I have lived with my Japanese wife for more than 2 years now and am happy to say that it is now quite a harmonious cohabitation. Of course, it wasn’t always so harmonious, and I don’t mean to say that we don’t still have an occasional quarrel. For the most part, however, we have been able to learn about each other and adapt our patterns and behaviors to better match the other person. In this article, I will introduce a few common issues that Japanese-gaikokujin couples face, as well as suggestions of steps you can take to reduce these problems and live more harmoniously with your Japanese partner.
Before We Get Started
Of course, this probably goes without saying, but there will always be exceptions to every rule. People are people, after all, each with their own upbringing and individual set of experiences. A Japanese person who has lived in another country for a substantial period of time, for example, will likely be different to live with than a Japanese person who has never experienced another culture. I can also only speak to heteronormative relationships, so do forgive me for only using husband and wife examples throughout this article. With that being said, there are certain overarching aspects of Japanese culture and upbringing that are fairly consistent across the population, and understanding these aspects will be critical for anyone who hopes to live in harmony with their Japanese partner.
Little Things That Can Turn Into Problems
One of the most constant complaints I get from my wife—even now—is how careless I am about keeping the floors in the house clean. Everybody knows not to wear shoes inside a Japanese house, but it’s more than just that. Since we walk with bare feet throughout the house, the floors should be so clean that the soles of our feet will still be free from any grime at the end of the day. To this end, Japanese people are very careful about keeping the floors clean, especially when cooking in the kitchen. This is when I am the most careless and frequently neglect to properly clean up a dropped grain of rice or crumb. Water on the ground, especially, is a big no-no that is sure to get on my wife’s nerves, as it also can damage the wood or tatami flooring. As such, my advice for those hoping to stay in their Japanese partner’s good graces is to pay extra attention to any mess you might have made on the floor and clean it up right away!
Similar to the floors, in my experience, Japanese people tend to be particular about keeping the bed clean. In the U.S., where I am from, it’s fairly normal for people to lounge around on their bed during the day, even without changing into pajamas first. Many Americans also go to bed at night after merely changing their clothes, and don’t take their daily shower until the morning. For a Japanese person, it would be almost unheard of to do this. Without showering before bed, all of the dirt and germs accumulated during the day would be transferred to the bed, making it dirty very quickly. This is one of the reasons why the Japanese shower or bathe before bed instead of in the morning. Beyond that, though, even lying or sitting on the bed while wearing clothes that were worn outside is a no-no, as is putting any bag or backpack on the bed. Many Japanese also cringe at the thought of someone eating in the bed, so be careful not to do that, either!
In general, it’s a good idea to think of the bed as a sacred, clean space that only sparklingly clean people can enter.
Continuing down the cleanliness vein, Japanese people are generally particular about keeping things neat, tidy, and at the very least, clean. In the time that I have lived with my wife, I have noticed my own standards of cleanliness change to the point where I found myself noticing minor dirt and grime where I wouldn’t have before during a visit to my childhood home. However, it took me a while to get to this point, and it was the source of many conflicts along the way, so I suggest being extra mindful of keeping things clean and tidy when you first start living with a Japanese person. Things like making sure the dishes are squeaky clean, not leaving hair in the shower drain, scrubbing down the tub after each use, wiping the table after you eat on it, cleaning the toilet regularly, and putting away dishes neatly (and very carefully!) will go a long way in helping your harmonious life.
This is probably true in most places, but especially in Japan, appearances matter! This goes for the house when receiving guests and also for personal appearance when going outside. Japanese people tend to care a great deal about the opinions of others, so revealing a messy house to guests or wearing a tatty t-shirt in public is a potential source of embarrassment. This, of course, extends to your behavior in public as well, so things like talking in a loud voice, drawing attention to yourself by goofing off, or showing too much affection to your partner will likely cause them to feel stress. Even if you yourself don’t mind, your partner is likely to see your appearance and behavior as representative of the both of you, so my advice is to try to think about things from your partner’s point of view and do your best to keep up appearances, even if you think it’s silly.
When I asked my wife what traits would have been a deal-breaker, she answered that it would have been very difficult to live together if I didn’t like Japanese food. If you’re living in Japan, or thinking about moving here soon, this probably isn’t an issue for you. However, if you happen to be a bit of a picky eater, my advice to you is to do your best to learn to love Japanese food. Just like you would probably be happy for your partner to appreciate the food from your culture, it makes sense that your Japanese partner would feel the same way. The experience might be different for those who come from a culture with a particularly strong food tradition, but as an American, I can say that I eat (and cook) almost exclusively Japanese food now that I live with my wife here in Japan. If you’re like me and don’t have your own cultural cuisine that you feel deeply connected to, you can probably expect to eat mostly Japanese food while you’re living with your Japanese partner.
More Important Things
Communication – Language
Communication is probably the most important part of any successful relationship but can be particularly tricky when people of two different cultures and native languages come together. The first and most obviously important step to take to improve communication with a Japanese partner is to get good at Japanese. Especially if your partner’s English is only so-so, the better you get at communicating your thoughts and feelings to your partner, the easier it will be to avoid misunderstandings and solve issues that arise. Of course, your partner had better be doing their part to learn your native language as well, but studying Japanese will not only help you to communicate better but will also offer more and more windows into the Japanese culture and way of thinking that will help improve your overall understanding of your partner. As you improve your Japanese, you will begin to see that it is not just your words, but the way that you say things that can make a big difference.
Communication – Styles
When it comes to communication, language is not the only thing that matters. Indeed, even though my wife speaks excellent English and I speak proficient Japanese, we regularly have communication issues that are due to communication style, rather than words. In general, I and other people from Western countries are used to direct confrontation when there is an issue. Japanese people, however, prefer to avoid direct confrontation when possible. I believe that this is one of the things that makes Japan such a peaceful country, but it can cause challenges when it comes to personal relationships. My wife, for example, will generally keep her thoughts to herself when I do something that bothers her, and will only let her true feelings out once the bottled-up pressure reaches a certain level.
In order to minimize these kinds of build-ups, I’ve found that it is very important to be observant of non-verbal cues to figure out when something is wrong. The “if you’ve got a problem, say it to my face” mentality generally won’t fly with Japanese people, and you are more likely to be written off as an idiot who can’t take a hint if you stick to this way of thinking. Instead, as frustrating as it can be sometimes, my advice is to try hard to read between the lines and pick up on the things that are bothering your partner. Try also to reflect on the reason that they might be bothered and do your best to see things from their perspective.
In my experience, the Japanese tend to be much more attuned to the feelings of others than people from other cultures are, and the expectation that you will also be equally attuned is something that can lead to disappointment and misunderstanding. Luckily, this is a skill that—like any other—can be trained, so I advise that you start practicing empathetic observation as soon as possible! Of course, your Japanese partner also needs to adapt to a more direct conflict resolution style, but hopefully you can meet each other somewhere in the middle.
Before starting a serious relationship with a Japanese person, it would be good to clarify the expectations that you have for one another, to stave off potential conflicts. Although the times are changing quickly, it is important to keep in mind that Japan is a quite conservative country, and many traditional gender norms are maintained to this day. Although more and more men from younger generations are taking it upon themselves to take care of the kids, clean up around the house, and cook, it still isn’t unheard of for some husbands expect that their wives will take care of these things single-handedly. Especially if you are a woman thinking of living with a Japanese man, it is a good idea to clarify these expectations upfront to avoid potential hard feelings later.
Another potential flashpoint in relationships has to do with control of the family’s finances. In Japan, the wife is the one who normally controls the budget. Someone pointed this out to me recently, and I had to stop to think about if that was true in my own case. Sure enough, even though we had never formally decided who would take charge of the finances, my wife had naturally stepped into the role and indeed has the final say when it comes to any large purchase. If you’re a man who cringes at the idea of relinquishing your power to control the family finances, I suggest being upfront about that early on. However, if you’re like me, you might not mind giving up the stress of balancing the budget to someone else. For gaikokujin women marrying a Japanese man, you will likely be expected to handle the finances. If this is not your cup of tea, it might be something to negotiate with your husband.
It’s no secret that Japanese business culture tends to encourage and sometimes require people to work overtime. Even at companies that openly tell their employees that it is perfectly acceptable to leave the office early, many Japanese people still feel uncomfortable to do so, especially if their coworkers are still working. On top of this, there are nomikai and other “optional” (but not really!) after-work events, and it becomes quite common for people to regularly return home at a very late hour. Although this also holds true for some gaikokujin workers, many others often get off the hook without having to work as much overtime as their Japanese counterparts. In relationships, this can sometimes lead to hard feelings towards a Japanese partner who regularly returns home very late from work, even though you were able to finish at a normal time.
This can be a tough pill to swallow, but I personally think there is not much to be done about this other than to accept it as a reality of Japanese business culture. As mentioned above, appearances matter a great deal to Japanese people, and the same holds true at the workplace. Asking your Japanese partner to “just skip the nomikai!” or “just come home when you’re finished with your work!” is not really fair to them, as you are basically asking them to lose face and embarrass themselves in front of their coworkers. Hopefully, this culture will continue to change, but in the meantime, acceptance is probably the only thing to do.
For women, another common complaint is that their Japanese husbands continue to work late even after they have children. Although the situation is improving somewhat, it still isn’t uncommon for fathers to rarely see their children during the workweek, since they leave early for work and return after the kids are already asleep. Who takes care of the kids in these cases? The wife, of course. Some Japanese men still expect that their wives will quit their jobs in order to take care of the kids once they are born, so if you are a woman with career aspirations, it might be a good idea to clarify these expectations before deciding to start a family.
Living harmoniously with a Japanese partner is not so hard, especially if you keep an open mind and are willing to adapt to meet them in the middle. I’ve done my best to list some of the most important things to keep in mind for happy cohabitation, but there are likely quite a few things that I missed. If you have anything from personal experience that you think would be valuable for others looking for insight on how to live harmoniously with a Japanese partner, please let us know by sending us a message on SNS! We would love to hear from you.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.