This month we meet KA Mom Kathy Kuwahara. Kathy came to Japan seven years ago on the JET program and while she was here, she met her husband, Satoshi. Kathy explains to us the difficulties and of course the positives of being a late mom and the full time bread winner in Japan and how she raises her child to be aware of her American heritage.
Being a Parent and the sole bread-winner
Being a late mom is challenging. Being a late mom with limited Japanese, is a lot more challenging. My little one decided to be 3 weeks late and I had to have a semi-emergency c-section. Surgery in America was scary enough. Now, I was about to go under the knife with very limited Japanese. Luckily, the hospital made an exception and let my husband in the operating room. And, to his true form, he had me laughing through most of the procedure.
Since my husband quit his job to help with the baby, recovering from my c-section proved to be easier than I thought. I stayed on maternity leave for 6 months. In Japan, you can take a year off. I went back to work when my little one was 6 months old. My husband stayed at home with the baby. It is rare in Japan for that to happen. However, since I was the bread-winner, it was a no-brainer. Plus, in Japan, mothers are allowed to leave work during lunch for 1 hour to go home and breastfeed their baby. So, it made it really easy for me to go back to work. When the little one was 9 months, she started school (as I like to call it). In Japan, the day cares are completely different than America. In Japan, we have to fill out a form and hope our little one would be accepted to the local day care (hoikuen). We were lucky and she got in.
I have been an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) for 7 years. I teach English in elementary and junior high schools. Being an ALT for so long (5 years on JET and 2 years private) was due mostly to necessity. Since my husband quit his job when I had our daughter, he was without a job and someone had to work. During the last 5 years, my husband has been trying a variety of jobs to find what he wants to do. Before we were married, he was a chemical engineer. He made supplements and vitamins. He hated the company and so it wasn’t hard for him to quit. During his unemployment, he tried to get into free-lance translation, but it didn’t pan out. For about a year and a half, he worked as a JAT (Japanese Assistant Teacher), for the same school system I work for. He really enjoyed it. He also worked for a company temporarily as a translator. He really enjoyed that as well. Since this year will be my last year, he finally hunkered down and found a job. He works for a pharmaceutical company again, but in a different role. He will be mostly translating, which he enjoys. I have never regretted allowing my husband to take time to find a job; to find his way. I was 30 when I finally decided/found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was only fair I allowed him the same opportunity to find his way.
This August, I will be jobless (my contract is up). And, since my husband’s job requires us to move to Tokyo this year, I am not going to be working for a while. After we move to Tokyo, get set up, and get the little one into a hoikuen yochien (day care/kindergarten), I will look for work. I don’t know what will be available for me, or what I wish to pursue, but I know it will have to do with teaching, it is my passion. I think taking some time off (up to a year) will be good for me and my family. I can concentrate on increasing my Japanese and I can spend more time with my daughter. I’m looking forward to the time off.
Raising a Bicultural Child
The greatest thing I feel about being an American parent in Japan with a Japanese husband, is raising a bilingual and bi-cultural child. It was amazing to me to see that my daughter was able to distinguish between the two languages when she was an infant. We speak English at home. Outside the home, she hears Japanese. When she heard someone speaking Japanese, she would make a funny face, as if to say, “That’s not English. What is that?” Her first word was, “Anpanman.” (Anpanman is a famous Anime character in Japan) Until she was about 3, she spoke only Japanese. We would speak to her in English, but she would respond in Japanese; then her English really sky-rocketed. My husband and I think it’s because she started watching Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse and Little Einstein’s DVDs. Now, she switches between both languages without difficulties. It still impresses me when we are speaking English together and she switches to Japanese in a heartbeat if a Japanese person speaks to her.
I want my daughter to know both cultures as much as possible. I feel it’s easier for her to learn both cultures while living in Japan. She will go to Japanese schools and learn all the holidays, events, and stories of Japan. I will be able to teach her the American side. I buy American books to read her (my favorites from childhood). She watches Disney and other American kid movies. I decorate the house for every holiday. As a family, we also have parties and invite her classmates, and other friends to join in the American celebration. After a party, it’s the topic of discussion around the hoikuen (day care/school) for a few days.
I feel, too, that I’m spreading my culture to the community as well. I have introduced Baby Showers,Halloween parties, Christmas parties, and Easter egg coloring parties in my community. Word got outthat I love to bake, and the local community center asked me to teach some people how to bake American sweets. I taught them how to make cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and Rice Krispy Treats. It was really fun, and the people who took the class had a lot of questions about America.
What do you love and loathe about Japan?
Medical System: I love the health care here. All my daughter’s medical needs are free. If we take her to the eye doctor, it’s free. If we take her to the dentist, it’s free. If we have to take her to the emergency room, it’s free. On the flip-side, everyone goes to the doctor, or the emergency room, for every minor cold, cut, or scrape. When I first came to Japan, when I had a simple head cold, people would say, “didn’t you go to the hospital?” or “what did the doctor say?” To this day, people are shocked when I tell them I didn’t go to the emergency room for a simple cold.
Friendliness: The first time I came to Japan, I was expecting the strict, no-nonsense personalities portrayed in the media. I was shocked to find a very polite and friendly public; and, very funny, too. They have the best sense of humor. Everyone, so far, has been very patient with me. For example, if I have to take care of an issue at the bank, and I cannot understand every word that is being spoken to me, they do everything they can to get me to understand.
Cheese: The one thing that I hate the most is the lack of cheese. I miss going to the deli counter and buying a pound of provolone for the week. Here, the only choices are slim to none (plus, no deli department). The cheese we can find, other than the generic sliced cheese for sandwiches, are expensive. There is one store in the city that carries a variety of cheeses. A block of cheddar cheese can run you about \3,000 (about $30). I miss my cheese.
Mum to three very loud boys and wife to a patient Japanese man, I'm Australian and moved to the Kansai area in 2012. Aside from navigating all the craziness of being a mum in another country, I work semi-full time and try to keep my sanity! Of course I clean but I don't cook!