Tag Archives: japanese life

Five Years in Japan: The Arrival

The plane lands with a thud on the Tokyo tarmac, fifteen hours after take-off from Phoenix, Arizona. I look out the window of row 38 seat C, the window, and see only darkness. It is 10:00 p.m. in Japan. I am in unchartered territory, a place where I don’t know the customs, the language, or the food. I don’t know where I will live. Will it be in a condo, apartment, a new house, an old house, or with my in-laws? I left that decision up to my Japanese husband. I can only pray he didn’t choose his parents. Japanese tradition requires that the oldest son and his wife live with the parents and take care of them for the rest of their lives. I wasn’t provided this information until the day we got married. Sumio arrived in Japan one month before I did in order to find us a place to live and face the anger of his parents for marrying a gaijin (foreigner). Yes, that would be me. We got married in December in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I was a student getting my BA in ESL/Spanish. He was employed by a Japanese company in Waterloo, Iowa.

Sumio returned to Japan two weeks after the wedding and I returned home to Phoenix. He had to prepare his parents for his decision to marry an American woman. Six months before Sumio and I met, his parents had chosen a Japanese wife, omiai, for him. This was very common in the 1980’s. His father was angry because now they had to tell the girl’s family she was not needed anymore. Sumio had to financially reimburse her for any emotional damages she had endured.

My seat partner is a Japanese businessman who speaks English very well. We occupied our flying time with lessons in Japanese language and culture. He couldn’t believe that I was flying to Japan for the first time and meeting my husband at the airport. Why is an American woman moving to Japan? He never asked the question. He was polite. I thought about the answer and the answer was love and curiosity. I love the man I married, and I want to know more about his culture.

We exit the plane.  My seatmate asks, “What is your husband’s name?” I answer, “Sumio”. He removes a white piece of paper from the message board situated near the information desk. It is thumbtacked to a corkboard. This was thirty-seven years ago, before cell phones. Sumio wrote the message in Japanese. What? I can’t read Japanese. My seat partner reads the message. “I am waiting for you at the exit of immigration.” Nice. I was hoping he wouldn’t leave me at the airport. I trusted him.  We have only been married one month.

I present my passport. The customs agent looks at me quizzically. He is probably wondering why a girl like me has a Japanese last name.

He asks me, “What’s your purpose in coming to Japan?”

I answer, “I married a Japanese.”

He asks, “How long to you plan on staying?”

“I am not sure.” I answer.  He smiles and waves me through customs.

The wide glass sliding doors open into the crowd of people waiting. How am I going to find my husband? They all look like him! Black hair, 5’7” tall, and dark eyes. I will let him look for me. I stand out in this crowd. Light skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair. How could he not find me? I hear him call my name “Kyaroru, Kyaroru”. My name is Carol. Neither he nor any other Japanese can pronounce my name. He just calls me Okasan (mother), a term of endearment that most Japanese husbands use for their wives. I turn around and there he is. He did come! What a relief.

We greet each other with a very short embrace. It is taboo to hug or kiss in public. Other people watch with quizzical looks on their faces. Am I his English teacher, his American girlfriend, or a friend of the family? Not many American women marry Japanese men. Japanese women wait on their husbands and Americans don’t. American men marry Japanese women because they know they will take care of them and wait on them.

The airport smells of cigarettes. I am about to gag. It is incredibly noisy. I can’t understand a thing that is being said over the loudspeakers. The Japanese use loudspeakers to announce everything. I have a really bad headache along with a case of serious jet lag.

Sumio asks, “How much money do you have?”

I answer, “$100”. He looks at me in shock. He can’t believe I traveled across the world with such a small amount. That was a joke the whole time we were married. We have to run to catch the last train. It is 11:00 p.m. and the last train is leaving at 11:30.

I am holding on to the handle of my black suitcase and dragging it behind me and running.  I have my American passport in my left hand. My newly minted husband, Sumio, is

about twenty feet ahead of me with my second suitcase. These two suitcases contain my life possessions. I don’t know how long I will be living in Japan.

I am drained and anxious. I can’t read any of the signs or understand any of the announcements. I don’t speak Japanese. I must depend on my husband to translate. He doesn’t speak English very well. His translations are short. What am I doing here?

The train stops, we jump into the train dragging the suitcases behind us. Sumio stores the bags in the designated luggage area. There are five men in the train car. I am the only woman and the only American. Two of the men are dressed in dark blue suits with dark ties. The uniform of Japanese businesspeople. One of them has his shirt hanging out of his pants and his tie undone. He is slouched on the red plastic bench holding on to one of the poles with both hands for balance. The smell of sake fills the air. They are on their way home after a night of drinking in a bar. Three of the men are smoking. It is January 1981, smoking is allowed on public trains. Two other men dressed in black shirts with white T-shirts peeking out and black trousers are having a hushed conversation. They have the appearance of Catholic priests. They are not. They are the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Yes, they have a uniform too. My husband warns me in English not to look at them, so I don’t.

It’s 11:00 pm, and we are on a local train from the Tokyo airport to Toyohashi, Japan; Not the nice-looking Shinkansen (bullet trains) that are pictured in the tourist information, but the green and red trains that take people to and from work every day.  Most Japanese use public transportation to take them shopping, to work, and to school. It is cheaper and more

convenient. We shouldn’t be on this train. Sumio thought I was going to bring enough money for us to stay in a hotel. I only have $100. After he got over the shock of me arriving in Japan with less than what we needed, we headed to catch the last train out of the station.

The train chugs along and stops at every station along the line. I am trying not to breathe so much because the tobacco smoke is making me sick. I am also famished. I just got off a fifteen-hour flight from the US. I haven’t eaten for almost six hours. I could vomit. I won’t.

The neon lights flash as the train makes its way down the tracks. There are more neon lights in every city in Japan than there are in Las Vegas. There are signs for “café” (bars), restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love motels. I want to hold Sumio’s hand to feel some solace. That is not acceptable in Japan. I feel alone.

One man finally gets off the train on the fifth stop. He is so drunk. He shuffles to the opened door while another man helps him out. He doesn’t make it. The alarm sounds, and he gets stuck. The door opens one more time. This time he and his friend make it off the train. I hope they can find their way home. The man slouched on the seat is sleeping. I wonder if he will miss his stop.

The men are staring at me. Where is an American woman with two suitcases going with a Japanese man? Was she picked up in some bar? Are they headed to a “love motel”? Japanese men don’t marry American women. We have a reputation for being too independent. I am his English teacher, prostitute, lover, or girlfriend.

I close my eyes once in a while and awaken every time the door opens. The slouched man on the bench is gone, and so are the Yakuza. Now, it is only Sumio and I. He holds my hand, and one hour later we arrive at our destination.

The automated voice announces the arrival at our station, Toyohashi. I must have fallen asleep the last twenty minutes of the trip. The train comes to a stop. Another man had gotten on somewhere and is slouching on the bench. Is this his stop? He doesn’t move. He continues snoring.

Sumio disengages my two suitcases from the luggage rack. He takes one suitcase, and I grab the other one. I am dazed I don’t remember where I am or why I am here. I look down at my watch it says Thursday, January 7, 1981, 9:00 a.m. Why is it so dark outside? It is Thursday, January 8, 1:00 a.m. in Japan. I think I must have skipped a day of sleep somewhere.

The doors slide open. Sumio exits first, and I follow. I have no idea where I am going. It is dark inside the station and feels very ghostly because there is no one around. We follow the exit signs out of the station. A line of about six taxi cabs sits waiting for customers, most of whom are drunk Japanese businessmen on their way home. The taxi cab drivers are snoozing in their seats with their hands rested on the steering wheel.

We walk over to the parking lot. One single car is waiting with its lights on. A young man, eighteen years old gets out of the car. Sumio and I walk over to the driver. He bows to Sumio and gets a quick nod in return. He is 5’7″ tall and has a head of dark curly hair. The curls are not natural. It is the 80s, and it was the style of the times. He looks like a Japanese Brady Bunch kid.

Yasuo is the youngest of four boys. He is my brother-in-law. He bows to me and I to him. My bow does not have to be as deep as his because I am older than he, and an American woman. He puts my suitcases in the trunk of the car. Sumio sits in the passenger seat on the left. Yasuo sits in the driver’s position on the right. Japanese drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Sumio is the eldest in his family. Yasuo is the brother that Sumio needs to protect. Sumio is the respected oldest brother, oniisan. Japanese siblings do not call their older brothers or sisters by name. They use their titles; older brother, younger brother, older sister, and younger sister.

We get into the car, Sumio sits on the left side of the driver and I sit behind Sumio in the passenger seat. I observe the neon signs trying to figure out what they say. Is it a supermarket or a pachinko parlor? Is it a bar or a coffee shop? There are not many cars on the street at 1:00 a.m.

I am so tired. I can only think about falling into bed and sleeping for about two days. Twenty minutes later we arrive at our house. The house Sumio and I will live in for the next five years.

Sumio and Yasuo carry my two bags into the genkan. We remove our shoes and step up into the entryway. They drop the bags off in the bedroom which is on the way to the kitchen and small dining room. I am hoping for some quiet time with Sumio. Yasuo leads us into the kitchen. Sumio’s two brothers, father and mother are sitting on blue zabutons. It is 1:00 a.m. Why are they sitting in my living room?

The table is square and a round lacquered tray full of sushi is sitting in the middle of the table. Six pair of chopsticks are set around the table. Eight pairs of eyes are looking down at the food. They are avoiding eye contact with me. It would be rude for them to look at a stranger directly in the eyes. I look at them. I bow and whisper konbonwa (good evening), I whisper because I am afraid I might pronounce it wrong. They greet me in the same way. I sit on my zabuton with my legs under me. It is not polite to sit “Indian style” for a woman. So many things to learn. Small blue plates are placed in front of the chopsticks. Chopsticks are never placed on the side of dishes in Japan. The chopsticks sit on little chopstick holders. This is my first time to eat sushi.

Sushi does not refer to the raw fish. It refers to the vinegar rice that accompanies the sashimi (raw fish). Japanese serve sushi for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and welcoming visitors into their home. I am the visitor.

Most Japanese buy prepared sushi in the supermarket or a local convenience store. If Japanese eat sushi outside of their home they frequent a “sushiya” in their neighborhood. The sushi sitting on the table in the kitchen was made by my mother-in-law. Today was a special occasion. Her eldest son brought home an American wife. Was she celebrating?


Five Years in Japan/ The Birth

       “Just as there is no warning for childbirth, there is no preparation for the sight of a first child… There should be a song for women to sing at this moment, or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name the moment.”
― Anita Diamant,              

I’m feeling some movement and some pain. Should I call Sumio or wait? He’s about two hours away at work. I don’t want to wait too long. The baby begins to push some more. Sumio gave me the number to call when I’m ready to go to the hospital. Japanese women call an ambulance.  My husband is going to take me and be with me the whole time. I call the number he gave me. The phone rings. I practice what I am going to say when they answer. The person who answers doesn’t speak English.

“Sumio Kubota onegaishimasu.”

 I said, “Please contact Sumio Kubota.”

She asked again in Japanese, “Dare?”

I repeated, “Sumio Kubota.”

The second time she understands. I think Sumio might have warned them. He’s the only one in the company married to someone who can’t speak Japanese.

He gets on the phone, and I tell him, “I think I have some pain. Maybe the baby is ready.”

He said. “I’ll be home in two hours”

He has to take a company bus, get on a train, and ride his motorcycle home. A trip of about two hours: I wait patiently, no not patiently. I am in panic mode. I rush around the house, put my pajamas and clean underwear, and my toothbrush in an overnight bag. I keep myself busy. I make some green tea and drink it slowly. I lay on the bed in the bedroom and try to close my eyes. I hear the door open.

Sumio rushes in the bedroom, picks up my bag, helps me put on my shoes, and we get in the car.  I put my hand on his arm and say, “Please drive safely.”

He looks into my eyes, gives me a quick kiss and says, “I will”

It’s our first baby. We don’t know what to expect. We arrive at the hospital. It’s 2:30 p.m. I carefully walk into the hospital. The nurses are ready. Sumio had called the hospital on his way home. Two nurses and the midwife greet us with a gurney and tell me to lie down. The contractions are getting closer and more painful.


I lie in a Japanese hospital in the delivery room on a gurney with my back semi-supported with a few pillows. My legs are spread out in a frog position. I can’t see my feet because my stomach is the size of a hot air balloon. The midwife in her crisp white uniform and hat is standing on the right side of my belly gently massaging it with some lotion. Her right-hand rolls over my stomach and her left hand follows. My husband stands near my shoulders and follows the directions of the midwife.

“Gently Massage the shoulders.” I think she says in Japanese

He massages my shoulders. We practiced this at home for the past month. He’s not supposed to be in the birthing room. My mother should be there. She’s in the United States, and I would not think of having my mother in the delivery room. The second choice was my mother-in-law. No, sorry, that isn’t going to happen. She doesn’t speak English, and the last thing I want to do is give birth in front of her.

Men don’t enter the delivery room in Japan. Only women are allowed. Sumio is allowed to be there because his wife doesn’t have any sisters in Japan who can be with her and she doesn’t speak Japanese.

“Breathe! Push! Breathe! Push! Commands the midwife.

The pain is unbearable; I cry. I sweat! I yell!

I dig my fingernails into the arms of my husband who has not left my side. His arms become bruised, and he begins to bleed. He doesn’t complain.

“Breathe! Push! Breathe! Push! Commands the midwife again.

The doctor is somewhere down there waiting for the baby to emerge. After four hours of labor with no epidural, there is a scream. This time it’s not me. It’s our baby.

The doctor waves his hand signaling Sumio to approach the screaming baby. He passes the scissors to my husband and instructs him to cut the umbilical cord.  It’s not in the plan. He smiles from ear to ear, and his eyes lit up like never before. He cuts the cord looks up at me and says, “It’s a girl!” We didn’t know the sex before the birth.  I look over at Sumio who is cradling a naked red baby (acachan).  He has tears in his eyes, tears of joy.  Sumio places her on my chest and tears flow like raindrops slowly down my cheeks. She feels warm. Her five purple fingers curled like fists into her hands. We check her five tiny toes and her long legs. I look into her eyes. I want to find something that looks like me. She has blue eyes. 

 “All babies are born with blue eyes,” says the doctor.

I want my baby to have blue eyes because I have blue eyes.

She’s the first female to be born into both my family and Sumio’s family in twenty-seven years. I hold her for five minutes, and then they whisk her away to clean her and wrap her in a warm blanket. I already miss her.

I can hear fireworks bang! pop! going off in the park near the hospital. It’s summer, and Japan celebrates six weeks of firework festivals on the weekends.

Our daughter, Lisa, is a curious sight in the incubator lined up with the other babies in the nursery. She’s the only American/Japanese baby. Everyone passes by and stares at her. Her hair is thin and light. It’s not a black puff sticking straight up on top of her head like the Japanese babies. The color of her skin isn’t olive but not creamy white either. She doesn’t have a Mongolian spot on her back like Japanese babies.

Having a baby in Japan requires some research. My Dr. Spock book, the only one available to me in 1982, doesn’t explain the Japanese birthing process.  I need an obstetrician who speaks English. Where is the nearest hospital? Where can we sign up for Lamaze classes?

When we first find out that I am pregnant, we start shopping for hospitals. We visit the public hospital that is six hundred feet from our house. If we use the public hospital, the delivery is free. Japan has a socialized medical system. We enter the hospitals and have a nurse take us on a quick tour. The smell is clean. The room is drab, white paint on all four walls, no pictures, no windows, and blue cotton curtains separating one patient from the other. I want to get out. I feel I am in prison. This is not a place where I want to have a baby.

My Japanese language skills are those of a three-year-old; I can answer “yes” or “no.” Most of the time I don’t understand the question, but I don’t want to show my stupidity, so I pretend. I ask the questions and Sumio translates. We walk around two-

three hospitals, and there are no rooms. Women give birth behind blue curtains. There is no privacy.

“Are there any private rooms for delivery?” I ask the nurse who is giving the tour.

“No, we have three or four women delivering at the same time.” She answers

I wrinkle my face and look at Sumio. He asks me not to show my emotions directly in front of the nurse. It’s a form of rudeness in Japan.

I begin to ask questions of anyone who speaks English. “Where did you go to have your baby?” No one can tell me an answer because none of my foreign friends have children yet.  One of my American friends is teaching English to an obstetrician. She suggests we check him out. The doctor owns the hospital which is common in Japan. The hospital accommodates twenty patients, women and babies only.

I tell my husband about the information relayed to me about the obstetrician. The next day he takes off from work, and we go to visit the hospital. The hospital is the obstetrician’s house.

We ring his doorbell. He opens the door.

Irashai mase,” he says.

Ojama shimasu” replies Sumio.

I smile and somehow say “Ojama shimasu.”

“My name is Sumio Kubota, and this is my wife, Carol.” “We’re friends of your English teacher Joann,” says Sumio.

“Yes, Yes, I know. Good teacher. Joann good teacher. My English not good” says the doctor.

He invites us into his living room. We remove our shoes. He places two pairs of slippers on the gekan, and we slide them on our feet. Sumio and I both bow from the waist down to him and he bows a little above the waist to us. He’s of a higher rank than we are. I learn this by watching Japanese soap operas. The doctor shows us to a table, and we sit with our feet under us on his tatami floor.  His wife appears from the kitchen with a tray carrying ocha and cookies. She is short, round and wears a flowered skirt and pink blouse. She wears a white apron over her clothing. She smiles, bows from the waist and sets the tray on the table in front of us, she pours hot tea into the teacups and places them on the right side of each of our settings. We drink tea, and the doctor asks Sumio about my condition. Wait, I’m pregnant not Sumio. Sumio relays the questions to me and then translates my answers to the doctor. Sumio is not very comfortable in his position of being pregnant for me. He and the doctor continue talking, and I begin to think that this isn’t going to be an easy project. 

They finish talking, and the doctor gets up, and so do we. He leads us to the door. We put on our shoes. We head out the door and across the lawn to the hospital. He shows us around the hospital. The rooms are private, and everything is clean. We enter the doctor’s

office. I have a list of questions I want to ask him. He examines me, takes my blood pressure, listens to my heart, weighs me, takes my measurements both around my belly and my height. He begins to talk to my husband in Japanese.

Hello, I’m the one who is pregnant let me in on the information.

My husband tries to translate, and I try to understand. I thought the doctor might be able to speak a little more English after all he is taking English classes from my friend.

All my vital signs check out. We decide to have the baby at this hospital.

In the fourth month, I ask the doctor if there are any birthing classes for Sumio and I. All I had was a Dr. Spock book. That was in the time where Dr. Spock knew everything.

There are no birthing classes. I am supposed to watch a movie shown at the local civic center. This movie will provide me the necessary information I need to give birth. I walk in. It’s a theater with stadium type seats. I sit down. I’m the only white American woman in the place. I smile at some of the women while they whisper to each other and wonder why there’s an American woman in the room with them. The movie comes on after about ten minutes of waiting. I feel very anxious; all I want to do is get up and walk out.

It’s black and white. This movie is twenty-five years ago. It is now 1982. They introduce a woman who’s pregnant. She’s lying down on the hospital bed ready to give birth.

I look at the moving pictures. The woman begins to breathe deeper and deeper. Five minutes later a baby pops out. The movie ends. What? That’s all! I am starting to get very nervous — no classes to show me how to breathe.

No classes showing Sumio how to calm me down if something happens. No massaging of my swollen protruding stomach. What do I do?

On the second day of my stay after giving birth to our daughter Lisa, no one comes into the room.  The nurses don’t come in often. They’re afraid of the gaijin who is in a private room. They bring in breakfast at 7:30 every morning, no one has shown up with my breakfast. My husband comes by at 7:30. I ask him about my breakfast. He goes to find out. He comes back with this answer. “They don’t think you like the breakfast.”

The breakfast consists of toast with butter, salad, misoshiru, a boiled egg, and green tea. On the first day, I eat everything except misoshiru. I am not too fond of misoshiru. It’s too salty.

Sumio clears up the misunderstanding. They deliver a boiled egg, salad, toast, and tea. He brings his breakfast from McDonald’s, a sausage biscuit with hash browns. I want his breakfast.

Babies in Japan don’t sleep with their mothers in the hospital. They sleep in the nursery in their incubators. The nurses bring the babies into the mother’s rooms only for nursing.

“Can you ask them to bring Lisa into the room?” I ask Sumio.

He comes back five minutes later and says “It is too early. They’re not ready yet.”

They bring her around 8:00. They set her on my chest and tell Sumio that I need to breastfeed her. They lay a warm towel on my breasts and massage them for a few minutes.

They lay Lisa down on my stomach and direct my left nipple into her mouth. She begins to suck. She starts to cry.

“You don’t have enough milk flowing yet.” says the nurse to Sumio

Not being able to produce milk begins the process of giving massages three times a day to keep my milk flowing. I have a size DDD breast, and no milk was finding its way down the pipe.  The nurses take Lisa away to the nursery when the milk stops coming. I’m not good at nursing. I don’t want Lisa to leave; I want her to stay with me. I pretend she’s still nursing. I keep her as close as I can. There is no way I’m letting her out of my hands. She’s the only one who can understand me.

Japanese women stay in the hospital for one week after giving birth. I only last five days. I plead with Sumio to get me out sooner. I want to go home.

The day I leave from the hospital my mother-in-law shows up with Sumio. I tug on his pants and give him “the look”.

“What’s your mother doing here?” I ask

 He looks down at me as I sit in the wheelchair ready for him to take me to the car.

“It’s a Japanese custom for the mother to show up and take the baby home and help you take care of her.” He tries to explain as I stare him straight in the eyes,  my sign of showing anger. I hold my tongue for now. I don’t want to create a scene and embarrass Sumio in public.

We get into the car. He opens the back passenger door and loads my bag and helps me get into my seat. He closes the door. He opens the front passenger seat, takes the baby from his mother as she gets in her seat. He passes our baby to his mom in the front seat.

Wait a minute. It’s unsafe for a baby to sit in the front seat. There are no seat belt rules in 1982.

Sumio starts the car. Tears stream down my face. Lisa is my baby, and I want to hold her in my arms.  Sumio catches my face in the rearview mirror. He stops the car at the Seven Eleven and gets out. He opens the passenger side of the front seat, retrieves Lisa from the arms of his mother, opens the back- passenger door, hands me Lisa and kisses me on the forehead.

He says, “I am sorry.”

Culture differences haunt our relationship as we try to figure each other out.

We arrive at home, and I carry Lisa into the house. I’m not letting this child out of my site.

It’s a hot, humid summer day. We don’t have an air conditioner, and the windows are open. I put a cotton t-shirt and a diaper on Lisa. I watch her fall asleep in her new crib. My mother in law covers her with three blankets. I take them off. She thinks Lisa is going to catch a cold. I watch Sumio’s mother pick up her suitcase and walk to the car. I hadn’t noticed the suitcase before. It’s big enough to hold two weeks of clothing.

“Why does she have a suitcase?” I ask my husband.

“She was going to stay here for three weeks to take care of you and Lisa.”

“Now, she’s going home.”

He looks at me, kisses me on the forehead, and says “I love you!” again.  “My mother will be fine. I know you can take care of the baby and the house on your own. You are strong. Our family is you, me, and Lisa.”