Children - Winds Magazine April 1994
"At the time I felt as if I was playing God-shifting children
at will between two very different cultures"
To the non-Japanese parent of young children in Japan, probably the biggest challenge
is that of balancing cultures in their children's education. Both of my children
were born in Japan, and their mother is Japanese. But as parents, we decided from
the start that they should grow up biculturally, sharing my language and culture
We knew the risks. Obviously the Japanese side of their upbringing would be the stronger,
particularly since I believe that children should bear the name and nationality of
their mother rather than their father. Some unusual steps would be needed if our
children were not to end up with the neither-fish-nor-fowl identity and language
problems one finds in quite a few children brought up in Japan's mixed- nationality
The first step was to be quite ruthless about my speaking only English to the children
from the moment they were born. Too many foreign fathers compromise. They see their
beloved infant struggling to learn Japanese from the mother and think the tiny, fragile,
infant brain cannot possibly cope with two very different languages at the same time.
But that infant brain is much tougher and more flexible than most realize. It is
also extremely absorptive. Nor does it get confused by having to learn two language
structures simultaneously; it quickly assumes there should be two ways of saying
everything-"mummy talking" and "daddy talking" as my two young
sons would put it. In this way they were imprinted subconsciously to speak to me
only in English.
Some curious situations resulted. The children knew that I spoke Japanese. And often
when they were young it would have been much easier for them to talk to me in Japanese.
But the ‘daddy-talking’ imprinting meant they could not bring themselves to speak
to me in that language. So if they wanted to tell me that they had been to the zoo
and had seen an elephant (zo), they would turn to their mother and ask her in Japanese:
"How do you say the word zo in daddy talking?" Then they would tell me
all about the elephants they had seen.
But there was still the problem of schooling. Most of the international schools in
Japan aim, naturally enough, to impart a totally Western education. As for Japanese
schools, it goes without saying that they aim to provide a totally Japanese education.
The problem was how to balance the two.
I gambled. I would put them for a few years into a Japanese school; then I would
pull them out and put them into an international school for a few years; or vice
versa. At the time I felt as if I was playing God - shifting vulnerable young children
arbitrarily between two very different cultures. But they survived, even if at times
it seemed touch and go.
Today I see daily in my children the miracle of bi-culturalism - the ability to switch
easily and completely from one culture and language to another. Even better, they
seem to be sure in their sense of identity as bicultural children. For that, I have
to thank the amazing adaptability of the child and, the receptivity of its brain.
We adults can learn much from both.