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What are Japanese Mothers-in-law really like?

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

Alice, who is the mother of one and half year old Melody, has lived in Japan for five years and is married to a Japanese man.

Your mother-in-law is Japanese. Generally speaking, how is your relationship with her?

Before my husband and I got married, she and I did not speak much as my husband’s family were quite opposed to our marriage. They wanted him to marry a Japanese woman. At first she wouldn’t look me in the eye but now that I have had a chance to get to know her better she is always very kind and often offers to help me out if needed.

You speak Japanese very well so the language barrier wasn’t there right?

True, there was never really a language barrier.

Why do you think she preferred a Japanese woman for her son?

I believe she probably would always have had the image of her son marrying a Japanese woman because that’s what she knew. Japan is a very homogenous society so to have someone from outside come into her country and family was probably not something she had ever considered. I think she may have also thought that having such different cultures would mean that our relationship would not be able to handle it; there would be too many differences to overcome and we wouldn’t be able to understand each other’s point of view. I haven’t asked her directly, but that was probably a big factor.

When you announced your pregnancy, how did she react?

She was happy but also quite matter-of-fact. I didn’t get the reaction I was expecting, I suppose. When we told her, she said something along the lines of “well naturally, I was assuming you would be pregnant soon.” I was a little taken aback because in Australia, whenever you break news about a marriage or pregnancy, everyone jumps up with congratulatory hugs so I was shocked when this didn’t come.

Generally, as soon as you get married, the next step is to have a baby so she had probably been expecting it for a while because we didn’t get pregnant straight after marriage. It took a while.

What kind of advice did she give you?

Her main advice was having a lot of rest and covering my ankles as Japanese people apparently believe you should keep your ankles warm if you don’t want a difficult labour. It was something I had never heard before.

Did you actually cover your ankles?

No I didn’t. Sometimes to prevent being constantly told to cover my ankles I would put socks on just prior to going to the hospital or clinic and then take them off as soon as I left.

What other advice did she give you?

I had researched a lot about labour and birth, and whilst I knew she had experience delivering 3 kids and I had not yet experienced it at all, I wanted my birth preferences to be comfortable for me so I did not take on board most of the advice she gave. I would just thank her and then when she was not around just keep doing what made me comfortable.

My MIL often tells stories about the difficulties of birth and raising children. The overall attitude in Japan towards difficulties and hardships is to “gaman” which roughly translates to “tolerate or put up with something.” I do not view pregnancy, birth and raising children in this way.

When I told her I did not plan to get an epidural she was relived because she believes mothers should experience the pain of labour and birth. This was not why I chose not to have an epidural though. Epidurals are not as readily available in Japan as they are in western countries. We were on the same page regarding epidurals but our reasons were different. So she approved of my decision but the primary reason I personally chose not to go down that path was simply because I was curious what it would be like and believe that if thousands of women have done it before me then I could too.

Of course, it is a personal choice.

How does the advice differ from what people recommend during pregnancy in Australia?

I have never been pregnant in Australia so I can’t say from personal experience, but do know that in Australia we have never heard of covering your ankles and restricting physical activity is not recommended unless your doctor is concerned and gives you explicit instructions. However, in western countries it is commonly advised that pregnant women should take supplements, though this does not seem to be the case in Japan as they believe a well-rounded and nutritious diet is enough. The natural Japanese diet is quite well-rounded and healthy so that is probably why, but I did decide to take supplements anyway, which I bought online.

Do you remember what supplements you took?

I don’t remember the name but I bought them from iHerb, which I think ship to most countries. I focused mainly on making sure I got folate as that seems to be highly recommended.

Once your daughter was born, how did your MIL act?

She met Melody when she was roughly 2-3 weeks old. She was very happy for us and has since often commented how “good and well-behaved” she is. She is happy to watch Melody for me anytime.

Do you think being well behaved is something that is particularly important in Japan?

Yes, it seems to be particularly so in Japan. How others view them seems quite important to a Japanese person so a child who is well-behaved is a good child because you can take them out in public. Japanese society is very much about ensuring everyone is following the rules. I think the west is not as concerned with how others view us and our children. As long is my daughter is healthy and happy then that’s all I can ask for.

Independence seems quite important in Germany and western countries, don’t you think?

Very true. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? You want them to be able to do what they want and be who they are, but also because you are the parent and the authority person you do want to teach them certain norms that they need to respect in order to live with other people.

What is your general advice for other foreigners who are married to a Japanese, to maintain a good relationship with their Japanese MIL?

The thing I found most helpful was to know where she is coming from; thinking of things from her perspective. Most Japanese people of that generation have a very traditional way of thinking. I found that acknowledging and thanking her as part of natural politeness, but still stating what is important to me and why (if necessary), is the best way to navigate differences. I still do this now when she suggests things for Melody that I do not necessarily want to take on. I often say “thank you very much, I’ll consider it” which she offers advice I don’t intend to take onboard and if I do like it then I will say something more like “thank you very much, that is an excellent idea! I will do that.”

Communication in Japan is quite ‘high-context,’ so you need a lot of context and your message is not said directly and more reading between the lines. What do you think? Is that how you communicate with her?

Yes, when the communication is between 2 Japanese people it is very much about reading between the lines and showing respect is a big part of it.

So in terms of expectations she might have of our meeting, especially in the beginning, I would go out of my way to accommodate her in her Japanese way and then when there are times I want to do things my way because we are in my house or it is concerning my child then she still feels accepted and that I am making an effort to understand her perspective. I do feel it is very much indirect communication; saying things is the nicest way possible but also still doing what is best for you rather than because they say so as they are older or whatever other reason.

It’s a matter of reading between the lines but also just being as honest as you can. We are not Japanese so they do give some leeway there. Appreciating her feelings of wanting to help and asking her opinion on something I have been thinking about be goes a long way to helping her feel involved.

So your communication style adjusted a little bit right? You are probably not as direct as you are in Australia, right?

Yes, probably true.

Do you feel now that if they say something between the lines you know what they mean? At the beginning you probably didn’t really know what they mean.

Yes, I think I’m getting better at it. I’m an introvert so even in Australia, I’m not particularly forward in saying what I want or think and there can be some reading between the lines but in Japan in takes it to a whole new level. Sometimes Japanese people say things that are completely different to what they really think.

I actually also just remember something my MIL does frequently. She will come over for a visit and we will chat face to face and I think it has all gone well, but then later I will get a long text message from her stating what she actually thinks. So in this case she prefers to say her real feelings via text than face-to-face, which is often too confronting and overwhelming for many Japanese people. In these situations I get my Japanese husband to look over my reply before sending it to her to make sure I am not coming across as rude but generally if you ever have a miscommunication with your MIL or any Japanese person is not a big deal so don’t worry.

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