Would you marry someone whose nationality differs from your own? International marriage is a topic interesting to many people in Japan and elsewhere but really spoken in depth by few.
When it comes to international marriages in Japan and the process to obtain the visa it’s easy to access ample and detailed information, but what about hearing about personal experience of people who are currently married with Japanese nationals? What was their experience like? Did they find it hard to adapt? Was the relationship seamless to develop? Did they have any problems not necessarily related to their partner?
To get more of a sense of cultural differences and similarities, we spoke with a few expats who are currently residing in Japan with a Japanese spouse to get their take on things.
Background: International marriages in Japan
Since the 1980s, international marriages in Japan had been on the rise, coming to peak around 2006 when around 6% of all marriages involved a Japanese marrying a foreign spouse! In recent years, these numbers are again on the rise. These numbers probably reflect the global international blurring of boundaries and the sharing of cultures.
Our Expats: American, British, Italian
We contacted some non-Japanese nationals who are married to Japanese citizens and asked them to cover some topics that we found many people are interested in knowing more about. Paul is from the UK; Brian and Tim are from the USA; and T.H. is from Italy. We asked each of them for their opinions on several different points about (international) married life and how they approach daily life with their partner.
How different is it, really?
We wondered how different it was to get married to someone from an entirely different cultural background, so we asked our interviewees this:
"Do you think it's different to be with a Japanese partner when compared to people from your country? Why or why not?"
The answers were quite varied:
Paul (United Kingdom): There are obviously differences. One is the language barrier. Even if you both speak each other’s language as a second language, as we do, there are often times when we misunderstand each other or can’t say exactly what you want to say. It can be frustrating, but it’s not too hard to get over it with patience and mutual understanding. Ultimately, it strengthens the relationship.
Other differences often don’t become apparent for a long time and can be quite shocking. This summer I noticed that a hornet queen was starting to build a nest right outside our front door. As it was still very small, I grabbed a lighter and a screwdriver and took care of it myself. My Japanese wife was utterly shocked that I would do such a thing; she would have called the city office as a matter of course. Conversely, even after 15 years in Japan and 3 years of marriage, I just discovered last week that Japanese households don’t have communal chopsticks but everyone has their own pair. I talked about this with my Japanese wife and she said something like “I’ve been putting up with it this whole time”. I didn’t even know.
Absolutely yes! Essentially people are people. However what shapes each and every person are things such as religious believes, things such as their upbringing, television shows and culture in general, so when being with a Japanese spouse, something that may be common knowledge or common practice for one partner may be totally alien to another partner. That in itself can bring about tension in a relationship.
T.H. (Italy): There are many differences in terms of culture, mannerism, tradition, way of living, but generally speaking, aside from the aforementioned items, I think that it really depends on the partner, rather than on their nationality. I believe that had I found a spouse of a different nationality, but with similar personality traits, we would have had a very similar life and lifestyle.
Tim (USA): Different, yes. When you are both coming from the same (or similar) culture, you have a large set of shared cultural references from which to draw – so things like humor and understanding what is unsaid in a conversation (and why) can be much easier at times. Patience is a huge factor in any relationship, but when you’re married to someone with a completely different set of experiences and who speaks a different language, patience is a must. Beyond that, I think people are people – after all, if you share many core things in common and there’s chemistry, you just click.
If you wanted to break up, could you?
Here, we asked specifically this:
"Have you ever felt that, if something happens that makes you want to end your relationship, you might not be able to because you depend on your partner for your visa, or other aspects of your life in Japan?"
Our interviewees answered with the following:
Paul: No, never. I was already established as a single guy in Japan, with a job, an apartment, taking care of all my own taxes and other matters. When we got married, I didn’t move from a working visa to a spouse visa, as I had already applied for and got PR (Permanent Resident status). I like to be independent as much as possible. I don’t want my Japanese wife to have be the one who reads all the letters and makes all the phone calls.
Brian: Sure there are times when I myself have felt that way. I think in any situation where you’re not 100% independent and you have to rely on another for one thing or another you can tend to feel that if something were to happen it would not be as easy for you to pick up and leave. Things such as if that person is your sponsor for your visa; if you happen to be working with that person‘s parents or any close relatives or friends; if that person has been the cosigner or filled out all of the applications for your cell phone or your house or anything else that you may have, you feel that if you were to leave it would be extremely difficult.
T.H.: At a purely hypothetical level, I thought about it. There hasn’t been, during my relationship, a moment in which I felt I would want to end things (and I assume the same can be said for my spouse), but it is a thought that can easily cross one’s mind. Especially in cases in which everything is under one person’s name, or one depends financially on one’s spouse, there could be this kind of fear. My situation is different in that, I’m financially independent. Our properties belong to one or the other, or both of us. Truthfully I believe that this could be a problem almost only in cases one settled oneself in a country through marriage, as opposed to already having been independent before the marriage.
Tim: Not in the slightest. Not that I’ve ever thought about separating – but we are both financially independent, while at the same time having shared finances. Since I had been living in Japan for over a decade before I met my Japanese wife and have assimilated a fair deal to the culture, I don’t feel reliant on her in this manner.
After getting married, how did you decide in which country to live, and why did you make that choice?
Paul: Easy decision for us because I had already been living and working in Japan for years when we met. As I had a career, friends and a network, I never considered leaving. We might leave one day, as we would love to have the experience of living in a third country (not Japan or my home country) but that depends on my work. In addition, I’m from the UK and while I don’t want to get too political, it is a very uncertain time for people there and I don’t believe economic prospects are good. Japan is by far better bet for us, in terms of living standards and career opportunities for me.
Brian: We got married in Japan and we decided to live in Japan because we were already here also my place of employment was in Japan at the time.
T.H.: We met outside of either one’s country. Later in life we met again when I moved to Japan. Things happened rather organically, and I had already decided I wanted to live in Japan before thinking about getting married. We do entertain the idea of maybe moving to my country in the distant future, but as things are now, both of us are happy here and we are building our future in Japan.
Tim: For me, it was a choice that was kind of made for us: my Japanese wife has no experience in living abroad; meanwhile at that point I had been living in Japan for over 13 years. It was more of a decision of practicality. If my wife relocated with me in the States, she would be starting her life over – career and social circle included. I would be as well, given my commitment to Japan. Given that we married in our late 30s, this would represent a sizable jump backward for both of our careers as we sought to re-establish ourselves. I kind of joke about it, but it was easy for me to decide to marry my wife; the decision to also marry her country as well was what I had to mull over.
Did you change your last name to a Japanese one? Why?
Paul: No, my Japanese wife took my name. I didn’t force her to; she wanted to do it. I have never considered taking a Japanese name.
Brian: No, As the male in the relationship I felt a strong need for my wife to take my last name as is tradition in my family.
T.H.: I have not, and do not plan to. There are several reasons, but honestly, the main one is a strange sense of pride in holding my family name (added to the idea that I would like to, one day, pass it on).
Tim: No, because I did not see the need to. Nor did she take my last name. Japanese culture is still rather conservative in many ways, and when a Japanese national has a foreign surname, it can inadvertently cause certain prejudgments to arise.
Are you interested in obtaining a Japanese citizenship?
Paul: Not in the slightest. I have PR, and except for voting it grants me all the rights and freedoms I need. I wish I could vote, as I’m established here and pay taxes but if I got it I would have to renounce my British citizenship and that’s not something I am prepared to do.
Note: unlike some other countries, Japan does not allow citizens to hold a dual citizenship (even Japan born citizens holding a dual nationality are required to choose one by the age of 22. It is important to know, though, that while the law does not allow dual citizenship, hundreds of thousands of people still hold a double passport, and the government, to date, has never cracked down on any of them. The subject of dual citizenship in Japan is still quite confusing, also because of the ambiguous rules put in place by the government in Japan.
Brian: No, not at all. I have a permanent visa and that is enough for me.
T.H.: I do not want a Japanese citizenship. Had the process been less complicated, and more “understanding” of my own heritage and origin, I would have entertained the idea, but as things stand, I want to maintain my own citizenship.
Note: It’s important to know that taking a Japanese citizenship comes also with some sacrifices for the applicants. Additionally to having to renounce one’s citizenship from the country of origin, the applicant must also choose a Japanese last name (or adopt that of their spouse, if they are married). Furthermore a very thorough (and some would say unnecessarily invasive) background check on the applicant and his/her family is performed by the authorities.
Tim: I'm very proud to be an American citizen. But I also admit that I’m now somewhere in between cultures: living in Japan but not Japanese; living as an expat, so a stranger to current American society. I've been having exactly this conversation with a few other long-term expats - folks who have been living in Japan already for 25-30 years, who are looking at the future. Looking forward 20-30 years for me, it may likely be more practical to become a Japanese citizen - but it’s a decision I think I’ll defer to the future.
How do you find life as a married couple differs (if at all) between Japan and your own country?
Paul: Not sure. We work Monday to Friday, we watch Netflix in the evenings and eat together, we go shopping or go on day trips on the weekends and spend time with friends... I guess life is pretty similar for people of our situation in most developed economies nowadays.
Brian: I think married life around the world is pretty much the same anywhere you go with some slight exceptions. Generally speaking just like most married couples with children around the world you spend most of your free time with your kids and every now and then you try to find some time away from the kids for you and your wife to have a date night or have couples time. Weekends become a repeat of laundry and shopping for groceries taking kids to soccer matches, etc.
T.H: While, in general, life in the household is similar between Japan and my country (again, I do believe it depends on the individuals), when it comes to life in general there are some differences.
Most of these things are expected (for example, helping people understand why a Japanese person would introduce oneself with a foreign last name). Also, we live in a rural area, and people, generally, are not used to seeing international married couples. This doesn’t really cause problems, rather curious looks, or questions.
All in all, though, when it comes to important things such as renting or buying a house, getting a car, putting bills under our name, getting insurance, etc, there is no relevant difference.
What are the pros and cons (if any) as a foreigner in being married in Japan to a Japanese citizen?
Paul: It can be a nice talking point; I know my Japanese wife gets lots of curious questions about her unusual family name. I feel like being married here is one of the things that differentiates me from “fly by night” foreigners who are here to study or do a working holiday; it shows I’m here to stay. We do occasionally get looks from people as a mixed couple, but it’s rarely hostile (unlike some other East Asian countries I could mention) and usually it’s fine. When we show up to sign a contract or something there’s always a moment of surprise when the person sees I’m not Japanese but it’s quickly over.
Brian: The benefit of being a foreigner married to a Japanese citizen in Japan is a matter of perspective. For example I personally feel that being married to a Japanese citizen gives me more access to things that have traditionally been foreigner-unfriendly. As a foreigner there are probably many things that I would probably have no clue about or even think to look up if it weren’t for my wife, thus I feel that being married to a Japanese national has enriched my life in Japan.
T.H.: I don’t think there are any benefits or downsides. Certainly, if one were to look at the visa, such a situation does open a lot more doors (professionally, for example). Yet, if one gets married while already being an established professional, and/or after a long time living in Japan, I don’t think there would be any determining benefits, or downsides.
Tim: I don’t think there are any clear downsides besides the frustration of still not being freely able to express myself in Japanese, or understand the nuances of what she says in Japanese to me. We tend to meet in the middle when it comes to language: sometimes I’ll speak in English, as will she; sometimes I’ll speak in Japanese, as will she; sometimes I’ll speak in English and she’ll reply in Japanese. If anything, it's wonderful to be able to get to know another culture by having a native introduce me to things I probably would not have discovered on my own.
How much do you depend on your partner for daily tasks (paying bills, talking on the phone with the electric/gas/water company, managing the household in general)?
Paul: As I mentioned, as little as possible, though in practice she probably shoulders more of the really complicated stuff just to get it done quicker. I was doing for myself for years, albeit with some mistakes and quite slowly, so I could do it alone again if I had to. I call it payback for when we go overseas and I’m handling all the arrangements.
Brian: I work for a Japanese company thus my level of Japanese might be better than most however the roles of my household are still very traditional in the sense that I go to work, make the money [while] my wife takes care of household duties. Many of the utility bills I have set up on an automatic debit from my bank account and in the event that I need to communicate with electric gas water company reps we sometimes take turns.
T.H.: My level of Japanese is good enough to handle daily tasks, but my spouse does handle almost all the calls to internet, gas, water, electricity providers, simply for a matter of efficiency and time saving (similarly, every time there’s something to be handled in English I take care of it, despite my partner’s very high level of English).
Tim: Very little, if at all.
Do you think life at home is different between Japan and your country? How so? (i.e. division of tasks, housekeeping, grocery shopping, enjoying spare time, etc).
Paul: We are not traditionally Japanese as a couple. My wife doesn’t make a bento for me; why should she? She works too. We share the cooking and cleaning. Like many Japanese, we have one weekend day every weekend to just doze, read, watch movies; that’s about the most Japanese thing we do! I think we’d be living much the same way in another country.
Brian: In my hometown we always designated a set day for doing certain tasks for example Saturday was considered laundry day; Sunday was considered grocery day. This is so that we didn’t have to constantly do the same things over and over again in small doses and we could do it all at once and get it out-of-the-way for the week. In Japan it is very different, usually my wife goes shopping every single day for groceries. Usually laundry is done every single day. In American households, often chores such as taking out the trash, washing the dishes, folding the laundry etc. are given to children who have come of age. This practice is a way for the children to learn responsibility and often to earn their allowance. In Japan it would seem that household chores such as these are rarely done by children. Perhaps this is one of the biggest differences in American versus Japanese upbringing.
T.H.: I believe we live exactly the same as we would in any other country. Some differences derive by how we are used to handling things. I like to fix what needs to be fixed, do yard work, and so on by myself. I tend to call professionals only if there’s something that I know I can’t possibly handle. My spouse is ready to pick up the phone and call a professional at the first sight of a leaking faucet.
In my country we tend to be stricter with kids and we have them work chores (although I do believe that kids in Japan are already worked enough as it is). The division of tasks in the household depends on people. I must admit that my spouse handles most of the housework (not because of our nationality. It’s more a matter of available time and choices). We do help one another greatly though, as we are restructuring our house, while trying to maintain a nice and clean environment (all of this having to deal with our dogs). We are bound to try and share chores as much as possible.
Tim: I would say my Japanese wife and I are both a bit unconventional. We are both independent, not clingy people, and to a degree enjoy our separate time and space – for instance, sometimes I’ll meet with my friends for drinks and so she will with hers. I really enjoy that we can text each other during the day and have fluid plans: she’ll have to work late, so I’ll meet up with friends, or we’ll simply decide on a night out with each other and some beers with yakitori. We did sort of settle into certain roles though: I cook, she does the dishes; I clean the bathroom, she does the laundry. We both do shopping, often together. I don’t think it’s so different from life if we were living in the US.
For couples with kids: how did you decide on the citizenship of your child?
Paul: We don’t have kids yet.
Brian: They will be dual citizens.
T.H.: We don’t have kids and we haven’t given much thought about what nationality we’d want them to have.
Tim: We don’t have kids yet. Ideally, I would like our children to have dual citizenship – at least initially – so they have the opportunity to choose their nationality later in life.
Life in a foreign country as an international couple can often seem like a scary endeavor, but Japan is seeing more and more successful marriages among Japanese and non-Japanese nationals in the past few years.
In many cases, as you could read from our friends’ answers, there even aren’t many differences in the life that you would lead here or elsewhere.
International marriage will probably remain a sensitive topic for most but as our world is getting smaller and our boundaries less separating, more and more people want to learn and talk about it, making things much less confusing and obscure!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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