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Being a single mum and living abroad in Japan

by Caroline Sehi Hourquet
16 juin 2020

I’m 39 years old. I come from New Zealand and I currently live in Japan with my 12 year-old daughter. One of the reasons we live in Japan is because that’s where her dad lives. Even though we got divorced when my daughter was two years old, we still get on well and he plays an active role in her life.

I moved from New Zealand back to Japan 2 1/2 years ago when my daughter was seven. I didn’t really have a plan, but after being here for a few months I began to realize how good it was for her to be able to spend time with her dad and also for her to learn Japanese language and culture.

Another reason we live in Japan is because, as a single mum, I can work here, pay my rent and my bills and still have money left over to travel and do things I want to do. I don’t get any subsidy from the Japanese government but I’m surviving fine without it. If I was living in Auckland, New Zealand (my hometown) and working full-time as a teacher, I still don’t think I could support myself and my daughter. That’s because the cost of living is so astronomically high in Auckland.

So for me, for now, Japan is the best option. I work as a high school English teacher in a large private school in Fukuoka. There are about 60 other teachers at our school. I would say about 70% of the staff are male. Most of the women are other English teachers. I’m the only foreign female at our school, and there is one other foreign male teacher.

I don’t really feel like I get treated any differently because I’m a woman or because I’m a foreigner. People say Japan is very unequal in terms of the gender pay gap, but I’m personally not affected by it. I get paid the same salary as the other foreign male teacher at my school, and I know there is a pretty standard salary for any foreign teacher in Japan that isn’t determined by gender. (This could be different if teaching at University level, as I’ve heard it’s a lot harder for female professors to get hired over male professors and they are also a lot less likely to get offered a tenured position.)

As for career options, living in Japan is definitely a bit limiting. There are really good jobs if you are completely bilingual (which I’m not.) Most of the jobs available to foreign women are teaching jobs. Luckily, there is a “start-up” culture in the city where I live and everyone is more open to people starting their own businesses and entrepreneurship.

In terms of finding a fulfilling relationship in Japan, being a single, Japanese woman is difficult enough. Being a single, foreign woman is even harder. Being a single, foreign, divorced woman in her late 30’s who has a child…well I think it’s probably nearly impossible to find someone open-minded enough to have a proper relationship with. Japanese men seem to be really hung up on age. Most men here want to find a woman who is under 30 who they can marry. I feel like age really matters here more than in other countries. I also feel like here, people are still obsessed with getting married for the sake of getting married, rather than thinking about spending the rest of their life with a particular person.

In the past 2 1/2 years since I’ve been back in Japan, I’ve met a lot of single guys. I’ve dated and been in some casual relationships. Most of the Japanese guys I’ve met are happy to have sex with no strings attached. In fact, a lot of the people who proposition me will openly tell me that they are married. A friend told me that men will happily tell you they are married so that you know there is no chance of having a “real” relationship with them.

Japan has a reputation for being a “sexless” culture. But it’s not entirely true. A lot of people are having sex, but usually they are not having sex with the person they are married to. I find this part of Japanese culture a little disturbing. It’s almost as if women here expect the men they marry to cheat on them. They view it as something really “normal.” I don’t know, maybe it is a more realistic attitude, but it’s something I can’t really get used to.

I also feel that if you are a young foreign woman trying to date Japanese guys, a lot of them will just want to have sex for the sake of the experience of having sex with a foreign girl. Having said that, there are still plenty of Japanese men who want to be in a committed relationship with a foreign woman.

How do I know that? Well there is the Association of Foreign Wives in Japan.(AFWJ) It’s an organization of about 500 foreign women who are either married or have been married to a Japanese man. Most of these women live in Japan and they form a really large and knowledgeable support network for many foreign women living in Japan. A lot of these women have been living in Japan for a long time and they have a lot of experience they can share with others. I think having this kind of support network is really a life-saver for a lot of women here, especially women who live in rural areas and might not have a chance to meet other women. There is a nice story my friend told me when, after the Tsunami in 2011, one foreign wife lost her house and all her things and had to get out of the area really quickly. Thanks to AFWJ she was able to move herself and her children out of the danger area and stay with women all through the country, who gave her clothes and other essential items until she was able to leave Japan. I think having the AFWJ in Japan is really helpful for any foreign woman living here long-term.

Because, no matter what, no matter how long we live here, we are always going to be viewed as “foreigners” here. I think that is one of the big issues of living in Japan, rather than the issue of being a woman. It’s that you are always going to be viewed as different and an “outsider.” Personally I don’t really care about this and it doesn’t bother me, so I find living here pretty easy.

For a foreign woman, the upside of living in Japan is that it’s super safe and very convenient. I always tell people that I feel safe enough to go jogging late at night in the park near my house, or walk home at 3am after a night out. That’s not to say that sexual harassment and awful things don’t happen to women here, of course they do. It’s more a general feeling of safety. Japan has a very low crime rate and overall I feel a lot safer here than I do in New Zealand. I have been in a few dodgy situations here, but I always felt confident enough to deal with it on my own and tell someone to “back off!” Of course as women, we have to be careful and aware of what’s going on around us at all times.

So basically, that’s what it’s like to live in Japan. It’s a very safe country, it’s easy to live here and everything is very convenient and clean. I can make enough money where I don’t feel like I’m struggling to survive. It’s definitely hard to find a serious, long-term partner for a relationship, but it’s not impossible.