What I’ve Learned from Japanese Mothers


With only a change in one's perspective the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty. When we don't know, we don't judge. And when we don't judge we see things in a different light.

-Karen Maezen Miller, Hand Wash Cold

The language barrier during our time in Japan has been a struggle for me. I'm a social person, a curious person, a talkative person. Many of Dave's teammates have partners but most of them can't speak English any more than I can Japanese. This puts an interesting dynamic on social situations. That dynamic could also be called 'awkwardness.'


Thankfully between 8 or so mothers on the team there are 21 children ranging from ages 5 months to 12 years. A room full of this many children is the ultimate ice breaker. We can pass each other's babies back and forth, cut up plates of food for the toddlers, pass off a particularly unruly infant to one of the older children and none of this requires much in the way of translation.


Despite the fact that I consider myself a strong, informed mother it is impossible for me not to feel insecure at times when I'm in conversations with other parents. No matter how confident I am about choices I make for my daughter (and sometimes I am not-so-confident at all) I can find my resolve slightly shaken in the face of a forceful mother with seemingly more confidence than I have. I firmly believe that most parents I know are doing the best they can at all times, but perhaps it's human nature (or middle school traumatization) that sometimes leaves me self-conscious and wondering 'What does she think of what I'm saying/doing/practicing?'

In Japan, however, I find that thought has been banished from my mind. When I'm with mothers that speak my language I'm prone to reading into things…tone of voice, facial expressions, emphasis on certain words or phrases. She really likes donuts! (worried frown) You do realize she just ate off the floor, right? (panicked voice) Oh wow you are still breastfeeding! (judgey scowl) With my Japanese counterparts I literally have no idea what they are saying unless you count words like 'ok' or 'cold' or 'thank you.'

That total inability to understand can feel like shackles when I'm really longing for conversation, but it also frees me completely from the burden of over-analyzing their words. While it is true that they could be saying any rude or nasty comment about my parenting (or my hair, for that matter) and I would have no idea, it would be pointless (not to mention narcissistic) of me to assume that. I watch their calm, collected parenting style, see their loving hands picking up my child, witness their children accepting her into their games and sometimes I even randomly give a thumb's up just to indicate that I am still somewhat engaged in the activities of the room.


The quote at the top of this post by Karen Maezen Miller (also author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, a book that truly changed my outlook on mothering) clearly states the exact phenomena I'm experiencing here in Japan. The language barrier between us not only frees me from fearing their judgement, it also renders me rather incapable of judging them. Without knowing what they are saying I can only watch what they are doing. I don't know how they feel about vaccinations or extended breastfeeding or food allergies or discipline strategies. I only see that they love their children and work hard to keep them alive and happy all day.

I hope when our time here in Japan ends and I'm back in the land of understanding-what-people-are-saying-to-me, I can carry the larger lesson with me. That I can see normal, daily actions with a new clarity and not let the familiarity of what is around me cloud over what is truly extraordinary. And I hope that when I do run into other parents who take a tone with me or get a little high and mighty I can pretend they are speaking Japanese.





Contributing author Lane is an intentionally unemployed social worker who is currently a new mom, following her husband's dream, trying to stay relevant, and practicing her mothering skills on two rescued dogs, Enid and Falcor (in addition to her new addition, baby Vesper).  Check out her fabulous blog, the Overseas Trapeze.



  1. This is really lovely, and you captured something I’ve also experienced but never expressly conveyed: when you take a vacation in a country where English is not commonly spoken, it is truly a vacation. You can’t even eavesdrop!

  2. This is truly lovely. Makes me think of how I have never received a negative comment or look while nursing in public. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m confident with it, and I don’t look for negativity (or even positive comment). I just do it and ignore the general public.

  3. Oh, I can relate on so many levels! I too, am living in Japan, raising my baby in an bubble free from judgment (well, okay, there’s a bit of judgment, mostly from me as I cast side-eyes at mothers of sockless / shoeless babies in the height of winter. But that’s my problem.) I’ve actually learned a lot from Japanese mothers (an innovative way to wean when the time comes, and a much more relaxed attitude to sleep amongst other things.) Thanks for this post, and I’ll be following your blog.

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