Bowing to a New Life, in Tokyo
TOKYO — Sitting in the library of my children’s new school, I listened as guidance counselors reminded us that it would be difficult to restrict screen time if we were constantly peering into our phones ourselves.
Right on cue, my cellphone buzzed with an alert. Large tremors in North Korea indicated that the country had just conducted its fifth nuclear test, a story I would have to jump on to contribute reaction from Japan.
I tiptoed out the door, whispering to my husband that I needed to make calls and leaving him to attend the rest of the back-to-school sessions.
As a journalist for 22 years and a mother for more than half that time, I’ve grown accustomed to news interrupting family life. But in Tokyo, where I moved with my family in August to take up the post of bureau chief, the disruption has been far more extensive.
After all, it’s not just one dinner or one weekend that needs to bend to my work: It’s my loved ones’ whole lives. My husband quit a senior position in New York as a technology consultant to city government, and my children, 12 and 10, left behind schools and soccer teams and beloved friends.
We are adjusting to our new life in tandem. While relying on the two excellent researchers and translators in the bureau, Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno, I am working with a private tutor to improve my intermediate Japanese. My husband discovered a language class at a recreational center in our neighborhood, and my children are studying Japanese at their international school. It is thrilling to see how eager they are to show off their new vocabulary after years of resisting my efforts to teach them.
我们正在协力适应自己的新生活。在分社依靠两位杰出的研究员和翻译井上真己子(Makiko Inoue)和上乃久子(Hisako Ueno)帮忙的同时，我也和一位私人家庭教师在一起努力提高自己的中级日文。我丈夫参加了我们家附近的一座娱乐中心开办的语言课，孩子们也在他们的国际学校学日语。多年来我一直企图教他们日文，总是遭到抵制，如今看到他们那么兴奋地炫耀自己学到的新词汇，真是让人激动。
At work, I am adapting to new customs, including the practice of bowing and immediately proffering a business card when meeting someone for the first time, and the need to fax formal interview requests. One organization recently demanded that we send a request by snail mail.
On his new soccer team, my son is also learning Japanese rituals. After every game, the team bows in gratitude to the field, and each player individually thanks the coach. To help my son understand his coach’s commands, my husband printed out a list of soccer terms and their Japanese equivalents. When he typed into Google Translate the word “matanuki” — the Japanese word for a maneuver known in English as a “nutmeg,” in which one player knocks the ball between the legs of another — it came up with “crotch punching.” Father and son relished that one for days.
As I catch up on immigration policy, women in politics and Japanese boy bands, my husband has figured out how to decode the Japanese-only instructions on all the household appliances in our apartment by watching YouTube videos. We all rejoiced when he found an English translation online for every button on our new television’s remote control.
There have been hiccups: Within days of moving into our apartment, an Ikea folding chair snagged two of my daughter’s fingers. We did not even know where to find the nearest hospital, let alone one where the staff spoke English. We ended up in a nearby emergency room where we muddled through with my conversational ability, a bilingual dictionary app, and the kind doctors and nurses.
Journalistically, Japan has posed some challenges. Because of the strict system of members-only “press clubs,” I could not even get into a police news conference when reporting on the country’s worst mass killing since World War II. And when working on a follow-up story about how the victims’ names have still not been released, the police refused to answer any of my (faxed) questions, agreeing only to read aloud a three-sentence statement if we sent someone to the prefectural headquarters an hour away by train.
After a particularly busy week in which I was rarely home before bedtime, my son spoke the phrase dreaded by working parents the world over: “How come we never see you?”
Throughout our time here, I know there will be more such moments. But there is no question that the family adventure will make relocation a good trade-off.
I knew we had made the right decision when my daughter came home from school her first week, having met some classmates who, like her, are new to Tokyo. Several of them have already lived abroad in other places like Hong Kong and Singapore. “I think that would be kind of cool to move around,” she said. “Where do you think we’ll go next?”