FANTASTIC VOYAGE: Cross-culture parenting



Parents face many tough questions when it comes to raising a child: what to do about bed-times, allowance, screen-time, punishments, afterschool activities, diet, religion, and more. You also have to be careful about the different parenting styles such as the tiger parents, the helicopter parents, the snowplow parents, etc. Adding to the problem are the click-bait articles on the Internet giving advice that concentrates more on making a provocative headline than giving useful advice, such as listing the “top three things you should do to make genius babies,” or some absurd claim like: “I let my children eat grass for a week; here is why.”

And while it’s important to have a vision of the children that you would like to raise, be it compassionate, hard-working, smart or rich, the most important thing is taking a good long hard look at yourself. Children are not carbon-copies of their parents, but I’m sure every parent has seen their child do something and thought guiltily: “oooh, yeh, she got that from me.” The things that children learn are not necessarily the things you set out to teach them.

Communication, Culture and Parenting
Communication is an important aspect in child development. And as children get older they develop an ability called code-switching. This is the communicative intelligence to adjust the way you speak depending on the person you are speaking with. For example, we talk to our friends differently than we talk to our grandparents, and we talk to our co-workers differently than our significant other. The higher the number of communication styles you can switch to, the better you can communicate with a variety of people (and the less trouble you give HR.)

FAMILY FUN — The Asai family, at home in Nara Prefecture, gets together to play cards.
photo courtesy of Jeff Asai

Likewise, culture plays a similar role. Japan is considered a high-context culture, with a lot of meaning being implied rather than stated. This is in contrast with America as a low-context culture where the language and meaning is much more straightforward. Being exposed to these cultural differences can help children adapt to many styles of communicating.

But culture also affects many things, besides communication.

For example, when my first daughter was born I had read a lot of books about parenting. One piece of advice that I got was about putting the toddler to sleep. I was fairly adamant about the toddler sleeping by herself. That’s the image I had. The toddler gets her own room and maybe have a baby monitor or something in case she wakes up. However, in Japan the toddler often sleeps with the parents, in the middle. It is called sleeping like “kawa no ji” which means, in the shape of the kanji character for river (川). While I thought sleeping separate was an important step to self-reliance and independence, my wife thought creating a family-oriented safe environment was better. In the end, we followed the Japanese style, and my children don’t seem to have suffered any terribly adverse effects.

Something my wife pointed out that she thought was uniquely American was my love of board games. I brought a lot of board games from America because they aren’t really that big in Japan. There are many games that we play as a family. I think it’s interesting, because while there are cooperative games, many games are competitive to the point of sabotaging other players in order to get ahead. This is oftentimes a cause for frustration in children, and I think it is a bit in contrast to the Japanese culture of harmony. But I explained to my wife that learning to sabotage your co-workers is an important life skill. (I’m glad she has a sense of humor). And we continue to play games since it’s something we can all do as a family.

I feel that having a multi-cultural identity is a huge benefit for children as it gives them a broader palette or frame of reference when it comes to approaching different cultures, ideas and solutions to problems.

Parenting is a huge responsibility. But it’s important to embrace your own style and not worry too much about what the ‘experts’ have to say. The unique life experiences you have allow you to bring something to the table that no one else can, and can help create your child’s unique personality. And so when my kids say: “But Mom does it differently.” I counter with full confidence: “Well Dad eats sandwiches over the sink so he doesn’t have to do dishes!”

I hope everybody has a great 2020! Good luck to all the new parents and soon-to-be-parents out there!

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area who grew up attending the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where he serves as an assistant minister at a Jodo-shu temple, Jokokuji, teaches English and lives with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at

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