Love In Japan: 2 Keys To Making Multilingual Relationships Work

Romance across cultures and languages can be difficult β€” but never impossible

By Hilary Keyes
January 26, 2018
Lifestyle, Relationships

Multilingual relationships have their own quirks β€” and need adaptable people to really make them work!

Dating someone from a culture different from your own, all the while living in that culture is an exciting prospect that many people look forward to when living overseas. But the actual experience can be both thrilling and culture shock-inducing — especially when language differences are involved. So how do couples in multilingual relationships do it in Japan? Aside from my own experiences, I asked five successful couples what their relationships were like, and learned that while there are various approaches to building a successful multilingual relationship, there were two major points to keep in mind regardless of how long you have been together.

1. Acknowledge that personalities change based on language and location

According to psychologists and linguists who have studied multilingual people, depending on which language you are speaking, your personality can be very different. You can feel more comfortable or be more expressive in one language over another. When it comes to being in a multilingual relationship, this means that the dynamic of your relationship may change dramatically between your common languages.

A good example is an experience my friends Toshi and Jane had when they were traveling overseas. Both speak English and Japanese with one another, mostly Japanese in public and English at home, but when they were traveling in the US, Toshi “turned into the most affectionate bro I’ve ever seen,” said Jane.

I found myself feeling less attracted to him then because I was so impressed with his English personality.

“He was more outgoing, very opinionated, and wanted to hold my hand, put his arm around my waist, and even kiss me in public. It was such a change, and it was a great, very romantic three-week trip as a result. But as soon as we touched down in Narita, that guy was gone and Toshi was back to being his Japanese self. I found myself feeling less attracted to him then because I was so impressed with his English personality. Once we got settled into our normal routine, he was back to being the man I fell in love with, but it was a tough couple of days.”

Similar stories came from every couple I spoke with, and both sides had the same thing to say: their personality and way they spoke, especially in another country, was very different to how they felt in Japan, and most of the guys were afraid that they might lose their partners as a result of the difference. According to Toshi: “I was never more afraid of her breaking up with me than I was during that train ride back from Narita. I don’t think she spoke more than three words to me the whole time.”

What can you and your partner do?

Make the effort to know and recognize the differences in yourself between the languages, and see them in your partner as well. Talk about what these differences mean, and how you feel about issues that they may bring up. But don’t push it too far. You can’t force sudden changes and you can’t expect people to be as you want them to be at all times. Understanding where it comes from and establishing small changes in your daily routine to form a balanced relationship between the “perfect them” and “the normal them” is a natural progression that will help both of you feel comfortable in the relationship. That way, even when you’re jet-lagged and dragging yourself back to your routine, you won’t wonder why you’re with the other person.

2. Understand and respect both cultures equally

For people around my age, we can recall exactly when Smells Like Teen Spirit came out; the shock ending to The Sixth Sense and just how heavy our first iPod was. But for those of the same age in Japan, they most probably don’t have these experiences — instead, The Blue Hearts, Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, or Daijyoubuda! might bring a nostalgic tear to their eye. But while we naturally tend to value our own experiences more than such we’ve never had, treating them with lack of interest and disrespect will never have positive consequences.

[H]e tries to explain it to me, but it’s not really the same — you can’t explain a joke, and I find myself losing interest. 

Take Sarah and Masa’s case as an example. Sara is a native English speaker and an N2 Japanese speaker, while Masa is a native Japanese and advanced Chinese speaker. Their common language is Japanese, so while Masa can handle anything thrown his way, Sarah says she often encounters terms that she’s never heard of before and struggles to find their English equivalent. This is most often the case when they’re watching TV or movies together.

“Sometimes a comedian will say some phrase that sounds completely normal to me, and Masa will be rolling on the floor, clutching his sides as though it were the funniest thing ever. Then he tries to explain it to me, but it’s not really the same — you can’t explain a joke, and I find myself losing interest in the whole show because it’s just not funny to me.”

On the other hand, if Sarah wants to explain an aspect of Western culture to Masa, Masa says he finds himself feeling like he needs to look them up on Wikipedia, so that he can get a deeper understanding of why things such as having an angel on top of a Christmas tree, could possibly be so important to Sarah.

“Having a tree was never a Christmas custom in my family, so when Sarah cried when she couldn’t get an angel for our tree in Japan, I thought she was being overly dramatic at first. After she explained her family’s traditions, I looked into the Christmas tree history, and finally understood why things like that mattered to her.”

What can you and your partner do?

Being in a multilingual relationship, especially one with a single language in common, can make it hard to share your own unique cultural background with your partner. Although you might not realize it, having a common cultural background is often an important part of a relationship, so if you aren’t willing to learn or at least appreciate why some things are a certain way for your or your partner, then you might find that your relationships struggle to move forward.

Multilingual relationships require just a little bit more patience, efforts to understand the other person, and a constant reminder that we should never prioritize our culture (and language) over our partner’s.

Keita, a Japanese friend of mine offered the following advice:

“If there are holidays or events coming up that you/your partner think are really important, you should consider finding the vocabulary or bookmark some links ahead of time. Then you can explain why something is important to you, or why something is done a certain way, more easily. I started doing that, and my partner Kate was more interested in sharing the experience with me when I explained things first.”

A key strategy in making things work is showing interest in your partner’s experiences. This will not only show them that you care, plus help you learn something you never knew before, but is also a chance to build own memories and common grounds together — a key step to building a healthy relationship.  

In the end, just as in any monolingual relationships, it all comes down to the ability to communicate well and being fully self-aware. But multilingual relationships require just a little bit more patience, efforts to understand the other person, and a constant reminder that we should never prioritize our culture (and language) over our partner’s.

What do you think is the hardest part of being in a multilingual relationship? What practical advice would you give to international couples who are just starting their relationship? Share your thoughts in the comments! 


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