Samurai moms and the art of brood maintenance: a mother from the West’s lessons from the East


May in Japan is the perfect month for mothers. Wreathed in the fertile blooms of spring, bolstered by days of absolute perfection, May is also a month of muddy contradiction, stoically endured discomforts and perennial uncertainty. Masked sufferers stumble through three days cold, four days hot, and the only promises are the rainy tears of tsuyu and a long, hot summer of discontent. A single month epitomized by joyous pain — what a perfect month for motherhood.

A single day of honoring seems woefully inadequate, but we mothers take what we can, and here in Japan we bow and smile in delighted gratitude while plotting our next step toward subversive power. To honor mothers on both sides of the Pacific, here are the five most important differences in raising children, East vs. West, from one American mother in Japan.

1. Choose your battlefield: In Japan, choose food.

Most of my friends in the States carry their sleep-battle scars with pride, regaling others with harrowing tales of how to resist temptation when training infants to sleep alone from the cradle. Their stories of toddler nap strategy and sleep schedules make me yawn, because the typical Japanese mother does not fight even one skirmish on sleep. If you are raising children in Japan, food will be your battlefield.

Japanese strategize to insert 30 different types of foods into their little ones per day. There are many ways to lure an unsuspecting child into the vegetable zone: I have seen spinach pound cake, carrots enticingly shaped like airplanes, broccoli masquerading as Hello Kitty. The Cute Lunch Box Wars begin with intense dogfights when your child enters preschool, and they will not completely abate until they graduate from university. You, as a mother in Japan, will be quietly judged by your abilities as a food provider.

Opting out is always an option when raising a child in a foreign country. As a British friend of mine explained, “I just pretend I don’t understand the obligations I don’t agree with.” Solid advice in general, but considering the importance Japan puts on food, I politely suggest you don your apron and enter the food fray.

2. ‘Escalator schools’ and ‘Kyōiku Mama’: Beware and be warned!

In Japan, no mother is completely immune from the “Education Mama” syndrome. With men working long hours during school time, often the sole responsibility for education falls on the mother, and some wear that mantle with samurai ruthlessness.

Yes, there are parents in America or Canada with Mensa handbooks for their 3-year-olds or Baby Einstein droning for the pea-pod in the womb, but in Japan, with its no-second-chances system of schooling, the Education-Crazy Mother is an uncomfortably familiar figure.

The craziness starts early, as the ultimate goal is often an “escalator school”: private school entry from elementary or junior high that means automatic entry to high school, bypassing or escalating up past the competitive high school entry exams.

Most of us foreign mothers in Japan also struggle to school our young in our own “mother tongue,” and early forms of home study become a way of life for many of us raising children away from our native land.

As a teacher myself, I refuse to offer any specific advice about mothering and education; there are simply too many ways to do it right, and every mother must research and review, weigh up and wrestle with their specific options here in Japan. Simply be aware — be very, very aware — that as your sweet one’s baby babble turns into syllables of decipherable meaning, you will have to make some hard choices about education and being a mother in Japan — choices that may seem completely foreign to how you were raised.

3. Strength in the mother: learning to love forbearance

One of the hardest things for me to accept as Japanese common sense with mothering: a perpetual reliance on forbearance. I was well-trained for children myself — growing up with a huge extended family, cousins across the States, trained as a baby-sitter for hire, camp counselor, swim teacher to kids and later teacher — yet not once had I ever observed an American mother placidly absorb pummeling from an enraged child. Many times during my own children’s toddler and preschool years in Japan, I was witness to this ultimate example of forbearance.

My shock gradually morphed into understanding, if not always acceptance. I realized that enduring and accepting the child’s way represents a show of strength among mothers here. I learned not to punish the uncontrollable rages that come with the toddler years and beyond, but to hold my child’s hands firmly and calmly until the emotion passes, like a Japanese mother I once observed. I learned the many ways forbearance can be a virtue in mothering, but above all, I learned there is no common sense in motherhood; there is only what works, for you and your child.

4. The Way

In seeming contradiction to No. 3, as a mother here you must be aware there is a Way — a specific, often unspoken way to do something in Japan. This means a way to wear indoor shoes, a set length and width of the bags you (should) hand-stitch for school, a way to volunteer for soccer mom duties; and later, a way your local Japanese school will deal with bullying. There is also the uncomfortably strict way of sports and other extracurricular activities, a way that does not make sense to many of us growing up with tee-ball, kiddie soccer or ballet recitals with inexpensive costumes.

Before you start any program or school in Japan for your kids, research all the hidden ways of participation. Anticipate problems before they happen, and discuss with your spouse how you will handle them when they occur. Don’t wait until you meet an obstacle along the way. Be prepared for the obstacles that will surely come, and plan your defense ahead of time. Everything around you will quietly urge you to follow the Way; if that is not your way, prepare.

5. The cult of motherhood vs. the cult of coupledom

A mainstay of Western belief assumes that the couple themselves remain the bedrock for the entire family. A healthy, happy relationship between husband and wife will nurture the bond between parents and children, and keeping the marriage spark after children come along is of fundamental importance. Finding “couple time” away from the kids is seen as healthy and vital to keeping the family unit as a whole strong.

A big difference with mothering in the West: Once you become a mother in Japan, you are no longer really a couple with your husband. You are your child’s mother. Your social group becomes your child’s friend’s mothers, while your husband’s social group becomes his company. The gulf between a couple can slowly grow immeasurable in Japan, as society encourages this separation.

Find what works for you and your husband to keep the family strong despite the lack of “couple support” in Japan. With no baby-sitters handy for the first eight years of motherhood, my husband and I found creative ways to engineer variations on “date night” — DVDs at home after the kids were in bed or early morning walks on the beach, to name just a couple. Parenthood puts a strain on any relationship anywhere, but in Japan you will have to work harder to patch up those tears.

Wherever your mother is — East or West, north or south, here or far away — toast her with champagne and thank her for her best efforts. April may be the cruelest month, but May belongs to mothers.

The Foreign Element focuses on the lighter side of life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send comments on this issue and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Max Erimo

    Nice article. As a foreign father to a six month old son battling the crazy child rearing ways of Japan, all I can say is “Don’t listen to any of the advice you are given.”
    We didn’t go for ‘satogaeri shussan’ so we both share the load of child rearing.
    I get up and make the bottle during the night. (My landlord’s wife told me I should sleep so I can do my job). I do my job sometimes bleary eyed and tired but that’s the life of a parent be they male or female.
    Our son has slept in his own bed in his own room since coming home from hospital. (The community health nurse found that impossible to believe and even asked ‘Can he sleep alone?’) If you’re used to it you can do it.
    When weaning,Don’t feed your child this or that as they may have an allergy. Only feed them ‘Okayu’, that tasteless rice gruel. (English and Australian mothers steer clear of rice because it contains gluten).
    Etc, etc,….
    Raise you child to be bigger, better and brighter than the system, not to be a part of it.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    I cannot help but wonder what country the author lives in. According to Ministry of Education data, thanks to the decline in the number of eighteen year olds and the substantial increase in college places on offer, the majority of college students have taken no entrance examination to get in. As a result, the stereotypical kyoiku mama, is an endangered species like the ronin (repeat test takers) who are an ever declining fraction of college entrants.

    As for there being “no second chance,” this claim is pure rubbish. Private colleges in Japan welcome transfer and mature students as they do anyone who can pay their fees. At the graduate level, even the most elite institutions are not particularly selective. As a result, people who went to a lower ranked school can easily upgrade their credentials by getting a graduate degree from a prestige institution, a pattern that is called “credential laundering” in Japanese.

    The author seems to be equating an elite or upper middle class pattern with Japanese behavior at large. Some time, preferably a few years, spent in a working class neighborhood interacting with working class Japanese would show that a large fraction of the population does not subscribe to the values or patterns described in this article.


  • leaf

    As a Japanese woman living in Japan who spent my formative years in the US (raised by my Japanese parents), this article made me nod in thought and sigh a little.
    In truth, as much as I love most aspects of Japanese culture and its people, the thought of raising a child here is just overwhelming. There will probably be so many things that I’ll have to do that I myself did not experience as a child. So many things that I won’t understand nor want to understand, all of which I’ll have to suck in and go through with a pleasant smile on my face. I’m very afraid that I might not be up to it!