After training under a dyer for six months in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, art student Satoko Yamagishi decided she needed a break. In October 1998 she went to Montreal, where she met Philippe Lavoie, a Canadian computer chip designer studying Japanese.
One day in March 2000, Philippe was invited to a French language class taught by his friend. As it happened, Satoko was taking that class. “If she didn’t go to that class that day, I would not have met her. This is all just by chance,” Philippe says.
The two, who shared an interest in punk music, agreed to do a language exchange, and before long their relationship grew into love. The couple married in April 2001 in Montreal and moved to Sendai the next month.
Now living in Tokyo, Satoko, 32, is a student at Musashino Art University, while Philippe, 36, works as a technical support staffer and salesman for Octasic, a semiconductor company headquartered in Montreal. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Miyabi.
What was your first impression of each other?
Philippe: She had long permed hair. She didn’t look like a typical Japanese, and she looked very westernized. I guess she had adopted the local style in Montreal.
Satoko: I was wearing a leather jacket that had holes and looked like a hippie. When I saw him, I thought he is very tall but pale. I didn’t have a crush on him at first. We met in March, but by May, we were already going out. It all started naturally.
Why were you attracted to each other?
Satoko: He was really kind and he was like an elder brother.
Philippe: She is straightforward. We can say exactly what we feel. Still, we understand that we are just sharing opinions.
What made you decide to get married?
Philippe: She wanted to go back to Japan because she could not work in Montreal. She had only a student visa. Then, I said: “Oh, let’s get married. Then you can be a permanent resident in Canada.” That’s when I proposed to her.
How did your parents react when you told them about your marriage?
Philippe: My mother thought our decision was very quick. She said, “Maybe you should do an engagement ceremony first and then get married.” In Montreal, there are a lot of people in international marriages, so Satoko being Japanese did not bother her.
Satoko: My parents welcomed it. I guess they wanted me to leave home and start a family. Thinking that I’m a bit aggressive and adventurous for a woman, they were hoping if I had an opportunity, I should get married.
Did you have any culture shock being with your partner?
Philippe: In Quebec, there are many people who live together but don’t get married. So we were not planning to get married right away, maybe in six months or so. But we were already living together. When I told Satoko’s father that, he was shocked and said we shouldn’t live together if we were not getting married soon. That was a culture shock for me because it was normal for me to live together even if you are not married.
Satoko: In my case, I felt more cultural differences after we got married. For example, if I wanted him to understand, I have to tell everything in words, unlike facing Japanese people. There is no such thing as he would read my mind and act accordingly. If I wanted him to do laundry, for example, I can’t just sit there waiting for him to notice my expectation. So we often get into fights.
Soon after you got married, you moved to Japan. How did it happen?
Satoko: I wanted to go back to Japan and also Philippe found a job in Sendai.
What surprised you when you moved to your partner’s country?
Philippe: Japanese houses are very cold. There is no central heating. Since we were using a kerosene heater in Sendai, you were supposed to leave the window open (for ventilation). When you wake up in the morning, you are freezing inside the apartment, and if you go to a shower, there is ice in the shower room.
Also, on my first day at work in Sendai, I went to a cafeteria at my company. Everyone was taking “natto” (fermented soybeans), and I took it, too. But when I tried to eat it, it tasted awful. It was actually the second time I tried natto, but I had forgotten about it. The first time was in Satoko’s apartment in Canada. She was saying “It’s like peanut butter,” and was putting it on her toast.
I also feel a culture shock when I have to wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning to take out the trash. In Canada, you can take out the trash the night before, but in Japan, you have to wake up.
Satoko: I was surprised to see many people (in Quebec) stay unmarried. Even though they don’t get married, they get tax benefits and other social benefits, just like married couples.
What do you like or respect about your partner’s country?
Philippe: There is always a right way of doing things in Japan. There is a lot of thought given for other persons — about the effects of what you do. For example, if you make a lot of noise inside your apartment, you may think “Am I too loud? Am I disturbing my neighbors?” Whereas in Canada, people tend to think that’s my right. It’s my apartment, I can make noise.
Satoko: I’m happy that he helps me out so much around the house. He does laundry and cleaning. When I was in Canada, I was also surprised to see so many fathers playing with their children at parks, because in Japan, it’s always mothers who accompany children.
What do you like and dislike about your partner?
Philippe: We have the same interests. So sometimes without talking, we feel the same kind of humor. When I feel funny, she feels funny. We can make each other laugh just by looking. As for dislikes, I wish she was more meticulous and tidy.
When the room is not tidy, I cannot concentrate.
Satoko: Even though I get so angry, he would always accept me and gives in at last. (Philippe says it is because he knows her anger will go away soon.)
What I don’t like about him is that I feel like I am always being checked by him.
What’s the benefit of being married to a person from a different culture?
Philippe: It gives me different perspectives of both cultures. I can look at my culture differently from a distance. It gives me a much different point of view.
Satoko: It is like traveling. There are always new discoveries and life with him gives me broader perspectives. It wouldn’t be the same if I were married to a Japanese.
Reader participation is invited for this series, which appears every other Saturday. If you wish to be featured, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org