Skip to main content

Finding a community changed my experiences as a Taiwanese spouse in Japan

Finding a community changed my experiences as a Taiwanese spouse in Japan

Amélie Keyser-Verreault

Postdoc Fellow

University of Tübingen

The following narrative was constructed by Amélie Keyser-Verreault, based on an interview that she conducted with Ai-Hua (a pseudonym), a Taiwanese freelancer in Japan.

I come from a family of four. I have a younger sister and both of my parents work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so, since I am a child, the four of us are often scattered in different countries or regions. But, as long as we occasionally talk on the phone and communicate with each other about what's going on, this kind of cross-country family is something we're very used to, and it doesn't get in the way of family bonding. Therefore, when I moved to Japan it was not a big deal for my family.

I graduated from one of the best universities in Taiwan with a degree in foreign languages. In 2011, I went to the U.K. to study a language-related graduate program, there I met my Japanese boyfriend and we started dating. After graduation, we went back to our respective countries, and we flew back and forth between Taiwan and Japan, sometimes seeing each other only once every three to six months. I came to realize that the long-distance relationship was not a bad thing; we were both fresh out of university and new to the job market, and had to focus on our careers. Because of the distance, my boyfriend in Japan not only gave me emotional support, but also gave me a very objective and neutral opinion when I encountered difficulties or doubts in the workplace or other areas.

However, although Taiwan and Japan are not very far away, we couldn’t see each other whenever we wanted to. We thought that this is not a long-term sustainable lifestyle. At that time, I thought I have already been employed in my first job for two and a half years, and leaving it would not have a negative effect for me. I wanted to challenge myself and change my environment. In fact, at that time, in addition to my regular job, I also had a freelance part-time job. Thus, I thought that in addition to learning Japanese, I could also develop my freelance enterprise. This was my wishful thinking at that time. So, we got married in 2014. We had a wedding in Taipei and another in Tokyo. My parents didn't worry about my transnational marriage because I am the eldest daughter, and they are quite confidence in my abilities. Meanwhile, my grandmother was very happy, because her father was an influential person in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation, so it influenced her to have a good impression of Japanese people, and she likes them. Therefore, although she doesn't have my LINE, she does have my husband's LINE, and she often contacts him, asking him to send her a picture of our little boy.

I moved to Japan for the first time in 2015 with the confidence that I would, as has always been the case, be able to adapt to life in a foreign country. Because I've lived in different countries around the world, my English is very good, I have lived aboard since I was three years old, and I haven't had too much trouble adapting to Central America, New York, Washington D.C., and  the United Kingdom, I thought that I'm a very adaptable person, and very accustomed to being able to move around and live in different countries, and that I could just keep going. I thought it is the same way when I came to Japan. However, I realized that this is not the case.

The first time I came to Japan, I felt very isolated and frustrated. Chinese and English do not work here! I realized for the first time that I was living in a country where the language was very difficult to understand. Although I was attending a Japanese language school, I couldn't even understand when the guy at the supermarket asked me if I needed a bag. I was also relatively young and thin-skinned at the time, so I didn't dare to take the initiative to talk to people or ask for help, and although there was a lot of shared information on the internet, it was very distant to me. When I complained to my Taiwanese friends about my frustrating life in Japan, they made jokes at my expense, saying that I now realized how difficult it was for them to learn English, and that I now know that learning a foreign language is not so easy. Although they were joking, I realized how difficult it was to learn a new language as an adult.

Because all of my work could be done at home, I lacked social interactions. All I could do is talk to my husband and our puppy. This gave me a lot of frustration. My social circle at that time was limited to my friends from the language school, who were Taiwanese or international students, some of whom, like me, had just arrived in Japan. Since most of them would eventually leave Japan, learning Japanese is not as important for them as it is for me. Like me, they also did not really have much contact with Japanese people. I started to think that this was not going to work, and I wanted to make a change, so I decided to go out and get a part-time job.

In Japan, part-time jobs are very common. Some people have regular jobs as well as part-time jobs, and some people only have a few part-time jobs but no regular jobs. So I decided to work at a café attached to a flower store. In fact, with my academic background, it would be difficult for me to work in a coffee shop in Taiwan; people would find it very strange and ask me if something had happened to me. But not in Japan. I told myself that I should seize this opportunity of being in Japan. So, I submitted my CV to a flower store. The boss asked me if I would like to work at the café attached to the flower store because my English is good, and I could speak to international customers in English and Chinese and also practise my Japanese with local customers. I accepted happily. In fact, this is a famous store where there are a lot of clients, because there are a lot of fresh flowers in the café. I could also use my Japanese to communicate with my Japanese colleagues simply. They would simplify things and then explain to me. For the first time, I felt for the first time that I could use my newly learned language to communicate at a deeper level. This made me very happy.

In 2017, I got pregnant, and I decided to go back to Taiwan to give birth. At that time, I was considering that if I stayed in Japan, my language skills would not be good enough and I would have to rely on my husband for everything related to the baby. Also, transport in Taipei is easier than in Tokyo because Tokyo is much bigger than Taipei: everything is far away, and public transport is also expensive here, and being a foreigner you don't know if you will encounter something making you cry,  "Oh my god!" again. I convinced my husband to come to Taiwan with me for the birth and the postpartum period since in Japan I couldn't be completely independent and that kind of life would be stressful for me. I persuaded my husband to change his job for a work remotely one, so we flew back to Taiwan together. Last time it was me who  flew to Japan to settle down in his country, now it was his turn and he flew to Taipei with me!

In Japan, there is no custom of doing the month of postpartum caring. Japanese women go home after giving birth in the hospital, so I decided to go to a postpartum nursing centre since I was an unexperienced mother. My mom was in another country for her work at that time and couldn't help me, but she supported me to go to the centre and said, "I'll pay for it!" At that time, my husband didn't understand what a postpartum nursing centre was, but after we went there, we realized that we are very lucky to be in this centre, since we did not know anything about babies. We found that a postpartum nursing centre is like a training camp for new parents, in which staff can teach us everything we don't know until we know it.

In 2019, my son was two years old and we decided to return to Japan for the second time. This time, I realized that I didn't want to live in isolation anymore, and I decided to adopt a different attitude and approach to my life in Japan. I realized that I had to be proactive in contacting people, and that people were actually very helpful. This small change in attitude made a huge difference in my life in Japan. I took the courage to ask people on the online community, "Does anyone live in our neighbourhood? I'm looking for a playmate for my kid." That's how I started, and I received more than 20 responses! I started to meet many local Taiwanese moms who have been living here for years.

Reaching out to them helped me understand the importance of what the Japanese call "territorial connections" because the resources and information I needed were very localized, such as schools in the district or where I could buy what I need, which only moms who lived in the neighbourhood would know or have experienced. They help me not only by providing local information, but some Taiwanese mothers who can understand my difficulties and feelings often give me useful advice, such as why Japanese people react in a certain way that is very strange to us Taiwanese people, and what do Japanese people think in this regard. How do we adjust ourselves so that we don't get hurt too much, and so on. Later on, I became very close friends with three or four Taiwanese mothers. Sometimes we would even go on family trips with each other. Sometimes we meet each other in restaurants with the whole family. We women would talk together, while our Japanese husbands would get together and have a chance to complain or criticize us [laughs]!

Now I still try to integrate myself into the local life in different ways, and I have a regular job in Japan. The majority of Taiwanese in Japan are in the greater Tokyo area, and in fact there are all kinds of people. Many Taiwanese women of the previous generation who married in Japan were completely dependent on their husbands, but now there are more and more people like me, who have strong professional skills, can be completely independent of our husbands' financial support, and also have the means to live independently in Japan. I hope my life here will be better and better.

Add new comment