Japanese families meet American life

It takes more than an abundance of Japanese restaurants to make a newly arrived Japanese family feel at home in the United States.

Japanese communities in the United States have burgeoned in the past few years as increasing numbers of young executives and their families move in for an average stay of four to five years.

Many local residents aren't sure how to respond. Increasing demands are made upon their schools, which may have to set up special language programs. In addition, Japanese wives in particular hesitate to venture out into the American community, socializing instead only with other local Japanese and never really learning English.

''Japanese women have to learn to 'fight' for themselves,'' says Tazuko Block , a resident of Tenafly, N.J., ''and to learn that others really are interested in their thoughts, not just their husbands.''

Mrs. Block devotes much of her time to helping Japanese women understand this.

''What I don't like is to allow Japanese who are new to the area to form a Japanese ghetto,'' she says. ''They have a chance to mingle with town people, but they're shy.''

Mrs. Block speaks from experience. Thirteen years ago she moved to the United States and is now married to an American. She is among a growing number of people and organizations helping Japanese families, particularly women, adjust to their new lives in America.

Without some assistance the personal toll on wives and children, who aren't wrapped up in a new job, can be significant. ''Husbands are supportive, but most are very devoted company men,'' Mrs. Block said. ''Their company comes first.''

Some Japanese companies, such as Mitsubishi Corporation, have undertaken to assist women with their move to a foreign country. ''Many Japanese wives act as a group,'' noted Mr. Hikida, the personnel manager of Mitsubishi, which has its American headquarters in New York City. ''They don't always mix that much. So that embarrasses the community and makes it feels suspicious.''

While the company has not yet developed a program for families once they arrive, it does attempt to inform the women about their future responsibilities.

Much of this information centers around the ''good wife, wise mother'' image that a Japanese woman is expected to emulate. ''We have a seminar for 10 days,'' said Mr. Hikida. ''We ask women who have traveled to speak about their experience, and there is discussion of how the wife of a Mitsubishi employee should act. So they have some idea of what to expect.''

The Mitsubishi effort focuses largely on the details of running a family in the US. A group of Japanese women in Westchester County, N.Y., where there is a large Japanese population, have also taken on this task. The women, themselves wives of businessmen temporarily in the US, three years ago filled a community need by setting up the ''Japanese Connection,'' a division of a hot line called WISH (Women in Self-Help). The goal was to help Japanese women find assistance in their own language. Requests, however, usually concern just the family.

''Japanese women rarely call to talk about their personal problems,'' says Keiko Myers, an assistant at the organization. ''They're not trained that way and probably wouldn't feel comfortable with it. Mostly they have special concerns about their children's education and consumer issues.''

But technical information, while extremely useful, doesn't answer every need. Women still must deal with the challenges of loneliness, language barriers, jobs that may have been left behind, or visas that restrict them from working. And they may be bewildered by the differences between the general roles of the Japanese wife, who is at home most of the day and rarely entertains or socializes with her husband, and that of the American wife, who often works and frequently socializes both at work and at home.There have been incidents of women committing suicide because of their intense loneliness and inability to adjust. But, says Mrs. Meyers, the image of the lonely Japanese wife who is unable to speak any English at all is changing.

''People who are getting transferred now are usually younger, in their late 20s and early 30s,'' she said. ''Most are learning English better. And some companies are trying to prepare women for the move.''

Mrs. Hirayama, a resident of Tenafly, N.J., recalls some of the difficulties she confronted upon arriving in the US. ''You want to go to school, but the language is so hard. Your children must be comfortable, and when it's hard at first, you become unhappy.''

Partly with the help of people like Mrs. Block, Mrs. Hirayama has gradually become more involved in her community and more comfortable with American ways. She took an ''English as a Second Language'' (ESL) course, became involved in a local church, and learned how to drive.

Americans, too, have had to adjust to an increasing number of Japanese residents. Tenafly, a town which has experienced a large growth in Asian population in recent years, decided two years ago to develop a school program to meet needs of the new residents effectively. Administrators wanted to get assistance from Japanese parents and to learn about Japanese culture. They also hoped to find an alternative to bilingual education programs, generally required under state law for groups of more than 20 children.

''At first, it was quite hard to organize,'' remembers Mary Salpukas, the public information officer for Tenafly schools. ''We held sessions to get foreign parents to complain or make suggestions. They weren't used to a dialogue between themselves and the school.''

The result has been the development of a strong ESL program, held at night and during the summer, as well as encouragement of women to volunteer in the school libraries and teach beginning English to Japanese children.

In addition, each school has set up a welcoming committee that calls new Japanese families in the area and has a Japanese representative who acts as a liaison between the school and the Japanese community.

As the community has successfully reached out, more women are responding and broadening their involvement outside the home. Mrs. Block has worked to introduce Japanese to American friends, and to help them understand and adjust to American differences.

As one Japanese housewife remembers, ''Well, at first I noticed things like so many women who have children are working. They're so independent. But what I noticed most was that people always wanted to know my opinion. Even the real estate lady asked me what I thought of the houses we were looking at. That was a suprise.''

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