A Family Across Two Cultures

A couple with roots in Japan and the United States
discusses family life in both societies
and their hopes for their children

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 34
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

In early 1976 Ellis Amdur went to Japan for what he thought would be a 2-year period of study in the martial arts. Later that same year, while waiting for an elevator at a Tokyo department store, he met Shoko Zama – and the rest, as they say, is history. They married in 1979, and their sons Kai and Akiva are now 8 and 5 respectively.

More than a dozen years later the family has relocated to Seattle, Washington. Ellis is currently studying for a Master’s in Existential Psychology while Shoko, an artist, continues to work in a variety of media. In addition to practicing several other martial arts, both are highly ranked instructors of naginata, a samurai’s halberd-like weapon that was also used by women and certain buddhist priests.

In an interview in this issue [Equity Between Generations],demographer Sam Preston identified "two polar types of countries" where children are well-supported: Sweden and Japan. Whereas families in Sweden are provided with a variety of government subsidies and programs, those in Japan receive more private and community-based kinds of support. But as Shoko and Ellis describe here, many things in Japan are changing.

Alan: Can you each speak about your own families?

Ellis: I was brought up in a suburban community near Pittsburgh. My father was a lawyer, but he didn’t practice that much law. Like many people, he had a basic metaphor by which he lived his life, and his was "the truth" as an abstract-but-real entity. He found it hard to practice law and practice truth at the same time. So he only took a few cases – usually for people who didn’t have any money – and he spent most of his time running a real estate information service.

He had been an FBI agent in the late ’30s and early ’40s, but quit that in 1946. He was in Newark, and without knowing why, he found himself wandering the streets alone every night, and always ending up in bad areas of town. On one of these nights there was a group of zoot-suiters on a street corner, and they immediately zeroed in on him. He was walking toward them, and he thought to himself, "Well, if there’s any trouble I’ve got my gun." And he took one or two steps forward, realized what he’d thought, turned on his heel, and drafted his resignation letter. That’s the kind of guy he was.

My mother was raised in a farming community in central Pennsylvania. Her family were the only Jews within, Lord, I don’t know how many miles, and quite isolated. She became both a pianist and a singer, performed in the Pittsburgh light opera, and studied at Juilliard for a summer. She had a chance to make her career as a singer, but she made a conscious choice to abandon her career and get married. After my father died she was a cantorial soloist in a synagogue for five years, and at age 59 she went back to school and got a social work degree. Now she’s a hospice worker.

We had a pretty energetic Jewish family. If there was something on our mind, we said it. I also have an older sister who got a degree in business administration, but she now does a kind of spiritual counseling – I don’t know the details but I know she works with crystals and meditation. My father’s dead now, but my parents were both such powerful personalities that it was hard for me to stake out who I was, so I did some thrashing around for a lot of years.

Alan: And you, Shoko?

Shoko: I was brought up in a lower-middle-class family in Japan. Now, everybody claims that everybody in Japan is in the middle-class – and my parents are better off now. But not when they were young. My father started a civil service career when he was very young, and like everybody in Japan in a big organization, you go one step at a time on the bureaucratic hierarchy. My father generally is a very quiet person, not talkative at all, at least at home. Home is the place where he comes back to eat and bathe and go to bed. And just on the weekend, as his duty, he has to take the children out or have some communication.

My mother was brought up in a big family. She has seven brothers and sisters, and her upbringing was up and down – sometimes their family was rich and they had servants and good clothes and a car, and then her father would make a wrong investment on some stocks or something and he would just go broke. Everybody would have to work then, and my mother’s the oldest, so she had to take care of all the family. She had many ups and downs. When she was an adolescent, she was sick and bedridden for a long while with a spine problem. And her family really abused her then. She was not the labor force any more in the family. So she had those stories to tell.

My father was renting a room in her family’s house, and upon seeing her abused all the time – even though she was healthier she was still just a labor force for everybody else – he sympathized with her, and he wanted to take care of her. So they got engaged and then married.

Alan: What do you mean by abused?

Shoko: Not physically abused, but she was viewed as this young girl who is just sick in bed and cannot do anything else, and her mother would make all these hysterical comments, like "You are nothing, just laying in the bed like this." But then again, I know that these comments came from my grandmother, who was all the time having troubles with my grandfather – he was always going around with other women, and not bringing home enough money, all these family problems. And she didn’t like all that much having all the kids to bring up either.

Also, all my mother’s family was going through wartime and that hardship. All the stories I heard from my mother were about the hardship, and how wonderful it was that I and my sister were living without those troubles. So I can say we had no big tragedy and no big success in our family – it’s just really flat.

Ellis: But I think you should add that your mother climbs mountains.

Shoko: Yeah, my mother climbs mountains.

Ellis: She climbed up a Himalayan peak.

Shoko: And my father is a classical music freak. He used to have this big stereo, he put a mattress on top of it and he would just lie on it while he listened.

Alan: So how would you compare your family to other Japanese families?

Shoko: I would say I come from pretty much a typical household. My parents would definitely say so, because they said this to me when I was brought up: "I don’t expect you to be anybody or anything big. I just want you to be a normal, average human being who doesn’t make any trouble with others." That’s what my parents said to me, over and over. And I think you’ll find that it’s very typical of the attitudes of the average Japanese family. Of course, there are exceptions. Maybe I’m just thinking the average thinking.

Alan: That’s somewhat at odds with the impression one often gets about Japan from the press or from a cursory visit there. One gets the feeling that everybody’s consumed with ambition for their children to get into Tokyo University.

Ellis: That’s different, though. It’s not ambition for your child to be an individual and stand out. It’s for your child to find the highest place possible to settle in, which is a very different idea. In other words, if the kid gets to Todai – Tokyo University – he is then guaranteed a good position in Sony, Hitachi, or a company like that. He will have his niche, and he will not be somebody who sticks out. I guess the best way to translate the expression from Japanese is, "If a nail sticks out, hammer it down." And that’s pretty much the way Japanese society operates.

Now there are a lot of exceptions. The man who founded Sony was a nail that stuck out. But for most folks, that’s the attitude that you’re inculcated with, and I saw it very clearly teaching school. I’d have all these bright little 7th graders, sassy kids like kids anywhere, and by 9th grade nobody stuck out. I was hard-pressed to remember the names of 9th graders that I’d taught for 2 years sometimes, because they were desperately trying not to stand out in any way. We had a couple of kids who refused to knuckle under, and they really went through hell – not from the students, but from teachers.

Alan: It’s a truism to say that America’s quite the opposite. While in some ways our society also has a tendency to hammer the nails down, we do encourage more individual achievement. How then are you translating these two very different philosophies about child-rearing and family life, and the way that family life fits into the cultural life, into the raising of your own kids? What hybrid philosophy do you have for your own family?

Ellis: The way I think about it is that even within Japan, there is an aristocratic or warrior tradition – a tradition that some people raise their children to do well, to lead, to stand out. So from what I’ve absorbed in Japan, I’ve found a way to rationalize wanting my children to be as much as they can be. I don’t want them to be isolated individuals, I want them to have a very strong social consciousness, and I don’t want them to be afraid to be themselves. I don’t know whether that’s Japanese or American, but that’s my feeling.

Shoko: These cultures, American individualist culture and Japanese group-oriented culture, are so different. For example, we took Kai, our older child, to soccer practice. From what we saw, the typical parent’s attitude is to yell "Go beat them!" Not to the team, but to the individual kid. In Japan, to cheer the individual players is the task of the coach, not the parents. To overly express your expectations towards your own kid is too much, too extravagant.

Ellis: It’s considered shameful.

Shoko: It’s not a very adult-like performance. You just don’t stand out that way, basically, though there are other situations where standing out is encouraged.

Ellis: Everybody knows that you’re proud of your child, so to cheer your child, to say in front of other people "You did a wonderful job," is sloppy.

Alan: Ellis, you’re speaking from a Japanese perspective here.

Ellis: Yes, which in many ways I hold. Certainly in the privacy of my own home I tell my children what they do well. But in front of other people, it’s like the parent is deriving glory from the child. And it does look real funny.

Also, in Japan – this is with young kids – you see teamwork. They’re taught to pass, they’re taught other skills. At this practice here, in America, we saw a couple of kids who were very talented in soccer, and they’d be running with the ball and no way they were going to pass. Other kids were left out. That kind of skills teaching was not done. So there was a lot of backbiting among the children – "Aw, it’s your fault we lost" – in a way that I didn’t expect to see, because we’ve been away from America for so long. I had to think back to my Little League days.

But the flip side of that in Japan is that when the kids get older, these sports teams become very militaristic and not much fun at all.

Alan: To jump back to America for a minute, I remember that my own father refused to let me join Little League because he thought it taught bad values.

Ellis: I begged and begged to go to Little League, but I can’t remember that I had any fun. Yet there’s no way I would have been individual enough to say, "I don’t want to play Little League with you guys anymore, I think it’s stupid." I hated it – but I still had to do it. It’s real easy to say "America, individual – Japan, communal." But that’s a mistake. We in America have a communal illusion of being individuals, and we are not individuals.

Alan: What’s the illusion in Japan then?

Ellis: There is often a communal illusion of being unified as one community, and therefore the person’s individual feelings get sacrificed. They only come out when you get real drunk, or in some situation when you’re away from home. For example, Japanese male tourists are famous in Southeast Asia for being terribly offensive, particularly to women, because nobody’s looking.

Shoko: As long as you’re living in your own community in Japan, you always have the eyes on you. It’s one of the reasons there’s such a low crime rate, because the houses are always being watched by your neighbor, sort of silently. The next-door neighbor will come out and say, "Yesterday some strange guy was walking past and looking into your gate, so maybe you should be watchful." That sort of information is always running around, even though you’re not friendly or not inviting each other over at all.

Ellis: That difference shows up in the education system as well. One thing I miss for my kids going to school here is that in Japan, the kids are expected to clean up the school. Different crews do it on different days, teachers supervise, it takes about fifteen minutes to half an hour, and it includes washing the floors and the windows. I think that creates a very different attitude toward the place where you go to school. It makes it yours.

Alan: Coming back to the family, in working on this issue we’ve heard a great deal about the various earthquakes – demographic, economic, social – rolling through the American family. What sort of earthquakes are rolling through the Japanese family?

Ellis: One thing that could be said is that World War II and the postwar era had the same effect on Japan as the Depression had for some people here. You know, "I’m not going to have my children suffer the way I suffered." People in their 20s and 30s in Japan now are the postwar generation. They’ve not known war, they’ve known only an ever increasing prosperity. There’s been a real culture shift which is very quickly called an "Americanization" of Japan. On a very superficial level, that’s true. They talk a lot in the papers, with a tremendous amount of concern, about what they call shinjin-rui, the "new breed," which are people who actually say, "No, I don’t want to work on weekends, I’d like to go home to my family."

That also includes the young kids who don’t want to get on the fast track. There were a lot of articles in Japan about what they call the "tribes": the Sun Tribe, the Rock & Roll Tribe, etc. You’ll see a lot of kids in the uniform of their tribe, dancing in certain areas of Tokyo. The commentators are saying, "What’s our youth coming to?" But I see all the Rock & Roll Tribe dressed in identical leathers. They’re all doing the same dance, usually in unison. It doesn’t seem to be a real change in the way people are functioning culturally.

Alan: And the analysts think that this change or lack of change is a result of prosperity.

Ellis: Yes, you read this in the Japanese papers: "Young people are spoiled, they don’t know what we suffered."

Alan: But has the postwar prosperity actually changed the way people interact with their children, and the role of children in the society?

Shoko: Before the war, I think there were more close-knitted communities, and the family is a part of that. For example, in the old days the children didn’t need any nursery or day care, because they had playmates right next door. A group of children just formed naturally.

The mothers had a lot more work, because along with all the cooking and cleaning and the washing they had to take care of the elders of the family, and usually they had some other family members living there too – parents, sisters, or maybe the uncle who couldn’t make it. They did everything, like giving birth, at home. The grandma would take care of the small babies, because after the delivery the mother had to recover and take care of the household again soon. The older children had to take care of the younger ones.

The father was the one who went outside to work, whether it be in the shops, or on a farm. He was on top of everybody, ruling the family. And then second would be his mother. It’s like the old days here I guess.

Alan: So is there more child culture in Japan now? Are children given more early educational training?

Ellis: You’ve got a couple of things here. There’s a graying of Japan – a lot of grandparents are not living at home, so you’ve got much more of a nuclear family. Secondly, women are getting educated. But they’re given very few opportunities.

Prewar, the father was coming home and ruling the family, and whatever one might think about that, it resulted in a pretty strong family structure with both parents assuming some sort of a role within the family. What’s happened now in middle class Japan is that the father, because of the demands of work – everybody’s read about men having to stay after work and see clients and drink – comes home real late, is very absent from the family, and at most is available on Sundays. The mother has got a solo role as upbringer of the children.

She’s also got a lot of frustrated energies of her own, because she has an education. She knows a lot about the world – Japan’s a very cultured place. So you have a lot of women who have nothing to do with all that they now know, and they put that into the upbringing of their children, particularly their sons. For many women, it’s absolutely a matter of life and death importance what their sons, and sometimes their daughters, achieve. So there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on children.

Shoko: But at the same time there has been some change, because some of these women have decided to get divorced and pursue their careers.

Ellis: That’s the next step – some women are managing to step back and say "I have my own life." And divorce laws are, in some ways, very liberal in Japan. Basically all you do is go to the local ward office – that’s the center of local political activity – and say "We want to get a divorce, and our differences are irreconcilable." They will urge you to have a counselor. But if you say, "No, we absolutely do not want a counselor," then you just sign a paper, and that’s it.

The problems occur when one person does not want to sign the paper. Until very recently, there was just no way that they would grant you the divorce without your showing cause. Usually there’s not alimony, but if one person is at blame, then that person, husband or wife, has to pay a one-time huge amount of money. So that person is going to resist the divorce – which means there’s a big market for detectives who check out adultery and all that sleazy stuff.

But just recently there was a case where a man had left his wife and lived with another woman for 25 years. I think they even raised children. But the man’s wife refused to grant the divorce. And the case, I think, went as high as the Supreme Court, who granted the divorce. They said that, de facto, there was no marriage, and no possibility of reconciliation. This may be a revolutionary case in Japan that could cause some rather profound changes in the future, if they’re allowed to happen.

Shoko: Also, if you are a divorced mother, you get a lot of welfare in Japan, much more than here. You can get day care almost for free as soon as you find a job. And sometimes you are provided housing too.

Alan: Do women also have associations and social support groups, like Parents Without Partners?

Shoko: There are such groups, and a lot of marriage and divorce counselors, and there are women lawyers available, at least in the major urban areas.

Alan: What has struck you as different about the attitudes of Americans toward children?

Ellis: It was really shocking to see how openly some people express a dislike for children in America. While it may be true that just as many people in Japan don’t like kids, it’s amazing how offensive the sound of children playing or crying can be to the people who live in apartment complexes. In Japan, if your child is crying – not throwing an offensive tantrum, but just crying – people understand that. But I’ve heard Americans say, "Oh my god I wish they’d shut that child up." It seems that a large proportion of Americans don’t like children, and if you want to expand on that, it certainly gets reflected in terms of how much money is allotted to education and such.

Alan: What other differences stand out about the children themselves?

Ellis: One big difference is how aware and street smart children have to be at such a young age here, even though we’re not living in a very dangerous area.

Shoko: And children here are so expressive, from a very early age. In Japan, the adults tend to understand the children without the verbal communication.

Ellis: Shoko, I remember that you were struck by how articulate very young children are in talking to adults – that they look you right in the eye, that they speak to you as one person to another. In Japan we have a special way of talking to children, and you don’t expect a child to understand very much in terms of concepts.

Alan: And I understand there’s even a different grammar for use with children.

Shoko: Yes, so that was really a shock to me, that small children can be so articulate.

Alan: What about differences in community life as it relates to the family?

Shoko: The distance is so great among the families here. Basically you need a car in this country. When we lived in a suburb of Tokyo we did need a car, but not in the neighborhood – we just used a bicycle or walked. Now it’s a business to go anywhere, communicating with other mothers, making appointments just to ride back and forth.

Ellis: So that makes the parents more involved in the children’s activities. Instead of saying, "Bye Mom, I’m going to so-and-so’s," it’s "I want to go there. Take me." And so in an interesting way our children have lost a lot of independence coming here, because they’ve lost a lot of independent mobility on their own.

Alan: When your kids grow up are they going to be Japanese or American? How do you imagine they will think of themselves?

Shoko: If they grow up and are educated in American society, they’ll think of themselves as American. And I strongly think, even though they have some Japanese-ness inside of them, they will start to conceal that and fit into this society, at least through adolescence. And after that maybe they will start to find some charm in Japanese culture.

Ellis: But in addition to that – and this is true of almost all my friends who have binational kids – they go through a period of really being torn. They not only think in two different languages, they feel two different sets of feelings.

If they were brought up in Japanese society, to almost the same degree I think they would think they were Japanese. They do now, although it’s changed somewhat since we arrived here eight months ago. But in my experience, Japanese folks would let them know that they were not "really" Japanese, no matter how well they spoke the language.

As children they blended in. There was the first shock when they went into public school – everybody stared and made fun, my older boy had to do some fights and all of that. Then he blended in and was real happy. But I think there’s a point at which people stop using their gut and their feelings to learn another person, as children do, and start using their eyes and their preconceptions. And at that point, I think that both our children would start getting the message, "You aren’t us."

So there are lots of things that we aren’t happy about in both societies, but in terms of their not always feeling watched and being automatically considered different, I think America will be an easier place psychologically.

Beyond that, I would hope that they would have the facility to move back through Japanese society and have equal pride in that blood, and not end up an American with some Japanese blood in them. That would be a real shame.

Shoko: Yes, having pride in both cultures is very important I think. My hope is that both children will be able to read the Japanese language, so that if they want to learn about the culture, they can do it. I think the language is very important. Language speaks a lot of cultural difference, and the root of the difference.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!