One of the biggest differences I find in raising a family in Japan is that the concept of family is different from what I am used to. In Canada, the nuclear family reigns supreme, but in Japan the nuclear family is a cog in the bigger family — the organization to which you belong, whether school or work.
This leads to the Japanese lifetime-employment system, which, although not as strong as it used to be (I know people here who have actually — gasp — changed companies), is still alive and well. Just like you can’t fire your kid, it is virtually impossible to fire a Japanese employee unless they are arrested. It should come as no surprise that spending six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day with your coworkers will lead to a family-type relationship.
As a Canadian, it is almost unfathomable that the organization to which you are affiliated would fulfill the role of the family, even in what I would classify as the private sphere. Recently, I attended the wedding of a co-worker, which in Canada would normally be a celebration with your family and friends. In Japan, however, it is all about the company. At the reception, those of us from the bride’s company sat at the front tables on the right, and those from the groom’s company sat on the left at the front. School friends were behind us, and at the back, behind 200 of the bride and groom’s closest acquaintances, sat the bride and groom’s immediate family. How did I know who was who? As we handed over our cash presents in elaborate envelopes, we were supplied with a seating plan that gave that information. Every single person who attended was identified by name and their relationship to the bride or groom. Can you imagine what a seating plan in Canada would look like if we did the same? John “fan of the same TV show” Smith and Jane “bumped into at the university bookstore” Doe taking the place of parents at a wedding reception. That would be a collision of tradition and Web 2.0 that I’m not sure we’re ready for in the West.
No event in Japan is complete without speeches, and my colleague’s wedding was no exception. The first speech was from the line manager of the groom and centered on instructing the bride to have dinner and a bath waiting for her husband at whatever late hour he returned home so that he could devote his life to the company. I resisted my urge to boo him. We only heard from the father of the bride at the end of the ceremony when he thanked everyone for coming. It was quite a lesson to me in where families fit into the grand scheme of Japanese society.
My husband is currently preparing for his promotion to branch manager. Nothing moves quickly in Japan, so he has known for quite some time that come August he will have a new position at work. So how is he preparing? By reading the child-care books we ordered before our son was born, of course. This might seem incongruous, but to the Japanese, the manager’s role is similar to a parent.
It’s surprising to me because I didn’t grow up with this kind of relationship with anyone but my family. Japanese people, however, have strong allegiances to their schools from the first entrance ceremony. If a school-age child is caught doing something bad, teachers are generally the people who discipline them. The ubiquitous uniform, which identifies everyone from the age of five on, probably has something to do with this group feeling.
It is also surprising to me that even though no one can be fired, people toe the company line closely. Companies can decide how you commute (some even disallow the use of private vehicles on the way to work), where you can park, what kind of shoes you wear on the way to work, and myriad other choices. They also have a great deal of influence over other choices, and a company’s allegiances to a certain political candidate or ties to an electronics manufacturer inform the voting and shopping choices of its employees. I have to admit I was shocked the first time a political candidate showed up at my little desk as the company’s choice for the upcoming election. I’m sure he was disappointed that I don’t have the right to vote.
So, how do I deal with the difference in my family expectations and those of Japanese society? I muddle through. Sometimes I just have to deal with it; other times I can sit back and watch as did the cultural anthropologists of yore. Sometimes I end up compromising and retreating to my blog for yet another rant.