Tomoyuki Akiyama and his wife, Stephanie Napier, were brought up in completely different environments, but about a decade ago, fate led them to an encounter at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The couple dated for over a year, then moved to Texas where Stephanie was doing her postgraduate studies. They got married in 2005. Tomoyuki taught Japanese for a while, then got a job at the Houston branch of the Japan External Trade Organization. The couple came to Japan four years ago and now live in Yokohama with two cats they brought from the United States.
Tomoyuki, 32, is a public relations representative for DeNA, the Internet company known for the Mobage social gaming service. Born in Tokyo, he moved to Paris with his parents when he was 6 months old and stayed there until age 7. Following his return to Japan he attended elementary school in Tokyo before going to a Japanese boarding school for six years in West Sussex, England, when his parents moved back to Paris. After graduating from university in Japan, Tomoyuki went on to do a masters degree in linguistics at the University of South Carolina. He also worked there as a teaching assistant for a Japanese class Stephanie was taking as part of her honors’ program.
Stephanie, 30, was born and raised in the countryside near a small town in South Carolina. She was raised by very religious, fundamentalist parents who belonged to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and had never been outside the U.S. until she met Tomoyuki. Stephanie is a biologist specializing in cancer immunology, and is set to start working at a clinical research lab in Tokyo next month.
What were your first impressions of each other?
Stephanie: I never forget the first time I met him. I was late to class. I didn’t know his name the first day, but was thinking he is really cute and very funny. I called my best friend and said, “Japanese is going to be really difficult, but at least I have some eye-candy — something good to look at.”
Tomoyuki: She was just one student of mine. I remember her sitting in the front all the time. She was blonder than now, with big eyes.
How did you get to know each other?
Stephanie: One day in class, he mentioned linguistics. I had been kind of admiring him, so I thought this was my chance. I started talking to him about this book I had read about linguistics. He had read the same book in Japanese, so we got to have a really good conversation. But I didn’t really get the impression that he was interested in me at all — he was very professional.
Tomoyuki: One day, she emailed me and called me, and said she wanted to hang out.
Stephanie: He totally didn’t get it. He was like, “Oh yeah, I hang out with my students, no problem.” I was so disappointed.
Tomoyuki: I didn’t even consider dating her. I could not believe that a blond, white girl who is not anime otaku, and goes to honors’ college, would be interested in an Asian man like me. I thought she was a very serious student of Japanese and just wanted a native speaker friend.
Stephanie: I thought, “This guy is so smart and never the sort of guy you can meet in South Carolina — so different than any guy I’ve ever known before.”
Tomoyuki: Back then, I had just had a very bad breakup with my former girlfriend. I didn’t think I was ready to have another relationship.
So how did it all start?
Stephanie: I really liked him a lot. Tomo was going back to Japan for New Year’s. I don’t normally pursue guys at all. But I could tell with him. If I wanted to date him, I’m going to have to go after him. So I ended up emailing him the day he was supposed to leave for Japan. I wrote, “Have a safe trip. Merry Xmas early, and I’m looking forward to seeing you next year.” He told me later that he talked about me to his best friend in Japan.
Tomoyuki: When I first met her, I felt like I was being listened to seriously. When I said something, she just listened to it as if it was the most important thing.
How did you start dating?
Tomoyuki: After I came back from Japan, I felt excited to see her.
Stephanie: He came back on Jan. 9 (2004) and he immediately emailed me, “I’m moving into a new apartment. Do you wanna come over?” We had our first date the following day. At first, we went to the same bar that we went the first time as friends — in Columbia. He was very gentlemanly, and I thought we would go back to his apartment and drink tea or something. But instead of giving me tea, he gave me natto candy! I was shocked — it was disgusting. We still laugh about that.
How did you decide to get married?
Stephanie: When we’ve been living together in Texas, I’ve been keeping in the back of my mind the whole time, if he doesn’t get a good job that’s going to sponsor his visa, he’s going have to leave and there’s no way I’m letting this guy go. So every once in a while, I said things like, “What about marriage?” It was very casual, and it was just a matter of fact sort of decision that we came to.
Tomoyuki: There was no kneeling. Nothing.
Stephanie: My mom was coming into town for her birthday. We decided, “Let’s get married at the courthouse when mom’s in town.”
Do you feel any cultural differences?
Stephanie: All couples have some cultural difference, but I really feel like Tomo and I are on the same wavelength. I don’t see any cultural difference with us. It’s interesting, because we have extremely different backgrounds. Tomo has always said that he thinks that part of the reason that I can understand a lot of what he went through growing up is because coming from a vegetarian family, I was really isolated, too, as most people around us ate meat. Superficially, our backgrounds could not be more different, but if you look really deeply, I think we really have similar childhoods.
What do you think is an advantage of an international marriage?
Tomoyuki: One advantage is, even if we have a fight, we can say, “Well, we’re from different countries — we have differences.” We can just attribute everything to cultural difference and be cool about it.
What do you think makes an international marriage work?
Tomoyuki: A heavy dose of communication. Communicate more than you think you need to.
Stephanie: I definitely think that’s very, very important. Communication, compromise, and laughter. For example, compromising on food. Although I am a vegetarian, I cook meat for him, and what makes me so happy is that he tells me how much he enjoys it. I’ve been vegetarian my whole life as my parents raised me that way.
Tomoyuki: We’re from very different cultures, and although Stephanie is a vegetarian, I love to eat Korean barbecue, and steak and ribs. When we go to a restaurant and she sees two vegetarian dishes that she wants — and she’s not sure which one, we end up ordering two. So I don’t get to eat meat, but I enjoy vegetarian food, too. I enjoy the compromise. At the weekends, I eat little meat. I go to work on Monday, and tell my colleagues, “Let’s go eat meat,” and they laugh at me.
What are your dreams/plans for the future?
Stephanie: In general, traveling. I want us to go to all the places he’s been to that I hear small stories about — like Egypt, Italy, Greece. I want to have bad and good experiences in those places together and talk about it. It’s fun even if you have bad experiences — if you’re doing it together.
Tomoyuki: My theme has always been promoting Japan to the rest of the world. I want to continue doing that. Japanese people joke that a happiest life for a man is to live in a big American house, have a Japanese wife, and eat Chinese food. I’m doing the opposite. I live in a tiny Japanese house with an American woman who talks too much, but I love it!
Reader participation is invited for this occasional series. If you wish to be featured, please email firstname.lastname@example.org