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October 28, 2015 / Karen Hill Anton

Family ties enrich cultural experience

Family circa 1993

Family circa 1993

(April 22, 1999)

I was invited to to be the guest speaker at the 30th anniversary convention of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese.

I’ve known about AFWJ, a national organization, a long time and for a long time too, I’d regretted I could not be a member because I lacked that essential qualification for membership — a Japanese husband.

in my early years here, those years when I thought loneliness and isolation would get the upper hand, I can remember reading with envy the organization’s many notices and announcements in this paper. They had luncheons, lectures, various events — which I viewed as a general ticket to camaraderie. If only I could qualify, I thought, without having to trade in my otherwise satisfactory but non-Japanese husband.

Well, I’m still with the same guy, and still not a member of the organization, and I very much appreciated the invitation. While speaking to the group, I looked out at the audience and recognized some of the women from the pseudo-organization I “belonged” to some years back.

In 1983, when we were living in the city of Hamamatsu, several members of the national organization started a regional group, If they had limited their members to women married to Japanese, there would have been few members indeed; at the time there just weren’t that many foreign women settled in the area.

They chose to open their group to other foreign women, and not only for the purpose of increasing their numbers. They realized that what they had in common as foreign women living in Japan was of more significance than their husbands’ nationalities.

I remember the first meeting as one literally craving with babies, and packed with women seemingly desperate to speak their native languages. Goodness knows I was one of them. We had just moved to the city from our “mountain haven” where I’d lived most days without talking to another living soul other than my adolescent daughter (mostly at school), infant (not exactly a conversation partner) and husband (off to work early, home late).

Informally and unofficially the group called itself the Association of Foreign Wives and Friends. It was fascinating to listen as members (no dues) conducted conversation in Portuguese, French, German, Spanish, Tagalog, Danish, and oh yes, English. (The Americans in the group were soon outnumbered.)

The group represented stability for those women who were seated in Japan. Because the foreign community can be transient, it is not unusual for those for whom Japan is home to become cautious about forming relationships — they ask themselves if it’s worth establishing friendship with people who are here just temporarily. Aside from it being tiresome having to continually repeat one’s life story, so to speak, it can be emotionally stressful always having to say goodbye.

I don’t want a Japanese husband. But when I spoke at the convention I told members of AFWJ:  If I were to be asked what was the one thing I wished I’d had, the one thing that I would have found the most helpful in living and adjusting to Japanese society, I would answer without hesitating, a Japanese family.

A mother- and father-in-law, which would mean grandparents for my children. Aunts, uncles, cousins. A family home where I, and my children, knew we were always welcome.

Family to be with to participate in traditional celebrations of Japanese culture. Family who could help open some of the doors of culture, explain some of the customs, set an example — family who would be both informant and guide.

There was some grumbling from the audience when I said this. One woman spoke out loud and said something to this effect:  “You wouldn’t want to be a member of the family I married into!” (Sure sounded like I didn’t!)

I had to tell them too that I did not wish to idealize their lives or fantasize about the real situations they were in. I was there were those among them who have had, or may still be engaged in, life-and-death struggles with their in-laws. It is not uncommon, and I personally know some foreigners who were not accepted by their Japanese families. In some of these families, they would not accept or recognize the grandchildren.

It takes little imagination to understand how hurtful and distressing the must be.

However, I know of more families where the foreign spouse has not just been welcomed, but embraced as a family member, and where the children grow up with close, warm and loving ties with their grandparents.

I told them that I hoped that through their husbands they have those strong, nurturing family ties — and that I hoped, as a result, it added to their enjoyment of this country and knowledge of its culture.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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