Letters from Japan: “Where Should We Live?”
Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered
Savvy Tokyo's resident "Love in Japan" columnist, Hilary Keyes, answers anonymous questions from readers on everything from dating in Japan to women’s health issues. Got a question you’d like to ask Hilary? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Ask Hilary."
I have a major problem with my boyfriend. He’s Japanese, I’m American, and we’re both in our mid-thirties. Neither of us wants kids, we have our own hobbies, and our lives are otherwise good, I think. We’ve been together for five years, and are talking about getting married, but we can’t agree on where we’ll live in the future.
He’s an only child, so he feels responsible for taking care of his parents. He thinks we should move into their house and live with them, and that I should stay home to take care of them when the time comes. They’re both active and healthy so it wouldn’t be a concern for a long time yet (I hope) but still. It’s ridiculously traditional, but the cheapest option, frankly speaking.
I have one sister and she’s got four kids. I don’t think she can look after our parents and take care of her own family. My parents are the same age as my boyfriend’s, but they aren’t nearly as healthy—my dad had a heart attack last year. My parents have good private insurance but I feel guilty about having strangers or my sister take care of my parents. My boyfriend and I are very serious about one another, but we can’t seem to find a solution to this whole thing. Any advice would be appreciated. — Grim Future
Dear Grim Future,
I don’t think your future is as grim as it might seem. I’ve known a few international-Japanese couples that have run into the same concerns when it comes to aging parents. While they’ve coped in different ways, what has gotten them through was remembering that they are a team, not individuals, dealing with these issues.
Was your father’s heart attack significant enough to warrant you immediately traveling to see him? If so, then you need to have a very serious discussion with your parents and your sister regarding their futures. This might be better done in person—one, face to face communication is more honest, and two, you need to see the situation with your own eyes to know what is going on.
[…] what has gotten them through was remembering that they are a team, not individuals
I assume that your sister is relatively close to your parents, so this is a discussion that should involve her (and her partner if they are in the picture) as well. She may already have some plans in place for your parents’ future care. You might think it sounds impossible, but she might have already talked about these matters with your parents/her partner, especially given your father’s health scare. This whole discussion won’t be resolved overnight—you may need to stay in the US for a couple of weeks, so you’ll also need to make sure everything with your Japanese visa and career are in order as well.
Since your future in-laws are healthy and active, as you say, they aren’t likely to be in need of any care for the time being. That being said, you know that one’s health can suddenly change, and your boyfriend, being their only child, should have a similar discussion with them regarding their health, their care in the future, financial concerns (house payments, private/national insurance, etc.), any end of life preferences (DNR orders, concerns over mobility, palliative care, etc.) that they might have.
Family is complicated regardless of where you come from
After both you and your boyfriend are fully aware of the needs of both your parents, then you can decide what will be the best possible outcomes for both families. You need to be aware though that while your relationship is strong, sometimes these discussions can put a lot of pressure/stress on a couple—fighting is almost to be expected, and some couples end up separating (for a short time or permanently) while trying to sort things out. Family is complicated regardless of where you come from, and it can sometimes make or break things between even the strongest of couples.
For example, it may be that you need to temporarily move back to the US to care for your parents, then return to Japan, and in a few year’s time, move in with his parents to help care for them. Are you willing to give up your career to become a home helper? Are you capable of doing so in your native language and Japanese? Do you even want to do that, if that happens? Be honest with yourself—there’s no shame in not wanting to become a home carer or wanting to keep your career and hiring someone else to do it. You can make some compromises, but you should never have to completely sacrifice your own happiness/life goals for someone else.
Be honest with yourself—there’s no shame in not wanting to become a home carer […]
If you have no problems with being a homecare worker though, then I strongly recommend taking a course on the subject, or at the very least educate yourself on the process—it’s not easy and puts a lot of physical, mental, and emotional demands on a person. Plus you’d be doing it in another language, I presume.
After having talked about the big issues regarding parental care, you should sort out your own plans for the future. Practically speaking, if you intend to get married, then you’ll need to deal with all that entails sooner rather than later. You’ll need to change your visa status as well once you have gotten married, and must be living together for a certain amount of time post-submitting your papers in order to keep things above board with Immigration. You may want to consult an immigration lawyer or the staff at your local Immigration Office or Ward Office for more information on the whole process.
You and your boyfriend have a lot of things you’ll need to seriously talk about in order to make this work in a way that makes you both happy. It’s going to take time, money, and a lot of effort – but, if you work as a team and approach the subject with level heads, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to make this work in a way that makes you both happy.
Best of luck.