Apparently 1 in 20 of Japanese weddings last year included at least one foreigner. As a recent addition to this growing group, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to be married to a Japanese person (国際結婚, kokusai kekkon) for me – a very stippy gaijin. Having a good time while chatting with Japanese friends is one thing, but living together 24-7 with someone who has grown up with a totally different set of morals, expectations and traditions is a pretty eye opening experience. It is easy to forget but, interestingly, all of my friends at home remind me that it is even pretty hard doing this back home where everyone speaks the same language! After a bunch of long phone calls with friends back home, my wife and I decided to try out pre-marital counseling before we tied the knot.
So what is pre-marital counseling? If you’re like me and have lived the last 10 years of your life in Japan then you might have also been brain washed into thinking that it is for people with psychological problems. As a happy graduate of counseling, let me set you straight. Pre-marital counseling is all about preventing one of those “this isn’t the (wo)man I thought I married” style shocks, half a year into your marriage. Not only does it give you a great chance to express your fears and hopes to your partner in a supporting atmosphere, it also enables you to learn a lot about some of the stranger expectations that your partner might have for you in your new life together. And believe me, every single person who grew up in a different family to you will definitely have some “strange” expectations.
Guys, imagine this: your counselor is likely to sit down your wife and say “Listen, Hanako, guys need intimacy and sex as a part of their marriage. It helps reaffirm that they are loved by their partner. Do you realize that this means you might have to have sex more than once a week?” What better way to cure a sexless marriage than through prevention? Girls, it is a lot easier to talk frankly about how you want to (or more importantly, are expected to) balance your career with being a Mother if there is a counselor sitting there prodding him.
Believe me, there will be enough issues to deal with even in the happiest of marriages that you really should deal with the low hanging fruit as soon as possible. By “as soon as possible”, I mean as soon as you get engaged. According to our counselor, too many couples visit only a few weeks before their wedding and expect somehow to rush through the process in a couple of visits at the same time as dealing with the stress of a wedding. While it is different from couple to couple, most couples need at least half a dozen sessions. While it is a little counter intuitive, the more sessions you have together, the more you will learn about each other and the happier you will both be because of it. While your gut reaction might be that pre-marital counseling is not very romantic, let me assure you – it is all about sustaining the romance for the long-term in your marriage after it starts rather than just the usual six month “honeymoon period”.
Unfortunately, Japan isn’t very advanced when it comes to any form of counseling. The odds are high that your spouse won’t have heard of pre-martial counseling and might even think that you are having second thoughts. My advice is to buy him/her a copy of “この人と結婚していいの？” (kono hito to kekkon shite ii no, “Am I ready to marry this person?”) by Marre Ishii (石井稀久) first. (Link to it here on amazon.co.jp) Marre is one of Japan’s few pre-marital counselors and has made a name for himself through a handful of books trying to explain the topic of pre-marital counseling to the populace. Although he is apparently a Christian minister, the great thing about the book is that there is absolutely no religious bias at all (gee, he even discusses affairs and a bunch of other very non-Christian concepts!). Even better yet, he learnt how to be a counselor while he was in America and has counseled a bunch of multicultural couples in his time.
If you can read Japanese then I recommend that you read it, too – your partner will be grateful that you are trying to understand his/her perspective. If you can’t read Japanese or aren’t really into that sort of thing then reading “Why Men don’t listen & women don’t read maps” (link here) is better than nothing but lacks the Japanese-ness of Marre. While there is a Japanese translation (link here) for “Why men don’t listen…” it really doesn’t hit the spot for most Japanese people. After all, the author only refers to Johns, Marys and Jims… if part of the message strikes them as slightly controversial it is too easy to say, “oh yeah maybe that is the case in America, but it isn’t the case in Japan”. Marre’s book goes into detail about real Japanese people which hits very close to home. I was impressed how he even hit the nail on the head describing me as ウルトラマン (Ultraman) at heart. I also learnt heaps reading it and plan to read his other books in the future.
If you don’t think that Marre is the right guy for you, then there are other options out there (although nowhere near the number of options as you would find back at home). One of the more accessible female counselors out there is a caring educationalist called Nobuyo Yoshikawa at Bunkyo University. As part of our her efforts to reduce divorce in Japan through further education, she offers a free online test for willing couples. While it is not full-on counseling, her analysis of your personality is quite accurate and she raises a bunch of “difficult questions” for you two to discuss as a pair. She personally played a very large role in cementing our relationship and turning it into what it is today. You can read more about her online test on her webpage here.
One final note that Marre also makes in his book: Pre-marital counseling is not only for pre-marriage couples. Counseling is great for couples of all ages. I don’t think there are any couples – especially in international marriages – that wouldn’t benefit from it. Maybe you don’t feel as though you need to create a special environment where you can speak frankly about your dreams, desires and worries without feeling threatened, but there is a good chance that your spouse does.
If anyone else has some creative tips for navigating a bi-cultural marriage then – as a new rice to the world of marriage – I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.