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Friday, Aug. 2, 2002

Marrying your sweetheart and moving in with his mom

Special to The Japan Times

On the day I married my husband, I married his family, too. I moved next door to my in-laws on the family plot in Tokyo. Now, I live there with my husband and daughter; my parents-in-law; my husband's uncle, aunt and their three daughters; two dogs; a cat; and a goldfish named Mikey.

Being the foreign addition to a traditional Japanese extended family, as I found out, can be a real challenge. But it's more commonly encountered these days -- one in 22 marriages in 2000 were "international," even though foreigners make up only 1 percent of the population (according to March 2002 estimates). As the leader of a foreign wives' group, I am often asked what it's really like to be living here with my Japanese husband.

Most of my friends met their Japanese husbands here in Japan. A few others, like myself, met their husbands abroad. Some of us live with our in-laws; most of us do not. But there is one factor that affects how well we each adjust to our lives as wives here in Japan: how we came to be here in the first place.

The marital path is smoother for women who were already in Japan, by their own choice, before they met their husbands. Observing your Romeo in his own country and environment might make your image of married life less rosy, but it does inject some much-needed realism into the picture. Adjusting to the culture while you are single -- learning the language, understanding how things are done differently -- eases the pressure of having to do it all in one go, after you're married.

An American friend who had been living here as a Japanese-language student before she tied the knot, summed it up: "I got the culture shock struggle out of the way first, then got married."

For others, like myself, the story is different. My husband and I met in England as undergraduates, and before we were married in Tokyo we lived together for a year in Hong Kong. There, our relationship had been equal -- we were both "outsiders."

But when we came to Japan, my husband came back home; I became the gaijin. I was a cultural virgin. My family and homeland far away, I had few friends and my entire support network consisted of him. I found myself depending on him for everything, including ordering a cup of coffee. And I watched him return to a salaryman life and his role as a dutiful son.

When we moved into our new home, my privacy disappeared overnight. The honeymoon period was a whirlwind of rushed conversations and interrupted meals. Every time we found time to cuddle, there would be a tap on the window or the doorbell would ring, and my husband would disappear next door.

In Hong Kong, my husband and I had gone on dates and been a socially active couple. After the wedding, watching a video with the in-laws and creating "family time" seemed to take precedence.

Marriage gives the foreigner access to the inner social circles of Japanese culture and transforms him or her from an outsider into a -- sometimes unwilling -- insider. Instead of becoming my husband's newlywed wife, I was merely the latest addition to an already existing social group.

The claustrophobic interphone from my in-laws rang 24 hours a day. Their cultural training told them to eat every meal with me and to ask me where I was going and what I was doing.

On one occasion, I was frantic to go out, but family commitments delayed us. Then, when we were finally leaving, we ran into a crowd of our neighbors and in-laws. They were practicing a fire drill in front of the gate, and my husband got roped in to demonstrate how to use the fire-extinguisher.

My whole body was screaming with the need to fly, but as a daughter-in-law, I knew better. I had to smile while I was formally introduced to everyone. Standing there, I had a cultural out-of-body experience. I realized that being married in Japan would be a constant battle: my Western needs vs. Japanese expectations.

Moving from conflict to compromise and figuring out how to fit in without conforming doesn't happen overnight. How I discovered my cultural survival kit and became a willing insider -- now that's another "Married in Japan" tale.

Tracy Okuma lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and their daughter. She heads Married in Japan, an online community for foreign women in relationships with Japanese men. The group's home page is at www.foreignwives.homestead.com/MIJ.html

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