One of the most common questions we receive from applicants to the Mansfield Fellowship Program is “Can my family accompany me to Japan?”. The answer is YES! While the fellowship program does not provide language training for spouses and children, educational and travel allowances are available.
What is the family experience like? Read on to get a glimpse of the experiences of several of the families who have spent a year in Japan with the Mansfield Fellowship Program.
Throughout the application process one concern my wife and I had was how she could continue her career during the year in Japan. Upon acceptance we sprung into high gear on this issue and fortunately we had more than a year between selection and moving to try to make arrangements. The initial step was to network with everyone we knew vaguely related to her field, policy for nuclear power. Her employer agreed to give her leave without pay.
Within a few months, she found out about a visiting professorship available at the Tokyo Institute of Technology through a friend and applied and received it. The dates virtually coincided with the fellowship and they even offered us an apartment, but since it was smaller than the one the fellowship offered we stayed with that one.
She had a great time at TIT and developing many friendships with students and faculty which she keeps to this day. When, my wife was not teaching, she volunteered.
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When I was notified that I had been awarded a Mansfield Fellowship and would be a part of MFP 6, I was ecstatic. My then 11 year old daughter Feeta was excited too, at first, but when she realized that it would mean leaving her middle school friends for a whole school year, she became a little apprehensive, and full of questions: would she have to learn Japanese too? would she have to go to a Japanese school and do her school work in Japanese? etc., etc. The Mansfield Foundation staff was very helpful in getting us information on schools and places to live. We decided that Nishimachi International School, where the instruction is in English and Japanese is taught as a foreign language to international students, would be the best fit for her. We applied and were very excited when Feeta was accepted. The Mansfield Foundation Tokyo staff was very helpful in securing housing for us a few blocks from Nishimachi in Minami Azabu. When Feeta arrived in Tokyo, she was 12 and there wasn’t a better place to spend her “tween” year. Tokyo’s safety meant that she had autonomy and independence that was not available to her at home in Maryland, and she loved it! She made friends at St. Alban’s Anglican Church and at Nishimachi, some of which she has maintained until now – some five years later. Feeta’s return to the US for her final year of middle school was pretty seamless- she had grown as a person and continued to excel in her schoolwork. I sincerely believe that the year in Japan was, and continues to be a positive influence on her life as on mine. Given a choice, we both would do the Mansfield Fellowship program again.
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If I were to summarize our family experience of life in Japan in one sentence, I would say, “Our family experience in Japan greatly exceeded our expectations, far beyond our wildest imagination.”
When I first heard of the Mansfield Fellowship Program back in the fall of 2001, I knew immediately it was something I definitely wanted to do. I grew up in Japan till age 15 and I had been curious how it was like to live and work as an adult in Japan. However, I also had to weigh the pros and cons of the participation not only for myself but also for my family. My husband was a federal employee who was also interested in applying for the fellowship. His agency, however, did not think it was the right time for him to take a two-year leave, from Fall 2002 to Fall 2004. Then there were our three children to consider. If our children were to accompany me, they would be in the 12th, 9th, and 6th grades. For our oldest, how would our move to Japan affect his U.S. college application? He was also disappointed at first about not being able to graduate from our local high school with his friends. Our middle child was scheduled to attend a magnet high school for which he had to take an entrance exam. We had heard how difficult it was to transfer back to this school in his sophomore year. Should he stay behind in the States with his father to secure his place in the rising 9th grade class? Our youngest child was the only one who did not hesitate in wanting to go to Japan. However, we still debated whether we should place her in a Japanese school or an American School in Japan. Then there was the question of whether I would be able to manage being a single mom for the duration of one year. I was concerned about Japan’s well-known long working-hours.
In the end, we concluded the pros of living in Japan would easily exceed the difficulties we might encounter and we decided to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My three children lived with me in Japan for one year. My husband visited us several times for three weeks at a time after he saved as much leave time as possible during the first year of my fellowship.
All three of our children went to American School in Japan (ASIJ) in Chofu. They commuted to school on three different trains, one hour each way. I was worried how they would take this commute. Not to worry! They all took their new experience in stride. They quickly learned how to use the very convenient public transportation in Tokyo to go anywhere they wanted without having me to drive them at all. They cherished their independence and I knew I did not have to worry about their safety in Tokyo.
Most American students at ASIJ attend for 1-2 years, like our children did. ASIJ schedules a school trip early in the school year to help students get acquainted with each other quickly and to introduce them to Japan. The trip is a few nights-and-days to a nearby location for middle school students, and to close to a week to distant places for high school students. Our children still look back on these trips with excitement and fond memories.
The smallness of the school enabled our children to get to know their classmates and the school’s teaching and administrative staff very well. Looking back, our eldest son was very happy to have spent his last year of high school at ASIJ. The large proportion of ASIJ graduates now attend colleges in the U.S., so our oldest still keeps in close contact with many of his former classmates, three years after graduation. On the minus side, it was difficult for him to decide which colleges to apply to, without the ability to visit campuses. However, he still had the Internet to see and contact colleges, and to stay in instant contact with his friends in the states. He also explored Tokyo extensively with his friends, without relying on me either to prepare many meals or help with his entertainment.
For our second son, one of the biggest thrills he had at ASIJ was to travel with the high school varsity soccer team to Hong Kong for a tournament at the end of the soccer season.
For our daughter, she had a chance to play co-ed soccer at ASIJ. In Japan, girls’ soccer is not as popular as in Northern Virginia. However, we happened to live in a Tokyo ward where soccer was unusually popular among grade school girls. Thus, our daughter joined a neighborhood Japanese girls’ soccer team. An added thrill was that this team won the Suginami Ward championship in the fall. Common interest in such a sport gave our daughter the chance to share experience with many of her Japanese contemporaries in the neighborhood. My husband and I also befriended the players’ parents through frequent gatherings at our neighborhood taverns.
For my husband, he enjoyed being a househusband and the expatriate during his several visits to Tokyo. He would leisurely go shopping at grocery stores in the neighborhood, and he learned how to cook Japanese dishes. He would take long walks in Tokyo to explore where most hurried Japanese people would take trains and buses. He enjoyed meeting Japanese people and learning Japanese culture. He also found the good swimming pools (like Sendagaya).
In addition to all the fun and excitement our family experienced in Japan, we acquired a new perspective on Japan, on the U.S., and on ourselves living abroad. We don’t take things for granted as we did before we went to Japan. And our children gained self-confidence now that they know they could deal with changes.
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Our family of four (Kathleen, Steve, Anna (age 6/7) and Mae (age 3/4)) lived in Minato-ku in central Tokyo in 2004 and 2005. Kathleen speaks excellent Japanese so there were no adjustment problems for her. My youngest daughter Mae attended pre-school at Tokyo Union Church until she turned 4, and then entered our local Japanese public yochien. Mae was initially disoriented by the change. She wondered what was happening back at our house in Washington, but finally settled in and came to enjoy our life in Tokyo. She loved yochien and learned to communicate in simple Japanese in only a matter of weeks. After it was over, her Japanese ability seemed to leave just as quickly, however. Anna attended 1st grade at Tokyo International School which she loved. She made friends quickly and she keeps in contact with some of them still. Anna was never conversant in Japanese, but can still understand a surprising amount when she hears it. Both children miss the convenience and relative safety of Tokyo. They still remember being able to go by themselves to the bakery, Starbucks or the convenience store (each was less than 1 minute away on foot) to go buy things and bring them home. That feeling of independence is something they have missed since we returned.
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One of the best parts of the Mansfield experience was the opportunity for my family to be in Japan for a year. We did not have nearly enough time to do all of the activities we wanted to, but it was a very rewarding 12 months. In addition to roaming around the Tokyo metropolitan region, we also took trips to the southern tip of Wakayama prefecture, the Kansai area, and Okayama.
Mika, my wife, had for a long time wanted to spend time back in her home country. Not only did she want to introduce our kids to Japan, she wanted to reacquaint herself with all the good things about living in Tokyo. Once she found out about the Mansfield program there was no way I could avoid applying for it! Her only complaint was that the Mansfield program does not allow fellows to extend their stays – one year was not enough to fully recharge her Japan battery.
Our location was unbelievable. The Mansfield staff found us a four-bedroom house that was in downtown Tokyo. Not only could I walk to work, but my kids ended up going to a local school that was less than five minutes walk. We also happened to be a stone’s throw from a school teaching the art of dressing in kimono, which Mika took advantage of. She also became expert at finding exceptional deals on kimono and obi on Japan’s eBay site.
Our kids – Keita (then 6) and Aya (then 4) – were thrilled to be in Japan. Our house was part of a small fenced-in compound that was also home to several other children. They could run around in complete safety without constant supervision. We also took them to local playgrounds, the nearby children’s castle, and to ride bikes at the Jingu sports complex. Above all they remember being allowed to go shopping at the local convenience store by themselves, and the neighborhood festivals, where they could buy special treats and try to win prizes. Being in Japan also meant finally getting to know their Japanese grandparents who live in Osaka and other relatives they had never met. I am sure our year in Japan will take on a golden glow as they grow older.
As with all parents, we wondered how the kids would handle going to school in Japan. The short answer is they came through with flying colors. Keita, who started first grade at the American School in Japan, made a smooth transition in April to the local public school, where his language ability improved to near-fluency. Aya truly went native. By the end of the year it was impossible to distinguish her from any of her Japanese pre-school friends. In her case, we worried that she might never regain competency in English!
Admittedly we had a big advantage – both Keita and Aya could speak some Japanese before heading over, but even so it was a great pleasure to watch as they “mastered” living in another culture. It is an experience they will never forget, and hope (somehow) to repeat soon!
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