“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 with hers.

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 families.

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.