Michael Claxton, 61, and his wife, Rieko, 43, are living proof of the saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
After a falling out, the career-minded couple decided to separate when their daughter, Kasumi, was just 3. Though they remained married they lived half a world apart — in Tokyo and Sweden. Nine years later — last December — all three reunited in Tokyo.
Rieko, who has lived in Hachioji, Tokyo, since she was 13, calls it a miracle they are back together. A Briton born and raised in London, Michael has lived and worked in four countries. But he decided it was time to live in Japan to be with his daughter, now 13, with happy results for all.
Michael is a freelance portrait, fashion and model photographer and Rieko, whose maiden name is Makino, is now a busy freelance translator following a long career at a travel magazine and a translation agency. The three share a house with Rieko’s parents.
Michael has a son, 25, in Sweden from a previous marriage.
Why did you come to Japan?
Michael: There is no short answer, but I grew up with some Japanese things in my aunt’s home. I was fascinated by Japanese art when I was in art school and Japanese philosophy, the holistic approach. The fascination with Japan since I was a child grew and grew over the years.
I came to Japan in July 1991. I had come to a watershed in my life and career in Sweden and the only thing that I had not done in my life, and very much wanted to do, was to come to Japan. I secured a one-year contract at a language school in Akasaka, Tokyo, and came over!
How did you two meet?
Michael: A good friend, an English guy working here, held a party at his house in Yokohama. We met there.
When did you get married?
Rieko: We got married on Dec. 24, 1992, when we went to the Kitano branch of Hachioji City Hall to submit a marriage certificate. We had a great party at the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone (Kanagawa Prefecture) on Jan. 15. We did not do anything outside Japan.
Who from your family came to the party?
Michael: No one. My mother had long since passed on and my father was too old for the trip. Many of my friends did, however.
Did your father support your marriage?
Michael: Yes, although he never liked Japan. At some point during World War II, he was stationed in Malaysia. He and I had many heated discussions about Japan’s pros and cons, but once he met Rieko for the first time, in Copenhagen, he had no problem. He would probably never have gone to Japan or bought a Japanese car, but he was never against Rieko.
Rieko: My parents were OK. When I was studying, I brought many foreigners to my house, so my parents were pretty used to it. And my father was always interested in foreign culture. My mother does not interfere with me. She told me ‘It’ll be fine’ when Michael left — and he returned to us.
When and why did you leave your wife and daughter?
Michael: I went back to Sweden in 1999 and originally the plan was for me to take Kasumi with me. However, things didn’t turn out that way.
Rieko: One of the points was that he was unhappy with me working so much. But we had other basic disagreements as well.
Michael and Rieko: We can tell you this much. No third person was involved!
How did your feelings change during the separation?
Michael: Rieko and I understood each other better when we were apart. We met occasionally, in places like Paris and Tokyo. Each time I talked to Kasumi, on the phone or face to face, we got on so well I felt like it was only just a few weeks since we had last met, even though it was actually months or years.
Rieko: At first, I felt really good because I could work as much as I wanted. I felt Kasumi needed a father. Playing a mother and father role is tiring.
Michael: Everything fell into place in every way; it seemed like my destiny was telling me that we should be reunited, that my daughter needed me. I wound down my business in Sweden, retired as chairman of the Swedish-Japanese Society, said my goodbyes and packed my bags. And now, here we are!
What language do you speak with your daughter?
Michael: I speak English with Kasumi. Rieko speaks Japanese. Kasumi replies to me in English except when she’s angry! I want her English to be as good as her Japanese.
Rieko: During the nine years Michael was in Sweden, Kasumi and he spoke frequently on the phone and met sometimes during her school holidays. They always spoke English.
What is your plan for your daughter’s education?
Michael: I don’t have a plan because I don’t know enough about the Japanese education system. I leave those decisions to Kasumi and Rieko. However, she has a strong artistic talent. I went to art college in London. Maybe she will, too.
Rieko: As Japan represents only half of her cultural background, I want her to study in England. A boarding school is an option.
Michael: I don’t like boarding schools. For my generation, they just have a negative image. But if Kasumi really wants to, I guess it is OK.
What is your future plan?
Michael: I envisage myself living in Japan as long as Japan will have me, working as a portrait and model photographer and holding photo exhibitions occasionally (Michael recently participated in an international art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama). When I become too old to work with photography, I want to study the tea ceremony and calligraphy.
Rieko: I can live anywhere as long as you are there. (smiles)
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