When Rionne asked me to be interviewed for his documentary about single mothers in Japan, I wasn’t sure whether to accept or not. I did not want to become the “face of single mothers”. What a silly thing to worry about. I am a single mother, that is a fact. There is nothing to be embarrassed about and everything to be proud of. To be the parent that is turning up and taking all of the responsibility that is involved in raising children is no mean feat. We single parents should be celebrated. If you want to vilify someone, make it your business to find the missing parents, and shake some responsibility into them.
This documentary was bigger than me, so I agreed to be interviewed. It is going to highlight the problems that single parents living in Japan face. Japan is one of the richest countries in the world, but you will be surprised at the poverty rate of single mothers and their (our) children in Japan.
Rionne’s documentary explores the link between single mothers and poverty. Japan has this “traditional” system where many fathers work and many mothers stay home to raise children. Some mothers will work part-time. When parents get divorced, in almost all the cases, the children will end up with the mother. These mothers have sacrificed their careers to support their husbands and their families, but now they have to find ways to work full-time to make money for their now single-parent household. However, it is hard to get permanent and well-paying full-time jobs, so many single mothers are stuck in part-time and casual jobs with little income, little job security, no paid time off, etc. In addition, child support payments from the fathers are not easily enforced here or many women don’t know how to go about it. It may require hiring a lawyer to go to court, but many don’t have the money for lawyer fees. It is truly a dire situation.
Watching the documentary, I could see fellow single mothers doing their best for their children. Many are divorced, and only a tiny fraction are never-married single parents. They gave up their careers and jobs for the families, and when they got divorced, they are the ones picking up the pieces and keeping their kids together. Some are survivors of domestic violence and it was very hard watching them talking about it. I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face. The women interviewed had come out the other side, and it was so inspiring watching how much they are thriving now. I know there are many women even now in similar domestic violence situations who do not go know how they can get safely divorced, and if they do, they worry about how they can support themselves and their children after divorce.
If you want to read more about the problems facing single mothers in Japan, check out this link and this link too.
What needs to change? What are the solutions? Some mothers in the documentary offer insights.
More government support is needed for single parent households. For example, there is a welfare benefit for single parents but there are so many limitations to use it, and the moment your income passes the ridiculously low threshold (like ¥1.6M annual income), then you are no longer eligible to get it. Income limits should be eliminated and any single parent households that needs it should be eligible.
However, ultimately, a culture change is necessary. Women need economic independence. It turns out that depending on your husband and quitting the workplace will put you at a high risk of poverty should you ever get divorced or widowed, and there is a 30-50% chance of that happening.
There is a high penalty attached to single mothers all over the world but more so in Japan. Despite what you may have read or heard, children thrive when they have safe, stable and nurturing environments and relationships, and these conditions and connections can exist in any type of family, including single-parent households.
There is mounting evidence indicates that underlying factors — strong and stable relationships, parental mental health, socioeconomic status and access to resources — have a greater impact on child success than does family structure alone. We should stop obsessing over how many single mothers there are and stop shaming them. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/10/opinion/sunday/single-mothers-poverty.html
Why would you shame the person taking the sole responsibility for raising their children? Where is the logic in that?
When you get to chance watch this documentary, you will understand just what a great job Rionne did sharing the stories of single mothers in Japan. It runs for 78 minutes, but you will wish it was longer. It is no wonder this documentary has already won several awards. It has been accepted for screening at the Cannes Film Festival, Paradise Film Festival, London Film Festival, among others. The documentary is not available to the public yet because it’s being screened at film festivals at this time, but when it becomes public, I will be very happy to share the link.
I couldn’t tell you the difference between goals and resolutions. I just know that as far back as I can remember, I have always made a list of the things I wanted or needed to do.
Here are my 2023 goals, but I don’t want o put pressure on myself to achieve them. They are just a roadmap to guide my daily activities. I want to enjoy the journey towards achieving them without necessarily worrying about if/when I will get there. Of course, I would like to live free and just go with the flow of life, but I would feel lost just drifting aimlessly through life. I need to feel like I have a modicum of control over how I live in my life. 2023 may or may not be a defining year for me and my little family, but I look forward to squeezing joy out of every big or small moment this year has to offer.
Jogging: Do at least 25K monthly
Bi-weekly blogposts (2 in a month)
Publish my translation project that’s been in progress for 8 years!
Read a book a month (sacrifice Netflix)
Start on my book project: a chapter a month?
Write two short stories or essays
Career growth / change
Happy, creative kids (less TV)
Plan for financial independence
Go to Kenya for a holiday
Others: Japanese – study for the JLPT?
What are your goals for this year? Are you just content to live in the moment and go with the flow or do you have a destination in mind?
I wish I had something deep, profound and poetic to say about the last year, but this is the driest post ever. Despite the challenges, it was a happy year. In January, I was on maternity leave in Kenya but by the end of the year, I was well settled into the humdrum life of a mother of two working full-time in Tokyo.
I’m grateful that I was able to bring Jeremy back to Japan and that I found a good (enough) school for him. I’m also thankful that Kai is a happy and healthy toddler and it’s such a joy to watch him learn to speak a mixture of both English and Japanese. I’m thankful for my stable job and that I was working from home and continue to, which saves me precious time and energy. I’m thankful for my lovely apartment located conveniently near the daycare, bus stop, Gyomu Supermarket, 7-11, Lawson 100 Yen, a drug store and JP Bank. I’m grateful for the friendships I have made this year. I cherish the time we spend together. I’m thankful for the home helper service provided by city hall: I have a volunteer coming 2-3 times a week, 2 hours each time, to help me with the cooking, laundry, dishes or just to just spend time with my kids. Their help has been invaluable, I am not sure I could hack this city life without them. If you would like to volunteer for this service, check out their website.
This is the year it dawned on me that I am doing enough, I am enough and I don’t need to prove myself to anyone. I can just focus on getting things done and spending time with the people who matter the most to me. Finding joy in the little things, in the mundane, in several moments throughout the day.
Finding enough time to rest or for hobbies is challenging, but that’s the norm when you have young children. I’ll do better to reduce TV (Netflix) time so I can read, and jog, and write more. I would have loved to go to the beach in summer.
My best friend in Japan graduated and went back to Jamaica, and I’m not sure we will ever see each other again.
Logistics and finances mean I couldn’t travel home for Christmas in 2022, but I will start planning for 2023 December right away.
To all the friends who have left before us, who never saw the dawn of 2023, may we meet again.
I hope that 2023 will be a better year despite the fact that we are into the 4th year of a pandemic everyone is basically ignoring.
This October marked 8 years since I first set foot in Japan. I remember that day clearly. I landed in Osaka at around 8pm in the night and took the express train to Kanazawa, transferring at Maibara. I remember thinking that Japan at appeared to be lifeless, everywhere I looked I was met with muted night lights and silence, not a soul to be seen outside. Of course, it didn’t help that this view was at night from the express train, traveling silently through the countryside. I got to Kanazawa Station a little after midnight. Back then, it was under construction and the beautiful gates were yet to be revealed. The signage was in English so it was easy to find the exit. I had booked a hotel near the station for the night because it was too late to check into the Morinosato dormitory that I was to stay in for the following six months. I was to check in the following day. I had printed out Google Map directions because I didn’t have wifi on my phone and free wifi wasn’t that common back then. Of course, I couldn’t figure out in which direction to walk – how do you find North in the night? Actually, I can’t even find North during the day and I’m so glad for the Google Maps feature that now shows a shadow in the direction you’re walking (anybody else know this feature?).
Luckily, I stumbled into a couple by the station that walked me to the hotel. It was less than 5 minutes away from the station. Staff at the reception spoke English. They asked me if I wanted a non-smoking room and of course I said yes, but my room still smelled faintly of smoke. The following morning, I woke up ready to start my life in Japan. But first, I was looking forward to the buffet breakfast. Alas! It was all miso soup, fish, rice, barely boiled eggs, several condiments I was afraid to try.. there were some sorry-looking bread rolls in the corner that I had with coffee and got a taxi out of there. Suffice to say, I was not a fan of Japanese food back then but it has grown on me and now I love (most of) it.
When I tweeted about my 8th year anniversary, someone asked me about the highlights and lowlights of the past 8 years. I spent the first four and a half years in Ishikawa, and moved to Tokyo 3.5 years ago in April of 2019 where I currently live and work. Let’s start with the highlights.
Moving to a new country where you don’t know the language, with a culture that’s almost a total opposite of where you come from, forces you to grow and find a place for yourself in this new culture without losing yourself. Your perspective changes a lot. You evolve to survive. I’m more resilient. More tolerant. More practical, less dreamy, which is unfortunate I think. It’s hard to elaborate this without writing a 2,000 word essay but I know many of you readers can relate. You don’t have to move countries to find you’ve grown as a person. I think it happens for most people when they get into their 30’s.
I’m just going to list some of the highlights with links, in no particular order, so this post doesn’t get too long. Also, I don’t have enough time to write it all out.
I’ve travelled around Japan with so many of my friends – ski trips, trips to traditional Japanese villages, trips to onsen towns, a trip to Okinawa, etc. In particular, experiencing Tokyo, Fuji Q Highland, Hakone, Kyoto and Osaka, traveling by hired car, bus and bullet train with my best friend from way back, was quite the highlight.
Meeting Eliud ‘The Goat” Kipchoge earlier this year.
Making Some Very Awesome Friends
I have met so many awesome people who have become very close and very good friends. This is both a highlight and a lowlight because most of my good friends have left or are leaving Japan. This is the hardest part of friendships, when friends have to move away.
There are so many more highlights, I’m sure I haven’t included all the important people, persons and events that have happened in my life these past 8 years. But I’ve always blogged a bit every year and I’m glad I can always look back and relive some of these highlights.
J Getting Bullied Out of Japan
This was definitely my lowest moment in Japan. Learning that J was getting bullied in school was so painful. I had to take him out of that school immediately, then he got stuck in Kenya during covid. I am just glad that I was finally able to bring him back and found an affordable international school for him.
I always knew I wasn’t going to stay in Japan forever and when this happened, it started the countdown. I don’t know if we’ll make it to 10 years! But my tiny little family is currently in a good place and I just want to enjoy these moments.
Saying bye to friends
I have made so many good friends from so many different countries, but many of them have left Japan and I don’t know if I’ll ever meet them again.
In the last 8 years, the distance has also affected the closeness of my Kenyan friendships. Definitely a low point of living away from home (Tokyo doesn’t feel like home really).
In the same vein, losing (to death) friends and family while away has been really hard.
Adjusting to the Loneliness that is living in Japan
I worry that I have changed so much and gotten used to the loneliness that is part and parcel of “living in Japan”, just never knowing your neighbours and even when you know their faces, never exchanging nothing more than a cursory hello, despite years of living next to each other. That lack of warmth from people, I miss it. Spontaneity. Laughter.
It has taken 5 months, but finally the broken nail I blogged about here has healed. Please read that post for the information on when it became broken (over 25 years ago), how it got broken (door slam), why it stayed broken (fungal infection), which doctor I went to (dermatologist) and which medicine I took (Itrizole) for the 6th and final month now. I’m just sharing the progress pictures in this post.
About three weeks later
It’s a medical miracle! I’m so happy!
This is an update from the previous post about my friend with severe dental fluorosis who needed crowns. She wasn’t able to raise enough funds but luckily she was able to get a loan from her lab mates (she is a grad student in Japan) and traveled to a clinic Turkey where she was able to get snow white crowns and a beautiful smile. I’ve asked her to share her experience through a guest post and she is working on it right now. You’ll love to see it. So you better subscribe.
In case you are new to the blog, I am raising two boys in Tokyo. J is 9 years old and is a 4th grader at a local international school, and K is 1 year old and goes to a government daycare. I work full time as an applied machine learning researcher to provide for them.
On a typical day, my alarm goes off at 6:15am. Snoozing is not an option. I wake up and my first task is to make a lunch box (bento) for J, as their school provides lunch only on Thursdays. Deciding what to make was the hardest part, but now I make the same thing for each day of the week. Mondays are croquette-based bentos, Tuesdays I make sandwiches, Wednesdays gyoza-based, .. you get the idea.
If I’m lucky, I can finish making the bento before K wakes up. Before I got a TV, it was really hard to keep him away from the kitchen area while I made the bento, and I sometimes carried him on my back because he wanted to see and do everything I was doing. Now if he wakes up before 7, I let him watch TV for 20 minutes while I finish the bento prep.
Next, I wake J up a few minutes to 7, which is not easy. He is not a morning kid but hates being late. I give him breakfast – usually toast bread, eggs, sausages and a cup of milk. Other times, it will be rice with fish flakes, or corn flakes. Then I direct him to brush his teeth, wash his face and carry his school bag and water bottle. He’s usually out of the door by 7:20, 7:30am latest. He takes public transport to school and goes by himself.
Once J leaves, I turn my full attention to K. Usually, he wakes up by 7am but if he isn’t up by the time J leaves, I take this small window to make myself a cup of tea or coffee and catch up on social media or do Wordle if I am working from home. If I am going to the office, I get my lunch box and bag ready at this time. If he is already up, I turn off the TV, change his diaper and pajamas, and feed him breakfast.
Then I get K’s daycare bag ready – a change of clothes, diapers, socks and a pair of bibs. I write in his daily log what time he slept, ate, pooped, his mood and temperature that morning, and a little comment – for example – “he enjoyed eating salad last night”, “he loves the very hungry caterpillar book”, “he is very genky as usual”.
By 8, he is cleaned up and ready for daycare drop off. If I am going to the office, I will brush my teeth, change and get ready and leave with him by 8:15am latest (taking out the garbage at the same time, of course). After dropping him off at daycare, I can get to the office by 9am.
Since returning to work in May from maternity leave, I have been working from home and going to the office once or twice a month. I don’t mind going to the office for the change of scenery, but that is 2 hours lost to commuting each day (plus the extra energy).
Since I am working from home, I prefer dropping K off closer to 9am. So from 8:00 to 8:30, it’s playtime with him. We drive our toy cars, play with duplo blocks and read books. Sometimes I will clean up a bit. Getting K out of the door is easy, he loves going out. The best thing about the daycare is that it’s 2 minutes away from our apartment. By 9am I am back in the house (or at work) and at my desk, ready to start my work day, having already put in 3 hours of housework and child care!
Work Day: 9 to 5
In the first couple of months after resuming work, I was doing it all – housework, childcare, my job, grocery shopping, life planning – with no help whatsoever. It was overwhelming to say the least. From mid-July, I learned about the home helper program from my city and applied for it, and now someone comes thrice a week for two hours each time. They vacuum, wipe floors, do laundry, fold and put away clean clothes, do the dishes and sometimes cook. I’ll blog more about it later.
So in those first months, after dropping K off at daycare, I would rush to vacuum, do the laundry, dishes etc while checking work emails and planning my day. Now I can ignore it or do the minimum for half an hour or so – this would be my commuting time. (For the evening commuting hour – I do grocery shopping and prep for dinner.)
My work varies depending on the project I am assigned. But there are a lot of meetings, and of course, a lot of Powerpoint slides. Sometimes I have to read research papers, reports and use cases. Other times, I have to write code to prove my idea, or build and test machine learning models using Jupyter Notebooks. Then make Powerpoint slides to report my results at the next meeting.
I am not going to lie, I experienced a lot of brain fog at the beginning of my return to the office, due to all the sleep deprivation and the physical labour involved in childcare. It is only recently that I feel more focused and alert.
I take a lunch break from 12:00 – 13:00, but to be honest I am always eating throughout the day. I may do a quick grocery run to the Gyomu Super that’s just a couple of minutes away by bike. More often than not, lunch will be what’s left over from making J’s bento boxes.
J’s school ends at 3-3:20pm, and he usually gets home by 4pm. He’ll typically find me in meetings – have I complained enough about meetings? – and will quietly get the phone and start playing games. On Mondays and Thursdays, he’ll go to football and basketball practice, respectively. It’s so sad that I hardly ever get time to watch him play, due to meetings.
Generally, the work day ends at 5pm. But sometimes meetings spill over, past 6pm. I usually excuse myself at 5pm if I am at the office and 5:30pm if I am working from home. My team understands that I have young children.
After work, I’ll pick Kai up from daycare and then start making dinner (sometimes I’ll buy some forgotten ingredients on the way back). I typically make something simple, like stir fry pork, Japanese beef curry, cream stew, Chinese stir-fried rice (chahan), chicken stew, grilled fish, and/or salad… to eat with rice. Sometimes I make pasta or yaki soba but there is always rice in the rice cooker. Last evening, for example, dinner was stir-fried pork, avocado, spinach and rice.
Since the home helpers start coming, it’s nice to come home to a tidy, clean house (that’s reduced to chaos in minutes).
We eat dinner between 6 and 7pm. Then J will get started on his homework while I give K his shower – and for efficiency – I will shower too. In colder months, we take baths after showering but in summer we make do with the shower only – Japanese people who take nightly baths must be horrified reading this.
After our shower, K will play while I do some cleaning up if he lets me. The helpers don’t come daily – just three times a week – so I still have to do housework the rest of the time. We might watch some Cocomelon while J takes his shower. Then around 8pm, I will put K to bed, or just before 9pm, if he had a long nap at daycare. I will also check my personal emails at this time, check any communication from the kids’ schools – always with the leaflets – and any snail mail that I got that day. I’ll also check my work laptop for any urgent messages (there are usually none but sometimes I needed to submit something by end of the day and I forgot) or send some emails (rarely) before shutting down my laptop. Rarely do I do any work at night after the kids sleep, but sometimes a solution will come to you and you want to try it out right away, you know?
By 9pm, the kids are usually asleep or in bed. Once in a while, I go to bed at 9pm too but most of the time, I will switch on Netflix and enjoy some me-time after putting on rice and cleaning some more. (By the way, do not watchMe Time on Netflix, it is a stupidly boring movie that I watched so you don’t have to. If you must watch a movie, I recommend Green Book and The Power of the Dog). It would be nice to read or blog at this time, but I am almost always too tired to use my brain. TV requires the least energy. Even the shows I watch don’t have complicated plots. I like good shows with still filming – like Better Call Saul, The Crown, Ozark- and small town dramas like Sweet Magnolias, Virgin River… but my favorite are fantasy shows like The Witcher.
I turn in at 11pm or later. I have no problems falling asleep. K will wake up 2-3 times a night, but a quick breastfeeding session puts him back to sleep. We have a loft bed in the bedroom, similar to but not as fancy-looking as the one below. J sleeps on the top bunk and K sleeps on the mattress below. I sleep on a separate futon in the room, but by morning either K is on my futon or I’m on his mattress.
Then the alarm goes off at 6:15am and we do it all over again.
My alarm is set for 7:30am on weekends, but I usually wake up at whatever time K does. After cleaning up and breakfast, instead of going to daycare, we’ll go to the park or the pool or somewhere like the jidoukan (children’s hall) to play. If I’m feeling lazy, we’ll watch cartoons and just play in the house, but then in the afternoon we must go out – K gets cranky if he doesn’t get outside time.
We usually come back from the park around 11-12 for lunch, followed by a nap for K while J plays video games or watches animations on Netflix. I will plan weekend meals, then plan the necessary grocery shopping, do laundry, vacuum, cook etc before we go out for afternoon play.
After coming back from afternoon play, the weekend evening routine is similar to the weekday one.
My life is busy and I have no free time, but I am fulfilled and happy.
Would I be working right now if I didn’t have to? Of course not. I want to be a housewife/trust fund baby/heiress in my next life. I want to do what I like in the hours that the kids are away at school. Like taking walks, doing bicycle rides, going to the spa, writing at a coffee shop, meeting my friends for lunchtime cocktails, going jogging.. the list is long.
My apartment building used to be called “Young Leaves Heights” (若葉ハイツ ). Many old and rundown apartments in Japan have fancy names like “Heights” and “Corpos”, “Maisons” and “Palaces”. My apartment building is pretty old too, but it got renovated inside and out, and made as new as could be. It got a fancy new name too, that I am not going to tell you, for obvious reasons. I was the first tenant to move into my unit after it had been renovated, and I am loving it so far.
To say that it was easy to rent this apartment would be an understatement. Let me start at the beginning.
Last year in June, when I left for Kenya, I cancelled my then apartment’s lease and used my friend’s address to receive my mail. Her address also acted as my residence “on paper”. I used it for all the paperwork I had to do during maternity leave – so much paperwork – including applying for daycare.
In February, when I came back to Japan, I needed a place to crash while I re-settled and looked for a new place to rent. Luckily, my friend was out of the country and said I could use her place while I searched for a new apartment. I was pretty busy that month, just trying to establish a routine, preparing for daycare for K, preparing to go back to work in April, finding a school for Jeremy and applying for his certificate of eligibility so I could renew his (Jeremy’s) residency; all these in addition to looking for an apartment.
Her apartment was a spacious 1K – one room (1) and a separate space for a kitchen (K) – not bad for one person. It wasn’t too bad with the baby either, as we often went out to play and to run our very many errands. We’d come home to eat, shower, and sleep, then out again the following day.
It wasn’t long before trouble started.
One morning, there was a knock on the door. The apartment didn’t have an intercom so I just shouted, who’s there? I basically don’t open doors in Japan unless I know the person or it’s a delivery. Sure, Japan is safe but.
“It’s the management company.”
“What is it?” I asked through closed doors.
“We heard there’s a baby here. Are you living here with a baby? Your neighbours are complaining. Of course if there is a child there will be noise and it can’t be helped but you can’t have a baby in here. Please open the door.”
I was in shock. I refused to open the door.
I am not lying when I tell you that Kai is not a cry baby. He sleeps all night. Sure, he does feed frequently at night, but in his sleep. He makes a lot of (happy) baby noises once he wakes up, that’s true. Who would complain about that? The quiet lady next door or the couple upstairs? Regardless, I needed to find a new apartment sooner than later, but this did not bode well with me.
A few days later, on a Saturday afternoon, a couple of friends who lived nearby brought me lunch and as we were talking, in normal voices (none of us naturally loud), we heard another knock. Again, the lady from management company. She said our voices were too loud, that the neighbours were getting disturbed. Could we keep it down?
It was like 4pm in the afternoon. We were not playing music. No TV. Just three people having a conversation. Clearly, someone hated me and my baby’s presence in that building, and seeing my friends over was driving them crazy. The person had even moved my friend’s bike out of the compound onto the side of the road.
The next time I was at the station, I saw a Hebel Haus agent right in front of me and I walked in and asked them if they were also listing apartments for rent. The man at the desk didn’t seem too interested in having me as a client. Instead, he just had me fill a form with information on what I was looking for and said he would email me some options. I never heard from him.
When I didn’t get any emails, I turned to suumo.co.jp, hoping to find a foreigner-friendly agent. UR Housing are foreigner-friendly, I have heard, but there were no UR apartments in my target radius.
I was looking for
a 2/3 DK/LDK “mansion”, here meaning a stone, higher quality apartment and not a wooden apartment, called apato
ground floor (I don’t need complaints from downstairs neighbours, thank you very much)
walking distance to the daycare as I don’t have a mama chari
accessible to the school I found for J
I was willing to take a bus to the station – with the pandemic we are mostly working from home so nearness to the station wasn’t a priority. Besides, my employer covers transport allowance, including bus fare.
near supermarkets and other amenities
within my budget
I found a few places of interest and sent inquiries. The places listed on suumo are handled by different agents. I soon got calls from three agents, and I ended up finding this Young Leaves apartment with the first guy who called me. The others wanted to know what my job was, how much was my income, what my nationality was, etc, this was even before I could finish saying moshimoshi (hello).
Let’s call the first agent E-san. E-san was very kind and helpful, and makes up for all the slimy real estate agents out here, and there are many. He asked me if it was possible to go in person the following day. When I arrived, he confirmed with me again what I was looking for, showed me a list of several potential places, gave me detailed advice on which places to pick and, did not do the sucking in of teeth – sssss – when I said I was a single parent. It is hard enough renting a place as a foreigner and a black African at that, hard enough as a woman, let alone as a single parent. It helped that I have a job with a reputable Japanese company and I speak Japanese, but I could tell the odds were certainly not in my favour.
Since I needed to move out ASAP, we narrowed it down to two places, and we immediately went to see them.
The first apartment we saw was 3 LDK. It was an apato, but of very high quality. It had double glazed windows, the living room had heated flooring (yukadanbo) and it had a spacious patio where the kids could play or we where could even have a BBQ. The patio faced a little forest, so it offered privacy. It was in a nice, quiet place, surrounded by equally beautiful houses, and had plenty of parking space for bicycles. There was also space for a car. However, it was slightly expensive and had steep move-in costs (close to half a million yen. You need an upfront amount 3-5x the rent when moving in the first time ). It was a 7 minute walk from the bus stop, and a 15 min walk to the daycare (in bad weather could be hard) and the supermarket (with groceries, could be a long walk). E-san told me if I was going to stay in Japan for a long, long time, I should consider this apartment, as the kids would easily have enough space while growing up, and the schools were not too far away.
The second apartment we looked at was the one I am living in now. A 2 LDK. It was gleaming in that post-renovation glow. Everything inside was, still is, new. The flooring is PVC. I would have preferred wooden like in my previous mansion, but I have kids anyway so it wasn’t a priority. The white PVC reflected the sunlight, flooding the whole apartment with light. Although it is summer now so I keep the curtains closed lest spontaneous combustion occurs! Two rooms (the living/dining and a bedroom) face South to a shared balcony, where Kai sometimes plays in an inflatable plastic pool. The bedroom, my bedroom, is currently my library and office.
The other room that faces North actually gets plenty of light too, especially in the evening. It’s a tatami room. I’ve made it the kids room, but I sleep there for now until the day Kai can regularly do all nighters, then I can move to my bedroom.
The kitchen window faces East and I take in the morning sun as I prepare breakfast for my kids. It has a preinstalled gas cooker and plenty of storage for pots and pans. There is hardly any counter space, but that’s Japan for you.
The toilet is new and automatically flushes when you stand up. Finally, a toilet whose buttons I can comfortably push to wash my bits. I can’t do that in public toilets. I once accidentally saw the nozzle in a public toilet – it didn’t retreat fast enough – and it was coated in slime. I can throw up just thinking about it. Self cleaning, na-uh.
This apartment had cheaper move in costs, over 350K, although it wasn’t as fancy as the first one. It also isn’t that well insulated, but it’s new and feels nice.
The best part is it fulfilled all my requirements, except the mansion part:
2LDK – check
Kid-friendly – OK. It was the first thing I asked.
It’s on the ground floor, and at the corner. The building has only 4 units, so less people to deal with.
It is a 2 minutes’ walk to the daycare!!!!! This is the best part.
It’s a 4 minutes’ walk to the bus stop, which makes it accessible to J who takes the bus to school.
From the bus stop, it’s 7 minutes by bus to the station. This particular station is 2 stops away from my office.
It 4 minutes away from Sugi Drugstore, Gyomu Supermarket, 7-11, Lawson 100 Yen Store, and JP Post & Bank.
Under my budget by 4,000 Yen, and no key money was required.
The recent renovation makes it feel very new
Free internet!!!! (It saved me a lot the pain of calling internet companies to install the internet)
2 children’s parks 5 minutes away. One of the parks includes a huge ball park, so J has been enjoying it. If you walk a bit further in different directions, you will find 3 more little parks.
Our very own car park, paid of course, but I don’t need a car right now
Spacious bicycle parking
The neighbours are nice, I’ve met them. Not just the ones we share the building with, but I’ve been slowly getting to know the people living in the houses around us and I feel good vibes from them.
It’s a 20 minutes walk to the station. Saving the walk for those beautiful spring/autumn days.
So back to the day of the showing. E-san told me to pick this apartment, as he thought that it would be harder for me to get the first one (he didn’t have to say that it’s due to my foreignness and singleparenthoodness). But we would submit applications for both places, just in case. We want back to the office and filled in several forms.
Then I went home to the shitty apartment with the crappy neighbours to wait. The situation was getting worse. Now that I am writing about it, I am realizing how hard it is for me to relive those brief memories. There were two more incidents, and I felt very unsafe. The man who was living upstairs one day came to my door during the day and knocked. He said I was being noisy, which I wasn’t, and anyway it was during the day. I told him to fuck off and that I was going to call the police if he didn’t. He called the management company, who came and again and told me to consider moving out.
I was afraid the man upstairs was crazy and was concerned for Kai’s safety. The man clearly hated children, and the management company had decided to side with him, even before talking to me to find out what was going on, why there was a child in a previously single-person apartment. It was so stressful, I had to check that the outside was safe before any time I wanted to get out of the apartment. I called my friend to come stay with me for the following couple of days. The friend who had rented the apartment was still out of the country, and she had no plans of returning soon.
Meanwhile, E-san called me with the results of my application. He said I had passed the credit check or whatever it is the guarantor company checks for. But the landlord had some concerns. He had never rented to a foreigner before. He was a little worried. He wanted someone Japanese who worked at my company to be a co-guarantor, even though I was going to pay fees to use the services of a guarantor company. In lieu of a boss/co-worker, the landlord was willing to consider my ex-husband. It was assumed I was divorced. I spoke to Kai’s father and he agree to be the co-guarantor. E-san said the landlord was okay with that, but he still had a few questions, like I had said that I came to Japan in 2014, but I started at my company in 2019, what did I in that 5 year gap? These questions would make my blood boil but I needed the apartment more than the landlord needed me as a tenant. E-san and I exchanged emails several times a day. I told them I did a PhD in information science in that period, although not many people in Japan seem to know what 博士課程 is. The landlord then finally said that the management company should meet me to see what kind of person I was, E-san emailed. He had talked me up, not to worry, but they just needed to “see my face”. So I made my way to the management company’s offices and they were pleasant enough. Signed more forms and they explained the contract and gave me the keys to the apartment on March 31st. The landlord was finally able to overcome his prejudice and he even threw in a one-day discount. I started paying rent from April 1st, instead of March 31st.
There was still some time before I could move. For two days in the old apartment, my friend slept on a spare futon and was a witness to the final incident by the crazy man upstairs. I had considered going to the police but I knew that the police are not very helpful in situations like this, where violence has not actually occurred. Being a foreigner, I knew they would question me a lot and may not even speak to the man. My best option was getting out of there ASAP. On that day, the man came to the door on Saturday morning at 10am, knocked and said yet again that we were being noisy. We told him we’d call the police. He went upstairs and banged things on the floor. Then he got on his scooter and left. That day, I left for Ishikawa and stayed there for a few days with my host parents, celebrated Kai’s birthday, then came back to Tokyo once the landlord had accepted my application.
My friend who had rented the apartment decided to cancel the lease on account of how horribly the management company had handled the case. She wasn’t sure when if ever she was coming back to Japan, so I had clear out her apartment and take over most of her furniture and appliances.
Now to execute the move. If you live in Japan, you know that the end of March/early April is PEAK moving season. I couldn’t afford to hire a moving company, but I have a driving license and decided to hire a Kei truck, only to find nothing was available from any rental company at the time.
That’s when I remembered that I follow Derek Wessman on twitter who has a Kei truck. He kindly lent me his truck. With the help of some friends from Zimbabwe, we moved 8 minutes away from that dark apartment, to Young Leaves Heights that’s full of flight. When Jeremy joined us at the end of April, we had already settled in.
I want to add that that experience of being harassed by the crazy man and the property management company siding with him, has not put a damper on how much I am enjoying being back in Tokyo. I love having both my kids with me, enjoying this new apartment and watching them have a lot of new experiences. I have loved getting back to work, ready to see what I will achieve in my career that’s only just beginning. I still feel generally safe but my door is always locked. I meet a lot of good and kind people each and every day. There will be assholes in each society, I don’t believe there’s a place that’s free of them. In Japan, I’m not afraid of everyday burglary, I’m afraid of being a specific target by some mentally unstable guy, and there are many of those around, like the lone gunman that shot Abe. (One moment he was so alive, and gone the next, while we all just watched it unravel in horror and shock, helpless to do anything. I felt so sad.)
From March 2021 to April 2022, I was able to enjoy 3 months of maternity leave plus 11 months of childcare leave, thanks to Japan’s generous leave policies (at least on paper). The reason I say “on paper” is because while the leave policies are generous, some people are not able to take leave due to financial reasons (more on this later) or harassment/responsibilities at work.
Below is Kai at 14 months old
In Japan, leave around babies is divided into two: maternity/paternity leave and childcare leave. All mothers who contribute to the national health insurance/pension scheme are entitled to paid maternity leave that can be taken 6 weeks before birth and 8 weeks after birth. If the birth of the child is delayed, the days between the expected due date and the actual birth date also count as maternity leave period. You get 67% of your basic during maternity leave, although some employers may choose to pay you the full amount of your salary. However, you apply for this maternity allowance, which is paid in a lump sum, after you have completed your maternity leave, and it will finally be paid when the baby is 4-5 months old!
So first of all, you must be contributing to the national health insurance scheme (through your company or directly) and you must have enough money saved to survive at least 6 months without your pay. We’re talking rent, food, utilities, etc and new baby expenses.
Solution: maternity leave allowance should be paid monthly!
Childcare leave starts from the day after the maternity leave ends (i.e. 8 weeks after the birth date), to the day before the child reaches the age of 1. In my company’s case, you can take time off for childcare until the child is 3 years old, although you only get paid for the first year, unless you can prove that there is no daycare space available, in which case you can extend for another 6 months. Childcare is available to either the mother or the father (or both, but only one parent is paid). To receive any payment during childcare leave, you must have contributed to the labour insurance scheme for at least one year, and you must prove that you’ll go back to the company for at least a year after your leave is finished (in other words, your contract must be longer than a year after going back to work or you are a permanent employee). The pay is 67% of your base pay (no allowances, bonuses, etc) for 6 months, and 50% thereafter, with a maximum cap of about ￥287,000 (some employers may top up the amount). In my case, if I had to stay in Tokyo with all the rent and expenses, I wouldn’t have afforded to take off an entire year, as my monthly pay during childcare leave was only about ￥216,000.
For financial reasons, many couples cannot actually afford to take off an entire year of childcare leave. Having a cap on the childcare leave allowance also means that someone whose basic pay is high will lose a lot of their income during this period, which is quite discouraging.
The solution is to remove the maximum cap, and also to maintain the 67% throughout the period (why not 100% though).
Please note that the allowances during leave come from the insurance – health insurance and labour insurance. The employer does not bear this burden, unless they want to top up the amounts you are paid. I think this is a very good idea that should be adopted in other countries.
Going back to work after maternity leave is quite a challenge. With many people working long hours in Japan, new parents (especially women) who have to leave work at 5pm to pick their children from daycare, or who have to take days off several times a year due to childhood sickness, may face harassment at work. I am glad I do not work for such a company. In fact, we get an extra 5 days of leave to use when your child is sick, in addition to 24 days of paid annual leave.
(I haven’t touched on paternity leave during the first 8 weeks after the baby is born. I know men who take only one day off – although they may be entitled to 2 weeks – or 4 weeks from October, 2022. Here is a link I found about some changes to parental leave, including abolishing the requirement for a years’ service?.)
How Did I Spend my Leave?
After Kai was born, we spent two months in Tokyo and then flew home to Kenya and spent 8 months there. Kai was (is) the kind of baby who demanded continuous and engaged attention. I could not put him down for a second to even go to the bathroom. You would think I would get some reprieve during nap time, but he only took two 20 minute naps per day. When he was 6-7 months, he started demanding help to walk around. He never crawled and took his first steps when he was 9 months old.
Recently, I was chatting with an expectant friend. She said she was considering taking a year of maternity/childcare leave, and that she would find “something to do” during her leave. As if taking care of a baby (and a home) is not demanding enough.
I held my tongue. I too, had a list of projects that I had wanted to accomplish during leave, but it turns out that taking care of a new baby demanded my whole self, and at the end of the day I would be so drained I could only watch an episode of something light – Seinfeld – on Netflix before falling asleep, only to wake up several times at night to nurse the baby.
We would have someone come over to clean our house, do the laundry and help out with the cooking, but there was never really a nanny to help with Kai. He was wholly my (welcome) responsibility.
I was very lucky to have had a whole year plus an extra month to spend with my son, before passing him onto to other people to “raise him” during the week. It was also great spending time with Jeremy and my family.
After 7 years of living in Japan and only visiting for a few days, I thought that being in Kenya for an extended period of time would be the chance I needed to revive my friendships and pick up a social life. However, in reality, my friends – while remaining close – had of course developed several relationships and friendships along the way, of which I was not a part of. Remember that I was having a young baby to look after, which may be an isolating experience in modern Kenya as it is anywhere in the world. I met them once or twice, much less than I would have wanted to.
That is not to say I spent the whole time in my parents’ house in Nairobi’s suburbs. Just most of the time. I managed to visit my maternal grandmother in Kisii, the only surviving grandparent. I also took a trip down to Mombasa, and we even had a New Year’s Eve trip to Masai Mara as an extended family. I also managed to apply for and obtain Kai’s Kenyan passport (I’ll do a post soon, I promise).
The months passed by fast enough and I could have stayed longer in Kenya but I needed to get back to Tokyo to prepare for daycare and getting back to work – including looking for a new apartment (another post to come). I hadn’t maintained my previous lease (couldn’t afford to!). I wrote in detail about coming back to Tokyo here.
I was supposed to go back to work in April but I was able to extend leave for another month as Kai was also starting daycare in the same month. I wasn’t sure it would be paid, but luckily it was, as I was able to prove that Kai wasn’t enrolled in daycare on his 1st birthday (which was at the end of March). Even if it wouldn’t have been paid, I did need that extra month to help ease Kai into daycare (another blog post here?).
I went back to work in May, after the Golden Week holidays. It’s already been three months of balancing child care, house work and a full-time job. I plan to do a do a post on “a day in my life.” (Update, I did).
In early June, I received the last of my childcare leave payments. It was a bitter sweet moment. A reminder that a chapter of my life was closing, as I don’t plan on having any more children.
For more than 2 and a half decades, I have lived with a broken nail. I remember it being accidentally slammed between the hinges of my grandmother’s door. It must have hurt a lot but fortunately, I don’t remember the pain. I must have been around 7 or 8 years old. Since then, I have lived with the crooked fingernail. A new crooked nail would grow on top and fall off, only to be replaced by another crooked nail.
It is a small thing, really. It does not hurt. It’s just ugly, that’s it. It’s embarrassing to me when people see it, so over the years I’ve learned to hide it. When I finally started taking an interest in painting my nails, I’d get the nail artists to stick on a fake nail. No big deal.
There were times when I thought about getting it fixed. Perhaps I could ask the nail doctor to surgically remove the crooked nail, so a new one would grow in its place. But there was never a right time. It was never a priority. I couldn’t afford to waste time or resources on such a trivial thing.
Finally, this year a friend noticed the nail and asked me, why don’t you go the doctor. They can easily fix that. That’s an infection. I said, no way. It can’t be an infection. I do not feel any pain. It has never spread beyond the one nail. It must be dead nerves. Anyway, I began researching. What kind of doctor does one go to, to fix their broken nails? Who is the nail doctor?
FYI, it’s a dermatologist. That’s 皮膚科 in Japanese.
I looked up the dermatologists in my area. I found one within cycling distance. I chose her because she appeared to be doing “face peeling” as well, so I thought I wouldn’t be embarrassed going there for such a minor thing when there lots of people suffering with severe skin problems. If she does chemical peels, I thought, she would understand vanity.
When I first went, the bad nail cover had just fallen off. She told me to grow it and go back for examination. I went back after two weeks and she looked under the microscope and declared a fungal infection.
Wait a minute. I have lived with this fungus in my nail for more than 25 years?
She advised anti-fungal meds that I have to take for more than 6 weeks. It does take quite a long time to grow out an entire nail.
Could it really have been this simple? All this time, I could have swallowed some tablets and grown a new nail.
I’m currently religiously taking the tablets and waiting. Patiently.
Speaking of things cosmetic, I have a friend who has severe dental fluorosis and she needs some dental work done so she can smile again. If you have discoloured teeth, you know how that can ruin your confidence. However, it’s very expensive to get crowns so she’s reaching it for your help (Just google to see how much it costs in Japan. Millions! So she’s hoping to do it in Turkey). Please consider donating. https://gogetfunding.com/severe-teeth-damage-by-fluorosis-cant-get-job-cosmetic-dentistry-needed/
While nail infections are covered by the national health insurance (with the 30% co-pay), crowns/veneers are not covered, even if you have severe dental fluorosis. I think that should change.
It is May 2022. We are lucky to be alive in the pandemic. But, where to begin this life update?
First of all, if you had met me in late 2019, you would have that known I was looking for a way out of Japan because my son got bullied at a Japanese public elementary school. (Yes, my bosses at work are/were aware of my desire to leave Japan – not the company. I do like several aspects of my current job. Remind me to blog about that one day.) The memories of those dark days still evoke a visceral reaction in me. I don’t know if we have fully healed from that experience. It still causes me pain when I have to recall and talk about what happened. Then 2020 rolled around along with the pandemic and everything changed. My efforts and plans to leave Japan were put on hold and Jeremy ‘got stuck’ in Kenya under the care of my parents. Before you know it – 2 years of masks, travel bans, quarantine mandates, school closings and openings – have rolled on by.
In 2020, I decided to get pregnant with my second baby and would you believe it? He’s already one year old. One year and one month old. What about his dad, you ask? He’s very much present in the periphery of our lives. It was my decision not to get married. Not very conventional, I suppose. But for a very long time, I have known that I was never going to live the conventional life. Marriage does not particularly appeal to me. So here I am. 34 years old. Single parent. Mother to two lovely boys from two different fathers. Some may call me reckless. Brave. Stupid. Strong. “How do you do it?”. “Why did you do it?”. The answers don’t matter. What matters is my dedication to raising my boys. They’re at the center of every decision I make, big or small.
I took one year of maternity leave – actually 14 months in total. I spent 8 of those months in Kenya with my family, trying to regroup and plan for life ahead. I was almost 100% sure I wasn’t coming back to Japan. I have already spent 7 years here; this is my 8th year. I have taken from and given enough to Japan. I feel like it’s time I sailed to new shores.
If you had met me last year when I gave away my beds, my television, my home appliances, my clothes (to recycling); you would have thought hm, Savvy is definitely saying sayonara to Japan. But fate seems to have other plans. When 2022 came about and none of my plans was falling into place, I found myself booking a flight back to Tokyo in early February.
Kai and I endured almost two weeks on the road – 5 days in transit purgatory with Ethiopian Airlines and 6 days of hotel quarantine once we landed – to get back to Tokyo. J’s residency had expired and he couldn’t come with us, even though he had packed his suitcase and said he wasn’t getting left behind. The first thing I did after the quarantine period was to apply for his certificate of eligibility so he could join us. Was it a wise idea to bring him back to Japan? I don’t know but what I do know is that it’s better for our little family unit to stay together. Wherever we go, we go together.
Of course, J can never go back to a Japanese public elementary school. Besides, he has forgotten all his Japanese. The teachers there are overworked – many routinely do over 80 hours of overtime per month –and therefore not very motivated to deal with any kind of bullying, among other reasons. Luckily, I found a small Christian international school for him called Calvary Chapel International Christian School. It is a very affordable school in Fuchu that I found out about it from a Facebook group of “mothers in West Tokyo”. This is not a sponsored link or an endorsement of the school. Anyway, it worked out quite well because I was able to get a new apartment cycling distance to the school, although he will be taking the bus for now.
The new apartment that I moved into in April is also 2 minutes away from Kai’s daycare, which is just the best thing about it. I fought hard to get into this apartment. The owner was reluctant to rent to a foreigner, even though my excellent credentials spoke for me. And by excellent credentials, I mean the fact that I work for Hitachi, one of Japan’s top class companies, according to everyone. He needed assurances by way of a Japanese co-guarantor even though I was already paying a guarantor company a percentage of the rent to do the guaranteeing. I wanted to give up on it – but it is near both J and K’s schools; it is walking/cycling distance to the station; it is on the ground floor; it has free internet, Gyoumu Super, 7-11 and a drug store are 5 minutes away; the apartment had just been “reformed” and is brand new inside and out, etc. In the end, I realized I needed the apartment more than the owner needed a renter and asked Kai’s dad to lend us his Japanese hanko. He comes by often to see us.
(Here, I pause to check on the sleeping kids after Kai just cried out. I’ve nursed him back to sleep. Is there any sight sweeter than that of sleeping children?)
I really have had a very busy couple of months since landing in Japan. I was busy looking for an apartment, then doing the actual moving from my friend’s apartment where we were staying for a while – the upstairs neighbour complained to the real estate agents about a crying child (WTF! Another story for another day), doing all the moving procedures – gas, water, electricity, internet contracts, change of address procedures, preparing for Kai’s daycare – which he joined in April, preparing for J’s school and his flight back to Japan, etc. I’m exhausted just listing it all out. I am so glad I was able to extend my maternity leave by a month. I was supposed to go back to work in April but I pushed it to May. I may even be able to get some pay for April because there weren’t any available spaces in the daycares before he turned one, which he did on March 25th. All these, while not sleeping enough. Kai still wakes up several times at night to breastfeed and mostly goes right back to sleep. For once I would love to have 5-6hrs of uninterrupted sleep. Just once. I’m living for the day he starts sleeping through the night.
In the past couple of months, we’ve celebrated Kai’s birthday, J’s birthday and my birthday. I was even coerced into hosting a birthday party – this is a story for another day. I really am too nice, don’t let my online persona fool you.
Let’s not forget I managed to meet the LEGEND, the GOAT himself, the world’s greatest marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge, when he came to run the Tokyo Marathon for the first time. Presenting the evidence.
Hey, I even managed to go for a couple of runs before life caught up with me. I’ll be back as soon as I find a schedule that works for me. I start work again on 6th May – of course, I forgot all my passwords – and my hands will be even fuller.
I think that we are all caught up now. I don’t know what the rest of the year holds in store for me but I am looking forward to it.