We recently connected with photographer and friend Yoko Inoue, who moved from New York City to Japan about a year and a half ago. We were psyched to ask her about being a mom in Japan–what’s different, what’s the same…
Thank you Yoko (that’s her above with her son, walking to school across the fields) for this window into your world.
When did you move back to Japan and how old was your son ?
We moved back in April 2010. It was good timing as our child, Motoki had just turned three and was able to transition into the Japanese school year which begins in the Spring.
He goes to a Hoikuen School, which is somewhat like the American preschool, but combines aspects of daycare as well. For example the school is six days a week from 7am-7pm.
The fee is very reasonable. we were paying $800 a month in NYC for a part-time preschool without food. In Japan it costs us $150 and healthy food is prepared every day for the kids.
At this age there is no structured educational curriculum. Motoki spends his time at school playing, singing, reading, practicing athletics and learning about various natural things. His school room is always filled with bugs and frogs that the kids find.
The children at school help dig for sweet potatoes in the school’s garden.
Motoki helps prepare ingredients for lunch at school.
Morning exercises at school.
Motoki dresses for school. At this age they don’t wear uniforms yet. Just hats for each class level.
Why did you decide to move back and was it a tough adjustment?
The biggest reason to move was for Motoki to learn the language and culture of Japan. I thought if we wanted to move at some point, three years old would be a good time because he wouldn’t have too much of a delay learning Japanese. Motoki’s first language is English, but after only a few months he was able to converse in Japanese and after a year he was fluent!
It was a strange adjustment. We moved from one of the largest and most demanding cities in the world to a medium size city. We actually live about 30 minutes outside of the center of the city in a very small community surrounded by rice fields. If you’ve every seen the film Totoro our neighborhood is very similar. It’s almost timeless. Most of our neighbors are farmers and Japanese people usually live with three or four generations of family in one home so there are many children as well as older people. Everyone says Hello to each other and there are a lot of community events.
I know it sounds strange but where we live now compared to New York City is 180 degrees different. The speed of time, people’s concerns, their sense of values are all totally different….I felt like I was always forgetting to do something when we first moved here because I didn’t have anything to worry about! I lived with these feelings of stress and non-stop work for the past 15 yrs in NYC. So it took some time to adjust to a more relaxed and peaceful environment, it’s very nice, but sometimes I do miss the energy and pulse of NYC.
The local kids and Motoki catch a ride on the rice harvester.
I had lived outside of Japan for half of my life so I felt more American than Japanese, especially in my personality and how I interact with people. They are always surprised that I am so open and that I joke around and tease people. Japanese people are not so comfortable being silly.
What are some of the day-to-day differences, such as what you feed your child/grocery shopping?
The biggest problem I faced when shopping here was the lack of organic food. I used to be able to pick up organic milk even at the corner deli in NYC.
Japanese groceries stores have great quality, but the selection is based around Japanese diet, so sometimes it is hard to find ingredients for non-Japanese dishes. We visit an imported goods store frequently. We can find excellent non-Japanese food sometimes, but it is not the same quality and authenticity as we could eat in New York City.
Some vegetables from our garden.
We can find good Italian, French and Chinese restaurants, but sometimes we really want to eat Mexican or Vietnamese or slow-cooked American barbecue and it’s not possible to find here.
Do you have playdates with other moms/kids?
Socializing in Japan is very different than in the States. Japanese people are very polite and kind but they are also reserved and don’t talk about their true feelings and problems openly. I miss hanging out at the playground in Brooklyn and chatting and commiserating with other moms about their lives and day-to-day issues.
Our neighborhood has lots of kids so they play together outside and moms chat on the street and at school, but parents don’t plan play-dates at other peoples houses or dinner parties like we often had in NYC.
Playing with the neighborho
Do kids walk home from school alone and if so, starting at what age?
Children do seem more independent here. I think it is partly due to how safe Japan is, so parents trust that they can make it to school and back without anything dangerous happening. Kids usually start walking to and from school alone at age 7.
What are birthday parties like? And how do they differ from American-style parties?
People don’t seem to plan big parties with friends. Most of the time, they celebrate with just the close family group. I think my son does miss this style of party. His school usually has a monthly meeting where everybody’s birthday gets mentioned and they can come on stage and mark the occasion.
Do boys and girls play together? Or is there a more strict separation between the genders?
The local country girls play just like the boys; they’re always catching bugs and frogs and fishing in the river together. So they do play together a lot. I don’t think there is much separation.
What sort of after school activities are common?
English school, swimming school, judo, kendo or piano are all very popular after school activities.
Older students starting from elementary school often go to another school for more studying.
They study so much to enter the top tier high schools and universities.
Are the stereotypes about kids being more pushed academically and otherwise true? Is there more homework, more pressure to excel…?
Yes, I think it is true. Most parents really push their children to study all the time. The school year is much longer and students often go to school on Saturdays. I think a lot of the learning is very repetitive though and I’m afraid there is not a lot of critical thinking.
Is there a more traditional divide between adults and children?
I think children in Japan are more respectful of older people, but they are also very comfortable speaking to older people. At my son’s school they visit a retirement home once a month. Children are also taught to bow as a sign of respect, which is totally cute, after Motoki’s swimming class all of the kids line up and give a deep bow to their teacher and the all of the parents who are watching.
How is your husband adjusting to the differences in the cultures?
My husband, helped make the move to Japan possible by finding a job teaching English in my hometown of Okayama where we now live. His transition was pretty smooth since we had visited Japan many times on vacations. Since he teaches English and we speak English at home, his Japanese is still improving.
Both my son and my husband get a lot of attention because there are not a lot of foreigners around here, but I think they are pretty used to it, even though it is strange and sometimes annoying.
Is there some kind of food/snack that is common there that would be such an easy thing for parents to duplicate/create here?
Of course the Japanese eat a lot of rice. Many families have it at every meal. Rice balls or Onigiri are probably the most popular snack, they can be as simple as rice wrapped with nori (dried seaweed) or they can also have all sorts of surprises inside (seaweed, fish, fish eggs, tuna fish, pickled plums etc.).
A typical Japanese Bento Box (Lunch Box) is: rice balls, egg omelete, sausage/fish/chicken and vegetables.
Moms love to decorate their children’s lunchbox so their food looks like cartoon characters.
Here’s one I made with E-Va from Wall-E: