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A Father In-Law's Passing


WRITTEN BY: Hachiro Miyagi      ADDED: Mar 10, 2010


I first met my father-in-law in December of 1988.  It was right before the New Year’s break that Japanese people traditionally take at the end of every year.  I had just gotten out of the Marine Corp and my wife and I decided that we should return to Okinawa and make a new life for ourselves and our one year old daughter.


I had never had the opportunity to meet my father-in-law or mother-in-law prior to getting married.  In fact, I never had the opportunity to meet anyone from my wife’s family up until that point.  You see my wife had told her parents and family that she was going to go to the states to visit her former English teacher she had met while she was in college.  I left that decision, on whether or not to meet her family, up to her.


Anyway, the moment I walked into her father’s house after we had returned to Okinawa from my home in Wisconsin (USA), I could feel the tension in the air.  I felt like the looks my father-in-law gave me were lightening bolts coming down from the sky and were piercing me from the top of my head to my feet.  After a moment that seemed like years to me, my daughter, who had been clinging onto my pants behind me, stuck her head out and looked up at her grandfather and smiled.  His gaze changed from disappointment to one of happiness and joy as he reached out his hands to my daughter and welcomed her into his arms.  I felt a huge sigh of relief as he gave her a big hug and kiss on her cheek.  At that very moment I felt like things were going to be all right, eventually.


That was 22 years ago.  My father-in-law, Masahiro, died on Thursday afternoon, February 25th, 2010.


After moving to Okinawa with my wife and daughter we initially lived in his house for about six months.  Things were not easy as I look back upon it, for all parties involved.  I could speak next to no Japanese and he and his wife, my mother-in-law, could not speak English beyond being able to say “sank you”. 


In fact, my first New Year’s at his house he invited all of my wife’s closest relatives and had them all sit in a semi-circle in the living room of his house.  My wife and I had to sit on chairs facing all of them and listen to their questions and comments about us and what we were going to do with our future.  I couldn’t understand a single thing of what they were talking about and my wife, looking back at it, thankfully, only translated less than 1% of what they were actually talking about.  It sounded to my ears like they were arguing with each other and made me feel like they were going to gang up on me and beat me to a pulp.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen. 


After all that happened, in what seemed like hours, even days, but was actually only about 45 minutes, the family meeting broke up and my father-in-law took my daughter into another room to play, and I was left alone with my in-laws.  They broke out a bottle of whiskey and some beer and it seemed like even though there was a communication barrier, everything would be ok, the power of alcohol and the New Year’s holiday in Okinawa.


After the festivities of the New Year’s ended, I settled into the life of trying to adapt to living in a totally new, different, and in many ways, exciting culture.  I walked around my new neighborhood with an English and Japanese dictionary, trying to learn and understand what was going on around me.  I asked my wife so many questions about who, what, where, when and especially WHY things were the way they were.  Looking back on it, I think she got tired of me asking so many questions and was thankful that she was able to find a new job within a couple of weeks of returning to her hometown.


Her father left for work every morning around 7:00 AM, which left me to fend for myself and take care of our daughter.  He was the kocho sensei (principal) at the local driving school.  He used to be a police officer and like many before him after leaving the police force, went to work as a driving school instructor or administrator.


However, there was a cloud of mystery about him and why he left the police force.  I never learned why he quit being an officer until after his death last week.  One of his fellow officers was found to have been accepting bribes from local business people and because he was associated with him, he had to quit as well.  He never did anything wrong, but because of the way Japanese tradition and culture is, he had to accept responsibility for another person’s errors and was forced to resign.


He was a proud man and was always thinking about those around himself, particularly caring about how people outside of his family viewed him.  This was sometimes to the detriment of his own family.  He took responsibility for another person’s mistakes, even though he never did anything wrong.  He was always thought of highly by his fellow officers and left the force with his reputation intact.


He was a man that placed more importance on how others viewed him than how his own family felt.  He was in his own way arrogant, but not arrogant in a manner in which many westerner’s view arrogance.  He commanded respect from all those around him for the way he kept himself, took care of those around him, and never once as far as I know, was ever viewed as being anything more than an honest and honorable man.


He grew up without ever knowing his father.  During WWII he was forced into service in the Japanese military and sent to Manchuria to fight for the Imperial Army of Japan.  He ended up being held as a prisoner of war, held by the former Soviet Union, and he nearly died of malaria while being held in capitivity as well.  He once told my daughter on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa that he always feared he would never get the chance to return back home.


Over the past few days I have learned much about his past.  Regrettably to me at least, it seems that people, particularly close friends and relatives, were willing to share stories of their memories of my father-in-law, after his death and not while he was alive.  I have gained a new and added respect for the man because of the stories they shared. I cannot even begin to write about all of them, as they would be a story all of their own.


When he was a young man, after returning from Manchuria, his dream was to be a schoolteacher, but due to the events of the time, he had to work to help take care of his mother and older sister. Unfortunately he was never able to fulfill his dream of finishing high school and college, but always kept the dream alive and often pushed those dreams upon my children, his grandchildren.


He was a typical Okinawan in many ways as well -- practicing the way of being able to tell others how they should do things but never having done them himself.  "Do as I say!" not 'as I do' way-of-thinking.  I don't think he ever once felt he was out of place for saying what he did and trusted in his own knowledge, intelligence and experience to guide him.


Well, as time went on and I got accustomed to living in Okinawa, there were a number of occasions where both my father-in-law and I didn’t see eye-to-eye with regards to how I should do things here.  He took it as a personal insult that I had the nerve to disagree with any advice or suggestion he had to give me.  He called me "stubborn" and he often made comments that I should just up and leave Okinawa, of course leaving my wife and daughter behind. 


We ended up moving out of his house after about six months, but not for this reason alone.  There were other issues that factored into the decision, like my mother-in-law wanting to throw out a pair of shoes I owned purely because they were “too big” to her and they took up too much space in the shoe rack at the front door.  When I “complained" I was missing a pair of shoes, she took offense because she thought what she was doing was right and that I had no place to question her or her actions.  She blew the situation out of proportion and telephoned all the relatives and neighbors complaining in shock about the gaijin that her daughter brought into the house.


I admit, I might have been a tad stubborn at times and openly expressed my disagreement, but I didn’t feel communicating my opinion was wrong.  But in Japan, that is a big no-no.


We moved out of the in-law's house and found a condominium about 50 minutes away.  They often came over to see their granddaughter and, of course, to complain about me.  Beside the complaints, things were starting to settle down into a relatively quiet pattern of living and being out of my inlaw's house helped relieve some tension.  I came to find out that in my wife’s family, it is typical to settle differences by simply ignoring the incident ever occurred. 


Nearly two years later, after the Japanese economic “bubble” burst, I was laid off from my job and at the same time my father-in-law became ill with a stomach disorder.  He was in the hospital for roughly a month and when he was released he needed help in his recovery.  You see, his wife really didn’t do much for him, other than tell him what to do all the time.  That is a different story though. 


We moved back into the house and helped take care of Oyaji.  I usually called my father-in-law oyaji (old man) because for as long as I have been living here I only once called him 'otosan' (father).  He got angry with me and once told me that he never wanted me calling him 'dad' because he wasn't my biological father and that I should call him oyaji.  He said oyaji was a name he was accustomed to hearing when someone in his family referred to him.


Moving back home was convenient for both of us as I was out of work for about 3-4 months collecting unemployment and looking for another job.  With my oyaji's help, I was introduced to someone who helped me get a job working at a local family-run hospital.  I became a driver for an elderly day care service and eventually, after roughly eight years or so, moved up to a position of being the facilities manager for three hospitals.  Along the way, I did a lot of studying.  But this isn’t about me, it’s about my father-in-law.


It was at this time in my life that the relationship between my father-in-law and I changed.  He refused to believe I was let go from my previous job because of the economic conditions and felt it was somehow my own fault I wasn’t able to retain the job, so he took it upon himself to ensure I "understood" how to succeed in a Japanese/Okinawan company. 


Nearly every single day after I came home from my new job, he had me sit down at the kitchen table and describe in detail what I had done that day and how I was getting along with my co-workers.  He constantly harped on my language abilities and nearly every day told me that if I didn’t learn more Japanese that there was going to be no way for me to succeed. 


This went on for roughly six months, him sitting at the table drinking awamori, a local Okinawan sake, getting drunk, doling out advice, and commenting how my wife and I should be raising our children.  I cannot count how many times I got angry with him for coming across as a hypocrite because by this time I had learned enough of his past with his own son and daughter that I knew the things he was saying were in response to his own perceived “failures” with his own children.  Neither of his kids became schoolteachers or government employees, which he saw as being the only jobs deserving respect.


Things got contentious between us on a number of occasions and typically we both went to bed dissatisfied in how we viewed each other.  He, feeling that I had no right to question his thoughts or opinions, and I, feeling that he was just talking like an arrogant drunk because the only time he ever talked like this was when he had been drinking.  Otherwise things were civil between us, almost friendly.  Being a typical Okinawan father, he expected everyone to take what he had to say without question.  And me, being a typical American, always questioning what he thought was "law".


Eventually things calmed down and a grudging respect was earned from both of us.  I learned to take much of what he said with a grain of salt, well at least letting it go in one ear and circle around in my brain a time or two before letting it go out the other.  He started asking for my assistance around the house more, as he was getting older by then and didn’t have the energy to do all the things he was used to doing on his own.


He was well-respected in our local community, President of the local Senior Citizen's Association.  He taught people how to play the sanshin, a three string guitar, which is famous here in Okinawa.  He had a teacher’s license for this musical instrument and took great pride in the fact that he was finally able to teach.  He was always concerned with how people viewed him from outside-the-family, and with my being his son-in-law, me as well.  However he always took family for granted and I cannot recall ever seeing him care about what I or anyone else in the family thought about him.


Life went on, and again I was let go from my job because of, once again, an economic crisis that hit Japan.  The health insurance structure changed and the hospital that I was working for was faced with bankruptcy.  All managers, including the brother and sister of the owner, were let go.


Again, I found a new job and after studying to get certified, I started working as an English teacher at a local high school.  My father-in-law was happy I had became a teacher and he found new things to comment on: my clothes, haircut (too short for his liking), beard, etc.  He became more concerned about the impression I was giving to the students at the high school.


Also around this time our children were growing up.  We had two more children while we were living with them and they, grandma, and especially grandpa, were a blessing in helping take care of them.  Neither of my sons had to go to daycare because their grandparents watched over them.  It was a marriage of convenience -- we took over more and more of the daily things around the house and they helped us by raising our kids.


And I would say that between us we were growing to accept and respect each other as well.  We entered a different stage in our relationship, but not one that was ever discussed.


My father-in-law was becoming ill more often.  The common cold and flu started becoming a serious concern, but that was overshadowed by his glaucoma and two eye surgeries.  I cannot recall how many times I took him to the different doctors and specialists, even though it meant taking 3-4 hours out of my day to assist him.  But looking back on it, it was well worth the time.  However, I will never understand why he would make the appointments at the times he did, knowing full well someone had to assist him because he couldn’t drive.


Roughly five years ago he was diagnosed as having lung cancer and had to have two-thirds of his left lung removed.  He was in-and-out of the hospital for nearly ten months.  He never fully recovered.


During the days that followed his death, and while he was laid out for his wake in a simple pine casket in our living room, I have heard stories from close family members about the type of man he was.  I never knew that man.  I wish I was told those stories before his death.  I wish I had gotten to know that man and seen him as others knew him.


While death might be viewed as bleak or sad, it does open the door for reflection and soul-searching contemplation.  Since my father-in-law's passing, I have started thinking about how I felt and our relationship over the years -- our arguments, disagreements, anger, frustration, good times and the bad.  Reflection.


It took my father-in-law passing on for me to finally come to the realization that from out of everything that had happened between us, he did what he had done, and said what he had said, out of concern not for himself or how people viewed him or me, but because he wanted, without ever putting into words, for me to be the best I could be.


I cannot express in words my feelings about his death, without first explaining a bit about my own father.


I grew up feeling that as a male son I was never allowed to show any emotions of disappointment or sorrow.  A “man” wasn’t allowed to cry, and I always felt if I ever cried about anything I was twice punished for any misdeeds.  And I committed plenty and was deserving of the punishments that I received. 


My father died when I was 24 years old.  I don’t think that I ever had the best of relationships with him and grew up feeling like I was always at odds with what he had wanted for me and that I never lived up to the expectations he had for me.  To this day I probably still hold regrets in my heart for not becoming the “man” he wanted me to be. 


Don’t get me wrong here, my father always loved me, but I think over time it was me that didn’t live up to his expectations.


Much like my own father and the generation and way he was raised, here in Japan, love was not expressed in words by people of their age.  Sure the words existed in English and Japanese, but to use them would be awkward or embarrassing to say the least, particularly for men of their age and experiences.


Probably more so for my father-in-law, and for Japanese and Okinawan men of his generation, emotions were not talked about, nor were feelings a part of daily life.  People did what they did out of a sense of duty, real or perceived.  I find myself reflecting on the fact that while neither of them showed any outward signs of love or affection and while they were from different cultures they were both similar in many ways.


My father-in-law is laying peacefully on a futon downstairs in the tatami room.  I wish he could hear my thoughts right now.  I wish we could sit around drinking Okinawan sake and I could tell him I have finally come to the realization of my feelings about him.  I wish he could hear me tell him that I love him.  What had started off as a relationship of hard feelings, frustration and anger, slowly turned to that of love because of my concern for his well-being, health and happiness.  I had finally learned to love the man, not only as my father-in-law, but as my father.


Masahiro was a good man, in both life and death.  I hope someday someone will say the same thing about me.




If you would like to leave a message for the author, please do so below.




  • (Nov 18, 2011) Anonymous said: RP, head over to the forum on the link above here, if you have questions maybe I and others can help. Thanks for the comments.
    (Nov 16, 2011) RP said: Thanks for sharing your story, it was very interesting. I am also married to a Japanese girl and have a difficult time with my in-laws.
  • (Mar 22, 2010) Hachiro said: Angie,thank you, my wife and I have been married for 24 years, we have been through a lot in the past, but these past two years have been really rough for her, both of her parents have died within the past 15 months, and just as we got over the loss of her Mom, her Dad died. She is truly my "better" half!
  • (Mar 16, 2010) Angie said: My condolences...that was a heart-moving story! That was a brutal clash of cultures. You must really love your wife!



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