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  • Living in Japan Is Expensive: How This Filipino Family Is Making It Work

    This Pinoy mom of three gives us a peek into their life as immigrants in the land of the rising sun.
    by Lei Dimarucut-Sison .
Living in Japan Is Expensive: How This Filipino Family Is Making It Work
PHOTO BY Solveig Boergen
To read this story in Tagalog, click here.
  • Japan has become one of the favorite vacation spots — if not a dream destination — of many Filipinos. We often marvel at their spotless surroundings, and admire their people's discipline and work ethics. We love their food, their culture, and their technology so much that it's not uncommon for Pinoys who vacation in Japan to become endeared to the place and exclaim, "Gusto ko nang tumira dito! (I want to live here!)"

    What it's like to live in Japan

    Melissa Borja, a 43-year-old Filipino mom, is married to Edward. She migrated to Japan with their two kids after her husband, a marine engineer, received an offer to work in Tokyo initially for two years. "Before that, Edward worked as a seafarer for 15 years. In a year, he would be gone for nine months, and be home for three. It was very tiring for me because I was left in the Philippines to raise our kids, and [since they don't see him often], it would take a while for them to warm up to him when he goes home for a vacation."

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    Then, in 2011 an opportunity presented itself. Edward was offered a two-year land-based job in Tokyo by his employer, and for Melissa it was more than just a job; it meant finally being together as a family. Edward, however, was less enthusiastic, "because the offer came just months after the great Japan earthquake," Melissa says. After some prodding, and weighing the pros and cons, Edward accepted the offer. 

    Though it was she who influenced her husband's decision, Melissa was pragmatic in her preparations — it was, after all, just a two-year contract. "I wasn't sure what the outcome would be of our transfer, so I needed to have a buffer in case we find that the situation in Japan is not ideal for us."

    Edward left for Yokohama in October that year, and Melissa, together with their kids Zach, then only 3 years old, and Elisha, barely two, followed six months later.

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    Challenges of living in a foreign country

    Because she had two school-age kids, one of Melissa's most urgent tasks was finding a school for them. "I sent emails to prospective schools and applied for scholarships. Kahit walang scholarship na ino-offer ang school, I applied anyway upon seeing how expensive the tuition fees of international schools were."

    Zach is now in Grade 8, studying in a Japanese special school.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja
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    One of the things Melissa had to deal with upon settling there was the language barrier, which made even everyday tasks like getting off at the correct bus stop or buying supplies from the grocery store a major challenge. "One time, we thought it was vinegar we got, but it turned out to be mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine). Another time, we got this weird tasting toothpaste, yun pala the main ingredient was salt kaya maalat."

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    A view of the street from their apartment.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    The high cost of living was also something they had to contend with. "A family of four would barely get by with Php100,000 in Tokyo. When I first did our groceries, I was really shocked. But being Pinoys, we are naturally madiskarte. After six years of living here, we've learned that if you know where to buy, you can actually get your basic necessities for less (even gluten-free goods for Zach). We would time our purchases during sales, and buy pasalubong items in advance whenever I stumble upon bargain items."

    The perks of Japan

    On the flipside, the benefits Edward receives as a migrant worker spells the difference in their bottom line. Their family gets free lodging courtesy of his employer, and the kids' school fees are also paid for (only in part, because they go to international schools). The government grants them a child care allowance of ¥10,000 yen (about Php4,800) for the 1st and 2nd children, and ¥15,000 for the succeeding children.

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    On top of this, their now-14-year-old son Zach, who has autism, also receives special-needs benefits, such as: free medications and therapy sessions as recommended by the doctor (all medical fees are waived, too), Y42,000 worth of taxi coupons (approximately Php20,000) consumable in one year, discounts on train lines, parks, movies, and museums for Zach and one companion.

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    In most children's hospitals, there's always something to entertain kids—therapeutic dogs, mascots, or, in this case, clowns, during one of Zach's checkups at Kanagawa Children's Medical Center in Yokohama.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    "Zach also goes to Day Service five times a week. It's like a therapy center for kids with special needs, but less structured. They have different activities for them, like cooking, gym exercises, field trips, behavior management. Their staff would pick up Zach from the house (or school) after class, and then bring him home after. The city pays for this service, but I also pay a share of approximately Php2,300 each month. 

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    Zach and his classmates learn pizza-making at the Day Service, where he goes five times a week as part of his special education.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    "He also gets a disability benefit in cash per quarter from the government, and we can reimburse the cost of school necessities like shoes, bags, and school supplies, the amount of which depends on my husband's income and taxes—the higher the income, the lower the reimbursable amount."

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    Zach also gets a free haircut every other month!
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    Maternity benefits

    Melissa got pregnant with their third child in 2014. She lauds how the city government makes it easy for those in this delicate stage, or parents who travel with babies, to go about their day-to-day tasks with simple innovations. 

    "There are PWD- and baby-friendly facilities like non-step buses, which make it easier for strollers and wheel chairs to roll in and out of the vehicle, and taxis with automatic doors. There are clean toilets everywhere, even in public areas, with tissue and soap. Malls, big restaurants and government offices have child seats inside the cubicles, so it’s easy to travel and go places with a baby," she adds.

    A public toilet in Tokyo
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja
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    During her prenatal checkups, an automated queueing system at the hospital dispenses a mobile device which would alert you when it's your turn, so you can do other things while waiting. A special keychain is also issued to pregnant women to inform others of their condition. This is especially helpful for those whose bumps aren't showing yet, when riding public utility vehicles. "People usually give you a seat when they see the keychain," Melissa says. 

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    There's an automated queueing system at the hospital. Translated, the message on the device reads: "Maternal and Child Center, 24th Feb. Press confirm to wait in the medical department." A special keychain like the one on Melissa's bag helps pregnant women travel with ease in public vehicles.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    With the birth of their daughter Emiko in September 2014, Melissa also received the amount of Y420,000 (approximately Php200,000) as maternity benefit, which would usually suffice for a normal delivery. However, since her pregnancy is considered high-risk because of APAS, a condition that has caused her to miscarry four times in the past, the government gave an additional Y125,000 to cover part of the amount which ballooned to Y740,000.

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    Melissa's Japanese friend Kumi pays her a visit at the Showa University Northern Yokohama Hospital a day before she gave birth to daughter Emiko. "Their hospitals gowns are branded!" she says.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    Baby Emiko is given her first bath at the hospital after birth. It's also to demonstrate to moms how to give their babies a bath. "They don't remove the baby's clothes for a feeling of security," Melissa explains.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja
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    Despite the initial hurdles, Melissa and her kids have come to love living in Japan. "As a parent, I like the sense of security, the feeling that my kids are secured.

    "Elisha takes the bus and train to school. She has been commuting all by herself since she was eight. She would leave the house and arrive on the same time everyday except for cases when there is heavy rain or snow. I observe my children bringing their trash home and cleaning up after their meal—without realizing it, I was teaching them the values of independence, discipline and self-regulation." 

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    Elisha takes the bus to the train station. This bus stop is a 10-minute walk from their house.
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    "'Raising them up by letting go' is one parenting technique I learned from my Japanese friend."

    It was hard for me to practice this at first, knowing how Pinoy moms are. We are used to letting our nannies travel with our kids in the school bus, if not us personally. Parents go with the kids on school field trips and we chaperone them during parties and school events. Not having helpers somehow helped me loosen up to the new culture around us," she expounds. 

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    Celebrating Emiko's second birthday
    PHOTO BY Melissa Borja

    Undeniably, there is so much to love about Japan. “But of course, being Pinoy, you can't help but miss our own brand of malasakit, the close family ties, and the support of extended family. Truth be told, there really is no place like home."

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