Marc Van Cauteren and Reiko Shinozaki met in Tokyo in 1993 after mutual friends encouraged him to call her during a business trip to Japan.
Marc, who is from a small village in the Belgian countryside and who taught physics at the University of Brussels, had just started a new job that brought him to Japan on a regular basis.
He now works as director of clinical science for the Asia-Pacific region at Philips, developing new technologies to make clinical images of the human body using magnetic fields and radio waves.
Reiko at the time was a successful dealer who had worked for several American and European investment banks. Her education is unusual in that she attended only international schools in Tokyo until she studied economics at Sophia University.
They married in 1995 and built a beautiful house in Meguro Ward, where they live with their 4-year-old son, Arno, and Reiko’s mother.
The couple’s main concern is how in Tokyo they can keep up both Belgian and Japanese education for Arno, who attends an English-speaking kindergarten and belongs to a Dutch play group.
Dutch is spoken in Flanders, the northern half of Belgium, where it is known as Flemish.
Marc’s family tree hangs in the living room. It shows how, until only a few generations ago, everybody married people from the same village or the immediate area. Even today, Reiko is the only family member listed from more than 10 km away.
What were your first impressions of each other?
Reiko: My friend said her boyfriend’s friend was coming to Japan, so can I take care of him? I thought, “Oh, another ‘gaijin’ (foreigner)!”
But he suggested we meet at Kyukyodo (the venerable stationery shop in Ginza), which I thought was rather “shibui” (cool). I thought he might be someone who sees things from a different angle.
Marc: I don’t remember. But I guess eventually our ways of life matched between us.
Did you think you would marry a foreigner?
I didn’t even think I’d get married period, because of my background. My father, who was progressive for his age, wanted his daughters to be independent and to be able to live anywhere in the world.
So he sent us to international schools, where we were exposed to various cultures.
Given my odd background, I thought I either had to find a strange Japanese man with a wider view, or a strange foreigner who is interested in Japan.
But such people are categorized as weird here, if you know what I mean.
Marc: I had no expectations to marry at all. I was a shy boy (laughs).
How did your family and friends respond to you marrying?
Reiko: My mother is a typical Japanese mother who thinks that a woman should get married at least once in her life. But she was open-minded about where Marc was from.
Marc: My mother said, “You are going to live so far away!” Up to my parents’ generation, in my village (Berlare, population 6,000), even marrying someone from the next village was rare.
Even now, another man in Dubai and I are the only ones living really far away.
Have you ever experienced any troubles with the in-laws? If so, were they due to cultural differences?
Marc: Reiko’s mother never interferes with what I do. I don’t always agree with the way she treats Arno though, like forcing him to eat.
But this is because she’s older, and nothing to do with nationality. It’s just the universal generation gap.
Reiko: I think there are actually no conflicts because of cultural differences.
I may be doing things they may not accept, but because they know I’m from a different background, they respect it.
What do you miss the most from your country?
Marc: Speaking dialect. Not just Flemish, but the real local dialect of my village. I also miss Flemish humor. It’s very black, dark humor, very ironic but subtle.
I think Asian people don’t understand irony, so I have to manage with DVDs with subtle Flemish humor.
If you were living abroad, what would you miss most about Japan?
Reiko: My friends, family and “dagashi” (cheap Japanese sweets).
What do you dislike about each other’s country?
Marc: The fact that it’s so American-oriented. It’s the only big city in Asia I know where you don’t have Deutsche Welle or French TV5 on cable TV. Our cable company even offered us a new package without BBC World, with the argument that they already broadcast Fox and CNN!
Do you see your family’s future in Japan, or do you think you will move one day to Belgium or another country?
Marc: My son’s education could be the reason for us to leave Japan one day.
In Europe, there is a very good level of education basically for free. But I think that the state education system in Japan is really not good, and the private education system quite limited.
The state education here doesn’t differentiate children according to their capabilities.
If you are good technically, you are still in the same class with someone who is good mathematically. That unfortunately doesn’t work.
Reiko: I would consider living in Belgium, as I have only been a visitor, and because I want to respect Marc’s feelings for the Flemish heritage he wants to pass on to Arno. Sometimes I think I should try living in Belgium because I tend to forget how difficult it can be for Marc to be living so far away.
What are your dreams?
Marc: A truly globalized world. Now, if you go to another nation, you have to show your passport, you get fingerprinted, etc. But what gives some people the right to tell other people where you can travel? We are all humans living on the same planet, and there should be no limits or frontiers.
But, unfortunately, with the very lame excuse of fighting terrorism, it’s going the other way.
If you abolish boundaries, it becomes completely irrelevant where you happen to be born. The commonality between us human beings is so much greater than the minor discrepancies like local habits and customs. Unfortunately, it seems only these differences are primarily highlighted.
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