Why we didn’t move to Japan

When Procter and Gamble asked my husband to accept a job in Japan several years ago, I viewed it less as an opportunity and more of a nightmare. Our oldest son was on his own living and working about an hour away. Our second son was in his third year of college and fairly independent, but our youngest two were still living with us. Our daughter was at the end of her junior year in high school and our youngest son was at the end of his seventh-grade year. I was working on an English degree at a nearby college. Mark’s father was in poor health and my parents were still taking care of my disabled sister Annie. I did not want to be on the other side of this planet. But we were strongly encouraged to visit Japan before we made our decision, so we went and took our two youngest children, who would be most effected by this move, with us.

The P&G facility was on Rocco Island. I had visions of walking along the shore under palm trees. I thought, maybe it could work out and be a kind of sabbatical for a couple of years.

View of the shore and ocean from the Sheraton Hotel on Rocco Island.

When we arrived at our hotel on Rocco Island, I quickly saw that my visions of walking along a tree-lined shore were mere fanciful illusions. Rocco Island, an artificial island built by man out of concrete and rebar (I suppose) was highly developed with large towering structures. There was very little green space.

Although this view from our hotel showed a few little patches of green, mostly Rocco Island was a hard environment.

The Entente residences on Rocco Island.

Many of the expatriates who worked at P&G lived in the Entente hi-rise on Rocco Island. The facility contained most of a family’s needs: a grocery, a barbershop, a theatre and many other shops and services. If I lived there, I might never have to leave the facility. I imagined it could feel like I was living in an isolated international bubble, which I suppose has its cultural benefits. But if we were going to experience living in Japan, I thought we should be living in Japan, not in an international bubble. The other problem was that I could not imagine how we would be able to bring our forty pound dog Honey with us and live in this hi-rise.

View of the P&G facility on Rocco Island

One of the advantages of living on Rocco Island would be that Mark could literally take an elevator down the Entente, cross one street, and take another elevator in the P&G facility to get to work. Not a bad deal after driving thirty minutes to work every day here in the midwest.

View of Kobe from the Sheraton on Rocco Island

Past the buildings in the foreground and across the water you can see the city of Kobe in the distance. This was our other living option. We could rent a house in Kobe and Mark could commute to work across a bridge. But in Kobe we wouldn’t have all the benefits of living in an English-speaking international community.

Train track on Rocco Island.

The mass transit was well-developed in the small section of Japan we visited. You can see this elevated train track on Rocco Island. We were told Tokyo was a three-hour high-speed train trip away.

Ground view of P&G Facility

With the concrete structures, the hi-rises, and the elevated trains, I felt a little like I had been transported to a futuristic city. I missed the trees and grass almost immediately. There would be little opportunity for gardening here.

Magazine rack in a store on Rocco Island

Visiting a foreign country to investigate the possibility of moving there is an altogether different experience from touring a country on vacation with the knowledge that you will soon be returning home where the language and customs are familiar. Unlike the European countries where we could bumble our way through the language because at least we shared the same alphabet, there was no reading to be done in Japan. There was no way to look these words up in a pocket translator.

We couldn’t read the simplest of things.

Even the parks are largely hard space, although this one on Rocco Island had a nice water feature.

On our trip we wanted to see options for places to live and the schools our children would be attending. This is the Marist Brothers International School which I understand provides an excellent education. Our youngest son was very excited after visiting this school and spending some time with the students there. He was ready to move.

Cafeteria inside the Marist school

There were a lot of things that concerned me regarding our children. We had heard nightmare stories of people moving their high-school-aged children out of country and having them run away, or eventually having to find some place for them to live back in the States. Although I believe our son might have adjusted to this environment, I had great fears about our daughter. I did not want to ruin her life by taking this big of a chance with her. We only had a few years left living together as a family.

We spoke with an American woman when we toured her home. She was getting ready to return to the States. She told us at first she tried to move her teenager here, but she had promised her daughter she could finish high school back home if she wanted. The family also had a son in college in the States. After a year in Japan, the daughter wanted to go home. So this woman returned to the States with her daughter while her husband remained in Japan. She ended up traveling back and forth often. The woman was happy to be going home.

We were well taken care of while in Japan. Nami was our full-time interpreter. She was a kind and attentive person. We liked her a lot.

We toured a couple of homes in Kobe. You may notice we are in stocking feet as is the custom there. I liked the idea of living in a house much better than living in a hi-rise, but I was nervous about being on our own, immersed in Kobe, where we didn’t know the language. On the first night when we were on Rocco Island  exploring, we went into a store to try to buy a band-aid. We couldn’t even figure out what aisle we needed to be in. The language gap is huge.

Sign at the train station.

Although Nami was great, I wanted to spend some time on our own without an interpreter. If we moved to Japan we would not have a personal interpreter with us. So the last day we spent the afternoon on our own. Nami had suggested a shopping area for us and a castle nearby that we could tour. I don’t even remember now how we knew what train to take. Perhaps you’ll have better luck reading this sign than I did.

Shopping in Kobe.

Although there is a lot of shopping in Kobe, the Japanese people are physically smaller than Americans. When we spoke with other families who had lived in Japan for a while we were told you have to do all your shopping for clothes and shoes by the internet or mail catalogs. We were thinking about taking our daughter who would be a high school senior, and an eighth grade son who was hard on shoes and was still growing. The lack of access to clothes and shoes concerned me.

I suppose with time we would have figured some of this out. But it was all very intimidating to me during the few days we spent in Japan.

Although most fast food restaurants have picture menus, we created confusion and inadvertently ordered two of every thing. Once we realized the mistake, we had great difficulty communicating it. You can forget about asking for a special order like, hold the mayo please.

Himeji Castle, Japan — 2004

We did find our way to Himeji Castle. This was a pretty cool experience. Several films have been made here including the Shogun miniseries.

I think this may have been at the entrance to the Himeji Castle. I would tell you what it says if I knew.

We saw a fascinating exhibit of Bonsai trees before entering the castle.

The architecture of Himeji Castle was beautiful with its curved sloping roof lines.

The castle sits up high on a hill, and at the very top you have quite a view of the surrounding area. A great feature for defense.

Japan was an interesting place to visit. And I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been fraught with concern as I contemplated moving part of our family there. Japan is an awfully long and cramped airplane ride away from family, friends, and most of the comforts of home.

Some people thought we missed the opportunity of a life time when we came home and Mark turned down the assignment to Rocco Island. As a family I felt we would have had to give too many things up: our daughter’s senior year and culmination of her high school experience with her friends; spending the last few years of his life with Mark’s father; helping my parents; being able to see our two oldest sons; our youngest son’s opportunity to attend the excellent high school in our area that he had his hopes set on; our dog Honey; and my own college education. Truthfully I had no desire to spend two, or more likely four, precious years of my life living in Japan. It may be a great experience for others, but I didn’t see it that way. And I wasn’t willing to take the chance with our children.

We came home to our gardens.

The individual who accepted the job in Japan had a spouse who also worked for P&G and was given an assignment there as well. They had two younger children who were in the early grades of elementary school. The family spent four years in Japan before P&G transferred them back to the States.

Mark was an excellent manager, had been highly successful throughout his career, and was near the top of the list of individuals targeted for further promotion. The manager at P&G who wanted Mark to go to Japan never forgave him and essentially blackballed the few years that remained of Mark’s career there. Mark took an early retirement and is now happier than ever.

The little guy stood his ground over the demands of the mighty corporation, and ultimately triumphed.

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Author: CMSmith

I enjoy reading, writing, gardening, photography, genealogy and travel. I have opinions about many things, but am trying to age gracefully and not continually tick people off with them. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

27 thoughts on “Why we didn’t move to Japan”

  1. My friends husband was sent to Japan for two years. She chose to stay here in the states as they have a son in college…one year down, one to go. Choices like that are difficult to make, but I think we must always choose what is best for all involved. Sounds like you guys made a good choice.

    1. Hopefully he’ll only be there two years. We had no guarantee, and as I mentioned, it turned into a four-year assignment for the person who took the job.

      Choices like that are difficult to make. We were advised not to live apart, but I told Mark I was willing to do that if he wanted to go. He knew it could be suicide for his career to refuse. We went through some rough patches, but ultimately are glad it turned out the way it did.

      Working as an exec for a large corporation is stressful work.

      I think it’s just sad to realize that corporate America has little to no regard for the individual worker. We are all replaceable.

  2. Very interesting post — although I’d have been tempted too because I’m fascinated with the idea of living in Japan, I have to say (based on my own experience of being taken halfway across the world as a teenager) that you made the right choice. Good for Mark being willing to say no and shame on the corporation for allowing a manager to blackball him. It’s just incredible that corporate America gets away with so much. Last year my husband lost his job after 13 years with a company — and although he got some severance, they simply said goodbye as he left for the last time. The sad thing to me is that it’s not just the upper level management in corporations that act this way, it’s all the way down the foodchain — so many managers at all levels and even even “worker bees” buy into the mentality that the corporation is king. When in reality it all comes down to what makes the company the most money…. sorry to be so jaded and to vent here, but this is something that really has hit us hard…. (p.s. LOVE the photos as always, Christine! 🙂 xo, Julia

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Julia. I’m sorry about your husband and his job. Hopefully with time you will feel it was all for the best. I know how frightening it can be when they come home with that kind of news.

      Corporate mentality disgusts me. And as long as there are people who are willing to sacrifice everything in their personal life to jump through the hoops, those of us who seek a more balanced life will not be able to compete. As I discovered when I left P&G to stay home with our first son, we can easily be replaced.

      Mark was one year short of his 30th anniversary with P&G when he was basically forced to retire. I guess we should count our blessings that he got out of there with full retirement benefits including insurance, and a severance package. With two kids in college, though, and one in an expensive high school, it was pretty scary, as I know you can relate.

      You’re always welcome to vent at my blog. In fact, I like it when people vent and tell me how they really feel. (As long as they aren’t venting about me I suppose.)

  3. Gorgeous photos, Christine.
    I think you probably made the right decision. We spent four years in Italy, and it was the experience of a lifetime that I’ll never regret. We got to travel around Europe and learned so much. But our children were younger and we didn’t have to give up a pet, or have ailing parents nearing the end of their lives. It’s a great experience for everyone to live in another culture, but it can also be stressful. Things one never expected can crop up and must be dealt with. So, from what you describe about your situation then, I do think you made the right choice for everyone.
    That guy who blackballed your husband was an idiot. We are not owned by the companies we work for, but some don’t seem to get that.

    1. I’ll bet it was nice in Italy with the rest of Europe a train ride away. We spent a couple of weeks there two years ago and loved it. We were primarily in Tuscany and Rome with a side trip to Assisi.

      I have no doubt that we made the right decision. We can never know what might have been, but our children are responsible and happy young adults now, so at least we know this path worked out okay.

      I agree with your assessment of Mark’s manager (it was actually his supervisor’s supervisor). He came in with a hard philosophy of “You’ve got to do an international assignment for advancement.” Although Mark had spent a lot of time out of the country, and was very familiar with P&G operations in other parts of the world, and had responsibility for product development in South America, that wasn’t good enough. I think they just had trouble finding people to take some of these assignments so they became inflexible about it.

      I guess I always believed in us, and that we didn’t need P&G. I believed there would be another job out there. I don’t know if I would have had the same confidence today.

  4. Good call! Glad that Mark is happier than ever!

    Many corporations move people around BECAUSE they want to disrupt ties to other people, places, and things. Soon everything in your life revolves around the corporation.

    That is NOT the way I would want to live.

    Rocco island looks UGLY and GRAY. Living in a city like that would depress me to no end, with or without the language barrier.

    Nami and the Bonsai Trees and the Entrance to the Castle with that huge rock are the only pictures that drew me in. The rest of the city scape makes me want to run the other way. 😀

    1. Yeah. I’m pretty much with you on this one. Although I understand some of the mountainous areas are stunning. But Japan is a bunch of highly populated centers spaced around the base of mountains, and surrounded by water. And it’s really not very close to anything else, so it wouldn’t be that easy to tour surrounding countries.

      It’s also extremely hot there at times, I understand.

      Bad deal for us all the way around.

  5. You and Mark have a beautiful, peaceful home; although Japan undoubtedly would have been an adventure, it seems like it would have been a stressful one. I, for one, am certainly glad you all decided to stick around. : )

  6. Because I grew up in Hawaii surrounded by a large population of Japanese and other Oriental ethnicities, myself being half-Chinese, I was more desirous of visiting Europe. I wanted to see…different…people, places, culture. Only now, well into middle-age, have I any inkling about visiting Singapore, Hong Kong, Bali, and perhaps other Asian countries. But I’m still not a passionate world traveler…preferring the comforts of hearth and home…probably since my childhood was somewhat dysfunctional…no father…busy mom…fending for myself…

    definitely wouldn’t have liked to face what you would have…had you moved to Japan…your family chose well…for yourselves… 😉

  7. I think you & Mark made a good decision to not go to Japan. And doing it would not necessarily have advanced his career or changed the outcome of him having to retire anyhow. But it sure could have ripped your family apart.

    Abbott Labs asked me to move to Columbus, Ohio as my daughter started high school. It was okay, but none of us thrived there. To this day I’m sorry that I did it. I probably wouldn’t have been happier staying in Chicago, but I think many things would have been easier for us if we had and we would have enjoyed many parts of our life much better.

    Nancy

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Nancy. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of choice. And like you said, we can’t really know how the alternate path might have worked out.

      But this one’s been good.

  8. Only one comment —
    Rocco Island isn’t Japan. It’s something synthetic, and you really wouldn’t have been living in Japan if you were there.
    I love the country and the culture, but there’s no doubt it is a daunting place for a Westerner to make an authentic home in, especially with children, especially perhaps with teenage children.
    It’s a pity about the corporate mentality but that’s the way it is — and interestingly, Japanese corporations are even more so than ours. In a way, like joining the army —

    A wonderful generous post, Christine.

  9. Our family spent two years in Kobe and seven years in Yokohama. Those first two years were an amazingly difficult adjustment. Both sides of the debate are valid: It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and there were costs–those that we understood and those we never could have imagined. We love Japan and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but we lost one of our parents sooner than we would have expected, and wished that we hadn’t missed the time with him. On our return, the reverse culture shock was hard on all of us, and our older kids feel more at home in Japan than in the US.

    It sounds like you are confident that you made the right decision. It is always hard to know “what if,” but I can confirm for you that some of the drawbacks you considered were very real.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Dianne. I know we gave up an opportunity, but saved ourselves some heartache in doing so. I have no regrets.

      Life is hard to predict. I lost both of my parents in January and wouldn’t have traded one day away that I got to spend with them both, especially close to the end. So I understand your feelings. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  10. Wow. I;m really sorry to hear your husband ended his career this way. But I have encountered managers like this. While reading through the choices you had to make… Your daughter’s senior year – yeah, that would truly be agonizing. It’s not my position to judge you, but I think you made the right choice for your family.

    I worked in that office from ’99 to ’09, also starting in R&D. But I have to say, it was a tough working environment. It was quite rare to finish the day in only 10 hours of work. People had a tendency to commit to too many projects and it was expected that everyone had to pull their own weight. Turnover was also quite high. Most of the folks I started my career with in Japan no longer work for the company.

    1. Thanks for weighing in Aaron. It’s fine to judge me as long as you agree with me. 🙂

      That’s interesting that you worked in that office. And thanks for sharing about the rough work environment. Just one more reassurance that we made the right decision.

      The corporate world is rough. I’m very glad Mark got out of it. I think he is too.

  11. I’m 18 and now in my first year of college at the University of Florida, but my family moved to Kobe for 3 years and it was an amazing experience. My brother and sister and I went to Canadian Academy which is also on Rokko Island, and we lived in the Entente. The experience changed my perspective of a cultured education and the world in general. That must have been a difficult decision but I must agree that it was the experience of a lifetime.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Mari. We toured the Entente, and several of the schools while we were there. I’m glad you had and appreciated that opportunity in your life.

      When making a decision like this, you have to take everything into account. We heard clearly and loudly, both sides of the story: successful enriching experiences, and family-breaking-apart disasters. I think a lot depends on the age of the children, and individuals’ personalities and characteristics.

      One of our children was about your age when we would have left. He would have been living in the USA and us in Japan. I just wasn’t willing to leave two young adult children, and aging parents behind.

      I think life can afford us all kinds of experiences. Our society places more emphasis on some than others. I don’t always agree.

      But it is good that you found it to be the experience of a lifetime. I am truly happy for you.

  12. It was what you wanted in life. Your choice, based on your lifestyle, and desires. No need to justify your decision in retrospect.

    Lafley and McDonald became CEO of P&G because of their experience in Japan.

    `nuf said.

  13. Seems to me you took your time to make your decision . . . and Nami was a great person to help with your daily needs while checking is all out – know her well! I think you weren’t ready for the “adventure” before you even arrived to take a look…? Your kids’ situations (quite rightly, family comes first for many of us) were already coming first in your head? (Even though you state one of the kids was excited as soon as he saw the school?). Perhaps you were already against the move before you got here and, as you clearly state, the Rokko (note the spelling, by the way) Island enclave – even more so The Entente itself – was ready to take care of you the “Western way”, if you chose that. But Kobe (Rokko Island is IN Kobe, but I get what you mean – us long-termers often joke that those who live on Rokko Island need a visa to visit us on “the mainland”) is literally five to 20 minutes away on a train (Rokkoliner) or two (Rokkoliner and JR/Hanshin), depending where you chose to put down roots. P&G pay enough for you to get a local help of some kind for kids/education/language learning and there are plenty of places that help out foreigners for free or on a paid basis. Basic Japanese could be picked up within a month of good, but casual study… are you getting the feeling that I think you made the wrong (pre-determined) decision?!
    You had the choice of a lifetime, immerse in the culture in the “mainland” area and work hard to settle in… or live in “little America” on Rokko Island (I would actually NOT recommend that to newcomers, unless you’re here for the job, money, etc. If you’re taking a new life, experience and want to see the world, do NOT live on Rokko Island!).
    I rambled a bit, I’ve been here 28 years (and only came for one month, originally!) but I wanted to let anyone know who might see this and want another view to read (and get in touch, if needed)… Japan – safe, relatively clean, convenient, great food, plenty to do… recommended by me 🙂
    By the way, P&G have sold their building and moved to, I believe, Singapore – living there is another story, again. And, yes, I’d recommend Singapore, too – although, it might well be, to some, just a HUGE version of Rokko Island!! 🙂

    1. Thank you. You’re right. I had no desire to move across the world. I love to travel, but beyond that I don’t consider myself the adventurous type. I’m so happy someone read this who knows Nami. She was the best. Thank you for sharing your side of the story.

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