Motherhood

10 Surprising Things About Parenting in Japan

For our Motherhood Around the World series, our second interview features photographer Yoko Inoue, who moved from Brooklyn to the Japanese countryside with her husband and son. Here are 10 things that have surprised her about being a mom in Japan…

Yoko’s background:

Photographer Yoko Inoue grew up in the suburbs of Japan and moved to New York when she was 21. “I always felt like I was born in the wrong country,” she says. “People in Japan like to be the same. There’s a lot of pressure to fit in. But I always wanted to be different. In New York, I felt at home. You have to be different. Everyone is trying to stand out.”

But in 2010, after seventeen years in New York, her American husband suggested they move to Japan for a few years with their young son Motoki, and Yoko agreed. “New York gets tiring. When we went home to visit my parents in the countryside, we always had a great time. I wanted my son to be able to speak Japanese and learn Japanese culture.” So, they moved to a rural neighborhood, close to both mountains and a river, which is about 15 minutes from the medium-sized city of Okayama.

When they first moved back, she was in heaven: “The food is good; the people are so nice; the pace is slow. I thought, this is amazing!” Having lived in Japan now for over three years, she’s started to experience some of the challenges, as well. “It’s very different to be a mom here—in some hard ways,” she says. “There’s so much pressure to fit in, versus being an individual. But, on the flip side, the close community provides so much safety. Motoki can go outside and play and I don’t have to watch him. He can trust people, whereas in New York he had to learn from an early age to doubt. Here, everyone is family, and everyone is aware of him.”

On pregnancy: I’m six and a half months pregnant right now and have been going to a Japanese doctor. In New York, when I was pregnant with Motoki, my doctor warned me, “You can’t eat sushi, coffee, alcohol or raw cheese.” She gave me special vitamins. My Japanese doctor says nothing about any of that! No diet restrictions at all. I did pick up flyer at the doctor’s office that said I can drink a few cups of coffee a day and a glass of alcohol.

On making friends: Most of the moms I’ve met here are full-time homemakers. In New York, most women I knew worked and had careers before and after they got married and had kids. I still work full-time as a photographer, so I find it’s hard to relate to the moms here sometimes…it’s hard to make a friend.

It has taken me a few years to learn that Japanese moms communicate differently than Brooklyn moms. In Brooklyn, you would meet a mom on the playground and tell her everything about what is going on in your house—problems with your husband or kids. You could be very open. It made me feel like, “I’m not alone—everyone is going through similar things.” Here, if I am open, I get strange looks. It’s easy to feel like you are the only one having problems. But really, everyone is going through similar things—they just don’t share it in the same way. People really draw a line between public and private.

On parties: When we go to a get-together with other families, men and women are totally separate. The women are usually in the kitchen cooking food and watching the kids, and the men are in another room drinking beer. I don’t understand this…I want to be sitting and drinking! In Brooklyn, we were always mixed, mothers and fathers. Moms don’t seem to make friends with other fathers here.

On date night: Date night is not a thing here. I once told some friends I had hired a babysitter to go out to dinner with my husband, and they were shocked. Restaurants are very expensive, and men tend to work very late—even on weekends—so it’s very rare to eat out…maybe just once a year. On your birthday. Sometimes I feel like once a Japanese woman marries, she just becomes ‘mother’—not woman or wife. She and her husband lead separate lives. She eats early, with the children, and he eats late, often with his business associates. Couples still seem happy and friendly with each other, but it’s a man’s world inside of marriage. Men don’t help with housework.

On nursery school: There are two kinds of nursery school in Japan: one for kids whose moms work, and one for kids whose moms stay home. The one for working moms runs six days a week, from 7am until 6pm, and your child can’t go unless you prove you have a job or can’t take care of him for some reason. I sent my son to the “working mom” school, and it was wonderful. It’s supported by the government so it only costs about $150 per month (including a balanced lunch prepared by a chef in their own school kitchen). It’s mostly about being outside, touching bugs, building in the sand. The philosophy is “learn by playing.” The other school goes just until lunch and it’s more academic and structured and focused on teaching in a classroom.

On kindergarten: Motoki just ended his “preschool” and started the Japanese version of kindergarten. Here are photos of his preschool graduation and his “opening ceremony” for kindergarten. The year changes over in March, and you go right from one grade to another, so there’s no summer break.

On walking to school: All the kids in our town meet in the road and walk to school together…as young as seven. The elder people in the neighborhood volunteer to make sure the kids safely cross the roads. They are so happy to help and to do the “exchange of greetings” with the children. As parents we have to make sure our kids always say greetings “with big voice! Good morning!” (No mumbling or looking down.) If you don’t, it’s considered so rude! Parents also take turns watching the kids walk to school to make sure they do the greetings and stay safe. The parent who is watching takes notes in a community record book—things like “Junior high school kids were riding their bikes dangerously fast!” or “Steps are wobbly and should be fixed for kids’ safety.” Then these problems are discussed at the next PTA meeting.

On food: Kids here eat mostly very healthy…tons of rice! Lunch boxes are mainly rice balls—sometimes wrapped in seaweed—with a little egg omelet, sausage and broccoli. The tricky part is that there isn’t labeling like in the U.S. So when you buy eggs or vegetables, you don’t know if they’re organic or not. My husband thinks it’s because all the food is good quality, but it frustrates me not to know. In Brooklyn I was part of a food coop and I bought all organic…Here I just have to close my eyes and buy it!

On community: Community is everything here. The town holds lots of events, and everyone goes. Once a month everyone gets together to clean the neighborhood and local Buddhist temple. When you’re out walking around you always have to “do greeting,” which is a formal bow and hello. It’s so nice, but also sometimes I think, leave me alone! In New York I could be anonymous and never know my neighbors. Here, I might want to stay in with my family on a Sunday, but we have to go to a community festival. It’s very important to attend if you want your children to be accepted.

On modesty: Most department stores have separate “nursing rooms” so that mothers can breastfeed. The flip side is, I never see moms nursing in public. People are very modest. Women wear a lot of black and cover their arms and legs—even in the summer! They are always covering the shape of their bodies. In Brooklyn, I wouldn’t think twice about a woman walking down the street in a tank top and no bra. Here, a whole community of people would be shocked if I wore a tank top!

On the pace: No matter how much you make in New York, you always feel poor. School, rent, medical bills—everything is so expensive. In Japan, I found something I couldn’t have bought with money: a feeling of safety—no pressure. Childcare and school are inexpensive, and healthcare is cheap as well. My husband and I joke sometimes that it’s like we’re living in a retirement community. You can just enjoy your time. It took me about a year to get used to not worrying about something constantly. I kept thinking, “Did I forget something?” Sometimes I feel like I’m not using my brain enough so I started learning French!

Thank you, Yoko! (And isn’t her home, above, beautiful?)

P.S. 10 surprising things about being a mom in Norway, and why French kids eat everything. Yoko also spoke to our friends at Momfilter about her experience a few years ago.

(Thank you to my fantastic friend and writer Lina Perl for help reporting and interviewing)

  1. Toni says...

    I am pleased to found out this article about Japanese culture. I appreciate a lot dear Yoko for sharing it with us. And of course Thank you, Joanna! Lots of love from Bulgaria

  2. Amy says...

    Thanks for sharing the story. I love Japan’s culture. I take it as part of positivity. Separate men and women in party doesnt a big problem at all. I have exchange japanese friend when studied and he is so polite. i want to raise my future children with all good manners because he is reflecting his country. Hat’s off for his mom. Japan’s parenting is always amaze me. In my country, safety is so challenging. I wish i live in community like them or actually hope i can move to Japan.

  3. Clare says...

    Women cover up and wear a lot of black in summer not out of modesty but to avoid the sun and keep their skin white!

    I gave birth in Tokyo, wonderful country to raise a child. Love the pro-breastfeeding culture and nutritious food!

  4. Culture differences in child rearing is such an interesting topic. A big difference between the East and West is the amount of physical touch. Heidi Keller found some very useful information regarding the type of parenting styles found in Japan and the West: http://www.brianlosullivan.com/blog/japanese-parenting-style/

  5. Donats says...

    This is the first time I hear someone saying it. All things that are happening to me. I gave birth to my son in Tokyo 4 years ago and since then, no matter how much I tried and pretended,I never fit in and now I am at the point of giving up, not because I can’ t do it, buy it just isn’t me. I didn t live motherhood in my natural way. I feel more like a grandma than a mother. I even took freelance work for a couple of years and everyone was surprised… I joined Mamasan volleyball to keep fit and have fun. It seemed to work but still, for some reason, I feel like I am not fitting there eighter although I enjoy this sport and the team mates are super nice. Is it my personal insecurity?
    I haven’ t limited my clothing to neutral colors, loose blouses and ballerinas, and covered myself up when it’s 35 degreed. Mayne that s why. Oh, and I m not the youngest mom eighter, I am 38 but I will not wear the muji blouses and farmer’s shirts even under torture. Ok, it’ s not just about clothing, although appearance seems to be the key.
    As I said, I see the other mothers leading a grandma life, and for a long time I though I wondered, why does it feels so wrong to me being just a mother and housewife!!? Why? Because I have other skills and passions, too.
    Don t get me wrong, but I feel a bit ashamed that my son see me like that, too. Its not me, and I feel like he doesn’ t know me, really.
    I made some friends but still I don ‘ t feel like I can be totally open with them, let alone I habe a sarcastic sense of humor and I am always keeping inside to avoid shocking someone. Language barrier is an issue, of course.
    A very good thing is the safety , e.g. I also don’ t have to worry too much if my son is out of sight for a few minutes, provided that the place is apt for playing freely..
    About the food, Japan is not producing enough of it. It is labelled, though. It’ s just not around. I find the organic veggies section in Life, there are only 6/7 types of produce, that s it…. Maybe in the countryside it s different. Online shopping systems like Palsystem and Oisix offer pricey organic food on delivery. For now, for me it’ s more important not to buy any food between Ibaraki and Iwate (included!!) , and I surprised to find produce from Fukushima and people buying it.
    Oh, let me wine about one last thing. Thr mixed sexes friendship i miss the most, it s like a distant memory and I really miss it, how can you have just girlfriends? It feels like men and women of Japan live in two different planets and are never to meet. This is sad.
    Thank you for your article and apologies fory bad typing (at the phone).

  6. I would love to hear about raising a child in Tokyo. I’m an expat living in Tokyo and am fascinated by the way people raise kids in such a crazy city. I see children as young as 6 riding the trains by themselves in one of the largest cities in the world!

  7. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m an American living in Japan and I’m pregnant, so it’s nice to feel someone who can understand.

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