I’ve been married now for 5 years. This is after dating my wife for about 3 years before we got married, so we have been together for a grand total of about 8 years. It has been a sometimes interesting, often times fun, occasionally difficult mix of situations.
And because of this, I inevitably get a lot of questions about everything from raising kids to what I recommend people should do before getting married. International marriages are extremely complex and unique. There are times when every day seems like a learning experience. And there are other times when it just seems like a perfectly normal thing.
I have also heard a lot of horror stories about international marriages going terrible awry. None of my good friends have gone through such an experience but I’ve known a few acquaintances that have dealt with the aftermath of a messy divorce. And a quick search on Google will bring up a whole host of disgruntled ex-husbands.
So, I thought I would take a moment to give a somewhat positive view of being in an international marriage and my own personal experience and advice.
My Day to day
I think between the two of us, we have a lot of cross-cultural interest. Even though I’ve been living and working in Japan for 10 years, there are still moments when I have to ask about something that I’m curious about. And my wife will often ask questions about how things are in the States, although it has become increasingly difficult for me to answer questions like those because I’ve almost completely forgotten about everything!
We also celebrate pretty much every holiday of both countries including all the major holidays and even the minor ones from the States. We celebrate Christmas Western-style with gifts and treats but no fried chicken (a common dish for Japanese Christmas), although a cake seems to still squeeze in there sometimes. Instead, we opted for a big roast ham one year or just a special meal of some kind. We generally respect each others customs and try our best to observe what we deem worth observing. This year we are going to try to do Easter although I’m not sure if we will have the time.
We are also really trying to push our little one to use as much English as possible. We even have little mini lessons where we go over key vocabulary and try to stress the use of it as much as we can. This can be a little odd sometimes, especially in public where, if I’m not around, it can kind of look like my wife is showing off. And there can be some occasional misunderstandings from family members when we try to correct her pronunciation (like when she started saying basu when she had been previously saying bath).
But my in-laws are incredibly amazing to be honest. Although they had a few doubts about me early on, and with decent reasons. Pretty much all the international couples they knew in their neighborhood had gotten divorced. But after a bit of wrangling and tense meetings we got to know each other a little better and now we meet up fairly regularly.
It does help that they live so close and my wife visits them every week. They have turned out to be great free babysitters. Although, our daughter is picking up a slight Kyoto-ben accent.
This is in contrast to some other parents I’ve heard about that will vehemently oppose a marriage. In one case, a friend of mine was engaged, planned the wedding, had the wedding, but never signed the papers because their two families couldn’t work out the issues with each other. The couple eventually split up. And they were both Japanese, so I can only imagine what it might be like for foreigners.
I mean we, foreigners, aren’t exactly the perfect catch, at least on paper. A lot of foreigners here, make slightly below average salaries compared to Japanese men our age (foreign women probably make more than Japanese women their age here). And, if we go back to our home country, where we have a better chance of earning a higher income, we are taking daughters and sons away from their family (in the eyes of in-laws).
Vaccinated against Yellow Fever
Yellow Fever, the slightly racist term for those who are infatuated with Asian women, is generally a costly and sometimes life ruining disease. There are a lot of people, like some of my fellow young colleagues, that will openly admit they only love Asian women, and actually only seek that kind of person. This is dangerous for a couple of different reasons.
First of all, I’ve traveled to several places in this world, and I can tell you, there are amazing women everywhere. I haven’t done any in depth research or anything, but in my personal experience, you are kind of limiting yourself when you go around saying things like “I only date guys/gals that are…”
Second, what you might think Asian or Japanese women are like for better or worse is wrong. It’s most likely based on hearsay, rumors, or some quirky look-at-this-strange-thing-in-Japan article you read somewhere. Unless you have done a thorough survey of the entire Japanese population, you probably can’t, for certain, say what the typical Japanese person is like (or American, Mexican, etc…)
Third, if you do have some kind of prejudice (good or bad) going into a relationship it tends to blind you from other critical issues that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes time to pop the question (or say yes to the question).
Fourth, it’s just a wee bit racist, don’t you think?
So, my advice is if you do have yellow fever, cure it before you come to Japan or at least before you start dating in Japan. Generally speaking, people that have had good healthy relationships and felt good about those relationships with people back home before they came to Japan, can be considered cured and our generally a lot happier in Japan. In other words, always leave your prejudices at the door.
In my particular case, I’ve dated both Japanese and internationals while I was here. And it has always been about the individual person for me, nationality usually doesn’t factor in. Although, having said that, I would probably have to factor it in if it were more long term.
For example, my American friend is now living in Australia with his girlfriend thanks to the domestic partner visa, and I think that would be a little bit of a stretch for me because of the physical distance – flying to the States could be a little tough, but then again maybe it’s not so bad?
My wife on the other hand is far from the Japanese equivalent of “Yellow Fever” – a gaijin hunter. She used to actually be prejudice against Americans. Apparently she had a previous older American co-worker that had been a bit obnoxious about asking her out, and she had shied away ever since. She never saw herself marrying a foreigner and thought her parents would never let her to boot.
To be honest neither of us really thought we were ever going to get married. I thought I would travel the world my whole life. And she thought she would do the same (as a flight attendant, her previous job). So, there was/is no feeling of desperation that we have to make this work because it is our dream to marry a foreigner. We did both put aside a life of adventure to settle down, but I have no regrets, and to the best of my knowledge neither does she.
And contrary to most of the reports from lifers here in Japan, you can have a really happy marriage. It is presently pretty busy, and we are fairly broke, but it’s still going strong. I’m not going to start bragging quite yet, it has only been 5 years, but we are both working to keep it going, so I’m optimistic.
Do your Marriage homework
I mentioned before that it is a lot of my young colleagues that have been infected with “Yellow Fever.” The older people here have either gotten married and divorced and know better now or just know better from previous experience.
Marriage, like anything in this world worth doing, takes some hard work and homework. Cultural factors do play a part to complicate things even further because basic expectations that can be reasonably assumed when you are both from the same country need to be laid out clearly.
It reminds me of a job interview that I had a long long time ago, where they asked me “What is the most important thing about working together?” I think I answered “doing your job well” or “working hard” or something like that. The interviewer politely listened and then said “the answer we were looking for was communication.”
Which is so true, even more so these days. There are a lot of things that go unspoken because we assume our loved one ‘just knows’ because, ya know, they understand us. But, you need to make things clear, really clear.
This means doing your homework before getting married – sitting down and talking about how many kids you are going to have, what kind of job, household responsibilities in general terms, who is in charge of the money, etc…
We went over all this pretty thoroughly. Actually quite a few times before we got married. And at times, there were some tough decisions and the whole thing almost got called off a few times as well. But, I’m glad I talked it out because everything is kind of clear which is the best you can hope for really.
We bunk a lot of the stereotypes of the typical Japanese marriage. For example, I manage most of the overall finances while she micromanages the finer points like deciding what food to buy and whether or not we can afford to buy a giant box of diapers at CostCo. We have little skirmishes about money from time to time, but nothing major. Most of the major purchases in our life have been very unanimous and thoroughly discussed and agreed upon.
And if your potential in-laws are thoroughly against the relationship, it’s best to put away your allusions of grandeur and back away. I’ve seen a lot of friends waiting it out to see if the in-laws will finally agree to the marriage or if their bride/groom-to-be will run off with them to their home country. Well, unfortunately that usually ends badly. In my experience, blood is thicker than water in Japan.
This was a bit of bare all article for me that I hope sheds some light on how marriage really is in Japan. If you have any further questions, let’s hear them in the comments.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 32:33 — 29.8MB)
Great article! I’ve always been curious about interracial marriage and this satisfied my need for experience sharing a lot! May I know how you two taught your child the first words? And how do you talk with your kid in daily life? Were they in Japanese or in English?
We usually use English as much as possible. But, of course, she plays with kids that speak a lot of Japanese so she has picked up both. It has become an interesting mix. We have been teaching her English since about 5 months, using simple kids flashcards, nothing serious, so her first words were a combination of those.
And how about your daughter’s name? Does she adopt a Japanese one together with your surname? What about your wife? I heard that Japanese woman changes her surname into the husband’s when she is married, then what if she is married to a foreigner?
Japanese women don’t have to change their name when they marry a foreigner (they do if they marry Japanese). My wife kept her last name for Japan, and uses my surname for English documents for America. Our daughter has two names, a Japanese one (with kanji for both first and last name) and an English one with a middle name (that her Japanese name doesn’t include). Her first name is almost the same in both, but last names are different. It basically comes down to having an easier life. If she has a two kanji Japanese last name in Japan, things will go a lot smoother for her, she won’t blatantly stick out everywhere she goes. But, we can technically change her name to my last name if we wanted to.
What’s your daughter’s citizenship? Dual Japanese-American, or just Japanese? Will she have to chose one or the other at some time?
She currently has dual citizenship (Japanese-American). Now, about choosing, that seems to be a giant legal mess.
Quick COA: I’m not a lawyer. I don’t pretend to be. I have no legal background. Please consult a real immigration lawyer for any and all matters that deal with citizenship, immigration, or anything to do with laws. Don’t follow my advice, I’m completely bonkers and have no clue.
Now that, that’s done with, basically here are the facts that I can garner from friends/hearsay/internet searching:
The UN charter states that everyone has a basic human right to have a nationality, in other words be a member of some state. It also states that a country can not force you to forfeit the citizenship of another country, because that is kind of like superseding the rights of another nation, which is a big no-no of course.
So, what does that mean? Well, it means, in order to maintain your Japanese citizenship, you must endeavor to give up citizenship of another country. And if you choose to become a citizen of another country, then your Japanese citizenship is forfeited. In other words, Japan doesn’t currently allow dual-citizenship. America does.
Note, that you must endeavor to give up your citizenship, not give it up (because that would violate the UN charter). And since, our daughter was born a citizen of America, she didn’t choose that citizenship, so she didn’t violate that part of the agreement. Now, according to Japanese law (I think) you have to choose when you are 21? 22? somewhere around there. There seem to be some conflicting reports. But, you could honestly just tell them you are working hard on forfeiting your American citizenship, and they can’t technically do anything. And, actually, if you are living in Japan, you won’t have any issues, because they can’t tell. The problem arises when you move to America, stay there for 2 years or more, and then when you come back to Japan, immigration might get a little suspicious, because your Japanese passport shows that you left Japan, but didn’t go anywhere (because you used your American passport to enter America). They tend to not like that I guess.
I guess they enforce this by not renewing your passport. So then you are stuck with your American passport and I’m guess you have to get a visa with that? (if one of your parents is a Japanese citizen, you can get permanent residency). So, technically, you still have your citizenship, but in a goofy way. I’m not sure about that part of it to be honest, so don’t take my word for it.
There is a Japanese law that allows them to strip you of your citizenship if they find you are citizen of another country, but it has never been evoked.
I should also note that America is totally cool with you lying through your teeth about your citizenship to anyone outside of the American government. They won’t back you up if you get in trouble for doing that though.
It’s just a giant steamy pile of legal limbo.
Anyway, in all honesty, Japan has duct taped together a shady way of forcing single citizenship that goes against international standards. It should be revised, and I would hazard a guess that most people in immigration think so too. However, doing anything with immigration law in any country is notoriously slow and a touchy subject, so I guess we just have to keep our fingers crossed.
One of the best articles you’ve written, Clayton. I remember you asking me about kids when your daughter was born. We’ve been married about the same length of time, both to Japanese nationals, but my wife had a six-year old daughter when we got married (turning eleven next month; holy cow), and we had a child together pretty much straight away.
One piece of advice I can add to Mac’s already amazing and insightful article is to never assume. You can communicate like a pro, but I guarantee your spouse will feel excluded if you make assumptions about how they see things.
The biggest difference between my situation and Mac’s is that I moved my family to NZ last April, so we have to try hard to work on our kids’ Japanese language skills. Our youngest is coming up 2 on the 25th of this month, and she chatters away in English. She understands some Japanese, but only time and effort will help our kids to become truly bilingual. -_^
Exactly, don’t assume anything at all. There have been so many times, I’ve been surprised by misguided assumptions of mine.
I can’t imagine trying to keep up the Japanese abroad. At least in Japan, there are plenty of English resources and it is taught in schools as a standard subject, but in the States there is hardly anything to help. I’m guessing NZ is the same?
My wife is not Japanese (nor am I), but we did elope while on vacation in Japan.
So I know all about the mechanics of getting married in Japan!
Sounds like a fun place to elope to. I hope you enjoyed the trip.
We did the opposite to you, Clayton. My wife took my name, her daughter changed to my surname as well, and the two children that we had together also have my last name — which of course is katakana. In English it is Gough, but they rendered it ガフ in Japanese (as opposed to ゴフ, which I tried to get them to do); incidentally quite tricky for people to say with the suffix さん (from a ふ to a さ sound is not very common). Two of our girls have kanji names, but our middle girl has just hiragana. For the two youngest we chose names that are cross-lingual in pronunciation: まや and 恵舞 (えま).
It can prove to be a pain to have your spouse change their name to yours, but once we did the change we didn’t really encounter any problems that I know of. Everyone that my wife worked with got used to calling her ガフさん pretty quickly (and me too, for acquaintances or strangers; the teachers I worked with and my friends called me either ティム先生 or ティムさん, at my request). 😉
Luckily you have a shorter last name. I always get my last (and first) name murdered where ever I go, so whenever I meet someone new I just tell them to use マク. I’m not sure if I want to put my daughter and wife through the same thing yet.
The name game is always a tricky one I think. Easily memorable and easy to pronounce/spell is difficult to come up with and still be unique.