Help at hand for foreign wives trying to cope in Japan

Happily ever after is hard work.

But for foreign wives of Japanese, there is often the additional problem of language barrier and cultural differences.

Thankfully, there are a number of organizations around the country to help foreign women negotiate this minefield.

The Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese was established in 1969 and has about 470 members in Japan and abroad of various nationalities. The oldest member is a 92-year-old Dutch woman.

The annual membership fee is 7,000 yen ($75). The association publishes a bimonthly newsletter with tips about living in Japan as well as essays submitted by members.

It also hosts an annual convention at which participants wear formal attire for dinner. The convention allows members scattered around Japan to come together for a direct exchange of information. Ordinarily, members use Facebook or e-mail services to confide in each other about the problems they encounter.

The current chairperson is Rachel Greenwood Yokomatsu, 41, who hails from New Zealand and lives in Nakatsu, Oita Prefecture.

“When I first arrived in Japan 16 years ago, I was the only foreigner in the community,” she said.

She came to Japan as an English instructor and met and eventually married Kanji, 44.

Yokomatsu recalled the many cultural differences that she initially faced, including the way people take baths and trying to figure out the ingredients in baby food.

It was while Yokomatsu was experiencing a sense of isolation that she came across an ad for the association in a mail-order catalog for Western foods she craved but could not find in Japan. This led her to others in a similar situation with whom she could turn to for advice.

After the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated northeastern Japan two years ago, members in the hard-hit Tohoku region quickly contacted others in the organization living elsewhere in Japan to provide lodgings for parents and children evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture.

It was because of these self-help efforts and mutual encouragement that few members joined the exodus of foreign nationals to their home countries following the disaster.

There is also a local organization for foreign wives living in Kumamoto Prefecture that is organized by Christina Tashiro, who is originally from Argentina. Her husband worked for an airline company and his job meant postings all over the world before they settled 29 years ago in Kumamoto, her husband’s home town.

The Kumamoto group has a much broader range of members as even Japanese men and singles can join as long as they have an interest in international exchange. There is no membership fee.

The group organizes various activities. For one event, they gathered at the farm where a Chinese woman had married into to experience the back-breaking work of digging up potatoes.

Cooking classes to introduce local cuisine are another fixture.

Group members also respond to questions that foreign wives may have about their children’s school activities and procedures at the local government office.

“I have never given much thought to people’s nationality because I always want to say ‘I am a global citizen who loves Kumamoto,'” Tashiro said.

Other organizations have been set up to provide counseling for foreign wives who may be having difficulties adjusting to their local communities.

One of the oldest is the Fujimino International Cultural Exchange Center in Saitama Prefecture, run by Nanae Ishii, 65.

“We have had many consultations from women who have suffered from depression because they were raising their children in an environment where they cannot use their native tongue,” Ishii said.

The primary factor behind feelings of alienation is not being able to converse easily in Japanese.

Ishii also noted there has been an increase in couples who have married under questionable circumstances.

“Some women desperate to escape their poverty have married after only one conversation using Skype,” she said.

Yukari Yamashita, 50, who heads the Fukuoka-based Global Life Support Center, said, “Ever since the start of stricter evaluation for entertainment visas from 2005, there has been an increase in the number of foreign women who have sought to obtain visa status by marrying a Japanese man.”

At the same time, she said it was difficult to determine when marriages of convenience had occurred.

Both Ishii and Yamashita said there were limits to what private organizations can do. They said the central and local governments should more aggressively implement programs to provide language support and counseling services rather than depend only on nonprofit organizations.

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