Friday, December 26, 2008

International couples with a Japanese partner

Living in a foreign country certainly makes someone more vulnerable. Whether as a student or an expat, this is an easy time for starting a relationship. Those seem more frequent between European men and Japanese women. This may be because Japan mainly attracts western males, and Europe is more to the taste of Japanese women. Maybe this is also due to the fact both are used to the active role in romance in their own country. It seems anyways that falling in love is more common abroad. The attraction of an unknown culture, the interest of discovering even the most insignificant details of daily life far away from home, and, it has to be said, less acuity in evaluating the beauty of someone from another ethnic group, all this makes the “love blindness” more acute than in a normal relationship. However, if the beginnings are straightforward, life as an international couple is not easy to organize. This article gathers, for what they are worth, some pieces of advices.

A couple feeds on mutual respect. However, in this case, there is strong temptation to establish a hierarchy between the two countries: Europeans will look down on the chaotic planning and architecture of Japanese cities, the sometimes inefficient relentless Japanese way of working, and the specificities of local politics. Japanese people will despise train strikes, dirty streets and indifferent service in restaurants. However, this is very dangerous for the couple: even if one is aware of his country limitations, nobody likes to be taught a lesson from a foreigner. And any attempt to put a hierarchy between the countries will immediately be understood as an attempt to create the same order inside the couple. One should be especially wary on information about the partner’s country in internet forums, blogs and expatriate sites: some western sites gather some very debatable information on life in Japan, with doubtful shortcuts being commonplace. One common mistake made is to describe a marginal behavior, which can be shocking in any country, as the norm.
It is probably much wiser to declare once and for all that Europe and Japan are equally developed, which is actually true if living standards are compared. This does not forbid from discussing, with kindness and a sense of humor, the typical drawbacks from a country or another, and even to actually enjoy it, as this is part of the pleasures of travel: a European cafĂ© needs a busy and rough waiter as a Japanese train line needs an employee waving a small red flag on the platform for the “experience” to be genuine.
It is also important to respect the efforts the uprooted spouse to adapt to a new environment. This is never easy, and at times discouraging. This is an excellent time to prove attachment to ones partner by helping and listening. On the contrary, if the blues of the partner is seen only as an obstacle to watching the football game or going out with friends in the latest trendy restaurant in Daikanyama, it can be quite a destructive experience for the couple.

A couple is made of affection between spouses, but it is also the choice of a common lifestyle that is acceptable to both partners. In this case, there are several challenges: the choice of a home country will mean at least one spouse will be far away from family, the country culture and products, and very likely, this will also decrease career opportunities. Internet allows for free communications and access to the origin country news, but this is not everything. You need to have been an expatriate to understand this strong need for a special meal you are used to since childhood: despite the outstanding Japanese food, after one year in Tokyo, I would have happily exchanged a diamond for a good “saucisson lyonnais”, the sausage from my home town. I believe it is important to speak with one’s partner of the life envisioned for the future before taking any hard commitment. Settling abroad is never insignificant, and very often, the spouse living in his or her home country will not be aware of the difficulties, especially if he or she never experienced living in another country. A decent compromise is probably to settle in one country, but to keep open the possibility of coming back to the other country if circumstances are appropriate. This will reduce the pressure for the expatriate partner to ‘integrate at all costs’, and so increase the rate of success. Settling abroad is of course easier if the expatriate spouse has an interest in the host country.
Japan is a very urban country. This certainly has drawbacks, from crowded trains to cramped houses. However, those are also vibrant cities: shops open at any hour, any show or cultural activity you can think of, numerous excellent restaurants, and very fashionable boutiques: all this is usually less than a few subway stops away. If a Japanese person from a metropolis (Tokyo, Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, but also Nagoya, Hiroshima or Fukuoka) comes to Europe, the same opportunities are only available in the biggest metropolises. In France, Paris would definitely be OK, and Marseille Lyon or Toulouse may be tolerable. Settling in a small town may be a shock for a Japanese person. This is even more acute in American suburbia, where, despite excellent living conditions, life is so far away from Japanese cities.


A trip back to see the family may cost more than 1000 Euros for the spouse with a far-off family. Imported products and books may be hard to find and very expensive. A simple Japanese magazine may cost between 10 and 15 Euros in a Japanese shop in Paris, and it will be impossible to find it in other French cities. Japanese people settling in France, even from modest origin, are used to clean and safe street, and to an excellent quality of service. They will adapt better to pleasant downtown districts than to plebeian suburbs. The other way round, a European person settling in Tokyo will feel better at ease in a pleasant district with large avenues and parks. This is why money will go a long way in a successful expatriation. Also, many young adults are living at their parent’s place and use their whole salary (often around 1500 Euros monthly) as pure pocket money. If they settle with their spouse in Europe, their standard of living will certainly erode significantly. I could not recommend enough building estimates of the couple budget, and the way of life that could be achieved (housing location and size, holidays...), before taking any hard commitment.
Some practical details, such as the combination of pension benefits from two countries, should be studied in details. Double contributions are extremely costly and can reduce income by 20%. There are some agreements though between European countries and Japan (The agreement between France and Japan was signed in 2005, and deployed in 2007), and the situation has been improving a lot, but it is anyways better to check. Career opportunities in Japan for European people should be realistically evaluated. Even with a good position in a multinational company, it is not always easy to find a similar job in the Japanese subsidiary of the company. And this is the most favorable case: the professional horizon for many foreigners is limited to conversation teacher, a precarious position with limited income that some people may also find unpleasant. This may be a good second salary in a couple, but may not be enough to raise a family.

Whatever your opinion on couples that do not want to wed, immigration laws are such that it is often compulsory to get married to be able to live together. In certain cases, only the Shengen tourism visa (3 months of stay every 6 months) is available for a non-married spouse visiting Europe. And this is not the only reason to get married: the expatriate partner will feel more secure moving to another country with the couple having an official status. Also, unmarried couples are exceptional in Japan, where less than 5 percent of children are born out of wedlock. Wedding will be an almost compulsory step, and it may come slightly sooner than ideally wished. Japanese families will however not easily accept a wedding if the man is still a student, as they consider he does not yet have a job to sustain a family. Most Japanese ladies will also wish to work for a few years in Japan after they graduate before getting married and maybe following their husband in his country. Also, it seems to be easier for families to accept their children’s chosen ones when they are in their late twenties or early thirties, as this may be seen as one of the last opportunities to “marry on schedule”. This is not actually specific to international couples.

Terrifying letters on one side, absurd grammar on the other side, Japanese and some European languages (especially French) are amongst the most complex to learn. Some international couples communicate in English, others in Japanese or their mother European language, if one of them learnt it at university. The truth is that learning a new language as a young adult why having a full-time job is difficult for most people. This is however compulsory, as only reasonable abilities in the spouse language will allow a good communication with the families, and speaking the language of the country of residence will help with integration. As it is often hard to start working on a list of “Kanjis” back from work at 10pm, a 3 to 6 months sabbatical to learn the spouse language in the country may be a good idea.
Ways of life

Some people explain the difficulties of international couples by complex cultural differences due to the gap between Christian and pagan philosophy. This may be true, but the more mundane differences between the ways of life are also important. In the couple’s home, shoes can be either worn (European style) or taken off (Japanese style). The bath can be in the morning (European style) or before sleeping (Japanese style). Young Japanese ladies usually spend the last weeks of their pregnancy in their parent’s home, whereas they would stay in their marital home in Europe. Women usually manage the couple money in Japan, whereas this is more a shared decision in Europe. Holidays are short and luxurious in Japan, whereas in Europe they are longer and often just mean going to a relative’s house in the countryside. Grocery is bought everyday in Japan, every week in Europe. Good beef meat does not include fat in Europe, whereas it does in Japan. Also, Japanese people do not like surprises, and will appreciate that a schedule is established and respected. So the couple will have to decide on all those lifestyle topics of varying importance, with the good solution probably a compromise between the ways of life of the two origin countries. It is probably better to discuss the most important items before moving together.
Those few lines may have convinced that building an international couple is not trivial. Sharing another culture is a wonderful experience, but this also includes important constraints. Honest communication is key to anticipate difficulties, and find a middle way acceptable for both.
Additional Informations

Previous stories have been published on Japanese couples, and about life as an expatriate in Japan.

I would be glad to complete this story with your experience. I will enrich the topic with the best comments.

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