Sweet Home Atami


Ever wonder what a typical Japanese home looks like? Well now you know.

Indeed my Japanese in-laws are “typical” in many ways…with a few exceptions:

Exception 1: Most Japanese aren’t lucky enough to live in Atami, a hot-springs resort historically considered the ideal honeymoon destination. But Atami has lost its luster through the years as Hawaii became more and more popular as a vacation destination. But it’s still a great place to visit. Some Japanese friends say it’s now cheaper to vacation in Hawaii than in Japan. (Not sure if the claim holds up under scrutiny, but with the strong yen it’s likely not far from the truth.)

Exception 2: Most Japanese families don’t have a “foreign barbarian” (that would be me) as a son-in-law. And how many barbarians speak Japanese? This worked in my favor and elevated my status to “acceptable barbarian”. Truth be told, my mother-in-law was shocked when my wife informed her 26 years ago that we were tying the knot. But to our utter surprise Japanese dad embraced the idea (not at all typical). In retrospect my wife and I have concluded that deep down dad was thrilled about his daughter marrying an American. And the proof is in the pudding: we’ve grown close over the years–and even mom has come around. But make no mistake about it: I had to earn her approval. It helps that we gave her 2 grandchildren and made the marriage work. (The Japanese stereotype of Americans is that we all get divorced. Last I checked the U.S divorce rate was hovering around 50%, so it’s not a stretch to call this a “half-truth”.)

Exception 3: Most Japanese don’t have an ocean view like this:


No, it’s not Hawaii. But by Japanese standards it’s about as good an ocean view as you’re going to get.

Enough of the exceptions. In an earlier post I wrote about Japanese attitudes toward death. Below is a picture of a typical Japanese “Butsudan”, a portable alter for the home to honor deceased relatives. This is all about traditional Japanese ancestral worship. The Butsudan below is set up for my wife’s late grandfather and grandmother. Every night my mother-in-law makes an offering. This has nothing to do with a belief in the afterlife as my in-laws are not religious folks at all; it’s about bringing memories of the deceased into this world. Mom continues to keep the tradition alive, evidence of the power of culture in driving behavior.


The most striking physical feature of Japan is how “crowded” everything is and the narrowness of the streets. Indeed when I drive in Japan I feel like a mouse scrambling around in a maze. In Atami it’s not just a maze, it’s a maze with a very steep grade–think Waipio Valley. The video below was taken from our camera as a taxi driver brought us home from town. Check out the driver’s white gloves; taxis are extremely clean and well-maintained in Japan, and drivers treat customers with utmost respect (with rare exceptions).

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


9 responses to “Sweet Home Atami

  1. Sweet Pad!

    But dang… how in the heck did you pull that one 26 years ago?

  2. Aloha Tim! Similar experiences although in my case my father in law didn’t talk to me for 8 years even though we lived in the same house.

    My mother in law kind of became my business mentor as she was a bit of a different type of Japanese wife/business woman and a little more open to new ideas.

    Her idea of mentoring though seemed to be pointing out how her MBA American son in law was a pretty stupid businessman (and she was usually absolutely correct).

    I remember her coming into my Frost Building and up to my president’s office and taping a poster with my father in law’s name on it with the kanji inscription: spend less money than you take in.

    Uh…spot on. And valuable advice as we were running 25 businesses taking in $10 million a year but spending a bit more…


    When we first told them we were going to get engaged (at 18), Noriko’s parents disinherited her (and she was eldest daughter with two younger sisters and whoever she married would take on the Nomura name and take over the 100+ year old construction company…whoops).

    Grif Nomura…sounded weird then but nowadays maybe AOK?

    Later, like you, we had two sons (we have two daughters as well but they didn’t count in my parents in law way of thinking) so we suddenly had “value”. Both my sons have dual citizenship and their Japanese passports list their name as Nomura not Frost.

    In our businesses we employed a lot of Americans and had 17 intracompany marriages between Americans and Japanese staff.

    99% were American male to Japanese female. Almost all are still married.

    We are going on 32 years of marriage now. My father in law has passed on…one day I was visiting my mother in law and he came in from playing Pachinko and as usual ignored me….I asked why he always ignored me (I had now been married to his daughter for 15+ years) and she told me he was trained as a kamikaze pilot but the war ended before he could fly…umm…I guess that could be why he wasn’t a big fan of his American son in law….

    Atami is a special place…I stayed there in the hot spring resorts many times…actually where I lived for 10 years in Mutsu we had a similar view of the ocean which was Mutsu Bay…seeing your photo’s brought back wonderful memories of living in Mutsu…quite rural unlike Atami…with a dormant volcano looming over us…much like Hilo although coooold for six months out of the year (howling winds off Siberia)….

    Would love to see you write about the cross cultural challenges of an American-Japanese marriage….

    Suspect I could contribute a few comments on that subject…

    Thanks for the great posts!

  3. Just uploaded a video of the drive up the mountain to my in-laws home. It’s “camera quality” but gives a flavor of driving in Atami.

  4. Where I am from in the Pacific Northwest… you see many more “Black” men dating “White” women.

    I find it a bit curious as to why the ratio Grif talked about is so high.

    I know that when I was dating my Ex from Japan, I used to get a lot of strange looks… like… what was I doing with her… as she was very obviously straight from Japan.

    Why do we not see more Japanese Men dating American Women?

  5. Aloha Damon!

    Japan is a much more male dominated society than the U.S.. So when an American male begins dating a Japanese female they are pleasantly surprised at how much more attention they receive compared to dating an American female.

    The Japanese female is also pleasantly surprised at how much attention the American male pays her compared to a Japanese male.

    Small things like American males washing dishes, helping clean up around the house etc..

    I think this one reason the Japanese female/American male divorce rate is one of the lowest in the world.

    The flip side of this is that American females can find Japanese males “mama’s boys” who need constant attention while not providing any attention to the American female.

    There are of course exceptions, but in my experience with Japanese/American marriages 90% of the successful marriages are American male/Japanese female.

    Perhaps Tim, as the cross cultural expert can elaborate on this topic?

  6. Grif nailed the key issues.

    I was thinking about the rare exception when a non-Japanese woman marries a Japanese man, and trying to imagine a modern American wife putting up with a conniving heavy-handed Japanese mother-in-law, lol. A great premise for a sitcom, don’t you think? Fireworks everyday!

    Seriously…I’d really like to see some updated stats on divorce rates between Japanese and American couples. I’d also like to see it sliced the following ways (although I’m sure the data don’t exist):

    1) What’s the divorce rate in the case of non-Japanese who are totally clueless about their Japanese spouse’s culture, language, etc. (and vice versa)?

    2) What’s the divorce rate in the case of Japanese married to non-Japanese who lived in Japan and speak Japanese?

    3) What’s the divorce rate when both spouses speak the other spouse’s language, and have lived in the other’s country and (therefore) understand both cultures?

    My hypothesis is that #1 will have the highest divorce rate, #2 less, and #3 the least (but it’s just that–speculation).

    What I can say from a personal standpoint is that it’s really strengthened our marriage knowing each other’s culture and living in each other’s country for an extended period of time. Conversely we know lots of Japanese/American couples who have struggled and eventually got divorced, in most cases because the American husband had no clue where his poor wife was coming from, her culture, language, etc.

    It’d be interesting to see what percentage of Grif’s former mixed-marriage employees in Japan are still together…

    For yet another take on Japanese men dating non-Japanese, check out a post my son Ry wrote last year “Limiting Beliefs: White Girls Don’t Like Asian Guys?” Just keep in mind that Ry is not “pure” Asian as his blood has been tainted by the American barbarian who married his mother! Still, he makes some interesting points and offers a perspective a white guy might never consider.

    Now can someone tell me what the cultural explanation is for the black male/white female combination being more popular than the black female/white male combination?

  7. Aloha Tim!

    Did a quick check and 16 of the 17 American male/Japanese female intracompany American males who married Japanese females which occurred 20-30 years ago are still together.

    The one American female/Japanese male marriage didn’t work.

    I suspect the more one understands and appreciates your spouse’s culture the more likely the marriage will work.

    In my own marriage we found that because we had such high cultural barriers to surmount (language for example…neither of us spoke the others language well) that the little things that often sour marriages weren’t even on our radar screen.

  8. Wow, I’m impressed Grif. You must really be dialed into your old network to get that information so quickly…

  9. Aloha Tim! Ever since I read James Michner’s Sayonara novel when I was 17 (when I first met Noriko) I have been interested in the report he quoted in the novel which found that 10,000 GI’s who married Japanese girls had the lowest divorce rate of any marriages anywhere no matter if it was cross cultural or not. So have stayed in touch with the staff I hired who ended up getting married while working in our businesses….it would be interesting to see how things have changed over the years wouldn’t it? Although part of me is hoping this low divorce rate has not changed!

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