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Mitaka pair find flexibility key in navigating values

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Almost 33 years since their first encounter in 1980, Bill Achilles, who hails from Geneva, New York, and his wife, Michiko, from Tokyo say they share more or less the same values — by merging Japanese and American cultures.

After working for eight different companies, including those in the financial industry with expertise in human resources, Michiko is now enjoying a break from full-time work. She quit her job as an executive officer at Shiseido Co. in March, and is currently advising the city of Yokohama and serves on the board of several nonprofit organizations.

Bill is a retiree who worked for HSBC Securities for 24 years but now spends his time as a freelance translator and part-time English teacher.

Bill first came to Japan with the U.S. Marines in 1970 as a U.S. Navy corpsman. He interrupted his undergraduate studies at Brown University to serve four years in the navy. After serving in Vietnam, he was stationed at Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in his final year of active service. There he studied Japanese.

After his military service ended, he went back to the U.S., completed a BA in Asian studies at Brown University and an MA in Japanese studies at Claremont Graduate School in California.

He came to Japan for the second time in 1976, and met Michiko four years later at a Christmas party held at a disco. The following year, they went to live in Hawaii together, where Bill earned an MBA at Hawaii University. The couple married in 1982.

They currently live in the western Tokyo suburb of Mitaka with their dog, Saffy. Their two daughters, Lianne and Emilie, live in the U.S.

The couple built a beach house last November in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, where they spend as much time as possible.

What were your first impressions of each other?

Bill: Michiko was a little different. She was friendly, a good dancer and spoke English well.

Michiko: Bill was friendly, smiling, and easy to talk to.

Bill: And handsome?

Michiko: After that, Bill called my house and my mom answered. He spoke in polite Japanese, so my mother had a good impression. We met for dinner on Bill’s birthday and started dating.

What happened next?

Bill: I went to Hawaii, and Michiko came a couple of weeks later. Michiko came on a tourist visa, which lasted only two months.

Michiko: When the visa came to an end, I said to him, “What are we going to do?” And he replied, “We could get married.” Then he said, “It might not be so bad.” I agreed it was worth trying.

Did you feel any cultural differences after getting married?

Bill: I’ve never felt any cultural differences. Even at the beginning.

Michiko: I think differences come up not in day-to-day things, but more in things like how you raise your kids. For example, when our older daughter was little and she had a high fever, I thought of putting a lot of clothes on her to make her sweat. We tend to do that in Japan so the child’s temperature will go down. But Bill said that I should put her under a cold water tub, which was out of the question by my common sense. I said, “No way!”

Bill: So I said, “Try the sweat then, and see.”

You no longer feel any cultural differences after 32 years of marriage?

Michiko: Bill is very easy to understand, anyway. So I can imagine: OK, if I say this, he would probably say that. Or if I do this, he will probably do that. That’s very predictable after being married for over 30 years. Also, we share similar likes. For example, when building both our houses, we mostly used wooden, natural things, since we both like those materials. But there are things that I still cannot understand.

For example?

Michiko: Culture-related, I’m not quite sure. In Japan, we tend to apologize more readily. It seems very difficult for Bill to say a simple “sorry.” Bill says sorry to the dog all the time, but not to me. Maybe it’s also a man’s thing.

What language do you use with your daughters?

Bill: English. They have no problem speaking in Japanese, particularly our older daughter, because she worked in Japan for three years.

Michiko: They are fluent in Japanese, but more comfortable in English, because they were educated in an English environment. We sent them to Japanese nursery schools and then to the American School in Japan in Tokyo’s Chofu. They used to spend two months every summer with their grandparents in the U.S. We also celebrated annual holidays from both countries. For example, New Year’s, setsubun (a ceremony to dispel evil spirits), and Doll’s Day and Children’s Day from Japan, and Valentine’s day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas from the U.S.

Bill: We created opportunities for our kids to experience both cultures, and they enjoyed both. We also invited their friends and the families from the local community.

What do you think is the key to making an intercultural marriage work?

Michiko: For culture-related things, we’ve talked them over and resolved them. Bill is quite flexible, and does it the Japanese way where necessary.

Bill: Michiko is well-traveled, and is flexible in understanding and adjusting to different cultures. In the beginning, we used to fight a lot. I feel that now, we share the same sets of values. We have merged our values somehow.

Michiko: We often use the analogy of an iceberg — meaning your behavior is on the top, but under the water level, there are different values, beliefs and customs that you don’t understand initially. But as you communicate and spend a long time together, then you understand each other’s value system. And sometimes, you think, “Ah, that’s probably what I like, too.” So you merge the bottom of the iceberg somehow — as a married couple or as a family.

What do you like best about your partner?

Michiko: Bill is honest, easy-going, has a sense of humor, is patient, hard-working. He’s a nice person.

Bill: Michiko is flexible — culturally, and she’s comfortable anywhere she goes. She’s pretty smart, creative — she designed both of our houses — and works hard outside the house.

Michiko: That’s all?

Bill: The list is so long that it will take me forever!

Michiko: You used to say I’m a good cook.

Bill: Michiko is particularly good at making something good from leftovers — whatever is in the refrigerator.

Michiko: Bill was part-time working at home the past two years while I was working full-time, and he did all the housework, so his cooking skill got much better.

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