For Canadian traveler, last-minute meeting led to change of heart and new start in Japan

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Someone once said that life takes us to unexpected places, but love takes us home. However, if you happen to meet a soul mate on your travels, you can wind up finding a home from home half a world away from your native country.

Michelle Takahashi, 35, from Vancouver, left Canada at age 19 to spend a few years in London. With a plan after that to stay one year in Japan, she arrived in Tokyo in 2003. When she was literally just about to pack her bags to move to Hong Kong in 2005, she decided to finally meet a longtime online acquaintance in person. She didn’t know that meeting Toru Takahashi, 37, from Sendai, would forever change her life and lead to her settling down in Japan.

Michelle currently works as an English teacher at a school for families who hope to raise their children in bilingual and multi-cultural environments. Together with Toru, a systems engineer at an IT-related U.S. company, and their two sons — Keiden, 4, and Colton, who will turn 2 on Christmas Eve — she now lives in the city of Kodaira, western Tokyo.

How did you meet?

Michelle: When I came to Japan, I didn’t know anybody and I met many people online. We met via a dating website. Toru contacted me, emailed me many times, but I wasn’t really interested. Then, we would email back and forth and sometimes we would make plans to get together but I would cancel at the last minute.

We finally met in 2005. We went to a bar, spent a nice evening and that was it. It just clicked. I was more attracted to him than I thought I would be.

What happened then?

Toru: We were dating for three years. In 2006 we went to Vancouver, where we lived for about two years. I really liked Canada. People there live an unhurried life.

Michelle: We came back in 2008 because I missed Japan. It was also better for us for economic reasons, as Toru couldn’t find a well-paid job and house prices there are definitely too high. Besides, I don’t really like Canada. It’s nice to visit, but I grew up there. I guess it just wasn’t my place.

Was it difficult to adapt to life in Japan?

Michelle: Of course, initially I think I had a culture shock that everybody has when they come to Japan. But I was young, so I guess it just didn’t bother me.

After the first few months, I found ways around and people around to help me cope with things. When I was single and living here by myself, I had lots of Japanese friends that had lived abroad, so they spoke English very well.

But since I’ve had kids, it’s switched to having more foreign friends. I guess it’s easier to de-stress about your problems in your own language. My best friend is Canadian; we had the same upbringing.

Have you learned to understand each other despite the cultural differences?

Michelle: I think we don’t have any problems with cultural understanding.

Toru: She grew up in a multicultural environment and [before we met] I had already had some friends from different cultures, so I was able to understand cultural differences.

Michelle: I’m very adaptable and a lot of my Japanese friends tend to think I’m Japanese. They don’t see me as a foreigner. I agree a lot with the Japanese way of thinking.

Have you had any problems getting along with your in-laws?

Michelle: Toru’s parents welcomed me from the beginning. His family never had any issue with me as a foreigner. I never felt uncomfortable.

Toru’s father passed away a few years ago, which was very unfortunate. But his mother and sister are living in Sendai and they’re lovely. His mother takes care of the children every time we go to Sendai. Unfortunately I can’t speak Japanese very well, but his mother talks at me all the time.

Toru: My mother loves to talk and she doesn’t care if the person is Japanese or not.

Michelle: And my parents love Toru, but his name is so difficult for them to pronounce.

Toru: Everybody [in Michelle’s family] calls me Toro. I always tell them that that’s a fatty tuna.

How do you manage to balance work and child-rearing?

Michelle: I’m lucky that my work is so flexible. At my workplace they allow me to take my child with me. It’s very rare. The owner’s vision was to create a workplace where mothers could work with their children. She’s also a mother of two.

I’m lucky, especially because what’s frustrating about Japan is that women cannot enter the workforce easily after they have children. Toru comes back around 9 or 10 p.m. I don’t mind if he comes back late, because if he comes back early the kids get excited and I can’t get them to sleep.

At the beginning I couldn’t understand why he worked until late because in Canada people finish at 5 p.m. You get used to it, I guess. And then you appreciate the weekends more.

How different is the attitude to discipline in Japan and Canada?

Michelle: I seem to be the discipliner in this family. I find there’s a lack of discipline in this country. Especially in public, people let their kids do anything. And children here are given a lot more freedom from a very young age. You see children aged 5 or 6 going to the park by themselves. It would never happen back home, but I think it’s because of the safety [here].

Is there anything about the education system that surprised you?

Michelle: The whole system surprises me every day. People start researching kindergartens when their kids are born. They line up for hours, which shocked me. And when they’re having an interview, everyone gets dressed up perfectly, which seems fake to me.

The reason we chose Keiden’s kindergarten is because people there are really laid back. It was the only place where we felt comfortable. The teachers are very nice and they don’t treat me differently.

What surprises me sometimes, though, is that at the meetings held every new term, we go through a piece of paper we have already been given for two or three hours. I find it’s hard for mothers to make a decision. Back home, we would have been done in 10 minutes. But it’s an adventure and I enjoy it, and Keiden loves going to the kindergarten.

Have you ever done PTA duty?

Michelle: The PTA at Colton’s kindergarten is a lot more relaxed than in other places. I’ve heard some stories and I assume it just depends on the school.

We sometimes have lunches together, but as most of the mothers are working, it’s very laid back. We don’t have to compete like waking up at 5 a.m. and making the “character bentō” [lunch box with a cartoon-character theme]. But I do participate, and this year I’m doing the photo album.

Have you been asked by your child about the cultures both of you come from?

Michelle: Keiden doesn’t ask questions but I think he understands, because we go back to Canada every summer for six weeks. It’s for their English.

Toru: We didn’t talk about anything and he never asked anything. But of course he knows.

Michelle: I don’t know if he knows. We never told him he is half-Japanese.

Toru: You told me he once asked why you married me.

Michelle: He was just interested in marriage. I told him that if you really love someone, you care about them, you marry them. So he told me he wanted to marry Colton.

We’ve never made a big deal out of it. We emphasize, though, that he’s lucky that he can speak two languages. He sometimes asks why his friends can’t speak English. When we go to Canada, Keiden says he misses Japan and vice versa.

What are your plans for the future?

Michelle: We like this area, so we’ve decided to buy a house around here next year. We’re going to stay in Japan; I guess that’s kind of decided. And I want to master Japanese once the kids get older. I think then that I wouldn’t be so dependent on Toru.

I’m an independent person and it’s hard for me. I’m sure if I were more fluent in Japanese that would make my life a lot easier and would help me communicate with Toru’s family.

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