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Fathers are as good caregivers as mothers

 

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This was more difficult than I thought. I’ve just left the children for the first time ever for longer than a short conference trip, and thus smudged my mascara big time when curling up next to them at 4.30am this morning and giving them the last hug for the next 4 ½ weeks.

Not only do I miss them all already but I also feel like a bad mum sitting here at Frankfurt airport waiting for my connecting flight. I feel as if I was abandoning them and making their life a misery.

But why should I feel like some kind of a non-maternal she-devil? I’m going back to Japan for work (an important part of most parents’ lives) and my children are staying at our home with their father (my husband) going about their daily routines in a similar way as if I was there. Ok, they will not see their mum for a month. But they will see their dad. So, I don’t really know why I need to feel like a bad mum. My kids love me, and I love them. And importantly, my husband loves our kids as much as I do. But for some reason, society tends to assume that that’s not the case (for instance, when it comes to maternity/paternity leave or custodial rights), and therefore seems to value mothers’ contribution and care higher than that of fathers’.

Regardless of what society might think, my husband is a great caregiver. He’s not the best cook in the world, but he is capable of boiling some pasta, making a Spanish omelette, turning the oven on for some fish fingers and using the toaster – and in emergencies, walking to the nearest curry house to feed the kids. He’s also not as tidy or obsessed with cleanliness as I am, and if we didn’t have an au pair, I’d expect the house to look like a tip when I am not there. But more importantly than him being Nigella Lawson or Kim Woodburn (or any other domestic goddess) he does an amazing job at being a parent. He spends his weekends putting up tents in the garden and sleeping in them with the kids, he takes the kids climbing at a local climbing wall, creates a dinosaur cage out of old cardboard boxes or a secret den by using dining chairs, a throw and some cushions, and even on a school night after work he helps our son with his Terracotta army homework or our daughter with her phonics, and afterwards lies underneath our dining table with the kids pretending they are in a cave and reads to them.

My point is that children don’t really care whether they have beans on toast for dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and a Spanish omelette the rest of the week, or whether or not there are toothpaste marks on the bathroom mirror or a build up of dust on the sideboard. Children just want to have a caregiver who (in addition to proving a safe environment) spends quality time with them, and my husband, like many other fathers, is perfect in providing just that.

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A display of people's names at a temple in Nara

The most pedantic nation

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A display of people’s names at a temple in Nara

 

 

I feel I need to write a few words about Japanese people’s obsession with doing things perfectly and constantly aiming to achieve the most functional and aesthetically pleasing end result. This might be partly due to peer pressure where by doing things the ‘wrong’ way will result in you becoming a social outcast. I always thought that the Finns were the most prescriptive nation, that they seemed only too happy to comply with strict rules and regulations to the best of their abilities.  However, after having lived in Japan for 2 ½ years the Finns are starting to look as rule abiding as a litter of 8-week old Boxer puppies.

I could probably name a hundred examples that demonstrate Japanese people’s attention to detail but instead of a hundred, I’ve listed 8 examples below.

 

1. Children’s indoor playgrounds are immaculate in Japan. You see the staff go around the area with lint rollers getting rid of specks of dirt/dust every 20-30 minutes. This contrasts with the indoor play areas in our hometown in England that have not even seen a hoover in decades. I suppose a lint roller would not be an effective tool to get rid of the build up of dust in English indoor play areas. A spade would.

 

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2. Those same lint rollers are frequently used on hairdressers’ floors and doormats to get rid of (particles of) hair that might have fallen on the floor during hair treatment. It seems that managers of Japanese hair salons would not tolerate a single hair anywhere other than on the customers’ (and staffs’) heads.

 

3. Many companies specify that you need to write your job application by hand. This is of course an extremely laborious task as no errors, crossing out or erasing are allowed. That is, every time you make a mistake, you need to start again. I’m guessing the reason for this (in addition to it being a historical convention that the slow changing Japanese society is reluctant in abandoning) is that it shows commitment to the job applied for but also demonstrates that you have an eye for detail and can obey rules regardless of how inefficient they sound, such rules being the cornerstones of the Japanese workplace.

 

4. Every Japanese person carries with them a hand towel (and a face towel during the scorching summer months to wipe off the rivers of sweat that cascade down their faces). They’ve learned this obligatory practice at school and take it as God’s word. My Japanese friends’ towels get ironed after washing and are folded nicely back into their original origami-like state every time they are used. My crumpled towel on the other hand goes straight from the washing machine into the bottom of my handbag and gets chucked back in the bag after use. See photo below of examples of hand towels in a shop, for some reason my friends’ hand towels continue to look like this i.e. brand new, whereas mine looks like road kill.

 

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Road kill

 

5. Similarly to towels, Japanese people fold their umbrellas. Numerous times I’ve sat on the train or arrived at work to observe in a kind of trance the preciseness of how a Japanese person spends two or three minutes carefully folding each individual strip of fabric (and the underlying metal bit) into a neat, immaculate, and crease-free umbrella.

 

6. Everything in Japan has a place and those places are carefully considered for function and aesthetics (this is the case with everything other than public rubbish bins, which do not seem to be part of Japanese councils’ agenda). But for example sweets and food are pretty much always carefully arranged into their boxes (see photos below).

 

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Osechi, New Year’s Eve’s ‘bento boxes’

 

7. We recently let our apartment go in Osaka (as the children moved back to England) and I’ve moved into a flat share. As I was moving from a 3-bed apartment to a single room, we needed to get rid of most of our furniture. In Japan, you can’t do the British classic: dump your unwanted furniture/household items outside your building and wait for a neighbour/passer-by to walk off with it. I suppose (a) unwanted furniture would make the street look messy (something that the Brits are not all that particular about, but the Japanese would view with similar surprise as an English person noticing that some passer by or neighbour, had walked off not only with their unwanted sofa but also the very much wanted front path cast iron gate). Also, (b) having someone else’s old furniture in your home doesn’t seem to be a popular choice in Japan, partly because the Japanese seem to be too infatuated with consumerism to consider buying something second-hand. (see photos below of some dumped items that I noticed on my way to the pub in Brighton, UK the other day).

 

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Second hand mug, tray and bottle of olive oil up for grabs.

 

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This photo was taken in September. I’m guessing this item of Scandinavian Christmas decoration had been standing there since January.

 

As dumping our furniture on the street was not an option, a friend arranged a local recycle shop to come and collect our furniture. When the recycle company arrived the day before we were due to move out to collect the furniture I got a bad feeling as soon as I opened my door to this extremely grumpy guy with only half of his teeth left in his mouth. Toothless walked into the bathroom to have a look at our washing machine, opened the washing machine’s detergent compartment, found some residual washing power in it and started shaking his head. It seems that even though the guy had a somewhat more lax approach to dental hygiene he was extremely particular about washing machine detergent residual. In any case, there I am standing in the bathroom thinking: Wait until you see the fade line of orange marker on the armrest of our grey arm chair, or the fabric of the sofa on the sunny side of the living room where the Japanese sun (comparable to the Star Wars’ Death Star in its incinerating power) had slightly bleached/faded the fabric. As predicted, Toothless tells us that he doesn’t want any of our furniture (even though we were giving it away for free) – apparently he would struggle to find anyone who would buy our damaged stuff.

 

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Our unsellable armchair

 

8. In Japan (and actually also in Finland) people do not wear shoes inside their homes (or other places they hold should be clean, like primary schools). Wearing shoes indoors is seen unhygienic and thus walking indoors with outdoor shoes on is not an option even if removing your shoes was inconvenient. If, having put your shoes on in the porch, you realize that you’ve left your mobile phone in the kitchen you are expected to (a) remove your shoes and get the phone (b) remove one shoe and hop to the kitchen to get the phone (c) leave both shoes on but get on your all fours and crawl to the kitchen on your knees, (d) leave the phone where it is but be miserable about it all day.

 

I kind of like the order and attention to detail in Japan. After all, I am Finnish. Bearing that in mind, you might wonder why I choose to live in England where order and attention to detail is restricted to the queue formation at the bus stop. -Well, the reason probably is that the rebel in me deep down loves England’s overall disorder, occasional chaos and widespread messiness.

Defensive armadillo

 

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I never used to be a big fan of rice – I’m more of a potato and pasta person. That was until I moved to Japan. The reason being that Japanese rice is ooh so delicious even without the sweet and sour sauce or chicken tikka masala that most Westerners would demand with their rice.

I grew to like Japanese rice so much that one time on my way to an important academic conference (you can read about it here) I was so nervous about my presentation that I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. So when I went to a supermarket before the presentation to buy a bottle of water, I walked out not only with a bottle of water but also with a £40 rice cooker and some Japanese rice.

Even though buying a rice cooker on a conference trip was maybe slightly crazy, I think that that rice cooker was one of the best buys of my life, given that after the purchase, our au pairs used to lug huge 10-15kg bags of rice from the supermarket back home on a regular basis.

I loved my rice cooker and it became a bit like a pet to our household, after all instead of your usual Western rice cooker, I think ours looks a little bit like a defensive armadillo curled up in a ball (see photo above). My husband, who is going through a midlife crisis and is considering buying a motorbike, has however been eyeballing the rice cooker as a potential crash helmet.

My rice cooker (like pretty much all Japanese rice cookers) cooks the rice always to perfection – just as sticky as Japanese rice should be. And if you decide to leave the cooked rice in the cooker, it keeps the rice hot up to a day or two. My Japan and Japanese rice cooker experience have left me wondering why on earth had I been cooking rice in a saucepan on a hob all those years before we moved to Japan (even when correctly cooked, it just does not compare to the rice produced by a Japanese rice cooker!). So, when me and the kids came back to England a couple of weeks ago (me for a holiday, the kids to stay for good), I decided to bring the armadillo with me to our home in England.

We managed to fit the cooker in my suitcase (at the expense of many of my clothes ending up in the bin to make room for the hefty armadillo), transport it in one piece from Japan via Finland to England, place it on a central place on the kitchen counter, plug it in… to hear a loud pop and observe fire and sparks shoot out from underneath the rice cooker. It had not occurred to me (or my husband) that the current in Japan is only 100V whilst in England it is 240V. The poor armadillo got somewhat an electric chair treatment, and now we are worried it did not survive the warmer than necessary welcome to England.

In the hope that the armadillo is still alive and kicking, my husband went to buy a transformer to make it compatible with the current in England, but it turns out that the transformer would set us back by £130 (recall, I only paid about £40 for the cooker in supermarket in Japan). Not only that, the transformer was apparently a huge black-and-yellow piece of equipment you might see builders carrying around (and thus not something I want on my kitchen surface even if it would mean saying goodbye to the rice cooker).

I’ve just had a look online as to whether or not I could find a new Japanese rice cooker in England and found that our £40 armadillo’s identical twin costs £200 on Amazon! Like I said, I have really grown to like Japanese rice – we all have, so much so that we’ve got a draw full off all sorts of moulds for my children and my husband’s sticky rice (see photos below).

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But I don’t really know what to do… £200 for a rice cooker just seems quite a lot to me, partly because we haven’t been able to find Japanese rice in Brighton anyway – the only ones we have found are either Italian or American approximations of the real thing, thus in my eyes (and probably in the eyes of most Japanese people) unacceptable copies.

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So, the task for the next couple of weeks is to (a) buy an affordable Japanese rice cooker, (b) locate a shop that sells Japanese rice in Brighton and (c) find a rice-loving builder (who owns a suitable transformer) in order to rehome our beloved armadello, or alternatively hand it over to my husband to be used as a crash helmet.

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The beginning of the end

 

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Our time in Japan as a family has come to the end, as the children have now moved back to England.

I am currently also back in England but will go back to Japan in September for another six months to complete teaching for this academic year (which finishes in March). My lovely, modern husband will be looking after our children for the coming several months and will (happily) be in charge of arranging our kids’ Aikido, guitar and swimming classes, after school clubs, parent get-togethers and even attempting to bake something for the Parent-Teacher Association’s fundraising – maybe I am a bit ambitious with the last item on this list, or at least with the part that he would happily do it, but you’ll get the point that my husband will look after the kids’ school stuff and hobbies for the next six months while I will be the modern wife and mother who will be working 6000 miles from home.

The kids’ move has meant that the past month or so was in many ways extremely emotional, as the children had to say goodbye to their friends and teachers in Japan.

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This is a goodbye poem my son wrote to his best friend in Japan. It says: Sorry. Now I need to go to England. I am sure I will let you go to visit my house in England or Finland. And I like you. Can you always play? I wish I could stay. You are important because you are my friend. Till the end.

 

We’ve also had to say goodbye to the apartment that was our home for 2 ½ years. I was only able to get through the last week of emptying and cleaning of the apartment with frequent (and generous!) pourings of my favourite, plum wine.

 

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My last supper in the apartment

 

In addition to their friends, my son will  miss butamans (Chinese pork buns) and my daughter will miss strangers’ constant exclaims of ‘kawaii’ (‘cute’) at her. On the other hand, my husband will miss his Japan to England commmute as much as I miss the daily inspections of my children’s bodies for ticks during our recent visit to Finland (they have a huge problem in Finland currently with those horrible creatures (ticks not kids) whose single bite can result in a life threatening illness).

From now on, instead of my husband, I will be travelling between the two countries.

The past month was also extremely stressful, one of the most stressful times of my life in fact. Not only did the last day of the academic semester coincide with our flight back to Europe, but we also had to empty our apartment, move my stuff to a flat share, and most traumatic of all: negotiate with the kids which of our lorry load of toys would go into our three suitcases heading to England and which in the bin. In desperation, my son carried one huge soft toy dog in his arms to the airport in the hope that he was allowed to take that on the plane – he was even prepared to make a scene if the airport ground staff told him that he would have to leave it behind, but in accommodating Japanese style, we were allowed to take the toy on the plane! There was one happy boy on that Finnair flight holding a dog nearly as big as a St Bernard.

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A nervous toy dog and his owner before finding out if doggy is flying to Europe or not.

 

I am in two minds about the move. I love Japan, the reliability of its public transport, delicious food, people’s considerate approach to others and interesting culture. In England public transport is abysmal, food in many restaurants below par, and people in many ways are less considerate than the Japanese. However, culturally and socially England is amazing, and I am prepared to live with the disgraceful Southern Trains, cold bangers and mash and bad service setting me back £12, and people pushing in on the train before I’ve had a chance to come out because of that wonderful sociable, friendly and accepting ethos (I will not address the result of the Brexit vote here, but I feel that overall people at least in English cities like Brighton are still very friendly, tolerant and open-minded).

Come September I will miss the kids and everything about them: them not waking up next to me in the morning, them not running to the hall when I get home from work to give me a hug while shouting ‘Mummy’s home!’, us not playing Monopoly or Top Trumps after dinner or just hanging around on a weekend, but I am taking a positive view of the next six months. This is an opportunity for me to re-live my time before kids. So, instead of being melancholy about this I will take this as a great opportunity to see the Japan that I would not see with the kids – staying overnight in a monastry, seeing a multitude of beautiful temples, experiencing natural beauty, soaking in outdoor and indoor hot springs, endulging in fancy restaurants with elegant food, letting my hair down in izakayas (Japanese ‘gastropubs’) i.e. experiences that do not strike kids as amazing, but to me sound like heaven.

So, for the next six months, I will be writing little anecdotes of my solo travels, experiences and observations of Japan. Stay tuned for the next chapter.