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Saturday, Dec. 6, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The high cost of children -- don't kid yourself


At lunch with an old pal, I cannot help but notice the puffy bags hanging beneath his eyes.

"Yeah," he groans. "I just wish they were moneybags. Why didn't somebody tell me marriage in Japan would be so expensive?"

I gulp down an image of his wife breezing through Harajuku boutiques while wrapped in the latest fashions and munching on a Pretz dipped in caviar. But his next words snap that vision in two.

"It's not my wife. She's got the frugality of a drowning man on his very last breath. Every yen she surrenders has her claw marks on it.

"Nor," he goes on, "is it the cost of living -- by itself, that is. For two can indeed live cheaper than one, even in Japan. The problem comes with the numbers multiply to three, four, five and beyond."

Ah, the clinker clanker of little hands shaking the family piggy bank.

"So to make ends meet, I work three jobs. If it wasn't for my commuting time, I'd probably get no sleep at all."

I tell him such complaints must sound familiar to parents everywhere, not just Japan. For all kids pop budgets like bubble wrap. In the States, for example, a middle-income family generally needs 160 grand to raise one child to age 18.

My friend shrieks. "Is that all? For 18 years? What a deal!" Then he begins to ring the cash register on child rearing in Japan, international-style.

"First," he says, "comes the Great Divide, where wise parents are separated from those with loose wiring. Do you or do you not enroll your young in a high-priced international school?"

For some, he explains, this is a nondecision. If you live in Hooterville, Aomori, there IS no international school. Others might have the tuition to such bankrolled by their companies or, in the case of many missionaries, their churches. Such parents can by and large send their kids anywhere they want.

Parents with a decision to make are those who live near international opportunities but have no benefactor flipping silver dollars behind them.

"Here's the choice. You can pay for Japanese public education. Or you can begin paying college-caliber tuition right from kindergarten."

An empty box could make such a decision, my friend says. Still, many parents -- either out of uneasiness with one system or overrespect for the other -- plunge into the financial maelstrom of international education.

"Just what kind of a hurricane are we talking about?"

"At the worst? A quarter of a million dollars up through grade 12, just for education . . . for one kid."

One would then wager that the other side of the Great Divide would be rolling in dough. But that's not a smart bet either.

"Because if you get caught in the 'Keeping up with the Tanakas' trap, you've always got a bill collector banging on your door. Piano lessons, swimming lessons, cram school fees . . . the money disappears faster than popcorn at a video party.

"Then heaven help you if your whelp joins a club. For Japanese tuition covers nothing. Uniforms, equipment, training fees, transportation -- it's all on the parent's penny.

"So I encouraged my first boy to be a geek. You know, to collect baseball cards and stare into space a lot. But noooo. He wanted to PLAY baseball -- the club fees for which add up to a over million yen per year."

Some, he notes, may consider home-schooling a practical third alternative to this twin dilemma, but for couples with split language and culture, such an option is not so practical at all.

On top of education then come the added costs of every international parent:

Air fees so junior can spend time with his overseas relatives and brush up his language.

Gifts and hush money so same said relatives will not come to see junior as a cute but persistent parasite.

Overseas books, films and music to keep the little lad's foreign language from being lapped by Japanese.

And all of this is heaped on what all parents have to pay anyway: food, clothing and shelter.

"Before children," he says, "my bride and I had a cozy love nest at an affordable rent. Now we have a house that has an extra shoehorn of space but takes an extra boot-full of rent money."

Next we swap horror stories of how much our children eat.

"My first son," he says, "can eat an entire large pizza, complete with chicken, mashed potatoes, bread and salad. And that's at his 5 o'clock snack before dinner."

"That's nothing. My two sons drink so much milk that dairy cows in Hokkaido keep collapsing from the stress. Some cows have been seen swimming to Siberia to escape."

"Oh yeah? Well, my two boys combined consume more rice than many entire nations. I'm thinking maybe we should apply for a seat at the U.N."

The cost for all this food adds up. "But it could be worse," I remind him. "We could have had girls."

We blink at images of hair stylists, makeup kits and racks of dresses with price tags still attached. Then we both cross ourselves and offer quiet prayers of gratitude.

"All in all," he sums up, "my wife and I would be close to millionaires without children. Instead, we race like rats to avoid the poorhouse."

I myself have been on both sides of the Great Divide and have the requisite wiring to prove it. But I still have enough spark to light one final argument.

"C'mon. We ARE millionaires. Both of us! And it's because we have kids! They're what makes us rich!"

"Yeah," he sighs. "You're right. But in the end, I think your kids make you richer than mine."

"Does that mean what I think it does?"

"Yeah," he says. "You can pick up the tab."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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