Living, Working and Parenting in Japan: Advice from Experts
Living, Working and Parenting in Japan: Advice from Experts
If you’re reading this now, it’s likely because you’re a foreigner living in Japan. Maybe you’ve been here for years and years or maybe your family moved here recently and only plan on staying for a short time. Either way, you likely come from a different cultural background and perspective than the one you’ve found in Japan and maybe that’s caused some challenges for you and your family.
At CareFinder, we know all about that! In addition to being a team made up of many different backgrounds, we’ve worked closely with international families and babysitters for years. We see a lot of common stumbling blocks in navigating cultural differences and we use our experience to help guide our community as best we can.
But we’re only in the babysitting business! So we decided to find some professionals who have tons of knowledge that will be helpful in figuring out work and life in Japan for your family.
Kristine Ayuzawa, Katheryn Gronauer and Katie Hurd are Tokyo-based life coaches who each bring specialized knowledge, experience and resources to expats and international families. We spoke with them for insights into common difficulties the families in the CareFinder community face, as well as their advice for overcoming them -- especially amid a global epidemic that’s thrown us all for a loop.
Read on for their thoughts!
Culture Shock in Japan
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges newcomers face is adjusting to Japanese culture. If you’ve just moved internationally -- a massive undertaking on its own, especially with a family in tow-- having to organize your new life in a place that may not make sense sometimes can be extra difficult. The expectations we may have about what our life should look like in our new home are a common culprit.
“The first step is to get crystal clear on two points: what are things like now and how do you want them to be,” says Kristine, whose practice focuses on parents and families. “It sounds like an oversimplification, but there’s usually a lot to think about there. For example, sometimes we realize that we’re working toward the life we think we ‘should’ have, rather than what we truly want.”
Katie, of Home in Japan and mom to a toddler, echoes this sentiment.
“Many people new to Japan go through the more difficult stages of culture shock, and sometimes it can feel really hard to know what to do or to accept what we are going through when situations stray from our expectations,” she says. “The single most important thing about your experience in Japan is to be clear and honest with yourself about what you want out of it.”
In figuring out what realistic expectations may be for your family, don’t expect (pun intended) a life coach to give you a standardized, step-by-step approach.
“The purpose of coaching isn’t about telling someone what to do,” says Katheryn, whose practice grew from wellness coaching to cross-cultural training and orientation when she discovered her clients didn’t know how to shop in Japanese grocery stores (a struggle many of us can relate to!). “We ask questions to help guide our clients to their answer” that will work best for them.
“I’d compare that approach to following the turn-by-turn directions from someone else’s map,” says Kristine. “Everyone’s starting place and destination are unique to them, as is their pace and the path that will be most fulfilling, so you’re better off charting your own course.”
The most important thing, according to these experts, is to acknowledge your personal limitations when you’re confronted with the trials and tribulations of acclimating to Japan. Asking for and seeking out assistance -- whether that means from a partner or a professional -- may seem obvious, but it’s one solution we often overlook when we feel overloaded.
“When we are overwhelmed in life is when we are most likely to criticize ourselves, struggle with self-discipline and become unable to see things clearly, and this can sometimes lead to a vicious circle of further negative thoughts and self-sabotaging behaviors,” Katie explains.
Balancing the needs of your boss and colleagues with those of your family, when there are only 24 hours in a day, can feel like an endless struggle no matter where you live. Doing so when the work environment may be vastly different than the one you’re used to? Difficult, to put it mildly. Adjusting to Japanese work culture is an important step toward ensuring your whole family has a healthy, happy experience here.
Katheryn finds most workplaces, even those not explicitly in Japanese companies, have aspects of a traditional Japanese environment. Which can be a surprise for foreign workers who expected their U.S.-based company, for instance, to operate the same way it does in the United States. Luckily, she also finds that many expats working abroad are in roles that provide them a bit of autonomy and authority. Expats in senior-level positions can make the hierarchical structure that is familiar to Japanese employees work in their favor. They can be agents of “solution building,” she explains.
“It would be beneficial for managers to check in with their team on their work-life balance, especially during covid” and around the issues their team may be facing outside of the workplace, such as daycare hour changes or sick children or parents at home, Katheryn says. “It always makes sense to do wellness check-ins, but it seems many are only focused on making sure people can finish their work from home.” As managers or other higher-ups start these conversations, it provides not only an outlet for their teams but for themselves as well.
The three coaches emphasize that, as with all relationships, communication with your colleagues is key, regardless of your role.
“In most cases, I realized that people were very happy to help, whether it was scheduling meetings to end in time for my daycare pick-up or preparing dinner a few times a week, but they weren’t able to guess what I needed,” says Kristine when sharing insight from her own experiences. “Having honest discussions with the people in my life about what I was prioritizing, where my limitations were, and the kind of support that I’d appreciate made it possible for them to show up for me.”
Speaking of daycare pick-up, Katheryn offered an easy solution to the awkward scramble that can happen when hours change and meetings are scheduled.
“Proactively block off time on your shared calendar,” she says. Your colleagues will see that you’re unavailable and you don’t need to include an explanation for your unavailability and you won’t have to work to reschedule something after-the-fact.
This is not news to you but, parenting during a pandemic has been a nightmare. Though things have relatively improved since last spring, when many of you were working from home, helping your kids learn remotely and also wiping all of your groceries down with bleach, the ongoing COVID-19 situation in Japan has often exacerbated the struggles of living abroad.
For one, planned family vacations, both domestic and international, have largely been scrapped. Visits “home” to see old friends and family members may have been postponed. Playdates and extracurricular activities took a hit and opportunities to really explore Japanese culture were limited (no matsuri, unfortunately).
One piece of advice our experts share for getting through the (hopefully dwindling) days of the pandemic in Japan: give yourself grace.
“Some days during the spring lockdown the TV babysat our son here and there out of necessity, while I worked at my desk nearby and I let myself feel zero guilt,” says Katie. “I think in some ways TV exposure has even resulted in his love of singing!”
“The biggest thing that I’ve tried to do is be honest when I’m low on energy and let the kids do the same,” says Kristine. She offers a solution to the doldrums, as well. “When we think of something we want to do but can’t because of the pandemic, we write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. It’s exciting to think about dumping that jar on the table one day and choosing an activity we’ve kept on the back burner for all these months!”
Taking long walks was another favored coping mechanism, and a much-need outlet for exercise and getting the wiggles out. Finding opportunities to treat your family, like an at-home movie theater experience complete with buttery popcorn, are also ways to provide rays of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy time.
Food is a simple tool for helping in general, according to the experts. Kristine recommends making it a point to try seasonal Japanese foods, from fresh fruits to novelty Gari-Garikun popsicles, to connect with and learn about the culture safely. And Katheryn, whose coaching career began with grocery store tours for foreigners, emphasizes the benefits of knowing what to look for on the shelves in cutting down on stress and ensuring you’re serving your family healthy meals.
One fun, quick trick she shared? If a milk container has an indent in the top, it’s whole milk!
As far as your children’s development or, if you’re newer to Japan, their chance to build a social circle, try not to let yourself get too caught up in your projections about how things are going.
“I don’t want to minimize the challenges or disappointments that many kids are facing,” says Kristine. “But, at least in my case, many of the stories that I tell myself are much more dire than how my kids are actually experiencing it.”
Your children can be just as resilient as you are; one of the best ways to help them through the pandemic and any of the myriad adversities they may face throughout life is to provide support and understanding.
Kristine Ayuzawa is a life coach who offers one-on-one help to parents who need to “slow down!” She’s lived and worked in Japan since 2005 and is a Certified Life Coach with the International Coaching Federation. She has a blog on her self-titled website with lots of great resources and insights and you can follow her on LinkedIn and Instagram.
Katheryn Gronauer is an executive trainer and coach who provides cross-cultural training, orientation programs and wellness coaching for professionals. Her company is called Thrive Tokyo, and you can find trivia on the blog and follow her on Instagram.
Katie Hurd is a Japanese-English bilingual international HR professional turned International Coaching Federation accredited cross cultural transition coach who runs Home in Japan. She acts as a personal trainer for her clients' emotional wellbeing, career, and life planning. She supports her clients in becoming more self-aware, clarifying values/motivation and setting a future vision so that they can better follow through and take effective actions. You can find her on Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.