Hopelessly, Helplessly Falling Part Two: Fathers-in-Law

Hopelessly, Helplessly Falling Part Two: Fathers-in-Law

Last week, I wrote about the hazards of a foreign executive with a Japanese national as a spouse, deciding that he/she would like to live in Japan and somehow hoping to independently (i.e., not being hired as an expat and sent by the head office) jump into a similarly high-powered job here in Japan. While I'm sure there are exceptions, I've seen more than a few deflated former high-flyers come ask for help after months of fruitless job interviews.
But it isn't just executive egos which get bruised when the foreign partner finds out that non-bilingual management jobs are not so easy to come by. The family in fact bears the brunt, both financially and psychologically. Moving from a respected, well-compensated position in one's own parent country to the status of "unemployable" in Japan creates all sorts of pressures.
Some come from obvious sources, such as running short of cash and rejections at job interviews, while others come from more insipient sources - such as the very people you're probably in Japan for in the first place - the in-laws. As I have written previously, in Article 114, "Trapped with the In-laws", while at first they may be welcoming, the longer you wait to become even marginally financially independent - looking for a job which fits - the more of a target you present for her family to start thinking you are useless

In particular, if your spouse is female, if your father-in-law is even moderately successful or is self-employed, then he will likely have little patience with your language and networking inabilities and will start making comments that become a wedge driven between you and his daughter. Attitudes here are still quite parochial, and work and providing for a family are considered to be minimum responsibilities for a male bread-winner. If your wife is having to work while you struggle to find a decent job, you'll soon hear the edge of your new dad-in-law's tongue.

I realize that nowhere in the world is a son-in-law good enough for a Dad, but in Japan the older man's attitude may become a very real threat to your marriage, as your Japanese spouse's personal loyalties to you conflict with the deeper filial ones of her parents.

The way to avoid this happening is both a matter of timing and reassessment. Firstly, if you sense a breakdown starting to happen, you need to get out quickly - even if you don't have a job yet. Because if your wife is forced to take sides, you could wind up not only losing her, but also your kids as well. Remember, Japan does not support the Hague Convention on childcare and international families, nor is there any concept of shared custody (which the Japanese authorities view as being emotionally damaging to the children). If your Japanese spouse doesn't want you to see the kids, you will have little or no recourse to get access to them.
Once you are out, then it's time for reassessment. I have met a number of families who, once they get to Japan, are reluctant to face facts and leave again. It's important to realize that sometimes the challenges before us are bigger than the goal. If there are kids, what if you have to put them out of their International school? Japanese school can be tough on interracial kids, especially the boys who may well be bullied for being different. And if your kids do finally get over the language issues, they will have become so embedded in their new-found culture - their way of coping and normalizing after the strains of adapting - that they may be reluctant to move again. Thus the opportunity to resettle overseas again will be lost.

Now, I know that I am painting a rather bleak picture for the prospects of foreign senior executives trying to get into the labor market here in Japan, but next week I hope to shed some light on strategies that can lead to successful careers and families - especially since with more than 36,000 international marriages between Japanese and other nationalities occurring every year, there are more and more foreigners being asked by their Japanese spouses to be fair and share a few years of their unique country and culture, just as they have been sharing yours.