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Love in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese EX-Husband

So far the interviews on Love in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband have been of Western women married to Japanese men who have been kind enough to share the joys and challenges of this still rather uncommon cross-cultural pairing. Today, in this two-part interview we meet Pamela (born and raised in Northern New England) who tells the story of a cross-cultural marriage that did not result in a happily ever after scenario.

Pamela lived in Japan for a total of 12 years. She and her former husband met and married in Osaka in the early 1990s and later lived in Hawaii, where their daughter was born in 1995. The family then moved back to Japan in 1996, and spent three years in Kanazawa and four years in Shiga. They returned to the United States in 2003 (this time on the East Coast) and ended up separating in 2004. Their divorce became final in 2007. Pamela and her ex-husband live in the same city and share custody of their now 14-year-old daughter.

Pamela says, “I think a lot of these relationships don't work out and if my story can maybe help other people realize that sometimes that's for the best, then that would be great. I took on a lot of Japanese attitudes while I lived in Japan and "gaman-ed" it out (withstood it) for many years while worrying about feelings of shame, failure and disappointing other people before I was able to do what I needed to do. There were also legal issues: I knew that if I divorced while in Japan I stood a chance of losing my daughter completely. And that wasn’t a chance I was willing to take.”

Pamela holds a BA in Japanese and Asian Studies from the University of Colorado and an MA from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Japanese. She currently specializes in legal and business translation and also teaches university-level Japanese language and culture. In addition, she offers consulting services regarding Japanese language, culture and business procedures.

What fueled your interest in Japanese and Asian Studies?

I like to study languages and I wanted something that would be challenging. It was kind of a toss-up between Japanese and Chinese, but at the time (the 1980s) Japan was hot, so that's what I chose.

What originally brought you to Japan?

After I graduated my plan was to go to Japan for a year, get fluent (ha ha ha!) and then move back to the States and get a job using my language skills. It took a little longer than that.

Where and how did you meet your ex-husband?

I was an eikaiwa (English conversation) teacher at Berlitz and he was a student. I had recently broken up with a different Japanese boyfriend, and had been accepted to graduate school at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. I was planning to leave Japan in a few months. After a whirlwind romance, I decided to stay in Japan and get married instead. We got engaged about six weeks after we started dating and were married a couple months later. About five months from first meeting to being married!

What made you decide to marry so quickly?

At the time I figured it was something like love at first sight combined with fate. My ex said he knew he was going to marry me from the first time he saw me. It was all very sweet and romantic. And completely impractical.

Perhaps my decision to say yes was coupled with apprehension about moving back to the US to go to graduate school and starting over again someplace where I knew no one. It also seemed like all my gaijin guy friends in Japan were getting engaged and married to Japanese women (and, interestingly, a lot of those relationships and marriages didn’t end up lasting either) . Based on my experience of living with a boyfriend in college, I had decided that if I ever was invested enough in a relationship to want to live with the guy I was going to marry him. It was a turning point—either I was going to go back to the States and start a whole new chapter or I was going to stay in Japan, get married and start a whole new chapter.

What were the challenges of living in Japan?

This depended on which part of Japan I was living in. In Osaka the population density was tough on me. The air pollution was pretty disturbing, too. I come from a place with clean air, a lot of trees and not that many people.

I found raising a child in Japan to be challenging because I don't subscribe to a lot of the common Japanese beliefs about child rearing.

What are some of the issues on Japanese child rearing that you objected to?

It seems to me like the Japanese approach to raising children really minimizes the fun and joyful aspects of the process. All the other Japanese moms I knew (and I didn't know any other foreign moms there) seemed to take everything so seriously. Most women my age who had careers quit them or scaled way back when they became mothers and it seems like their sense of self becomes based on their quest to raise their children in the most proper way possible, as dictated by popular media and social pressures. I'm not saying that they are unhappy with the situation at all. Many of them seem to really thrive and gain a great deal of fulfillment from taking on that role. But it's just not something I could relate to or wanted to take part in.

When you lived in Japan did you work outside the home? If so, what was your job?

Yes. When my husband and I first met I was teaching English conversation and about a year later got a job with a municipal board of education as an ALT (assistant language teacher) in junior high schools. I did that for about 1-1/2 years and he continued his work as a "salaryman." Then we moved to Hawaii for four years, originally so I could go to graduate school. Our daughter was born a few months after I got my diploma. While we were in Hawaii I stayed home as her full-time caretaker until she was 11 months old and my husband worked at a Japanese travel company. We moved back to Japan right before our daughter turned one and I went on to support the family by teaching ESL in universities for seven years. My husband stayed home and took care of our daughter.

Did you and your ex-husband speak Japanese to each other?

Yes. We mainly communicated in Japanese.

Were there issues with your in-laws? Did you live with them?

We never lived with my in-laws, but for the first two years of our marriage we lived in the same town. Part of the reason we moved back to Japan was so they would be able to see their first and only grandchild. The first job I got was in Kanazawa, about a three- or four-hour drive from Osaka, which was close enough to visit on weekends, holidays and during longer vacations. After my contract in Kanazawa ended we moved to Shiga, which was about a 45-minute drive from my in-laws.

Actually, one of the reasons I stayed in the marriage for as long as I did (17 years in total, and 14 years living together) was because I didn't want to disappoint my in-laws.

I had a very good relationship with my mother-in-law. I still think very fondly of her and appreciate all she taught me and all the support and acceptance she showed me. There were times when I did not get along very well with my father-in-law. He has a negative outlook and even blamed me for the fact that his son wouldn't go out and get a job when we moved back to Japan after our daughter was born. Apparently in his eyes, my having a job and earning a decent salary somehow emasculated his son. At least that was the story I was made to endure one night when otousan (Dad) had a few drinks. He liked to drink and lecture me and I felt it was my duty to sit and listen, even though my husband and even my mother-in-law would leave the room and leave me there with him!

Stay tuned for Part Two of Pamela’s interview!

Part Two:

Did you and your former husband have any communication problems that had nothing to do with language?

Plenty. Many of the problems had to do with our expectations about the relationship. At the beginning there were the typical (as seen in your other interviews) issues relating to kikubari (気配り, which I think in your other interviews people referred to as "ki ga tsuku" (気がつく) which I think is not really the right way to describe it. "Ki ga tsuku" just means to notice something. "Kikubari" or the phrase "ki ga kiku" (気が利く) relate to consideration and sensitivity to others' needs and are probably closer to the real issue many non-Japanese partners face in their relationships. Of course, women are expected to do a better job at this than men, but I think it's an issue for both foreign men and women in relationships with Japanese partners.

One of our funniest cultural misunderstandings happened when he was sick with a bad cold when we were living in Osaka. I made him toast and gave him ginger ale because that was what I always had when I was sick as a kid. He thought I was nuts! He wanted to know where the okayu (rice porridge) was. We learned pretty quickly that our ideas of comfort foods were quite different.

Anyway, because I had a job, or two, for most of the marriage, aside from the year I spent at home when our daughter was an infant, I assumed my husband must believe that men and women are equals. His family was also quite different from the norm in that his dad did a lot of the cooking and housework and his mom worked outside the home and could often be seen kicking back at the kitchen table with a newspaper while otousan (Dad) made dinner. It took me a while to see that sharing in the housework didn't automatically mean my ex-husband actually had respect for women in general, or me in particular.

A lot of the issues were control issues that you see in dysfunctional relationships anywhere. There was a chipping away at my self esteem, social isolation, and emotional manipulation. I was "allowed" to work because I liked it and had higher earning potential once I had my master's degree and after he opted out of the salaryman track. But in his eyes it didn't count because I had fun at work and was doing what I liked. He did start an online business once our daughter was about 5 years old, but he ran it from the living room couch. He had no outside friends or interests and I became quite uncomfortable with being the primary earner of the family for years after our daughter was out of the infant and toddler stage. He said he didn't want to get a job working for someone else because then he wouldn't be able to travel during my school vacations. (We took two trips abroad every year during the long breaks in summer and in February-March.) There was a reversal of traditional roles in the marriage, but the roles were still there.

As the marriage was breaking down he told me the reason it wasn't working out was because he "let (me) have too much freedom." That was an eye opening statement for me. Also, during the divorce proceedings the attitude he displayed toward women in positions of authority was one of obvious disdain. In retrospect his (and his father's) attitudes toward women were not respectful and the belittling comments really had a cumulative effect over time. By the time I decided I’d had enough there was no communication, no affection, no sex and absolutely no fun left in the relationship. There were mainly just coping mechanisms, not all of them healthy ones.

We went to family counseling, but the main message I took away from that was that I would be my daughter's primary role model for what it means to be a woman. For her and my sake, I didn't think setting the example of being someone living unhappily in a relationship because that made it easier for everyone else was the role model I wanted to be. That sure wasn't who I was before I got married!

So you decided to divorce.

Yes, and the divorce was ugly, as most are. Luckily we were already living in the States at that time and we ended up sharing custody of our daughter. Legally, there is no such thing as shared custody in Japan. Our co-parenting is odd in that we do not actually speak to each other. He won't talk to me or be in the same place as me if he can avoid it. We communicate only by email. It's pretty awkward, but a therapist I spoke to about co-parenting told me the most important thing is to avoid being confrontational in front of our daughter. I had thought we needed to be able to at least be civil to each other and speak face to face, but apparently that's not the case. If we could, that would be great, but if email is the form of communication that works for everyone, then that is fine. And it has turned out to be fine. Our daughter has a good relationship with both of us. And the tone of the emails has softened over time and we rarely argue about anything anymore. I think once I decided to respect his boundaries and stop pushing for things to be the way I thought they ought to be, we were able to reach an equilibrium that works for the three of us.

You ended up divorcing, but were there some rewarding aspects to your cross-cultural marriage?

The most rewarding aspect has got to be our daughter. She is smart, funny, athletic, beautiful and bilingual. I'm glad we are both able to be fully involved in her life even though we are no longer a couple. The breakup of our marriage was very tough  for my ex-husband and his sense of pride, but I'm glad his love and concern for our daughter succeeded in outweighing his acrimony toward me.

I learned so much about Japanese language and culture thanks to my marriage. It's hard for any foreigner to really become accepted as part of Japanese society. Men tend to do it by working in Japanese workplaces and taking on a typical man's role in the culture. For women, I think almost the only way to really "get inside" is to marry and become part of a Japanese family. I think that even now, in Japan your average woman is really only considered a full-fledged member of society when she is a wife and a mother. I realize many Japanese women are choosing other life paths, particularly in the cities, but I'd say there is still a lot of pressure on women in general to take on that role of wife and mother. And that same rule of thumb applies to foreign women. It's how you become a member of the community. Otherwise you remain on the outside and it's very hard to find any other way in.

What do you still find fascinating about Japanese culture? Frustrating?

I still find so many things fascinating and frustrating about Japanese culture. I find the family law system there very frustrating and feel very bad for the many foreign parents who have lost the chance to be a part of their children's' lives after divorce in Japan. These are primarily foreign dads, but there are also foreign mothers in the same situation. Actually, this is also a terrible problem for many divorced Japanese fathers because the courts overwhelmingly award custody to mothers and there is no cultural belief that children need both parents in their lives if the parents aren't together. I have a serious beef with that point of view.

I still love Japanese history and literature and am grateful that my job involves teaching about both.

I am fascinated by the attention to detail that is such an integral part of Japanese culture. I'm very much a "big picture" person and have learned a lot about the value of paying attention to details. And the food... Oh, I love the food in Japan. The food and the onsen. Now that's the way to relax!

And I also think the martial arts training I did there over the years taught me about patience, perseverance and mental toughness.

What type or martial arts training did you undertake?

I studied a few martial arts at different points. In my second year in Japan I studied Aikido quite intensively on a culture visa. I respect the principles of Aikido, but I think it takes years before one can use them proficiently in any real life situation. I also always sucked at ukemi and was constantly jamming my shoulder because I landed on it the wrong way. I spent about a year and a half doing Aikido.

I spent about 6 months training in Judo due to the influence of a boyfriend who was a judo-ka. I didn't stick with it long enough and never developed a real sense for it. I took a belt test way before I was ready and got schooled by a middle school girl. Twice. Judo helped me determine that I really do not like getting thrown.

My last foray into martial arts was with a new, hybrid, mixed martial arts form based on karate that also combines elements of ground fighting (jujitsu), kickboxing and capoeira. I was active for about two years in this style and consider it to be the place I learned the most about mental toughness and discipline.

You have kept your Japanese last name for professional reasons and because it is your daughter’s last name. Has having a Japanese last name caused any misunderstandings for you? Do people assume you are of Japanese descent?

Where I live no one knows what to make of my name or how to pronounce it. If people do know enough to know it is a Japanese name, I am certainly not who they expect to see when they meet me.

The name caused confusion in Japan, as well. There were plenty of times when I was told to sit back down at the bank or the doctor's office when my name was called because no one could fathom why a gaijin lady would have a Japanese family name.

But I just like messing with peoples' expectations and this name does that. My last name and my appearance are incongruous and it catches people a little off guard initially. I don't mind that.

Does your daughter visit Japan regularly? Is she interested in Japanese traditional/and or pop culture?

When we lived in Japan we spent several months a year back in the States. We have lived in the US now for almost 7 years and she went back to Japan for the first time since the move last summer. She went with her father and spent a month at her grandparents' house. She is much less interested in Japanese culture, particularly pop culture, than many of my students. She acknowledges the Japanese part of her identity, but it's not of great interest to her at this point in time.

Do you think you will remarry?

No. I am happily coupled and living with my boyfriend, but not interested in marrying again. I may be a case of once bitten, twice shy, but I'm quite content with the way things are now and see no reason to change it.

Thanks, Pamela, for an illuminating interview!