his parents, or even worse ended up getting dumped because their boyfriend caved into pressure from his parents not to marry a foreigner. Luckily, I haven't had any of these problems!

Kazu's family dynamic is very different from mine. My family is very close, very involved in each other's lives and very vocal about how much we love each other. Even after I became an adult and moved out (and then halfway across the world) we talk often, at least once a week, and we meet up as often as possible, which is once or twice a year right now. Kazu's parents and his middle brother live in the house he grew up in, only about 1.5 hours' drive away, and his youngest brother is in uni and living only about 30 minutes away, but he only talks to them when he (or one of them) needs something, and they only visit a few times a year. At first I thought that their family was very cold and that they must not love each other, but I've come to understand that they just express it in a different way. For example, a few times a year Kazu's mother sends a huge box in the mail, full of food. She mails us rice, potatoes, carrots, onions, and canned tuna, and usually a bunch of Kazu's favorite snack foods. We can buy all of this at the grocery store 5 minutes from our house, but she mails it to us to show her love and to let us know she was thinking of us.

The first time I met Kazu's family, we'd been dating for 7 months and they'd known about it for about half that long. Kazu had some time off of work for Golden Week and was planning to go home for a visit, so he decided to take me with him. His parents were receptive to my visiting, so we packed up and headed 'home' to spend a few nights with his family. His mom picked us up at the train station by car (their house is about 15 min drive from the closest train station) and it was super awkward at first. I remember saying hello and introducing myself and then just listening while she talked to Kazu (mostly one-sided, because he's very quite around his family, for some reason) the whole way home. When we got to their house I met his dad and introduced myself again, and then gave his mom the present I'd brought. It's an important part of Japanese culture to always bring a present for your host when going to someone's house. Kazu and I picked a Baumkuchen german-style cake that is very popular in Japan.

After a short conversation, it was decided that Kazu, his father, and I would go over to grandpa's house (about 10 minutes away by car, in the same town but even further out into the wilderness) before dinner to meet him and grandma. Kazu's grandfather is 83 and still works full-time, self-employed as a carpenter, and his grandmother is in her early 70s and she doesn't have a job of her own, but she can often be found in the workshop helping grandpa with his carpentry. I say that they are 'carpenters' but more specifically, they are traditional craftsmen, building Japanese-style houses in the traditional way with intricately detailed, hand-made, one-of-a-kind carvings decorating the doors and the archways. There are very, very few people left in Japan who know how to do this kind of work. Grandpa and Grandma also welcomed me with open arms. They told Kazu that I'm "beautiful, like a porcelain doll" and after they were convinced that I do, in fact, speak Japanese they were not at all shy about talking to me and asking me questions.

I really like Kazu's grandparents, they are very interesting. Their lives are so different from both that of modern, young Japanese people or even people their age in America. Grandpa was a little kid during world war 2 and remembers the air-raid sirens and the preparations and practice they did in case they should have to evacuate their homes. Luckily, the remote village where they live was not damaged at all, and in fact took in many refugees from more rural, damaged areas. Despite these experiences, he doesn't harbor any hate for the US. Grandma was born after the war. She told me that she'd seen cars from time to time as a kid, but the first time she ever road in one was the day they took her from her hometown to marry grandpa by arranged marriage. They were both agreeable to the marriage, which their parents, who were acquaintances, arranged for them. At the time of their marriage, she was 16 and he was 24. Despite the very traditional circumstances of their marriage, they are very tender towards each other and obviously love each other. I do find their old-people Japanese hard to understand sometimes, but I'm getting used to it the more time I spend with them, and likewise they can't remember my name, but they don't remember Kazu's either half the time (they call him by his father's name, because he looks exactly like his dad did when he was younger). Grandpa dramatically made a vow upon his ancestors that he wouldn't die until he gets to see his great-grandchild's face, so Kazu and I always joke to him that we'll never have kids just so that he has to live forever.

After that, we went back to Kazu's parents house to eat dinner. For dinner, his mom made yakiniku (barbecued meat cooked on something resembling a pancake-griddle). When it was dinner time, Kazu's brothers finally came downstairs and I got to meet them too. His brothers are both shorter than him, and fairly chubby, which is rare in Japan. One is a NEET (unemployed and not trying to get employed) and the other is still in university, hoping to become a policeman when he graduates. I should mention that the whole family are Otakus, to varying degrees, and they have a very, very impressive collection of shounen manga in their house. With 3 boys and both parents enjoying manga, they get their money's worth out of anything they buy.

Kazu's brothers are both shy, but nice enough. Even now they're still shy around me, but not to the point that they won't talk to me when we happen to be in the same room. That first night at dinner, everyone was curious about how we met and about my background, so we had plenty to talk about. The meal was delicious, but I spilled some yakiniku sauce on my dress, which distressed Kazu's mom to no end. She fussed over my 'beautiful dress' (a very ordinary, cheap dress) and helped me blot it off and from that point on made me eat while wearing her apron. During dinner, Kazu's dad told me about how he went on a business trip to the Philippines once, so he can speak a tiny bit of English. He doesn't know much, but like Kazu he's not at all afraid to use what he does know.

The most memorable part of the entire visit was when, during dinner, Kazu's mom suddenly asked "So, Kazu, you guys are planning to get married, and everything?" We'd talked about it and were both agreed that we wanted to marry each other in the future, but we weren't officially engaged yet at that point, but after a moment he answered "Yes, we're dating with the intention of getting married." His brothers congratulated him in a manly "Nice job, bro, you managed to catch a cute girl!" -type of way, but his father's reaction was to start sternly telling Kazu to save lots of money for the future and to try and get a better job (his current job is stable enough, but the pay is low.) None of them were at all opposed, though his mom mentioned that if we wanted to have a wedding ceremony we should wait until the youngest brother graduated from university, because they don't have any  money now to contribute to the ceremony.

After dinner, Kazu's brother and dad took a bath, and then it was our turn. I think his parents were surprised that we took a bath together, but they didn't say anything about it (either at the time or to him privately after). We always use the bath together, one person using the shower while the other uses the bath then switching, but at Kazu's parents' house there is a huge (American sized length, but deeper) bathtub, so we actually fit in the bath at the same time. After the bath we watched TV and the members of Kazu's family all did their own stuff. Kazu's father actually has his own room on the first floor. He sleeps in the bedroom with his wife on the second floor, but his room on the first floor is for his hobbies, which include photography, manga, and his desktop computer which is decked out with 3 monitors. Kazu's mom's hobby is playing games on her cellphone, which she does in the living room at the kitchen table, and housework (not really a hobby, but she seems to be at it all the time). Kazu's brothers don't really come out of their rooms at all except for mealtimes. The NEET brother is into motorcycles, but was in an accident a few years ago, which kind of triggered his NEET-ism (he's fine now but had to do physical therapy for a while, and I think getting off track with job-hunting and 'falling behind' everyone his age has him kind of depressed.)

Kazu's bedroom on the second floor is still exactly as it was when he was living there, but when we go to visit together, we can't sleep there because it's too small (the bed is even narrower than a regular twin bed, and there's no room for a second futon on the floor), so Kazu's mom sets up futons for us in the 'in-law apartment' on the first floor. Their house has 4 bedrooms upstairs, and 3 (a Japanese style room, a tiny room that is Kazu's dad's aforementioned hobby room, and an in-law apartment with its bathroom and a door to the outside, but no kitchen or shower/tub.

My only disappointment with my first meeting with my in-laws is that, after the first night, Kazu's mom all but insisted we leave the next day. I felt very hurt and thought that she hated me, or that having guests was too much burden for her, and ended up crying about it (not in front of the family, obviously!) But it turns out that she wanted Kazu to take me somewhere fun during Golden Week, and she felt embarrassed that their small town has absolutely nothing to do. I'm from a small town in the US myself, so I really enjoy the area where they live even more than the area where we live now, but Kazu's mom was sure we'd be bored there and gave Kazu a huge lecture and told him to take me somewhere nice. As a result, we went home and went to an indoor zoo that we saw on TV while we were at Kazu's parents house, but that's a story for another time.

I've met Kazu's parents many times now and they are always very kind to me. I still feel that I'd like to feel more like family, rather than just people who treat me kindly as their guest every time I visit, but I do think we're making progress. Personally, I find Kazu's father much easier to talk to and more genuinely friendly. His mom is what I call "polite-friendly" but I still feel that she's being nice by ACTING nice, the way Japanese people often do. I also hold back a lot around her, because I'm terrified of upsetting her in any way. I'm sure we'll get closer, it will just take time.

I'll close this post with some pictures of my in-laws. I don't have any pictures of my brothers-in-law, but I have some pictures we took of my mother and father-in-law, grandmother and grandfather-in-law, my husband, my father and I when my dad came to Japan this summer. It was very interesting seeing the difference in their behavior towards me when my dad was there; with him there, he was the 'guest' and I was one of the family and got to help give hospitality to him and of course translate between them.

Father, Kazu, Grandfather-in-law
Me, Grandmother-in-law
In the garden at grandfather-in-law's house.

Grandfather-in-law, Kazu, Father, Me
At grandfather-in-law's carpentry studio.

Father, Kazu
Me, Grandmother-in-law
In grandmother and grandfather-in-law's living room.


  1. Wow, yeah, I also think it's pretty horrifying to meet your Japanese partner's parents at first. I meant I haven't had that experience yet but I know a lot of people that ended their relationships because the man's mom was against a foreign bride. So very happy for you! I also think it's very interesting when you know a very traditional Japanese fammily. I think that this way it's waaaay more interesting outside Tokyo. But I've also heard that it becomes somewhat difficult when you have kids. Family members start meddling, then there are lot of stupid rules in the Japanese system that you'd have to cope with and so on, but I'm not saying it's the same for everyone, of course. Btw, how do your parents react to you marrying a Japanese and staying in Japan? For example, I'm the only child and my mom is horrified when I mention I wanna stay here. She's always very sure I'll come back. She always says stuff like what is she going to do when she retires and I'm not there.
    I also understand the fact that Kazu's brothers act shyly around you. In relation to that, maybe you could give me your opinion as a person that understands Japanese?
    I work part-time at a restaurant (I'm 28), and 2-3 months ago a new coworker joined us. He's 19, a first year university student, and... how do I put it, very Japanese, like, he tries to do everything 100% perfectly, is waaay too considerate (which is not really common among university students) and even cried when our boss reprimanded him for spilling the drinks on the customers. He's always like "no, I'm still underage, so I don't drink". He's serious but he's too "tatemae". And when we first met (I taught him everything), he only stared at me. And it's already been a few months and he barely manages to say one full sentence, let alone have a proper conversation with me. He did try to yesterday though. But midway though the conversation his "boku" (he uses "ore" with other guys) turned into "watashi" and the atmosphere got even weirder. But his friend that works with us is the opposite of him. And it seems he's made fun of by his friend of the fact that he doesn't talk to me, and maybe seems to like me? I'm not sure. He easily talks to the other guys and talks really fast, but when it's me he always freezes. I mean, I don't think I'm the first foreigner he encountered, right? Since it's Tokyo and all. Even if I am, I've been working at that restaurant for 1,5 years now, and it's the first time a university student has behaved like that around me. Like, yesterday he asked me what year I was born in (like, cow, dragon, etc, which is a very polite way of asking how old I am). You know, the type of person that doesn't use katakana words at all. Very Japanese. I don't even know how to explain it. But I'm even physically bigger than him, not to mention 9 years older. So I thought he liked me but ended up thinking it's impossible since guys obviously like smaller girls (At least smaller than themselves), so I'm not sure how to explain his behaviour? What do you think?
    I'm sorry this was very off-topic but your post about foreigner-Japanese relationships reminded me of that.
    And back to the topic, do you think Kazu could be easily influenced by his mom if she were to tell him to do anything concerning your relationship?

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      I have one coworker who used to treat me a lot like your 19-year-old coworker acts towards you, and I used to think it was because I'm foreign, but now I'm pretty sure it was just because I'm female. A lot of Japanese guys have 0 experience with females, at all! It's almost a cultural rule that men and women do not socialize and are not friends, so the only way many guys can see women is as potential girlfriends, and if they are very young they get suuuuper freaked out by interacting with us! I used to think that even the 4 years age different between Kazu and I (he's 24 and I'm 28, but we were 22 and 26 when we met) was too much, but it really depends on the guy. Unfortunately, if he's 19 it might be difficult to have a serious relationship because a lot of Japanese guys refuse to get very serious until they have a stable job, good income, a nice place to live, and savings saved up, which usually doesn't happen until late 20's at the earliest. Kazu was also very uneasy about getting married at 24 because with his income it's impossible for him to support us without me also working, which makes him feel like a failure as a man and not ready for the responsibility of being married. So if marriage is the goal and you don't want to wait 8-10 years, maybe you should look for a guy who's a bit older.
      About your other question, Kazu and I both agree that if it's within our power, we want to keep his parents happy, but on the really important decisions, we make them together. We agreed before asking his parents' permission to get married if they said "Yes, but wait another year or two" then we would honor their wishes and wait, but if they said "No, we want you to marry a Japanese girl" that we would just get married anyways. Kazu's personality is very rare for a Japanese, I think, because he makes decisions more like a western person, I think. He listens to other people's advice but in the end does what he feels is most logical. In fact, sometimes he's TOO logical and ends up doing stuff that is bad or hurtful, because he only considered it from a logical standpoint and not an emotional one.

    2. Thank you very much for your opinion! In fact, just came from my baito and today at the end of the day I asked him if he wanted to leave or ot stay (it was 11pm and his shift was until 11pm so I asked him if he really wanted to stay). So basically it's a) He wants to stay to earn more money; b) He's tired and wants to go home already; c) He can't refuse me and will stay even if tired since I'm his senpai. I asked him what he wanted to do, he didn't reply, helped a bit, then I asked if he wanted to go (because how the hell am I supposed to know?!). He only smiled, and I said that I don't understand him and I won't understand until he tells me that straightly. He looked really displeased and said he's leaving and left. Was I wrong? It's like, there's time and place for his uber politeness and kindness, but not when we're all dead tired and there's al ot of work left. My friend said maybe he misunderstood me and thought I wanted him to leave. I don't know. Maybe I should clear it up with him tomorrow? Or maybe he'll become even more scared of me. I'm sorry for discussing it here, but I'm just very confused and feel like I'm in primary school, so I have no idea what to do.
      As for the second part of your answer, I think it's really awesome that Kazu is like that. Because it's very important, especially here in Japan where people usually go with the flow without thinking. Being logical for a man is not a bad thing. I think it would be worse if he actually lacked it xD I know such men (European), they are worse than women in everyday life.