Mothers-in-law get a bad rap all over the world. In the West, it is the mother-in-law versus son-in-law relationship that is the butt of stand-up comedy jokes. In Asian cultures, however, it is generally the daughter-in-law’s relationship with the family matriarch that grabs the lion’s share of attention, and Japan is no exception. When even Japanese women can find it challenging to get along with their partner’s mother, what is it like for a foreign woman when she marries a local guy?
My own story starts off in fairly typical fashion. I was 20 years old, fresh out of university and here in Japan on work training for my first real job. I met him at a Christmas party, where a mutual friend introduced us. Now here is where my story starts to veer off the “typical” course: We had our first date before Xmas and we were engaged by New Year, just 10 days after we met.
His mother was very upset and she refused to meet me.
You can probably imagine the reaction when he told his widowed mother: “I just got engaged. I met her 10 days ago, and she’s 10 years younger than me. Oh, and she’s a gaijin.” His mother was very upset and she refused to meet me. In fact, it was nearly a year later when we finally met.
I eventually went on to develop a good relationship with my mother-in-law. We now live at opposite ends of the country and she isn’t one for travelling, but we have always taken the grandchildren down to visit each year, and I have made a point of writing to her and sending photos on a regular basis. My mother-in-law is decidedly old school and isn’t very demonstrative, but she shows thoughtfulness in other ways. For example, I’m a vegetarian and she has always taken the trouble to provide several dishes I could eat at family gatherings.
That’s just my story, however, and there are many other dimensions to the Japanese mother-in-law/foreign daughter-in-law relationship. To get a fuller picture, I asked a number of other foreign women, all members of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese (AFWJ). With around 500 members all over Japan and even some abroad, AFWJ is open to any foreign woman who is (or was) in a long-term relationship with a Japanese. The women who shared their insights range from relative newlyweds to those with over three decades of married life under their belts.
Several women cautioned against living with one’s Japanese in-laws, in a society where there is still often an expectation that the oldest son and his bride will live with his parents. Rebecca has been married for 34 years, including 12 years living with her late mother-in-law. She says she felt that it was truly her home only after her mother-in-law had passed away.
Sally has been living with her mother-in-law for twenty-four years and offers two pieces of advice that have helped maintain a reasonably harmonious relationship over the years: “Take her suggestions seriously–they are commands in disguise. And I am expected to wake up first. I know…. strange, but it changed the dynamics for the better. I just do it.
Other women have found ways to live close to their mother-in-law while still maintaining a degree of autonomy. Patricia, married for 33 years, says. “My mother-in-law lives downstairs, which is a completely separate living area, so that’s nice. Only the entranceway is shared.”
Viki has lived next door to her husband’s mother for over 34 years and enjoys a good relationship with her. She says that picking your battles is important. “She used to come into our house and fold the clothes in the drawers for us, as I just jam everything inside. Instead of getting angry, I would just thank her and say, ‘Too bad, by next week they will all be in a mess again’.”
Trying to find common ground with a mother-in-law is a popular tip, such as seeking her opinion on cooking, gardening or child-raising, for example. “My advice is to find something you respect about her and get her involved in some aspect of your life. Draw boundaries, though. Ask her opinion and advice, but make it clear that you might not always follow it!”, says Stephanie, married for 10 years.
Knowing when to “tune out” can be a sanity saver. “Sometimes we have really great, in-depth conversations about life, health, child-raising, etc. And, at those times, I really love and respect her,” says Aimee of her mother-in-law. “But, then she has a tendency to annoy me about little things, like telling my kids that studying English isn’t important because ‘This is Japan’. Is it wrong to tell them to just NOT listen to her?”
Susan, married for 17 years, says, “Be confident–you don’t need to adjust your way of doing things to hers. Your ways, even if they aren’t the Japanese way, are equally valid in the internationalized 21st century!
Building close relationships with Japanese people requires understanding the importance of nonverbal communication
Building close relationships with Japanese people requires understanding the importance of nonverbal communications versus spoken words, and mothers-in-law are no exception. Although Alisha has been married only two years, she has already developed an awareness of this issue in her dealings with her in-laws. “I just tried to listen to their spoken and observe their unspoken needs and help them out. Also, being attentive to the needs of the family dog helped, too!”
Rachel expands on this theme. “They leave so much unspoken, hint instead of command, even outright tell you ‘no, no, no, I’ll do it’, expecting you to fight back and take over, or understand from their ‘gaman’ that they really want you to do things. Learning that a smile and sweet words are often a mask is also important.”
While cultural differences increase the potential for challenges in the relationship, on another level, a Japanese mothers-in-law are really no different from mothers anywhere else in the world. They appreciate the same things any mother would. “I found that phoning her regularly, even without any special reason, makes her very happy,” notes Elena, who has been married for 20 years.
Juliane enjoyed a warm relationship with her late mother-in-law. “I used to write to her once a month and always sent her a birthday card (something that no-one else in the family did). I was surprised one day when she proudly told her friends that my Kanji was much better and easier to read than my husbands, so I think the letters really touched her in some way.”
Finally, Sheila, married for 17 years, credits the support and friendship of other foreign women for helping her survive life in Japan. Even if you can’t pick your in-laws, you can at least pick your friends.
For more information about AFWJ: www.afwj.org or www.facebook.com/AssociationofForeignWivesJapanese