I’m a New Zealander living in Tokyo with my husband, Yoshi, and I’m mum to three kids (one son and two daughters, 15 and 12). Three spoiled cats complete the family. Two of the kids are in NZ for school right now, staying with my parents, so I’m feeling the empty nest thing a lot these days.
|Louise and family in 2013|
Louise George Kittaka.
George is my maiden name, and I didn’t love it that much when I was growing up – got the usual “Girl George” jokes, etc. Then when I first came to Japan, people sometimes thought I was a guy called “George Lewis” if they just saw my name in Katakana! Kind of annoying. When I married my husband, I was more than happy to take his name since it made my life much easier.
If I speak on the phone, I can just give my name as “Kittaka” and people often don’t even know they are talking to a gaijin. However, Kittaka is pretty unusual as Japanese names go. The Kanji for the first part is difficult to write. It means a kind of citrus tree, and is pronounced tachibana or kitsu. People mispronounce it on a regular basis, so I getTachibanataka-san or Kitsutaka-san. They don’t realize the inflection changes to become “Kit-taka” in this case. On the plus side, once they remember the name, they rarely forget it. I decided to put my maiden name in there as well, since it goes quite well with Kittaka, being short. (It might have been a different story if my name had been Ramsbottom orPennyfeather or something like that.)
Do you want the long or short version? OK, the short one, probably!
I majored in Japanese at university in NZ, and first came here as a second-year-student on a working holiday when I was 18. Loved it and decided I definitely wanted to get a job using Japanese after graduation, but being a rather shy homebody in those days, I thought I wanted to work and live in NZ. It took some time to find the right kind of job – I wanted to work for a “proper company” but ended up at a duty free shop at the Auckland airport for six months to keep up my Japanese while I looked for something better.
Through being persistent, I eventually got hired by a small Japanese firm that were building a new factory in NZ and sending Japanese workers over. They took me to train at the Japanese office in Hiroshima-ken for six months, and I met my husband at a party while I was there. (It was an Xmas party for gaijin and hangers-on, and he and some workmates came with the American woman who taught English at his firm. She was a friend of mine and introduced us.) We met two weeks before Xmas, and were engaged within 10 days after four dates – yep, very quick!! I was still very young and naive, only 20, and he was 10 years older than me. But I was in loooove!
His family was not thrilled and neither were my firm, but I went back to NZ to work for them as originally planned and put in a good year there. In the meantime, we had a long distance relationship, and visited each other when we could. (During the 15 months between first meeting and getting married, we were actually physically together for about nine weeks of that time!)
|Wedding day 1991.|
His family realized we were serious and came round, and my family was totally OK with it after they met him and saw what a great guy he was. We married soon after I turned 22, and have been married for 22 years this April. We’ve been in Japan the whole time, except for five years in the USA for his job and grad. school for both of us. No real plans to leave as far as I know, but nothing is set in stone.
Because I got married in the early 90s and lived in a small, provincial city, people seemed to assume we would procreate right away. (Plus he was 32 by then, and in those days, in that area, that was quite “late” to be starting a family!) I got fed up with twee comments such as “Mada?” and knowing glances when I said I felt ill or tired (as if it was morning sickness or something). His family, to their credit, never put pressure on us, as he is the youngest of three boys and there were already five grandkids by then. It was mostly his workmates, or people in the community. All my Japanese girlfriends were still in their early 20s and single, so it was like living in two different worlds. Actually, I didn’t like kids at all in those days, so getting pregnant soon after the wedding would have been a calamity to me.
After a year, I got a good job in publishing and then we moved to Tokyo for his new job and I got a transfer. Things were going great until his firm decided to send us to Buffalo, NY—a place I knew nothing about except it snowed a lot. When I was told I couldn’t on my visa there, I “resigned” myself to getting pregnant, which we achieved in due course. I said I was going to have ONE kid and it would be a girl. (Obviously that didn’t work out as planned). He went over to the States ahead of me and I stayed behind to finish my work projects (my choice), and then I joined him at the last possible moment, when I was 33 weeks along.
It was still unusual for pregnant women in Japan to work in those days, and I got very fed up with all the warning about things you “couldn’t do” in Japan when pregnant: Don’t ride a bike, don’t go to karaoke, don’t go on roller coasters, don’t travel overseas…I did all those things and more! Luckily, I had a super-healthy pregnancy. Our son was born in Buffalo, where I also went back to school to do an MA in Intercultural Studies and had our first daughter. Then the company moved us to Nashville, TN for DH to get his MBA and I worked part time as a researcher at the same university. Soon after we came back to Tokyo, I got pregnant again and DD2 was born here.
|The family that rides together…2010.|
By far the hardest thing has been virtually being a single parent, and trying to combine a career with raising children! Even in the US, my husband worked long hours, but nothing compared to what he does here. Since we met and married in Japan, I knew about all that, but I did expect a BIT more help with those kids when they were little. He was fairly hands-on during the weekends (I made sure of that!), but on weekdays? Forget it. My MIL was in Hiroshima-ken so I had no help at all, I was it. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?! I guess I must be pretty strong, then. There were days I felt like chucking one or more of the kids (or myself) out the window, but somehow we got through it.
My oldest daughter was a real wild child, strong-willed and ready to throw a tantrum anytime, anywhere, changing from all smiles to a thundercloud in seconds! All my gray hairs are from that kid, I reckon. That was very hard to deal with, particularly when I also had an older kid and younger one, as well. But somehow I managed.
I started an English playgroup soon after we got back to Tokyo, and the mums (non-Japanese and Japanese) who I made friends with through playgroup have been a wonderful source of support and encouragement. When my kids were tiny, there was nothing like the online communities you have now. Those playgroup friends are still among my very closest mates here!
As for being a working mum, that’s tough ANYWHERE, but so hard here when you can’t get your kids into hoikuen (daycare). I tried for three years until I finally got my two daughters in, the year their brother started school. Up till that time, I’d patched together expensive private care for the oldest, and worked around my son’s kindy hours. It felt like winning the lottery when both my girls got in. The littlest was just two months old, and I could never have imagined putting such a tiny baby into full time daycare when the older kids were that age. But you do what you need to do, and hoikuen was wonderful for her. (I did keep both girls home one day a week for playgroup until they were 4, though.)
Hmm… since my older two were born in the States, I found some quite stark differences when I arrived back in Tokyo in the late 90s with a 4-year old and 18-month old. I really wondered how I could get around the city with my little ones, since everything was geared for adults.
Elevators at stations were rare, and taking kids into restaurants didn’t seem the “done thing (as opposed to the US where most places welcomed children). It seemed fine if we stayed in our suburban bed town, where I could get round with my kids on my bike and go to the kindy, the park etc., but going further afield was very intimidating at first. I didn’t feel comfortable driving downtown in those days, so during the week I took the train most places with them. However, by the time I had my second daughter, I was getting used to it and took them out and about, and learned to be more comfortable driving round, too.
In those days, there was also very little in the way of part-time or drop in daycare. It was either full-time hoikuen or nothing until the kid was old enough for kindy. I think it’s a little better now… As for co-sleeping, did that in the US when my husband was in grad. school as his hours were so strange! He had one room in the apartment, and the kids and I had the other. But I have never been into bathing with my kids, EVER. I would give myself 24-7 to my kids if necessary, but bath time was my one time to be alone.
I have a magnet on my fridge that says, “No such thing as a non-working mother!”. But I guess you mean paid work, right?
Yes, I have always worked, except for the first year when my son was a baby. It wasn’t just the money (which we certainly need now with three kids), it was my personal need to have something beyond my children. I’m not saying that staying home with your kids isn’t a valid choice—it certainly is, and I’m glad that Japanese society honors that choice as a valuable one. But I think I’ve been a better and happier mum to my kids because of my desire to keep working in some capacity.
Before kids, I worked full-time for an educational publishing firm in Japan. I worked alongside the regular Japanese employees, doing all the things they did, and I was proud of that. Some things were frustrating, and occasionally that left me in tears, but I had two great women bosses. (At a time when it was rare to have women in management at Japanese firms.)
In the States, I had to struggle with visa regulations to be able to work, but after finishing grad. school I first worked as an intern in international HR at an automotive firm, and then as a researcher at a university. I had to start from scratch when we came back to Japan, but gradually I picked up work here and there, and one thing lead to another. My bread and butter is editing and writing for the educational market—Benesse, Eiken, other publishing companies. I also do stories for newspapers and magazines when I have the time and energy. I never saw myself as having the patience to teach English, but when the kids were tiny I got offered a part-time job working in a public high school for special needs kids, and I’ve been there 13 years and have grown to love it. And in the past few years, I’ve been doing cross-cultural training seminars for families going overseas, or coming to Japan to work. I seem to have found a niche working with the kids in these families, and I really enjoy it. Not bad for someone who never liked kids till I had my own!
I’m on Facebook but that’s it. I have thought vaguely about blogging but don’t have the time or real will to do it. I have written a column for the past nine years for the Association of Foreign Wives Journal, which I call “Mama Baka”. I guess that is kind of like a blog in away, and re-reading those columns is like reliving my past. I also love scrapbooking.
Hate!! I guess I am too shy/prudish but I don’t feel comfortable in them. If I had a choice, I would still rather go to one where I didn’t know the people, than hop in the onsen with people I DO know. Uh-uh, not for me. The only time I went in an onsen with someone who wasn’t my kid, was when I got really quite sloshed and let a friend convince me to try one at a convention together. She still teases me about how she took my “onsen virginity”.
Big Like!! Can I change it to love? For someone who was really shy in NZ, I sometime think that karaoke helped me learn to open up. I’ve always loved singing, and karaoke is one of the best things ever in my opinion. I’ll go anywhere, anytime. (I’m a mike hog, though. If you are one of those people who sits there for five minutes leafing through the book or fiddling with the remote because you can’t make up my mind, I’ll put in another song while you’re messing around!) I was chosen to sing on the NHK Nodo Jiman show when it came to our city some years ago. 900 people auditioned and 15 acts got chosen to sing on the show. If you can sing live on national TV at 10 in the morning, you can sing anywhere.
Yuck, no! Hate. The husband and kids like it, so good for them. But not me.
Can I add this? I collect plastic figures and models of the Colonial Marines. My husband doesn’t get it at all, but I love that series. I took a day off work and dragged my 2nd daughter downtown to meet Michael Biehn (Corporal Hicks) when he came to Tokyo last year, too. My favourite “Aliens”character is Private Vasquez, though. If ever there was a KA female movie character, it’s her!
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