Trapped With the In-laws
A feeling that just about every foreigner feels when they come to
Japan the first time is one of helplessness, especially if you were
raised in a Western country where independence and self-reliance
are ingrained into one's character from the earliest years. Imagine
a scene where a Japanese person studying or working overseas
meets a resourceful, vivacious, successful partner, and winds up
getting married. Some years later, after a baby or two, and the
happy couple is really settling down as a family, the fateful call
comes from Tokyo, "Come home quickly, grandfather is very sick
and he wants to say goodbye to you."
Once back in Japan, the Japanese spouse starts talking to Mom, and
the pressure starts: "we're lonely, we're old, we want to see our
grandchildren"... After returning to the overseas country, the
Japanese partner starts to put forward the idea of coming to live
in Japan. The foreign partner, ever confident, gets used to the
possibility of putting a career aside for a couple of years, and
discover for him/herself the roots and environment that the person
they love grew up in.
About an hour after arriving at Tokyo airport, it starts to sink in
that Japan REALLY is different. As the foreign partner, you can't
read any of the signs, the houses are really jammed together, and
there is so-o-o much concrete! What happened to urban planning and
quaint old houses? But, hey, Japan is also kind of fun. Right?
The couple and the kids get to the parent's place and settle in. The
first night's dinner is a blast - a family meal around a kotatsu,
followed by warm sake or a beer with Pops and you have some real
fun trying to communicate when your Japanese spouse is out of the
room. A day or two after arriving, the kids, who never spoke much
Japanese - just a few baby words learned from Mom or Dad, are
already playing outside with the neighbors. Well, they're kids, they
can communicate just fine. Your spouse looks happy to be home -
guess you might be staying on in Japan for a bit. Maybe it's time to
look for a job.
A couple of weeks slip by. Maybe a few minutes spent here and
there to learn a few Hiragana and phrases, but there is so much
going on, so much input for the brain, that not much of anything
gets processed. The job hunting doesn't look so great, and the
closeness of so many bodies in a 2-bedroom home is starting to get
on everyone's nerves. The kids are getting moody, they're concerned
about going to a school where they don't understand what's going
on, and the Japanese food is OK, but how come you can't get decent
breakfast cereal here?
Several more weeks go by, maybe you settled for an unqualified
English-teaching position to make a few bucks, while looking for a
real job. Language is becoming a major issue - and you'd take daily
classes, if only the lessons weren't clashing with work hours. No
problem, you're getting used to Obaa-chan monopolizing the kids'
time, giving you some spare time and a chance to acclimatize, but
really just leaving you feeling unattached and ironically a bit
lonely - why is it that you feel so uncomfortable?
What's the problem with this picture? It's one that happens all too
You're taking a holiday at a crucial time in your family's life.
Instead of taking a perfect opportunity to make a structured touch-
down with the in-laws before heading out on your own, you're
taking a bemused and probably increasingly frustrating holiday that
may turn into a jail sentence. What kind of "sentence"? Lets just
say that I have friends who after years of living with the in-laws
still speak very little Japanese while their kids have become
fluent. As a result, the kids are closer to the grandparents than to
their foreign mother or father.
So for those of you planning to spend time at the in-laws as a
means of establishing a beach head for a new life in Japan - here's
some advice. While there is no problem with reducing costs and
keeping your partner happy for the first 3-6 months in Japan, make
it clear to everyone, and especially your partner, that the stay will
be limited - 6 months at most. And keep coming back to that shared
commitment. It is likely that your Japanese partner will get a job
fairly easily, after-all they're bilingual and savvy, so it is
tempting for you to take time to find a decent position and get
some cash together... but resist the temptation.
Living with your Japanese in-laws is a honey trap. If you want to
retain your identity, your relationship with your kids, and your
marriage, remember that you are NOT Japanese. You need space,
independence, a partnership, and a chance to make your own
mistakes. Structure that stay with the in-laws, take advantage of
the savings, the full-immersion language training, and the
But after 6 months - get the hell out of there!
Terrie Lloyd is the founder of DaiJob, Inc. He also writes a weekly
newsletter for entrepreneurs and business people about business
and political opportunities in Japan. You can find the newsletter at
For further contact with Terrie, email him at