Category Archives: Family

Being A Foreign Kid in Japan


My wife and kids are currently in Japan right now, and I will be joining them shortly. We try to go every year so we can stay in touch with my wife’s family especially her aging parents. My kids love going because they get spoiled by family and friends, and there’s lots of fun things to do in Japan.

About five years ago, we seriously considered moving there because the quality of life was so good, and Japan was significantly safer than the US. However, my wife started to have doubts after hearing from Japanese moms who had brought their bi-racial kids to live with them in Japan, and some of the tough experiences that came with it. So, she asked me to rethink the plan, and after backing out of a job opportunity thete with my previous company, we’ve stayed here in Seattle ever since. We let our daughter attend the local elementary school in Japan for a week or so, and she enjoys it, but otherwise, she has been raised here in the US.

Seattle, for all its faults,1 is a nice multiracial society, and my daughter goes to a school here where there’s a pretty healthy mix of kids from various backgrounds. She can blend in easily.

In Japan, it’s the opposite of course. Since 99% of the people are ethnically Japanese (the majority of the remaining 1% are Japanese-Koreans or “zainichi” who face challenges of their own), my daughter stands out a lot. She’s very pretty, speaks Japanese natively, and is very nice. So people love her, but at the same time, she stands out pretty easily. Not as much as I do, but enough.

I mention this because my wife told me about a recent incident on the bus in Japan, where an older boy with Down-Syndrome looked at her and suddenly gave her the middle-finger. My daughter, who is American and knows what the means, was very shocked and upset. I don’t think the boy even understood what he did, considering that gesture is never used in Japan. He probably was just blindly imitating “cool” American culture.

Nevertheless, we all felt that the only reason why he did that to my daughter was that she was “foreign” and obviously made a connection. Obviously, this could happen again.

I wasn’t there to see it of course, so I only heard about it later, but it reinforced my wife’s view that Japan just wasn’t the most accepting place for kids like my daughter. If she comes to Japan as an adult, her Japanese background, good looks and language-skills would make her very popular there and she would probably do fine. However, as a kid, she stands out and other kids would pick on her. While she does make friends at school, she’s still an easy target for people who have some kind of grudge.

I think my wife is right though: although Japan has many good things about it, it is still better to raise our kids in a West Coast place like Seattle. There are many people like her, and there are still enough Japanese resources and friends for my wife to be happy and content. Plus, she has gotten so used to life in Seattle; she sometimes tells me that she finds Japan crowded and stifling now.

Personally, the decision to not live in Japan affected me too in a lot of ways. I noticed my enthusiasm for the JLPT, Japan, Japanese language learning and such diminished with it. I never quite looked at Japan the same way. The blog kind of suffered and declined too because the original impetus was gone.

Still, I feel kind of sad about this most recent incident. I always hoped that somehow we might be wrong, and that things might’ve worked better if we took a chance and moved there, but I have to admit I was wrong. Although our plans to move to Japan have been on hold for years, I feel this latest incident was the final nail in the coffin. 

P.S. While entirely coincidental, this post sort of feels like a continuation of yhe previous one

1 Grey weather, traffic, and lack of family-friendly things to do. Seattle is a hipster kind of place, which is great if you’re a hipster. I just dont fit that lifestyle. 

Little Guy Home Sick

Hello Readers,

Recently my two year old son (a.k.a. “Little Guy”) came down with a case of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. It started after the Memorial Day weekend at a party we went to with some friends, and other kids got sick at the same time as my son.

We knew nothing about the disease until after Little Guy started acting irritable and showing small red spots on his legs and hands. The doctor confirmed that Little Guy had the disease and that he would be highly contagious until all the sores healed. That usually takes up to a week.

Right then and there, our plans for the week were over. Little Guy missed his soccer class, I had to work from home for the week in case I got sick too, and we couldn’t take him anyplace in public for fear of getting other kids sick.

The good news is that Little Guy was never seriously ill. Many children get painful sores in their mouths and can’t even drink fluids because it hurts so much. Somehow Little Guy somhow avoided that. He ate and drank fine, and was pretty healthy overall. My wife fed him a lot of soba noodles because they contain zinc, which supposedly is good for when you are ill. Although he is a picky eater, he does like noodles quite a bit. Here is a photo of him playing with his toys. 

But the experience made me pause and think about how easily something expected like an illness or some other problem can completely interrupt your life. This was a mild illness and was gone in a week (just like the doctor predicted), but imagine if it had been something even worse like a car accident, serious illness or job loss. 

People always expect such things to happen to someone else, but in truth, they can happen to anyone. 

Happy Children’s Day 2016

Dear Readers,

Today is Children’s Day in Japan (May 5th). As explained in a much older post, this is one of the five yearly “seasonal holidays” or sekku (節句) in Japan:

  • January 7th (1/7)
  • March 3rd (3/3)
  • May 5th (5/5)
  • July 7th (7/7)
  • September 9th (9/9)

Although Children’s Day was originally Boy’s Day (in contrast to Girls’ Day on March 3rd), it is widely celebrated by all kids now. The windsock above, a popular tradition, was made by my son in his Japanese preschool. :)

However, there is one tradition that is definitely for the boys:

It’s common for families in Japan to setup a small display of samurai armor to wish for healthy, strong boys. Our display is relatively small because it would be too difficult to bring a larger display back to the US, but it’s also pretty easy to assemble.

Anyhow, happy Childrens’ Day to children everywhere!:)

Going to Japan, Finally

Well it’s official: after two years I am finally going to Japan again! Last year I wanted to go, but I had recently changed jobs and couldn’t afford to take 2+ weeks off, so my wife and kids went without me. I stayed home and played a ton of Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns1 instead, plus preparing for certification as minister’s assistant. It was an unusually hot summer in Seattle, but not very interesting either.

However, this year I have been at my current company (think of a famous cartoon mouse) for over a year, and will be taking two weeks off to visit Japan. My wife and kids will go ahead of me and stay for 5 weeks. I will fly the same route 3 weeks later and then come home with them. I will be going in mid-July and then returning in early August. I would prefer to fly some other time of year, but my daughter can’t take 5 weeks off from school, so this is the only time we can really do it.

In general, flying to Japan almost yearly gets pretty expensive. We try to fly ANA directly when we can, but at this time of year, with 4 people2 it gets pretty expensive. This year such a flight would’ve costed over $6000, and other airlines aren’t much cheaper. Thankfully, we learned from other Japanese housewives that we can fly through Canada first to Japan, and save some money. Turns out it will cost us only $4300 which is a huge savings. We’ll do a layover in YVR (Vancouver) for a few hours before going to Japan. It will make the flight 13 hours, not 10, but we’ll arrive in Japan in the early afternoon rather than late at night, so that still works out better than the past arrangements we’ve done.

Anyhow, I don’t have big plans for Japan. All my friends who lived there have all moved back to the US, and most of the time I’ll be babysitting my two kids, seeing friends, etc.

However, I do hope to visit a few temples and shrines this year. My short list is Yushima Tenmangu, Asakusa Sensoji, Tsukiji Honganji3 and maybe Kawasaki Daishi (the big Shingon temple closest to my wife’s home).

Most likely we’ll see a firework show or two while there, or maybe visit one of the local summer festivals.

I’m also trying to build up my Japanese listening comprehension lately, since it’s gotten pretty lax over the last 2 years. More on that in an upcoming post. 😉

Anyhow, looking forward to the trip. :)

1 Neither of which is particular pertinent to the blog, unless you like JRPG’s. 😉

2 Our kids both fly for 70% the price of a seat since they are under 11, but over 2.

3 Albeit I tend to grumble about Jodo Shinshu Buddhism lately, that particular temple is a really great temple to visit. It’s kind of a unique place, and very family friend.

Adventures in Portland, Oregon

Hi Everyone,

Recently, my family and I decided to take a small road-trip down to Portland, Oregon for Spring Break (whoo!). My daughter had the week off from school, so I took a week off from work, and we made plans to visit Portland for 3 days.

My daughter and I visited Portland last year to see a friend of mine, but my wife and son could not make it.  He was just a little baby then, and too young to travel much.  However, he is not 2 1/2 and very active, though also very picky about food.

Anyhow, long story short the drive from Seattle to Portland takes about 3 hours, and we planned well by driving in the middle of a weekday to avoid traffic.  It was nice to see scenic south-western Washington for the first time in a long, long time, and to finally drive to Portland.

We stayed in a nice hotel downtown, and had only a few simple objectives:

  • Try out Stumptown coffee
  • Shop at Powell’s City of Books
  • Visit the Oregon Zoo
  • Enjoy donuts in Portland, and finally
  • See the Rose Garden at Washington Park

We completed all five objectives, I am proud to say.  Our first task was the Oregon Zoo.  After a long drive to Portland, we were still too early to check in to our hotel, so we just went straight to the zoo.  The Oregon Zoo is vast.  The maps don’t do it justice; it is much bigger than it looks.  The Pacific Northwest section is really well done, and can take up to an hour just seeing all the different animals and sites.

Since the weather is unusually warm right now (30°C, 86°F?) we were worn out by the time we finished our journey.  We also missed a few exhibits too.  The kids were getting very tired, so we completed about 75% of the zoo, and decided to head to the hotel.  I got lots of cute pictures of the kids, which I can’t easily obscure for the blog, so unfortunately the best photo I can post here is a photo of my left foot:

I’m not entirely sure how I took this photo.  :-p

The following morning we enjoyed breakfast at the local Stumptown cafe near the hotel:

It was quite delicious.

That same morning, we took a short stroll to my favorite bookstore: Powell’s City of Books.  When I visited Oregon last time, I was impressed by how large and how vast the selection was.  I found some good books then, and had a list of sutras I was looking for.

The Buddhism section at Powell’s is much larger than you find in most popular bookstores, and I spent a long time here poring through the more obscure, academic books.  The kids grew antsy though, so I couldn’t stay too long.  ;)

Here are the books I picked up.  I had a copy of the Diamond Sutra before, but lent it to someone at some point, but there’s a certain verse that I’ve been pondering over and over again lately, so I decided to get another copy.  I was very happy to get the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra book by Edward Conze (more on that in a future post), and the Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries on the Sutra of the Simile of the Water Snake, an important early sutra.

The following morning, we enjoyed donuts at Blue Star Donuts.  We heard that Voodoo Donuts is popular, but we’ve also heard that it can be overhyped, so I decided to try something different.  The donuts at Blue Star use a brioche style recipe, so they’re very soft and spongy.  The chocolate frosting on the donut was very creamy too, not crunchy as you might expect.  My personal favorite is still Mighty-O in Seattle though.  :)

Finally, after checking out of our hotel, we visited Washington Park.  Near the rose garden is a nice, large play area, so we let Little Guy and Princess burn off some pent-up energy for a while, then walked uphill a bit to the rose garden.  Unfortunately, the roses were not in bloom yet, but the scenery was still lovely.

My daughter, who is now 9, has taken an interest in photography and took both of these photos, among others, using my camera phone.

Long story short, we had a great time in Portland.  My wife liked it quite a bit, and compared to our usual international trips to Japan or Canada, this was a much more relaxed, convenient trip.  We certainly will be back.

Thanks Oregon!

Teaching Buddhism to Kids with Star Wars

Recently I had a fun experience giving a children’s sermon at the local temple. Once a month we hold a separate, “children’s service” which is a more focused on our youngest members of the congregation, and is a little more relaxed in atmosphere than our regular services. On such days, the two services run in parallel, so someone has to lead the children’s service. Due to a scheduling mixup, I was assigned to do the service in February, but I was expecting to do a service in March.

I had to think fast, but luckily I had brought the Star Wars Tsum-Tsum with me so my son could play with them (he likes Yoda).  And, I had been reading The Dharma of Star Wars recently, so I had some rough ideas in my mind.  I was able to come up with a basic, though somewhat short, sermon about the differences between Yoda who represented the Light Side of the Force (i.e. the Dharma)  and Darth Vader who represented the Dark Side of the Force (i.e. Ego).  Essentially, the gist of my sermon was that Darth Vader (prior to his redemption) was kind of like a bully: he was strong and scary but he was lonely.  Meanwhile, Yoda was loved by many people because he was kind and gentle.

Bear in mind this was a sermon for little, little kids, so I had to keep things simple.  Plus I had 15 minutes to prepare.  😉

Anyhow, when it came time to deliver my sermon, as soon as I held up Yoda and Darth Vader, I had the kids’ full attention!  They were actively raising their hands, telling me obscure Star Wars trivia facts, and practically climbing over one another to speak up.  It was a great experience because usually the kids get bored and antsy pretty quick, but this time they were really paying attention and enthusiastic.  I had to be careful of course to still provide something meaningful in my sermon and not just talk science-fiction all morning,1 but it was great to see the message getting through to the kids.

If I get another opportunity, I think it would be cool to teach the kids how the conduct of the Jedi is similar to the Buddha’s teachings on conduct, but we’ll see.:)

1 Not to mention there are a lot of things about the Star Wars universe that are less Buddhist and more vaguely “Asian spirituality”. That’s fine for one’s personal beliefs, but when you’re representing an institution you have to hold yourself to a higher-standard. This is part of the reason for my recent, ongoing crisis of faith.

Running Man

From time to time, my family and I watch a Korean TV show online called “Running Man”. The show has a simple enough premise, but is surprisingly fun and entertaining.  Unlike Japanese TV,1 which has strict policies and laws about licensing, Korean TV often provides its shows on YouTube for easy access, often with official subtitles and such.  The shows might be a week or two later, but they’re totally open and free to watch. So, we often watch Korean TV shows on weekend mornings because they’re just interesting, and openly accessible.

Running Man (런닝맨, reonningmaen) is one such show. There are no official subtitles, but it has many fans across Asia and the West who volunteer subtitles every week. Thus, we often watch Running Man on the weekends as a family, or my wife also watches them frequently at night.

But what is Running Man?  Running Man is a long-running (since 2010) live-action show featuring the regular cast, mostly comprised of well-known comedians and actors, plus usually a guest celebrity.  The cast are well-known, but at the outset weren’t necessarily the best looking or most popular celebrities.

In the early episodes, the challenges mainly included having the crew split up into two teams, and chasing one another, while also finding hidden items in malls, campgrounds, etc.  In time, the challenges changed, and the entire crew was looking for the hidden guest celebrity among a crowded place, while the guest was trying to find the hidden items. Here is the first part of episode 35, which is a good example of this:

And in another, later episode, they simply have to eliminate one another (one of my favorite episodes thus far):

What makes the show so fun is that the particular crew have a really good rapport with one another, and their personalities have changed over time.  In the early shows, some of the players were really weak, and frequently eliminated early, but over time they got smarter and wiser, and became a greater challenge.  Also, there are many witty side-jokes between cast members, as well as many nicknames.

The cast, which has almost all been around since episode 1, and are still with the show, are:

Name Nickname(s) Description
Yoo Jae-suk Yoo-ruce Willis, Yoo-mes Bond The main host of the show, and a popular celebrity in his own right. Owing to his seniority, he is also one of the leaders of the group.
Ji Suk-jin Big Nose Older Brother A good friend of Jae-suk, and also the oldest member of the group. One running joke is that since Suk-jin is usually eliminated first, the chase doesn’t officially start until he is out.
Gary Peaceful Gary, Monday Boyfriend Gary is my wife’s favorite member. He is a sweet guy, and often very innocent, but at times is capable of pulling of some clever tricks. He is the part of the “Monday Couple” including Song Ji-hyo.
Haha Haroro Haha is the silliest member, and frequently gets involved in a rivalry for Song Ji-hyo’s affection, which he often fails. He often gets teased about the fact that he also looks a lot like the famous Korean cartoon character Pororo (hence the nickname). At one point, he married a cute celebrity girl, and has since stopped hitting on lady guests.
Kim Jong-kook Commander, Sparta-kook, Kookie A former idol singer, he has since become the strongest member of the show. Not only is he big and imposing, he is also very agile and smart, and could single-handedly eliminate all the other members. Eventually they gave him a bell to wear so they could cut down on how much he would ambush other members. He has a talent for outwitting other players, but despite his intimidating appearance, he gets shy around ladies though.
Lee Kwang-soo Lee Kwang-soo is the tallest member of the group, and is often shy and awkward around others. My wife, who’s watched every episode tells me he gets much better in the game over time, but for the episodes I’ve seen so far, he frequently gets eliminated early in the game.
Song Ji-hyo Monday Girlfriend, Ace Ji-hyo, Blank Ji-hyo Song Ji-hyo is the only female member who’s consistently stayed on (Lizzie was on for a short while), and is consistently one of the strongest members in the competition. She is strong and fierce at times, and intimidates some of male members such as Haha and Lee Kwang-soo, and is second only to Kim Jong-kook in terms of eliminating others. She is part of the “Monday Couple” romantic story-line with Gary. She is also known for having a blank expression at times, as well as not being a very good singer.

Anyhow, even if you don’t know a word of Korean, or know much about Korean celebrities (I don’t), I can’t recommend the show enough. It’s a brilliant, entertaining show, and well worth watching.

1 Personally, I think this is a short-sighted policy by Japanese media companies because it makes it a lot harder for international students to get exposure to real Japanese media. Personally, I don’t like anime very much so I never watch it. I’d rather watch real TV and documentaries, etc. Korea has a policy of “marketing” its culture, which I think has some long-term benefits. Japan should take note.😉

Just Like That, It’s Gone

I was shocked to read the morning news when I saw this article:

My wife and I lived very close to this place before we moved to Ireland. My daughter was raised here when she was a baby, and I often carried her to Mr Gyro’s to pick up Mommy and Daddy’s dinner. That was our favorite gyro restaurant.  And now, it’s completely gone.

Seeing the sudden destruction of this reminds me of a quote from a 12th century Japanese text, the hōjōki (mentioned here in a past post):

The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.

Anyhow, just a poignant reminder of the fragility of life. In addition to reading some of Nichiren’s letters, I’ve also been reading the works of Dogen, founder of Soto Zen, as well. He made a good point when he wrote:

Engage yourself in zazen [meditation] as though saving your head from fire.

In other words, life is short, and contingent, so don’t screw around.:-/

Bilingual Kids Part 4: the Second Child

Hi Everyone,

It’s been a long time since I posted updates about my two kids: Princess (age 9) and Little Guy (age 2), but I wanted to talk a bit about Little Guy, and his experiences learning two languages. In my last post on the subject in 2013, I talked about how my daughter had heavy exposure to Japanese language when she was a toddler, but by the time she was in elementary school, her English caught up.

Now that she is 9 years old, her English is quite strong and I think it is her preferred language. She likes reading Harry Potter books, and books about Star Wars. Fortunately, she still gets a lot of Japanese exposure through books, Japanese TV, and her weekly after-school Japanese class so her skills are still very good. We finally cancelled our subscription to the distance-learning Japanese course with Benesse though. She had been doing since she was a toddler, but the course is getting more and more time-consuming, plus she is busy with her schoolwork here in the US. Also, she was definitely getting frustrated with the workload.1

But what about Little Guy? Little Guy loves his big sister very much, and they frequently play together, and she has a big influence on him. This means he learns a lot of language from her, but since she speaks English mostly now, he is learning a lot of English too. We take him to a local Japanese pre-school once a week, and later this year we hope to enroll him in the same Japanese school my daughter attended. Further, he is taking the same distance-learning course now, but doesn’t seem very interested yet. Instead, he is obsessed with the movie Cars. Previously, it was Toy Story 2, but now he only wants to watch Cars. Every day. Every. Single. Day.2

But the Cars DVD that we owned was English only. We realized that if we wanted Little Guy to speak more Japanese, we had to show him Japanese-language versions of his favorite movies. So, after ordering online, we now show him the same movie, but in Japanese. Amazingly, he doesn’t seem to mind, and now he quotes the movie in Japanese too!1 😉

Since then, Little Guy is speaking in Japanese more often. For example, he’s learned to use the ending particle “yo”, which tends to sound assertive, with almost every sentence:

  • terebi minai yo! (I don’t want to watch TV)
  • yamete yo! (stop it!)
  • kowai yo! (it’s scary)

Things like that. He is also just starting to learn the kana syllabary, which is phonetically easier to pick up than English, I’ve noticed. Compared to his sister, he is right on track. :)

Additionally, we are still sticking to the same, basic approach we used with our daughter: Mommy speaks in Japanese to our kids, and I speak in English. It helps them learn to separate the two languages more cleanly, and learn them both natively. So, at nighttime, I read him his favorite books (usually about Cars) in English, but my wife will read Japanese books. Truth is though, sometimes I get lazy and start speaking Japanese too because I hear my wife use it all the time, but I have to discipline myself to speak only English to the kids. It’s a better approach in the long-run and worked well of Princess: she’s a native speaker of both languages.

The point though, is that for kids to be bilingual, environment and having a consistent plan really matter. With Princess, it was a lot easier to control the environment so she could learn Japanese like a native-speaker, but Little Guy’s situation was more complicated because his older sister speaks English, and we already had a bunch of English-language DVDs from relatives and friends. However, with a few simple changes, we’re already noticing that his Japanese is improving, and since each parent speaks a different language, he is getting more adept at using both.

1 She will also be enrolled in school in Japan when she visits during the summers. That’s probably the best way to learn anyway. It worked well last year.

2 In English, the opening line said by Lightning McQueen is “Speed, I am speed.” But my son will say, “Speed, boku wa hayai” which is the Japanese translation. He tries to whisper it in a cool voice, just like the movie. :)