Getting married in Japan (Part 1: Reflections)

Marriage can be extremely positive and rewarding in Japan. Many of my good friends have amazing lives/experiences.  Without doxing anybody, there’s lots of business, lifestyle and family choices that are simply not available outside Japan. Many friends are living the dream operating their businesses in Japan within otherworldly river/mountain scenery, surrounded by amazing Japanese friends/clients who are willing to back business ideas that would be unthinkable elsewhere. All of them have top notch relationships with their Japanese spouses.

Unfortunately, I have also seen a lot of marriages fail. Failed marriages don’t always involve abduction. However, this post reflects on my experience of being married in Japan. My goal is to do so fairly and honestly without laying blame on a foreign country/culture or my ex-wife because I don’t think doing so is fair or productive.

How we got married?

Long story short (and with the benefit of hindsight)… pretty much at gunpoint from her extremely dominant mother. My ex-wife proposed to me in private. We were hanging out at my house (a little gaijin bunker attached to my workplace). She suddenly became concerned that one day I’d return and leave her alone. Following this, she asked if I’d marry her. Before deciding I asked ‘why… are you pregnant?’ She said ‘no!!’ As I was young and in love I very quickly dismissed any other fears as said ‘YES!!!’

So how was this gunpoint? Well. The first sign was when her mother drove us to the city office to officially ‘get married’. This involved signing a pretty short form, paying a fee and receiving our new family register. My ex-wife sobbed, was uncooperative and was basically dragged into the city office by her mother. Since she’d proposed to me, I thought it was simply an emotional time for her and made nothing more of it. She eventually came around, signed the paper and asserted that she loved me. We then had lunch with her parents as a married couple.

The post-marriage chat…

Approximately three months later, she took me aside for a chat. During this discussion she advised that she was pregnant and she’d regularly been going to a birth centre with her mum before asking me to marry her. Thus, she’d lied to me. Yes… her mum had forced her to marry me and no… abortion was not an option (not to suggest it would have been my preference).

In hindsight I don’t hold this order of events against anybody. Frankly had she approached me and said ‘I’m pregnant and keeping the baby… you can either run back to your home country and hide or stay so we can raise the child as a family… your call’ then I would have stayed. Thus, I very much chose to play an active role in our daughter’s upbringing.

The marriage ceremony and its planning

Planning the wedding was a mixture of fun and hard work (probably like any wedding). Initially, my ex-wife showed me a glossy brochure. For roughly double my (then) yearly income before tax, we could get married in what looked like a Disney castle… but made out of concrete and about 500m away from a large lumber mill and a pachinko parlour on the industrial end of town. I inspected the castle out of courtesy. This was a lot of money. I discussed this with my ex-wife and she seemed offended – as if this castle was THE expectation and I was being stingy. She slumped into a depression, as if I had broken every single rule in the book. The message was clear from this point… my job was to provide the money for us.

Over time we negotiated a far more modest reception at a local restaurant (a really good restaurant, mind you) and a ceremony at the local shrine, a very iconic venue with family and historic significance. Afterwards, the two families had dinner together at a friend’s restaurant (a really special one). The tough negotiations were worth it because it was a really beautiful day. I know the marriage failed, but we planned a really magical day together.

Moving in together

Straight after our marriage, my ex-wife moved into the house provided by my work. It was an old, run down, three bedroom house. However, it had all the charm of being a little old Japanese house among the semi-rural rice fields – very cute. At 2am one morning my ex-wife received a text message from the groundsman at work (a semi-manager but on a lower pay bracket than me and in no way my supervisor). He asked her to come outside and talk to him, privately. I disapproved strongly saying ‘just ignore his text and I’ll talk to him tomorrow – he shouldn’t be texting you at this hour – where’d he get your number from anyway?’ She told me not to be silly and walked downstairs to talk with him (he’d invited himself in using a spare key held by the office). Subsequently, packed her bags and drove away. She would not let me go with her and headed home to her parents.

After not talking for a week, my ex-wife’s father sent me a text message, offering to meet. I invited him over, we had a coffee and then he presented a list of demands from my ex-wife. At the top of the list was that we rent a family-sized house. However, we planned to move to my home country as soon as her visa was granted. Also, her family had a 100% empty house around the corner that belonged to her (deceased) grandfather. Thus, I questioned whether paying 3-6 months of key money plus rent during this period was sensible. Instead, suggesting we could either move in with her parents short-term or rent the grandfather’s house. Neither of these options were acceptable so I grit my teeth and we rented a rather cute/quaint house in the area.

Married life in Japan

I don’t want to reflect on what would have/could have/should have been other than to say we were probably both too young and inexperienced to handle what was to come. Rather, I will reflect on the unique and unexpected aspects of my previous marriage.

Childcare in marriage

Firstly, our daughter was never ‘mine’. My role was to make money, not to influence parenting decisions. This was a burden to me because I wasn’t rich, but wanted to be an active father. Caring for our daughter involved strict, heavily rigid rules, set by my ex-wife. Even if my ex-wife was sleepless and madly screaming at us, she did not accept ‘I’ve got this’ as a course of action. For example on a lovely spring day I picked up our screaming daughter and quietly said ‘I will take her for a walk so you can rest’. ‘NO!!! HOW DARE YOU!!! SHE DOES NOT GO OUTSIDE!!! IT IS COLD!!!’ Every time I tried to help, negligence and complete ignorance of children was assumed. I was treading on eggshells constantly. My ex-wife would scream. Then, our daughter would scream. If I tried to help, my ex-wife would scream louder.

Japanese family bonds in marriage

The relationship between my ex-wife and her family always ruled supreme. In my experience, Japanese relationships are similar to confucian bonds where ‘the Five Bonds are: ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend’. I didn’t fit within this hierarchy. My parents didn’t fit within this hierarchy. At best I think we were ‘friends’ from across the sea – but not of the same ruler, so we were fell the framework. As such, it wasn’t a relationship of mutual respect. My ex-wife would essentially say ‘look my commitment is to my country, my parents and my family before you’. I felt like a puppy dog at best. I was a cute boyfriend, but wasn’t expected to possess intelligence or opinions.

Lessons learned from marriage?

My marriage failed. If you are struggling then I suggest you talk to somebody who has been more successful. However, I hope that my lessons can either help you to work through challenges, or identify the point of no return before things get worse. I want to share my lessons learned. However, I will do this later because I think that doing so requires a separate post.