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Read about AFWJ and matters related to life in Japan and beyond.

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  • 01 Apr 2019 12:13 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    April, the beginning of the business and school year in Japan, is a time to enjoy the cherry blossoms and start your new life. If you have a child entering the school system it can be a time of great stress and panic as you try to figure out how to prepare your child for this big step, what needs labelling, what to wear to the entrance ceremony, how to buy gym clothes etc. There is so much to do! Fear not, you may have heard some scary stories about the strict school system in Japan, but it’s not as bad as you think. Hopefully this post can set your mind at ease a little bit about starting school in Japan.

    First of all, let’s take a look at the education system in Japan, for those who might be entirely unfamiliar with it. For the youngest children there is the option of daycare (保育園) run by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour, or preschool (幼稚園) run by the Ministry of Education. Basically, daycare is for households with working parents and preschool caters to households with a stay-at-home caregiver, neither is part of the compulsory education system but most kids attend one or the other.

    Compulsory education begins in elementary school (小学校), which has 6 grades; children start grade one the April after their sixth birthday. Middle school (中学校) is the second and final stage of compulsory education in Japan and it consists of 3 years, following elementary school. Both stages of compulsory education are free and starting from autumn of 2019, the government has decided to make public education free for children between the ages of 3 and 5.

    A large majority of students attend high school (高学校) in Japan, even though it is not compulsory and requires guardians to pay tuition fees. The cost of high school varies according to the type of school, whether it’s private or public, and how prestigious the school is. Getting into high school requires students to pass entrance exams; many students spend their third year of middle school studying heavily in order to ace the entrance exam of the school of their choice. This pattern repeats in the third year of high school when students focus on university entrance exams. In Japan getting into the university (大学校) of your choice might be difficult, however once you are in the structure is a bit different than western university and a bit more like high school with prescribed sets of classes according to your field of study.

    Starting any level of school in Japan comes with 2 important events - the explanatory meeting (説明会) and the entrance ceremony (入園式 for preschool, 入学式 for other schools). The explanatory meeting takes place before the beginning of the school year, often in March and perhaps as early as February depending on the school. At this meeting you will receive a large amount of papers explaining all sorts of things about the school, for example: the basic rules, what to do in case of absence, what uniforms you need, school supplies needed, availability of after-school care etc. The volume of information can be quite overwhelming! The meeting can also be quite boring and a preview of school-meetings to come as they tend to go through every piece of paper in the information package one-by-one, giving a detailed explanation for each item.

    Sometime during this meeting the PTA will come up and a representative will explain all the wonderful things the PTA does at the school and how great it is to be part of it. The things is, at many elementary schools doing your time on the PTA appears to be mandatory, whether you think it is great to be part of it or not. The demands and duties associated with the PTA are different at each school and for each PTA position, from rigorously time-consuming to totally lax. There may be a PTA sign-up form to submit at the end of the explanatory meeting, along with uniforms to order or buy, so don’t try to sneak out early once you have the information packet!

    After the explanatory meeting you can buy all the required school supplies prior to the entrance ceremony and the start of the school year. Buying school supplies can be a bit stressful as you have to make sure you buy the exact right type of bag/scissors/pencils etc. Not only do you have to buy a zillion items, you have to label them all - right down to individual crayons and such! One of the big items a child needs to start elementary school is a special backpack called a randoseru (ランドセル) that will last them all six years. These special backpacks can be quite expensive and are often given as a gift by proud grandparents as early as a year in advance. Randoseru are not exactly a mandatory school item but they hold significant cultural importance and most kids have them.

    Besides school supplies you might be worried about buying the right outfit for your child to attend the entrance ceremony (if they do not have a uniform) and the right mama-suit or outfit for yourself to wear. When you’re a foreigner, getting the right look for yourself and your child can be a source of extra stress as you don’t want to get it wrong and stand out more than you already do. Try not to stress about it too much, in recent years entrance ceremony fashion has become less rigid, with parents and kids are showing up in a wider variety of fashions then previous years. Just don’t forget your slippers - your nice outfit cannot be accompanied by your nice shoes inside the school.

    Entrance ceremonies take place at the beginning of April and as with all formal ceremonies in Japan, they are fairly serious. However, unlike the solemn sad graduation ceremonies, entrance ceremonies are happy occasions, marking the beginning of a new era students’ lives and welcoming them to the school. The fresh new students might march in looking timid and eager and then everyone will listen to numerous speeches by the principal, teachers, the head of the PTA, a senior student etc. welcoming them to the school. At an elementary school entrance ceremony, there might even be a skit by the sixth graders to welcome first graders and provide some entertainment amongst the many speeches. New teachers to the school will also be welcomed and will each give a small speech themselves. Once the entrance ceremony is done there may be group photos and you might be able to see your child’s new classroom and meet their new teacher. If you’re lucky, the cherry blossoms in your area will still be blooming and will add a lovely background to all the pictures you will want to take of your child embarking on their newest journey in education.

    Once all the formalities of the explanatory meeting and entrance ceremony have finished, it will finally be time for the first day of school. You will load up your child with the required school supplies and it will be time for them to begin their new life. As you deposit your child with their daycare or preschool, wave goodbye your first grader as they walk to school for the first time, send your off your nervous middle school student or high schooler, or move your university student into their new apartment, one thing is for certain - you will worry about them and think of them throughout their first day more than they could possibly guess. You may also feel the passage of time rather acutely as you look back on their former “first days” and think about how soon the next “first day” will be upon you both - and how it won’t be long until they are finished all their first days of school and are off to take on the world all on their own.  

    By: Sandra Suzuyama

  • 01 Mar 2019 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    April marks the start of the new business year in Japan, everything and everyone must be in place and ready to work by then, which means March is moving month. All over Japan people are packing up bags and getting ready to take on new city or town and start their lives afresh. Sometimes this means the whole family, sometimes it means just the main breadwinner. That’s right, in Japan it is not uncommon for the main breadwinner (which is mostly dear ol’Dad in this country) to move off to a new locale and leave the spouse and kids behind for a year or two so that the kids can maintain stability. The practice of Tanshin-Funin and how families navigate it, could easily take up a whole post of its own, so watch out for that in the future. For this month’s post let’s just focus on the act of moving itself.

    Our family is no stranger to moving, having done it 4 times in the last 11 years so I would like to share some of my tips and advice for those of you out there navigating a household move this March. This is not meant to be all encompassing, just a few tidbits that I have learned along the way.

    First off, moving is stressful so try to pace yourself and try not to kill your partner or file for divorce. Seriously, moving can be a huge strain on a relationship. Both you and your spouse will have a lot to do in order to get ready for the move and this can put a lot of pressure on a marriage and lead to some amazing fights. So breathe, chill out and check-in. My husband and I had some clear divisions of labour in our moves - he was in charge of the bureaucracy and I was in charge of packing. My husband handled the hiring of the movers and general management of the move, making sure all the necessary paperwork and arrangements were made. There is a fair amount of paperwork to do when you move in Japan - you need to get a document from your current city, bring that paper to your new city to transfer your resident status, notify schools if you have kids, change addresses at various institutions, forward your mail, cancel utilities in your old place, set them up in your new place. Plus you have to arrange apartment inspections and moving dates - and probably more! This doesn’t mean my husband did all the running around, I would pick up documents here and deposit them there, but he was the person carrying the mental load of the move. I just packed.

    Packing can seem like a daunting task, so I recommend breaking it down into bite-sized pieces as much as possible so that it is less overwhelming. When we receive the boxes from the moving company, I like to start with the closets that contain things we don’t use frequently or things that are seasonal items. This way, you can start to make inroads early in packing, without it impacting your living conditions. I cannot stand living in a cluttered mess for a month or two around moving - I need to have my daily life running smoothly and unaffected as much as possible. It is a good idea to go through your food pantry at this point, the more you eat the less you have to pack and you can go through it and throw out any forgotten items that are long expired (which hopefully isn’t very much, food waste sucks). Don’t forget to try and eat all the sauces and condiments in your fridge, as well as the stuff hiding in your freezer leading up to the move. There is always more hiding in your closets and pantry than you think and somehow I always end up disposing of things that haven’t been touched since our last move.

    That brings me to my next point - start disposing of any items you don’t want to bring to your new place as soon as you have a hint that you might move. Get rid of books, DVDs, furniture, clothes etc, that have been dwelling unused and unwanted in your living space. In our last move we took books and video games to Book Off, clothes to second hand stores, furniture to recycle shops and junked a couple things via “sodai-gomi” (large garbage). Disposing of things in Japan isn’t always easy, but there usually is a way to do, check with your city office on how to dispose of items you’re not sure of.

    Once you’ve packed up all the seasonal items and things used infrequently from your closet, and disposed of things not worth moving, it’s time for to start moving-triage - what do you need up until the last minute, what do you want to use until it’s almost time to move, and what can you live without until you’re in your new place. You’re going to need clothes, dishes and other basic daily necessities right up to the last minute so leave the things you need to live until the last few days. Pack books, decorations, ornaments, outdoor items and anything else you don’t need for day to day life in the month leading up to the move - try to have all of those items packed by the one-week cut off before the big moving day. In the final week gradally pack items that you can live without for a few days and most of your clothes.

    Our last move required a long-weekend of transition and a climate change so I had to pack suitcases of seasonally appropriate clothes for our current and new location, toiletries, important papers needed for the move, and things I didn’t want going with the movers. That’s one last thing to keep in mind when packing, there may be stuff you’d rather not go with the movers “just in case” so make sure you have room in your suitcase or car for those items so that there is no last minute panicking about where they will fit. Movers in Japan are super efficient, they will arrive and load your life into their truck in no time flat, you can’t afford to be worrying about that thing you didn’t pack because you thought it’d fit in the backseat of the car but doesn’t!

    Above all else, don’t forget to take care of your emotional needs and the emotional needs of your family. Transitions are stressful for everyone, adults, children and pets. Everyone will have their own worries, fears and things that they are excited about. Try and leave time for enjoying a few things and favourite places in your current city before you go; talk about how you will miss them and how you’re looking forward to exploring your new town and finding new favourite places. Once you move, even though there will be a million things to do in order to set up your new place and unpack, try and set aside some time to go somewhere exciting and explore what your new locale has to offer. These little family adventures can go a long way in smoothing the transition and make it a bit more fun too!  

    To share another perspective on moving this month, here is a first hand experience of moving house by one of our members:

    Moving: The Good and the Bad 

    By: AFWJ Member, A.R.

    Before my children entered Primary School I thought of moving as some kind of long term sightseeing. Once they started school and making friends, I became to hate moving! It isn't only expensive with all the gift giving for greeting and leaving, but every time you have to start from zero, again, and again, and again. It is very tiring! Our moving notice usually comes in secret in early March, with vague information, followed by the public announcements with all the details around mid-march. And then the stress begins. If you are lucky, the housing will be provided. Most of the time however, you will have to find your own housing, at a time when half of Japan (or so it seems!) is moving. Your husband has to go to work as well, and finish every unfinished business, which leaves you with all things to prepare for the move. Packing! I try to keep our belongings to a minimum, and every year come February, I start decluttering and eating up what's in the freezer and pantry. With the children getting older things are getting easier too, because now you have actually help for packing and unpacking!

    I used to go out and buy a map of the city we are moving to, but the current city does NOT have a map! So Google maps and street view have become my best buddies. When moving here, about 2 years ago, I signed up for the 転勤奥様講座 (a course for wives who have just relocated, literally: Relocation Wife Course) which was very helpful. The very first time the topic was rubbish disposal, which varies in every city, and can be a huge cause of stress! There I met some like-minded ladies, and we got on really well, and still keep going out for lunch every other month. In September it was my turn to organize, but I didn't know any fancy places to eat out, so started searching the internet, and went to plenty of places to check them out! Sometimes alone, sometimes with children. It was fun, and something I would not have done, if it wasn`t for the ladies from the 転勤奥様講座.

    Over the years, some things have gotten a lot easier. You can now make many changes of address online, like for JAF or your credit card company. A change of address for your bank or postal account can be made at the local ATM, anytime. You can even do the forwarding service for all your Postal mail online, by simply filling out the form online (

    When we moved to our current place, the very first thing I did was sign up at a sports club. It is essential for my mental health, plus you get to meet people - which is very important when you move to a place where you don't know a single soul! You need to find places you enjoy going to, where you can meet people or just simply get (free) information for your area. While moving sucks big time, and makes you feel like a nomad, it has made me stronger and more outgoing, it is the only way for me to move forward.

    Thanks for sharing your experience A.R.!

    If you are undertaking a move this month, we wish you the best of luck in getting things sorted and starting life in your new place.

    by: S.Suzuyama

  • 01 Feb 2019 10:01 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Finally the most romantic holiday of the year is upon us, a time for females to declare their love by painstakingly working in the kitchen to make chocolate treats for a special someone. Ladies don’t forget your friends: whether you make them or buy them, tomo-chocolates are a must - friends before the mens. Oh yeah, you’d also better get that wallet out, those obligatory chocolates for your boss and the males at your office aren’t going to buy themselves. Ah, it’s all so romantic!

    Wait, what?!

    Sorry, but there isn't much that's romantic about Valentine’s Day in Japan. Which is why when I asked the members of AFWJ for their recipes for romance on Valentine’s Day, it was met with a collective snort of derision from around Japan and beyond. However, members did share with me was some fun ways to celebrate the holiday in spite of how unromantic it is in Japan. As a bonus I heard how some of our more amorous members keep the romance alive all year long.

    What AFWJ members had to say about Valentine’s Day:

    I love myself, so I shall go out soon and buy myself some fancy Chocolates.


    DH is aware of what Valentine's Day is and has given me flowers a few times. In the first few years of being married and living in Japan, he would give me the giri-choco he received at the office.


    It's turned into chocolate day for us. For a while I would make special chocolate desserts on that day for the whole family.


    I take the opportunity to buy the large portions of baking and candy-making chocolate that is available this time of year!


    I usually do something special on this day for us. In the past few years I've made Tiramisu, which is one of his favorites.


    He might get me chocolate or a rose, depending on the workload of the day. I don’t get him anything, usually, he doesn’t like chocolate anyway. Of course I will get myself some chocolate - that’s beyond question!


    I usually just get him a bit of chocolate and he gives me flowers. Took a lot of educating to get him to realise that giving me something romantic would be in his best interests! And for about the last 10 years, we try to go out for a date on or near Valentine's Day. I think that's our nicest custom--enjoying time out with your partner.


    Do you count buying the yummiest chocolates for your DH? But the reason is because you actually want to eat half of them yourself, because your DH won't give you anything on *White Day* and you prefer chocco to candy or cookies - the usual White Day stuff.


    *White Day is on March 14th and men are supposed to return the favours they received on Valentine’s Day to the females in their life.*

    For years I bought novelty chocolates for DH and the kids. Now my darling and I buy small chocolate treats for each other.



    How AFWJ members keep the romance alive year-round:

    We don’t do Valentine’s Day, BUT it’s a year-round lovefest of friendship, respect and giggles. I know that sounds corny, but that’s what we do. ❤️


    When the kids were little we couldn't go out for dates or away together so we subscribed to a monthly wine club that was not so expensive. After the kids were in bed we drank and dreamed together about our future. When the kids got older, and we had a bit more freedom to go out together, most of our "dates" still revolved around food we ate at home. My husband cooks a very nice steak and I make his favorite desserts. I was inspired by a wonderful book called, "Date Night In". It's about nourishing your relationship through food, especially when your kids are little and you can't go out easily. Now we have just one year to go before we are empty nesters and we are making our plans for travel and some more traditional dates, but I still look back on our efforts to carve out a little special time for one another with fondness.


    We actually hold hands in public, and we always say "I love you" before we go to sleep.


    Awwww, doesn’t that just warm your heart on a cold February day? I hope so! I wish I could share my own stories of romance with you, but alas my husband and I are pretty lame. We do laugh a lot all year long and I’ll take that over one day of gift-giving anytime. We at AFWJ hope you have a happy Valentine’s Day no matter how you choose to celebrate it...

    ...but don’t forget the good chocolate will be gone from the stores soon!


  • 01 Jan 2019 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    The biggest holiday in Japan is the celebration of the New Year. There are many different traditions to bring in the New Year throughout the country and our members at the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese have probably experienced them all. Since I relied on AFWJ members’ input last month, gathering ways to celebrate the holidays as transplants in a new country, I thought I’d give them a break during this busy time of year. For this month’s post I will share the memory of the first time I spent the New Year holiday at my in-law’s home. It was definitely a learning experience!

    My first surprise during my first trip to my in-laws house for the New Year holiday was to find out how cold it was - inside the house! My in-laws live in western Kyushu and I was coming from northern Shikoku so I packed the same type of clothes I normally wore during the winter season, since the climate is exactly the same. Unfortunately I did not pack warm house-clothes, such as a big comfy sweatshirt to wear while sitting around the kotatsu or warm sleepwear for sleeping in a bedroom that was about 3’C. I only had my usual winter coat and it felt weird to sit around in that all day, and it certainly wouldn’t be comfy to sleep in! Luckily my husband kept some of his old clothes there and could provide me with some warm items to wear in the house. Coming from a tiny apartment that heated up very quickly and didn’t cool off too much at night, I had no idea how freezing cold Japanese houses could be - it’s basically like sleeping in a tent.

    Don’t even get me started on the next surprise, the huge amount of time we spent just sitting around the kotatsu not doing anything but staring at the TV, which only played Eki-den relay racing during the day and year-end variety entertainment shows in the evening. I hate those darn heated kotatsu tables that collect dust and make my legs a hundred degrees while the rest of me stays chilly. I know many people love kotatsu but I associate them with a cold nose, sneezes and boredom. Maybe I am doing something wrong? I’ll admit that there is one fun part about sitting around the kotatsu - when the evening comes, so does the never-ending sake, if you like good sake then having Kyushu in-laws is definitely a bonus. Once the sake starts flowing, communication starts happening and we all become one big happy family for the evening. A word of caution though - never-ending sake can be quite hazardous and you might end up laying down at the end of the night not only to find yourself in a freezing futon, but in a spinning room as well.

    The more solemn traditions began on the first day of the year, New Year day. First thing in the morning my mother-in-law chastised me for still being in pajamas when it was time to gather in the Buddhist altar room to begin. Of course I had no idea what was happening, so with my feelings a little bruised I changed into the most formal attire I had brought with me, a simple skirt with pantyhose and a dress-shirt. Any member of AFWJ can probably attest to the fact that skirts and sitting on the floor don’t mix all that well. Once I was prepared and disgruntled to observe that my husband could get away with wearing an atrocious purple track suit he had slept in, yet I was criticized for my pajamas, we began. The first New Year tradition my in-laws observe is to drink a sip of an herb-infused sake, starting with the youngest family member - a sort of toast to the New Year. Followed by a snack of dried squid, herring roe, kombu seaweed and a vinegared radish and carrot dish. Each item has a special meaning, for example the roe is to symbolize fertility and the radish and carrot are red and white, the most auspicious colours in Japanese culture. Some years my in-laws have ozoni, the special New Year soup with mochi and some years they do not. I do not think they had it that first year, too bad because it is one of my favourite New Year dishes!

    After the morning tradition was complete it was time to go out and make the first prayer of the year at the neighbourhood temple, local shrine, and at the Confucius shrine. The inclusion of the Confucius shrine is somewhat unique to the area my in-laws live in and is not something done throughout all of Japan. The Confucius shrine is the most lively of the three places we visited so I enjoyed going there the most and seeing all the people and food stalls, it was a bit like a festival! I was quite bewildered at the temple/shrine prayer tour at first, as I didn’t really understand what we were doing or that there would be three places to visit and the way we prayed at each one was slightly different - with varying orders and amounts of bowing and clapping. However, it wasn’t as confusing as the greeting-tour we did afterward, which consisted of stopping by various relative’s homes for a quick prayer at the family altar followed by a hastily drank cup of green tea, everything done on my father-in-law’s schedule, of course. Where I come from, a stop in to a relative’s home is a long affair with coffee and snacks and chatting about family news, completely different from the pit-stop approach of my in-laws. Everything was overwhelming that first year, but once I knew what to expect, I began to enjoy the temple/shrine tour and quick visits to relatives in subsequent years.

    The best part of celebrating the New Year with my in-laws are the parties full of delicious sake and food. After we had come home from the temple-tour and pit-stop style visits that first year, I thought we were done and changed into my more comfy (and warm) indoor clothes, only to be told we were going out one more time to an aunt’s house. I thought it would just be another pit-stop visit and was somewhat dismayed to arrive at a full-blown party totally exhausted and in my comfy clothes! It ended up being a lot of fun though with great food and tasty beer and sake. Now I always count on that particular aunt to have the good food trays that features tasty western appetizers alongside the usual osechi dishes. The partying didn’t stop there, the next day there was a party at my in-laws house featuring an obscene amount of sake, sushi, osechi food, crab from Hokkaido and more! It was very festive and a lot of fun.

    I don’t remember how long we stayed at the in-laws that first year but I have those first impressions of the traditions burned into my mind, for better or for worse. I certainly won’t forget that first year! I wonder if my husband feels the same about the first (and only) Christmas he spent at my parents home? I tried to inform him of all the traditions and expectations ahead of time, which wasn’t hard because Christmas at my parents’ basically consists of opening presents, eating a huge tasty brunch, relaxing, and then eating a big dinner. The holiday celebrations in my hometown are about a million miles away from the New Year celebrations at my in-laws, but both styles have their merits and all kinds of celebrations are fun.

    No matter how you choose to bring in 2019 I hope you have a lovely holiday and wonderful year. Happy New Year from all of us at AFWJ!

    ~Sandra Suzuyama

  • 01 Dec 2018 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    The holiday season is upon us and it seems like everyone is preparing to celebrate and enjoy the year-end. This time of year can be busy and fun, but it can also make those of us living abroad feel a bit homesick or nostalgic for the traditions and celebrations from our home countries and cultures. In Japan the main event is the New Year, but AFWJ members come from various countries and have a variety of ways to celebrate holidays. Our members have a knack for bringing their own traditions to their new environment, as well as starting fresh family traditions of their own. As a special treat for this holiday blog, I asked for some help from some of our members, I hope you enjoy reading about their traditions as much as I did!   

    Sarah in Tokyo shares some memories of her childhood and wonders how she can incorporate them into Christmas here in Japan:

    “On December 24th it was off to Carols by Candlelight in the local park, sometimes stopping by a church (if mum had her way) for midnight mass. We often pleased mum by staying, but only because Christmas Eve bickies and cakes were the BEST. Tee hee hee . All the local neighbourhood kids would come and we would play catchies on the oval next door while stuffing our faces. Home we would go to set up the tent in the backyard. We wanted to catch Santa in the act! Not many chimneys in Australia, so he'd have to come in the door!

    Christmas (otherwise known as "Chrissie" in Australia) morning and the feast would begin. Always a box of fresh mangoes, a huge bag of prawns, croissants and bubbly in the garden, swimmers on and sprinkler going. The morning sun would rise high and the heat would set in. Time for a nap before the BBQ lunch. The Weber would be ready and coals set. A leg of lamb or pork crackling away. Oh, I can smell the crackling now. It was always a delight waiting for the first taste of the crackling. The eskys would be filled with a bit of ice and lots of beer and wine. If friends and family were coming over, more of this in the bathtub! A long leisurely afternoon in the backyard eating and drinking! Sun goes down, time for a swim in the pool, lake or surf. On return we might remember about Santa and check the tree inside. (we hadn't been able to see him as we were too busy playing UNO in the tent.) So, now you have an Aussie Chrissie image in your mind. You may think it's crazy to have a pine tree inside for Christmas. You're right! Our was either an apple tree or eucalyptus branch stuck in a bucket of sand. Decorations were red clad kangas and koalas.

    I wonder if I can incorporate any of these traditions into a cold Christmas Tokyo!? I always have prawns on Christmas day, wherever I am. They seem to keep the tears away! Cheers to Christmas wherever we are!”

    Stephanie in Kanagawa brings the warmth of Thanksgiving and Christmas to her home here:

    “We celebrate American Thanksgiving every year by having a potluck at our apartment. We get a Costco turkey and my husband brines and roasts it. We bought the biggest oven we could just for this purpose!

    For Christmas, I try to make a gingerbread house with the kids every year. We bake lots of cookies to share, go out for light viewing, and trim the tree together. While my family didn’t open an advent calendar when I was growing up, I started doing one for my kids on my first kids’ second Christmas.”

    Rachel in Oita explains how she learned to keep Christmas special for her and her loved-ones:

    “I do the works! Decorations, lights, Christmas Tree, Santa sack, stockings, a big turkey roast dinner and traditional NZ desserts, REAL Christmas cake, a gingerbread house, eggnog, presents, cards, movies and music!

    Early on, after my first few failed Christmases, I realized two things:

    1) A holiday is a FEELING. The objects and rituals are just to generate the feeling, a sense of stepping outside of ordinary time and life. What's lacking in Japan's Christmas is that feeling (the community here is busy building up that feeling for New Year).

    2) Holidays and festivals don't just happen, they are created - and mostly by women. I could see this as unfair emotional labor (and not just emotional, it's hard work!!) but instead I see it as a source of power. I have control over the family and home and use it to my advantage to create the day - the FEEL - of I want for my family at Christmas.

    To that end, here's what I do:

    1) Rule No.1: Do. Not. Leave. The. House. With the community around me not generating that special Christmassy feeling, and indeed usually physically dismantling Christmas by the 24th, I found early on that I could better sustain the feeling by not leaving the house. I don't want to drive through the bustle of a normal business day or see Christmas being dismantled. We always have Christmas at home, with everything we need prepared beforehand.

    2) An appropriate build-up. This includes decorating the house with lights, streamers, a nativity, advent calendars, and various Christmas ornaments. The tree goes up in late November or early December, and slowly accumulates a collection of gifts under it. I play Christmas music and we watch a few movies throughout December

    3) Rule No.2: NO TV! Another thing I do to give the day its special feel is ban TV (and any non-Christmas music). It's just for one day and it goes a long way towards helping us step out of ordinary time.

    4) Aunties and Uncles and cousins. Off and on over the years I've invited various others to our Christmas feast, usually foreigners (they know how to act Christmassy and I don't feel like I'm on display). All the kids running around and the grown-ups chatting are like surrogate aunts and uncles and cousins, and add to giving the day the family feel it has back home (and give my kids the invaluable childhood experience of 'the kids' table').

    5) Spread out the rituals. This is really my own innovation, but based partly on our family's tendency to have one Christmas feast lunch at home and then go to our Aunt and Uncle's for dinner (or vice versa). We never got bored on Christmas Day, and there were always more presents waiting! So I've developed my method of spreading out the joy: Santa presents first thing, followed by coco pops for 'first breakfast'. Then we go to church (sometimes) then a brunch of ham and eggs (my family's traditional Christmas breakfast). We get on skype after that and chat with Grandma or family back home while opening their presents. Next comes the big turkey roast, and whatever guests we may have (I like to do a white elephant gift round with adult guests). Then dessert, and finally, once everyone has gone home, and just the immediate family are there, we open our presents to each other.

    I've come to love our own family Christmas. Meanwhile, back home, everything's changed. With my mother older and Dad gone, they don't have the big family Christmas they used to. The torch is being passed to the kids, and that's still being worked out. So I feel less and less like I am missing something, and more and more nostalgic for what I have created.

    And this year... for the first time, one of us won't be here! I intend to make use of the final Dec 23 holiday and shift Christmas there (as I know many others in Japan do already) and I remain undecided about what to do on the actual day!”

    Charmaine in Oita tells us how she brings the flavours of home to Japan.

    “Home baked Christmas goodies are a particularly fond memory from my childhood...looking back, I spent an awful lot of time at weekends or after school either ‘helping’ Mum (by licking out the cake bowl) eating her wonderful cakes and steamed puddings or just flicking through pages and pages of her fascinating cookbooks.

    Christmas preparations seemed to start months before...with several evenings spent just hand mincing pounds and pounds of dried fruit ,peel,suet,apples and even carrots (for Christmas puddings). Mum was one of six siblings, and being the best cook of the three girls she made sure that various branches of the family were provided for at Christmas. Rows of Christmas puddings wrapped up and maturing on the pantry shelf, evenings when the whole house smelt of Christmas spices as several cakes baked in the oven, and minced pies being rolled out and filled by the dozen.....

    So....I had to continue this tradition somehow after I moved to Japan! As soon as I had a fairly decent oven in my flat, sold to me by a fellow teacher returning to the US, and had purchased enough mini packets of dried fruit, the Christmas baking began. Mince pies at first, then soon moving on to the traditional English Christmas fruitcake when I realized that what passed as Christmas cake in Japan was a sponge with strawberries and cream on top!  Reaching a peak at one point with orders of over 30 cakes, I’ve had to cut back to orders from a handful of ‘old friends’ only....those in AFWJ you know who you are. I love baking and decorating your cakes and for me, it simply wouldn’t be Christmas otherwise!”

    What lovely stories, thanks so much for sharing!

    As for my family and I, we’ve tried a few things over the years to make the holidays special. As a couple, my husband and I would always have fondue on Christmas and kept it as the romantic date night that it often is in Japan. Once we had a kid, we started in with traditions from my childhood - a tree, stockings, Santa and added Christmas karaoke in the afternoon. Now that my son is older, he just wants to stay home and play with his new stuff, so we've stopped with the karaoke and just hang out at home. It is pretty similar to my own childhood memories but we don’t have a big feast awaiting us at the end of the day.

    It is interesting to see how our members bring little bits of home to their celebrations in Japan, I hope you enjoyed reading their stories as much as I did.

    Have a wonderful holiday season from all of us here as AFWJ!

    ~Sandra in Okinawa

  • 01 Nov 2018 4:31 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Relationships are hard.

    Making the effort to combine two individual sets of backgrounds, ideas, wants, needs, hopes, and dreams, (not to mention the practical considerations of eating habits, levels of cleanliness, and financial habits etc.) is challenging at the best of times. Throw in two separate cultures, languages, one partner living outside of the country they originated from, and you have a recipe for difficulties and stress! You also have the ingredients to grow as a person, promote empathy and understanding, have many adventures and a few funny misunderstandings along the way.

    Aside from your partner, who can you share all your stories of misunderstanding and adventure with?

    Who understands what it’s like to be married to someone born and raised in Japan and the cultural common-sense that comes along with that?

    Who can you turn to when you are experiencing a miscommunication with your partner and need advice to turn it around?

    Who is there to help guide you through the Japanese health/education/insurance/pension system when it is all so foreign to you and you cannot make heads nor tails of it?

    It all can be a bit lonely and overwhelming at times.

    There is no need to worry! The members of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese are there for you, ready to support you and share in your journey of having a Japanese partner. Members are in contact daily via internet groups and meet regularly in person at events in districts throughout japan and overseas. We can lean on each other in times of difficulty and celebrate with one-another over happy occasions. AFWJ is also a source of great advice on topics ranging in everything from how to deal with Japanese immigration when you have a visa problem, to navigating the Japanese healthcare system, to finding a new career path - and of course how to deal with sticky situations that arise in your relationship! You never know how many ways AFWJ will be able to help you out until you see our network in action.

    In order to share some of our collective wisdom and introduce you what AFWJ is all about, I am excited to announce: we are reviving our blog!

    From the very first post in 2015:

    This Blog was started to show members, potential members or anyone interested in our organization more about us and our activities. AFWJ is a support group and networking organization for foreign women with Japanese partners. We have around 500 members worldwide. Our activities include meet-ups, online groups, a bi-monthly journal and an annual convention. If you are interested in learning more about us, don’t hesitate to contact us at info(at)

    The contact email address is still the same and the idea behind the blog is too. We hope to make it a venue for AFWJ members to share their experiences, as well as make it a useful resource for people thinking of joining our association or for anyone who might benefit from our collective wisdom. Members of AFWJ have gained a lot of knowledge from living in Japan, being in a relationship with a Japanese partner, raising bicultural children, forging our own career paths, making decisions about retirement, and everything else in between. If there is anything you think we can help you with, please reach out and let us know in the comments, for more information about AFWJ please visit our homepage or email us at

    ~ S.Suzuyama

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