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.