The Stay-At-Home JET Spouse

Luke and his wife, a JET ALT

By Luke Hellsing

Luke Hellsing lives in Innoshima, Hiroshima with his JET wife, who is a first year ALT.

When first given the opportunity to write for the Wide Island View, I first thought that it would be a great chance to discuss the role of being a house husband and some of the implications involved and reactions I’ve received. I have a great example where an elderly woman stood in front of me with a stunned look on her face as she was attempting to process the concept of me, a male, being a house husband. Being unable to articulate the idea of my wife working and me being at home, I was forced to tell her that I was a private tutor (which I also am) in order to alleviate her apparent suffering. The bewildered look on her face as all her preconceived views and ideas were suddenly challenged was a look that I will never forget. It was absolute gold.

The idea of a house husband is somewhat of a novelty in Japan. However, in most Western nations the thought process has been somewhat similar. My parents still expect my wife to be cooking and cleaning, and me to be out in the shed fixing cars and stuff, just as they did. Unbeknownst to them, gender roles have become more adaptable and fluid to social development. In Japan, it may be a little different in terms of gender fluidity, but it’s still heading in the same direction as in the West.

The main point that I wish to share is the level of support given to JET spouses living in Japan. Reading and listening to all the information that JETs receive, you’ve got to admit that you guys have got it good. You get flights to Japan; an orientation on culture, teaching, food, study, life in Japan, etc.; a Japanese language program; and plenty of fun-filled activities to make new friends and adjust to Japanese life as quickly and easily as possible. Just about everything you could ask for in the initial training is all wrapped up into a nice neat package to take with you to your new home and new life. But for JET spouses it’s very different.

When I first arrived at my location, I saw my wife for only a number of hours before she left for language camp in Saijo for a week. That first week was my worst week here. I arrived here with no Japanese language skills, no work, and nothing set up. This meant that I did not talk to a single person for five days, had no Internet (complete withdrawal), nothing to watch on television, and no clue where anything was. I was bored out of my mind. I’m sure I was like a little puppy when my wife finally got home, jumping up and down, dying for attention.

The first few weeks were what I would like to call “The attached file paradox.” I wasn’t in JET so I was constantly called “[insert name here]’s husband.” I felt like an ambiguous character in a remote location, my only meaning being to serve as an attachment to my JET wife. Even when meeting other JETs there was still a lack of familiarity. When your life revolves around teaching English and talking to English teachers it is hard to see outside that world, and it is just as difficult to become a part of that world. There is simply a lack of understanding from the different perspectives of being inside and outside the world of teaching English. Time has changed my situation, but I wonder how much would have changed if I didn’t actively motivate myself to develop my personality to match those around me? I also wonder, “How are other spouses coping and what are are some of the problems they have faced?”

I think at this time I would like to point out that I hate motivational quotes. I especially hate this one by Rabindranath Tagore that I’ve found for you all to read: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” For those who know how to paddle they can make it to the other side, but for those who struggle to paddle they must first be given assistance. To the spouses who can paddle, self-motivate, create their life in Japan and rule the world, I give you an envious applause and bon voyage – you’ll be fine. But for those who find it tough to paddle and to embark on this journey with confidence, those who feel the same way I do, I give you my sympathetic attention.

The good news is that there are a few people who can teach you how to paddle; you’ve just got to be able to find them. Wherever you are there will be activities, programs, and lessons at your disposal. A surprisingly large amount of Japanese adults want to learn English (you would think they would have been scared away by all the ALTs) and a spouse has far more flexibility. Stay-at-home mothers are the most awesome people you’ll ever meet. Not only do you get to learn about Japanese life from them, but you also get to check out their homes. I’ve found that meeting the right people is the way of survival.

JETs and JET spouses having fun with purikura

The reality is that there is absolutely no support set up for JET spouses. We could help each other, but we are few and far between, with no indication of numbers or location. We have good days and we have bad days. Our partners are our underpinning support, and social stagnation is our greatest fear. We rely on others to get us through the day and look for support wherever we turn.  Some find it easy, while others find it challenging. To the ALTs who read this, I hope you can understand. We, spouses and JETs, all have our own personal positives and negatives of living in Japan; the expression of such thoughts here is to give you an understanding of our position. Us spouses are few, with little contact with the outside world, and rely on whomever we can to help tackle our woes. So, just remember that we are also here, and we’re always in need of support to get across the sea. So, please don’t forget us. Support the spouse.

Any spouses who wish to get in contact with me, please email me at: luke.hellsing040 (at) gmail (dot) com

Photo credits: All photos taken by Luke Hellsing.

4 comments

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  • Jay

    Interesting and well written article 🙂 The motivational quote really hit the spot. You have to be assertive and really take the initiative in order to ‘survive’.

    What asset are you to the Japanese society as a JET spouse? Besides of not willing to learn the Japanese language in order to interact with locals a lot of jet spouses don’t seem to even try to integrate into the society. All you do is go on with the habits you developed in the West and take those for granted.

    Maybe new (JET)spouses should come up with a plan of action before they actually leave to Japan. Start a Japanese crash course on introducing yourself properly using sentences/phrases, learn about its culture and customs etc. and try to mingle with locals. There are plenty of (international)activities organized at the major cities. Internet is also a great medium to find new local friends.

  • Matt

    Nice article. I was pleased to see this topic on WIV. Hope it continues to go well for you and other spouses and that you also develop as individuals from your own version of the JET experience. Also remember though; JET does offer you help in the form of social networking (like WIV) and even your spouses job (many a spouse have found work and such through contact with the JET’s work), so (keep) using it to your advantage.

  • Charly

    Hi Luke,

    Just a wee note to say ‘Thank God I wasn’t the only one going through that!’ My husband is an ALT in Jinseki, up in the mountains about an hour and a half from central Fukuyama. Like you, I found it super difficult initially. Japan was my husband’s dream, so while I was prepared to give it a shot, I wasn’t prepared for being dropped in the middle of the Japanese countryside with no Japanese language skills and noone to communicate with. To make matters worse, my husband was offered a position only a month before we flew out, so there was no time to get ourselves mentally prepared. Also, I agree the timing of the language camp is horrible for spouses!
    Life improved for me when I got a part-time job on Innoshima – the chance to get out and feel like a helpful human again, with something to offer the world, helped me overcome my culture shock. The downside is I spend the greater portion of my week away from my husband, which was never part of the game plan.
    Thanks for your article, as it’s good to hear about others going through exactly what I went through.

    Cheers, Charly