Janet Hirano moved to Japan in her 20s to teach English for one year and ended up staying for 50. She married and raised a family, overcoming obstacles such as learning a new language, initial disapproval from her husband’s family, and her children enduring teasing for being “foreigners.” Janet recounts the importance of the Church in transitioning to her adopted country, how commitment and a sense of humor have helped her navigate the cultural waters, and that in some ways, she’s now more Japanese than American.
What were the circumstances that led you to go to Japan initially?
My father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, so I grew up a little here and there in Idaho, Washington, and Utah. I graduated from BYU, taught school for a couple years, and then went on a mission to France from 1957 to 1959. When I came back, I felt rather unsettled. I had itchy feet, you might say. So with another female returned missionary, I applied to teach with the American military schools. On the application it asked where I would like to go, and I said, “England, West Germany, or Turkey.” But they replied, “We have an opening in Japan–would you like to accept it?” I wasn’t interested at all, because I didn’t know anything about Japan. But my mother said, “Why don’t you go for a year and just see?” If my mother had not encouraged me, I probably would not have gone. I went to Japan in 1961 when I was close to 30 years old. It’s been exactly 50 years this year (2011).
You arrived not long after WWII. What were your feelings towards the Japanese and what was the sentiment towards Americans when you arrived?
I had no critical feelings and found that most Japanese people were very accepting of Americans. Some older people were less so, but the younger people, by that time, were going to university and had a broader outlook on life.
What were your living and teaching arrangements like?
At the end of the war, there was a joint security agreement made between Japan and the United States. Some American military forces stayed in Japan and built Air Force, Army, and Naval bases. On those bases were schools for the American military children. I lived in Tokyo in a military housing area that the American Government had taken right after the war. The American military branch of the Church met in the same housing area, but the school was a distance away, so we caught the bus to get there. My assignment was to teach third and fourth grades in the Army/Air Force schools. I enjoyed it very much and found that the children, maybe because of the military discipline, were very well behaved, easy to teach, and accepting of their teachers. But because it was just like being in an American school, it required no knowledge of Japanese language or society.
When I first got there, I was teaching in the American school and living in American military housing. I had no contact with Japanese people, and that bothered me. I thought, “What am I here for? I might as well have stayed in the U.S.” I started to get out and explore, along with three other LDS girls who lived in the same dormitory. At that time, there was not much traffic. So the four of us bought an old car from a military man and we used to drive around and see things. Back then it was close enough to the end of the war that we didn’t have trouble with traffic. But I still hadn’t really met very many people yet.
How did you meet your husband?
I arrived in Japan in August, and met him sometime in September. There was a Shinto shrine not far from our dormitory that often held festivals. One day I heard music coming from the shrine. It was an autumn festival, and I wanted to get out of the dormitory to see what was going on. As I was walking along, a young man came up and asked if he could speak English with me. We talked for a while and then I continued on. I was going to return another way, but I was afraid I would get lost, so I headed back the way I came, and he was still there. We talked again and he asked if I would teach him English. That’s how I got to know him. My friends—the three other LDS girls—and I taught English to him and his friends. In return they taught us something about the Japanese culture.
Katsuya (my husband) had been interested in learning English since junior high school. He had had a very enthusiastic teacher and had been told while he was in university, “If you want to improve your English, try to speak to English-speaking people.” So we told them that we attended a church where everyone spoke English, and if they would like more opportunities to speak English, they were welcome to come. That was his first introduction to the Church. We had some wonderful LDS military families, and they were a big influence on him. He said he felt that if the Church produced good families like that then there must be something good about it. He was baptized about two years later.
How did your courtship progress?
Our friendship continued, and we started feeling a little stronger about each other. I returned home to the U.S. for one summer vacation, but continued working in Japan and had a lot of interesting experiences. Another summer I traveled to a different area of Japan to teach a seminar for Japanese teachers of English. We weren’t married until almost four years after we met. Part of the problem was that we worried a lot about the future. If we had children, would it be difficult for them because of our being a mixed race couple?
What were your families’ reactions to the match?
My family was not against it. My mother wasn’t happy about me living in Japan and being so far away, but she felt that as long as he was a worthy Church member and we got married in the temple, then she could handle it. My father had already passed away and my sisters never said anything in particular about it. His family was very much against it. When his parents found out that he was interested in an American who was a little older than he, and whom they considered handicapped, they were really upset. Being handicapped in Japan was very negative at that time (editor’s note: Janet had polio as a child and walks with a very slight limp). His mother went to the company where he was working to ask his boss to tell Katsuya not to marry “that girl.” She’s Buddhist, but she even went to a local Christian minister and asked him to talk to Katsuya. It was hard for him to go against his mother’s wishes. At one point we decided, “Let’s quit,” and I felt kind of relieved. I felt like I could just go home and forget all of it. But then we thought about it again, and it didn’t feel right.
When I was home the summer before we got married, I wanted to speak to somebody about how the Church felt about our situation. I can’t remember how, but I happened to see Elder Gordon B. Hinckley. I went to his office and talked to him about it. He told me, “The Church is not against international or interracial marriages.” But he also said that it’s very difficult to assimilate into a culture that’s completely different from your own. We finally settled down and decided to get married. That was in 1965, just before the first group excursion from Japan to the Hawaiian temple. Everybody worked, held fundraisers, and saved, and we were able to go to the temple and get sealed. We had already been married civilly, not with a ceremony or anything. We had gone to the American Embassy and had all our papers signed and registered at the local city office. But we didn’t feel we were really married and didn’t start a married life until we went to the temple. After we got married, and often since then, we’ve decided that it was meant that we should be married. We felt the Spirit guided us in that.
Years later, when we lived in Hokkaido and Katsuya was in the mission presidency, Elder Hinckley came to visit and we had dinner at the mission home. I said, “I talked to you about this a long time ago and we got married anyway.” He asked me, “Are you happy? Are you active in the Church? Are your children doing well? Well, it’s okay then.”
At what point did his family accept you?
At first, his parents wouldn’t have anything to do with me and I thought, “Well if I can’t go and see them, then Katsuya can’t go and see them.” But I repented and felt that he should keep up a good relationship with his family. When our daughter Sanae was born, his mother came to see the baby. It was all right for them to visit us, but they were still not ready to invite me to visit them. They lived in a small town a couple hours away from Tokyo and they didn’t want me to come there because they didn’t know what the neighbors would say. I think it was partly a result of the war, but also because at that time arranged marriages were still common. All of his brothers had arranged marriages, so maybe the fact that ours wasn’t was hard for them.
After his family finally got around to accepting me, the first big family reunion we attended was when Sanae was about six or seven. It wasn’t held in their hometown, but all his brothers and sisters and their families came. I was very pleased to go, even though they still didn’t invite me to their houses. My twin sister came to Japan to visit us after my husband’s mother died. Katsuya asked his father if he could bring us to visit him in his hometown, and his father said yes. That was the first time I’d been there since we got married. Father Hirano was very good to our children and that was very special for me. Since then, his brothers and sisters have all been very friendly.
How was your transition to Japanese culture and everyday life?
If it had not been for the Church, it would have been much more difficult. Wherever you go, the Church is there and the belief is the same, so the Church members were always very helpful. A woman usually has her own family support system once she gets married, but I was kind of on my own. A lot of the Japanese cooking that I learned at first, I learned at Relief Society. I have also had many Church responsibilities. Sometimes, because of his work, my husband was only at home at night two weeks out of the month. So I became occupied with adjusting, raising the children, taking care of the school things, and so on. There’s a word in Japanese, nonki. Nonki means to just accept things as they are. If something came along that had to be done, then you just did it. I think I was kind of nonki. Some of my Japanese friends say, “Sister Hirano, that was very hard for you, wasn’t it?” Offhand, I didn’t really think that it was hard. That’s part of the commitment when you get married and you decide you’re going to live somewhere. It’s what you do.
We also had good neighbors and I’ve made friends wherever we lived. I regularly got requests to teach English to the neighbors’ children and did that a lot up in Hokkaido and Osaka. Our neighbors’ children also came to Primary with our children. I’ve almost always taught English in our home. We set up an English circle and I taught that group for years and they became not just students, but best friends. They still call me teacher and we get together two or three times a year. I really enjoy the Japanese people.
How did you learn Japanese?
I didn’t really study, although I should have. Mostly from just listening and speaking, and the vocabulary gradually came. In those first years, one difficult thing for me was answering the telephone. I did not like to answer the phone because if I didn’t understand what somebody was trying to tell me, I got upset.
My initial plan was that when the children started school, I would learn the reading and writing along with them. In elementary, children learn 1,200 Kanji characters and every one of those characters has one or two different ways to read it. But I got busy, and it didn’t work out that way. When the kids got sick when they were little, my husband was working, so I had to take care of everything regarding their care, and I quickly learned things like that. At this point I don’t have any trouble speaking and I can do a lot of reading. Once in a while I find a kanji character that I don’t know. Now I read the Relief Society textbook in Japanese, and this year I’m reading the New Testament in Japanese and English. But if I want to pick up a book to read for relaxation, I’ll most likely choose something in English.
What language did you speak at home when your children were growing up?
When we first got married and the children came along, it was just accepted that we would live in Japan, so Katsuya wanted the children to know Japanese well. But then I thought, “Church is Japanese, school is Japanese, and the neighborhood is Japanese.” So I began speaking to them in English quite a bit. One time we made a little rule that Monday was English day, Tuesday was Japanese day, and so on. But it didn’t work very well because I would speak to them in English and they’d answer me in Japanese.
The first time that they really got interested in learning English was when we made a trip to Utah to visit my family. Since we didn’t visit America often, Sanae was eleven by that time and our son Takuya was eight. They found that they could understand what was said to them, but they could not answer, which frustrated them. Then their interest in English increased.
What was it like navigating the cultural differences in marriage?
There were differences, like any couple has. It’s that way even if you marry someone from the same town. Sometimes we had disagreements because my husband felt that something should be done one way and I was not used to doing it that way. Perhaps it was a little more difficult raising the children at first, because his father had been very strict. One time I was away on a Church visit and came back to find Sanae had spilled something on the floor. Katsuya got mad and slapped her, and we had to talk about that. I said, “In the Church we don’t do that. There are better ways.” There was never any problem after that. The kids always felt that their dad was strict, but he was also their spiritual guide.
Were your children treated any differently because their mother was American?
They had some struggles. The slang term for “foreigner” is gaijin. Sanae started first grade in Hokkaido and by then we had been living there for a while so most people were used to seeing us. But occasionally as we walked along the street and some kids would say to us, “Gaijin, gaijin!” To have fun, we’d look around and say, “Oh, where are they?”
I always tried to be active in PTA, because I figured if I came to meetings and so on, then the other kids would accept the fact that I was just like the other mothers. I had a funny experience when a mother came up to me and said excitedly, “I’ve been so anxious to meet you. You’re the first foreigner I’ve seen in person!” And this conversation was happening in Japanese. The woman and I later became very good friends.
It was harder when we moved down to Osaka. The day we enrolled our kids in school, the other children gathered around Takuya because here was somebody strange. He endured some other teasing and never cried outside the house, but a few times he came home from school and burst out crying. If the kids had been picked on, I’d ask if they wanted me to talk to their teacher. They always wanted to handle it themselves, and they did. Even though my children were part Japanese, some still saw them as foreigners. The teachers worried at first when we took the children to school, but then they found out the children spoke Japanese just like anybody else, the teachers were fine.
Were there any values or traits you felt it important to instill in your children?
As with most parents, I wanted them to be strong, because they needed to be. I also wanted them to be independent, to think for themselves, and to have faith in the gospel teachings. Not just to attend church, but to be active. When we moved to Kamagaya (just outside Tokyo), there was only a branch. Sanae was the only young woman and they had to call a leader for her. So for a long time, it was just one on one. Now some girls don’t want to go to church because they don’t have a friend. I didn’t want my kids to be like that. They went to church because that was the place that Heavenly Father wanted them to be. When Takuya was in junior high school he said, “Maybe I’ll be inactive.” But he never did it. Another time Sanae told me she was sick, so she stayed home while we went to church. She said afterwards that she wasn’t sick; she just didn’t feel like going to church. But she got so lonesome being home all by herself that that was the end of that. When Takuya was in high school, some of the kids would go and have drinking parties after school. He never went, he always came home. I asked him once, “Didn’t you ever get rebellious or feel rebellious about anything?” I really appreciated it when he said, “I didn’t want to cause you any pain.”
If you had to describe yourself, do you see yourself as more Japanese or more American?
You don’t live for 50 years in a country without changing somewhat. People sometimes tell me that I’m more Japanese than the Japanese. We have a couple in the ward that we’ve known for a long time. The wife told me one day they were talking about Sister Hirano and how she’s come from America, and one of the kids said, “Oh, isn’t she Japanese?” I thought that was funny. I’ve taken on some Japanese characteristics. Like food, that’s to be expected. We’ve always eaten mostly Japanese, with rice and miso soup, and everything. Although I still don’t care for raw fish. Maybe I think about things more like the Japanese do. I’m more conservative, perhaps, and more accepting of things as they are, without trying so hard to change things. I’ve never really thought too much about it that way.
I’m quite Japanese, but I have an American core. Whenever there are any big sports events between America and Japan, like baseball or soccer, I secretly hope that America wins. But if Japan’s playing anybody else, of course I cheer for Japan. As far as living conditions, when we lived in Hokkaido and Osaka we rented apartments with the ordinary Japanese kitchen and all that. But since we built our own home in Kamagaya, Japanese people who come in say, “Oh, this feels like America.” I don’t really know why. We have a Japanese room with a tatami mat floor, and we always slept on futons before, but we have a bed now.
Tell us about your experiences serving in the Church in Japan.
When I first came to Japan, the Church organizational structure was not very strong. There were some good leaders, but the membership was small and the programs did not run as smoothly as they might have. They didn’t have activities and things. They were doing their best, but it was still a growth process. It was a big responsibility to get a calling in the Church then.
We’ve never been in an expatriate ward, always Japanese wards. Since my Japanese was not really adequate initially, when I had to give talks, I would prepare my talk in English, Katsuya would translate it, and I would try my best to give it without reading it. It’s been a long time since I’ve needed to do that. Before we were married, I was the music director in the local MIA, and then after Sanae was born, Katsuya worked for Japan Tupperware and he was transferred to Hokkaido, which is a northern island. I did not know a lot of Japanese, and it was kind of hard. We had been there for some months and the branch president asked me to be the Relief Society president. I said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” So I was the Relief Society president there, and later I was the mission Relief Society president. When we were transferred to Osaka, which is pretty far south, Katsuya became the bishop. I was a Primary teacher, and then in the Relief Society presidency. Now I teach Relief Society and am a ward sacrament meeting chorister. I’ve done all this, but it’s still hard for me, in a way. It used to be easier because I didn’t think so much about it. I just did it.
I guess we could consider ourselves pioneers. When we were married, I believe we were perhaps the first international, interracial couple in the Church in Japan, so maybe people expected a lot of us. We have lived all over the country and are now temple workers. We go every Wednesday and people say, “Hello Sister Hirano, how are you?” I have to stop and ask myself where I knew them. They all know me because I’m different.
How has the Church evolved during your years in Japan?
When I first got there, there were two missions in Asia. Asia North included Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Asia South was China, the Philippines, and so on. There were only branches and missionaries covered the whole mission. A missionary might be up in Hokkaido and then be transferred clear down to the other end of the country, so missionary work was more difficult. But gradually the leadership got stronger and there were more visits from general authorities. Pres. Hinckley came a few times, since that was his area of stewardship. The truly converted members were very devoted to following the leadership of the Church and trying to obey the commandments. That’s still the same. Of course we still have problems, and part of that is the change in Japanese society because it’s gotten loose morally, a lot like America has. But I’ve seen that the Church has grown, gotten stronger, stronger, stronger. We have many stakes and wards now, and the missionaries are more localized. Many of the strongest leaders of the Church now were introduced to the Church as young people by missionaries who taught English classes.
How is the Church viewed now in Japan versus when you first arrived?
About ten to fifteen years ago there was a cult in Japan that planted poison gas in the subways in Tokyo, and the missionaries had a hard time right after that. The Catholic Church has been in Japan for a long time, but if you’re not Buddhist or Shinto, then you’re kind of grouped in with everything else. We don’t have a lot of convert baptisms now and I think partly it’s because Japanese society is affluent. When people were poorer, maybe they were more humble and more interested in finding something. It’s harder for the missionaries to contact now. Young people have cell phones and kids have almost anything they want. It’s very rare to find anyone who has more than one or two children, so parents focus all their energy on one child. The Church is strong and it’s growing, but a couple of years ago, they cut out two missions so there are not as many missions in Japan as before.
Neither of your children lives in Japan anymore. How do you maintain relationships with your family, being so far away?
When it was time for our children to attend university, we gave them the choice to go in Japan or America. Sanae was happy to go to America because her high school in Japan was very strict. They wore uniforms, had to have their skirts a certain number of inches below their knee, and could not dye their hair. She said once that she felt that she couldn’t be herself. Both my children served missions in Japan. Takuya went to university in Utah and worked in California for a little while, but his job took him back to Japan almost immediately. He’s more Japanese than Sanae because his life in America was much shorter than hers. She married and has raised her family there. When my daughter comes to visit she does well, but in a sense, she has become American. My son lived in Japan until last summer, when his family moved to Germany.
When telephoning was expensive and not so common, we used to send faxes. Now we send emails back and forth. That was another one of my principles: I wanted the children to feel free to communicate with me. So we’ve always talked a lot. About six or seven years ago, my twin granddaughters (now 17) used to write little letters, and then started sending email once in a while. One of them asked if I would please keep her emails because they were going to be her journal. I now have a whole file full, one almost every week. My older granddaughter’s not that way. If we send an email, she might send a reply that’s two lines. But that’s okay, because everybody’s different. And of course the youngest ones send a message once in a while. Before Takuya’s family left Japan, he lived about 30 minutes away by car. We were all busy, so we couldn’t visit them often, but we tried to get together at least twice a month. When they went to Germany, I asked their oldest girl if she would please start sending emails to Grandma and Grandpa.
Do you foresee moving to America at any point?
I’ve been in Japan a long time and if I get to visit my sisters and my children, then I can handle it. We get to come back once every year-and-a-half to two years. My two sisters are in Utah and my brother is in Anchorage, Alaska. Sometimes we discuss whether we should buy a condo near my daughter, but my husband’s not ready to do that. We’re the oldest couple in our ward, but they still depend on us. I think he’s concerned that if he came and lived in America he would not be needed.
What do you hope your grandchildren learn from you?
I would hope they learn commitment. To think about a decision, pray about it, decide, and stay with it. And to stay with the gospel. Because I have a testimony, I have never thought of not going to church, or not studying the gospel. A testimony is everything in life.
At A Glance
Janet Hansen Hirano
Location: Kamagaya City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan (50 miles from Tokyo)
Marital status: Married, two children
Occupation: English language teacher, Homemaker, Temple Worker
Schools Attended: University of Utah (2 yrs), Brigham Young University (2 years). BA in Education
Languages Spoken at Home: English and Japanese
Favorite Hymn: “More Holiness Give Me”
Interview by Nollie Haws. Photos used with permission.