Call of the Styled
A field guide to the expat wives of Tokyo
By: Ulrica Marshall | Nov 4, 2011 | Issue: 919 | 7 Comments | 11,813 views

Louise Rouse

Across the wild urban plains of Kanto, specifically in the melting pot that is Tokyo, roams a species known as the “expat wife” (Wifius expaticus). Their numbers may be dwindling (especially after March 11) but they remain an important cornerstone and economic impetus to life within a few square miles of the metropolis. You may have heard of them. You might even be one. Following is the all-you-need-to-know, cut-out-and-keep guide.


The expat wife (henceforth EW, though not to be confused with “ewe”) is also flatteringly known as a “trailing spouse.” The creature is typically wife rather than husband for the simple reason that Japan remains an all-out male-dominated environment. Although exceptions exist, they are rare [see next issue’s feature on “stay-at-home dads”—Eds].

The partners of EWs are employed by major corporations, embassies or banks to spread a wisdom otherwise unobtainable in Japan. These are “big swingers,” to use a term from the Gordon Gekko golden era, when the streets of Tokyo were lined with ichi man yen notes.

Traditionally, the EW does not work—at least not in exchange for a decent salary—mainly because the chances of her speaking the lingo are as slim as a Japanese PM lasting more than a year. Frankly, she doesn’t have to, for money is not an issue for this lucky lot.

Determined and educated (she gave up a decent job to have kids and follow hubby to the Land of the Rising Sun), she will invariably spend a fair amount of time attempting to crack the fineries of the Japanese language. Typically, this period of optimism (read: delusion) lasts no more than a few months. Once it has been ascertained that the local cabbie can follow orders of “migi,” “hidari” and “masugu,” and that the term for “cappuccino” is universal, Japanese for Busy People soon finds its way to the back of a cupboard to gather dust. This stage is what the EW calls “getting by.”

Limited language skills more or less rule out extensive relations with the natives, but EWs are largely a herd animal. That is why you will find the species mainly around the streets of Hiroo, Azabu and certain areas of Shibuya or Daikanyama. These habitats are termed “gaijin ghettos,” and are best avoided by any native xenophobes.

Dwellings

Expat housing is the carrot dangled in front of prospective newcomers; the tie that binds the creatures to their habitat, as it is paid for by the employer and typically heads and shoulders above that affordable by mere mortals. Housing allowances range from around the ¥1 million mark per month for families, reaching more than ¥5 million for the top dogs, which is probably the equivalent of what you could secure Buckingham Palace for back in the UK (corgis not included).

EW Stomping Grounds

Pamper and groom at:

Shop at:

Wine and dine at:

Quench thirst at:

Escape the madding crowd at:

The lovely new buildings popping up like Jacks-in-the-box around central Tokyo are aimed at expats—or possibly yakuza members/J-pop stars, who can also afford the eye-popping fees commanded. Baths are sunken, kitchens top-of-the-range and lobbies so vast you may need Sat Nav to find your destination. For the EW it begins to feel implausible that one should ever have to reside somewhere without acres of marble and some kind of water feature by reception. Many dwellings come with a maid’s room, which—despite the size of the rest of the property—are more likely to comfortably fit a Chihuahua.

In the past, the sky was no limit for the most desirable apartments; but now the high and mighty have dumped their penthouses—as quickly as you can say “Richter Scale”—for more earthbound dwellings. This despite some of the more recent mega towers being built to withstand a 12-magnitude quake. Ken Corporation and Century 21 are the agents of choice to facilitate such moves.

Many expats also have what they refer to as “their second home:” The Tokyo American Club. After a small side step into the hinterlands of Takanawa, the brand-spanking new and revamped club opened its doors back in Azabudai at the beginning of the year to much fanfare. Although the members are more Tokyo than American these days, no EW would give up her swipe card to the club without a fight and many base their whole existence within the confines of this formidable architect’s delight. You can take a course in just about anything, eat, drink, exercise, swim, spa, party, play—and even go on vacation—with the club. Religious holidays are celebrated with such gusto at the club that you could easily forget you’d ever left home.

This make-believe clearly comes at a price; but if you’re lucky, the company foots the bill while you hotfoot it to the in-house nail salon, having left junior in the Mary Poppins-esque crèche.

Calling Signs

The crux of EW life is that while their offspring are in school, she has a fair few hours to while away. She will profess not to have any time—at all—and laments being “so busy,” but you need only look at her nails and coiffed hair to see that some of this “busy-ness” is channeled into grooming.

Manes are typically tamed by English-speaking salons, and talons are filed and gelled with the regularity of any A-lister. Although Boudoir used to take the lion’s share of the waxing business (Brazilians the hot favorite), Elana Jade in Azabu Juban has gained a strong share of hirsute customers. While there, they often find the time for a little organic facial or massage to melt away the strains of expat life. For those wishing to change shade, EWs can often be spotted taking a quick pit-stop at Ho’me off Koto Dori to bronze pale limbs with a precision spray-tan.

Fresh off the boat, the EW probably resembles any other tourist—jeans, sneakers, the forlorn look of a lost puppy—but once “expatified” she will blend in with the standard uniform: Stella McCartney for Adidas workout gear in the mornings as she beelines it for the gym, yoga studio or boot camp in the park after dropping off junior at the school gates. Via the obligatory coffee, of course, but more of that in a moment. By pick-up time, EW will most probably be donning a chic little number that she picked up in a boutique around Hiroo or Daikanyama, paired with some cute wedges in summer or leather boots in winter. Existing side-by-side with their Japanese counterparts—who dress like they’re going to Wimbledon every day and are groomed to within an inch of their lives—clearly rubs off.

Primal Activities

With hubby at the office for more hours than are physically contained in a day—or away on yet another business trip—EW does have to amuse herself somehow. And there are only so many Parents’ Association meetings one can go to without completely losing one’s will to live. So when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping; be it for junior’s new clothes in Gap (because, frankly, she’d rather spend the obscene sums charged by kiddy boutiques on herself), another tea set from Kapabashi, or a year’s supply of toilet paper from the oddity that is Costco (probably the only bulk-buy store that sees more Cayenne-driving clients than a mall back in the land of the free).

She may live in a house that costs a king’s ransom, but the EW is nothing if not thrifty. You are as likely to see her shopping at Zara as you are in Ralph Lauren or Fendi—to which the savvier of the species have secured “family and friends” sale invitations. Shopping, you could say, is something of a raison d’être for this breed and the findings are usually analyzed at great length during the other main cornerstone of the EW’s life: the coffee mornings.

EW Fuel

Starbucks remains the worldwide sanctuary for forlorn foreigners and Tokyo is no exception—you have to salute a place that honors a request for a double tall skinny latte without batting an eyelash. Add a free-to-peruse-in-store selection of magazines from back home (Tsutaya Starbucks in Keyakizaka, Roppongi) and there is really no surprise that hoards are pounding the pavement to this Mecca of the Dark Brew. For the purists, Segafredo (especially in Hiroo) rules the roost.

Hours can be whiled away at these coffee mornings, which rank at boardroom-level equivalent in terms of importance for information sharing (read: gossiping). Once the world has been put to rights, the EWs rush off to the gym, the shops or ikebana class.

The term “ladies who lunch” could have been coined for the EW. Firmly embracing the when-in- Rome concept, she can often be found enjoying the best cuisine Tokyo has to offer.

In fact, since arriving in Tokyo, the expat wife has not been short of social engagements or outings: the ancient practice of karaoke (at Smash Hits or Festa) has been widely assimilated and every possible society or charity ball and wine soirée is attended with equal gusto. Many admit undergoing a kind of metamorphosis since landing on these shores, meaning that the unsuspecting kids are left at home with the Philippine helper, while mummy and daddy party the night away at Le Baron de Paris, Feria or a Blacklist event.

It should be pointed out that the female of the expat species is stronger than the male. All-important decisions rest on her shoulders: where the family dines, holidays and even the currency and denomination of the tooth fairy’s deposits for junior.

Holidays occur with exceptional frequency. Somewhere nice and sunny for the autumn break—Saipan, Guam and Bali are top choices—but if you miss out on this, Christmas in Hawaii is almost obligatory. Skiing in Hokkaido or Hakuba in February, Bali (or similar) in March, a quick trip to Shanghai or Hong Kong—or maybe just a low-key Shimoda weekend—in May.

By the time summer comes, the daily circus of school drop-offs, coffees, shopping and lunching stops. Summer is when expat life in Tokyo dwindles to a trickle, with only the odd husband (who suddenly isn’t traveling or permanently absent) or too-pregnant-to-leave-town EW left behind. With the sumo-weight grey skies of July a mere memory, she and junior take off to rekindle life back home, whence, one day, the EW will return permanently, because she is just a transient feature on the Tokyo landscape and all good things must come to an end.


Ulrica Marshall is a Swedish freelance journalist moonlighting as an expat wife. She moved to Tokyo with her family in 2006.


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  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/lrjardine/ lrjardine

    Of course there is truth to this article as ms. marshall knows of what she speaks (she too is an expat wife), but it was obviously written with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. the reason most expat wives are “too busy” is because they are volunteering their time to help local charities within Japan and throughout Asia. The Tokyo American Club’s Women’s Group – an organization founded over 60 years ago has raised and donated countless millions of yen each year to local organizations in need, the tyler foundation has made the lives of children with cancer more tolerable throughout japan, libraries have been built in countries throughout asia via room to read, expat wives have helped hands on tokyo raise funds to send to tohoku, the work of TELL has continued through the support of fundraisers worked on by expat wives, the run for the cure has brought awareness and funded mammograms in japan, the list goes on and on an on. japan would be a different place with a lot more in need if it weren’t for these women who have beautiful hair and perfect nails.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/rj973/ RJ

    I suppose that this article was an attempt at humor. Unfortunately, it comes across as a petty, and somewhat mean, piece of fluff. With a little bit of thought and work, Ms. Marshall could have written a more meaningful article about the expat experience from the perspective of the women, many with extraordinarily varied backgrounds, who have chosen to live in Tokyo. If she had taken this alternate path, she would have discovered that the expat wives in Tokyo do not all fall into the one dimensional stereotype that she has chosen to portray here. The expats that I know represent many different cultural, professional and socio-economic backgrounds and all are not rich, self-absorbed automatons. This article took the easy path – regurgitating a longstanding, unflattering stereotype – and as a result, failed miserably.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/mishina/ mishina

    I have to agree there….it’s ridiculous, lol…..not every female expat wife lives the dream lifestyle here! Many of these so called expat wives are merely, or should I say were merely regular wives back in their home towns in what ever country they came from…transformed by a nice ‘package’ into the expat wife. I have met these women at various intervals in my life here in Tokyo, even hanging out with some at parties, only to be totally snubbed by them the next time we happen to meet in the street. Oh I’m not saying that all expat wife’s are all ‘beautiful hair and perfect nails’, I can get along with most of them to some degree, but to be honest I tend to steer clear of them because many of the ones I’ve met do tend to think of themselves slightly above us others; and that’s a fact.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/nkoritz/ nkoritz

    Brilliant! So true. My husband wants to come back in his next life as an Ex-Pat wife. Excellent writing.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/andreas22/ andreas22

    Interesting feedback. I am fitness expert and have personal experience of many EPWs . This is the the most honest description I have seen. Bravo!!! Don’t let them get you down Ulrica!! What’s next??

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/april/ april

    I would like to know what an alternate schedule for an expat wife should be. Maybe women fall into these patterns and behaviours because it’s the best way to cope with unemployment and an absent husband in a foreign country. The thing that annoyed me about this article is that it implies it’s easy to be an expat wife. Watching my husband leave for work every day while I’m Ieft to fill my hours yearning for a successful career I left behind is to be frank, depressing. Hanging at Starbucks and getting sparkly crap put on my nails may fill my day, but it is by no means fulfilling.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/krane22/ Daniel

    Haha, the tone of this article falls into is just as typical as what you try to describe. It is just as lazy and just as much of a hindrance (if not more) than refusing to learn the language. You will never see much of the inside of Japan; indeed you will never see much that is not inside of yourself, and that isn’t much. I can tell within the first few sentences of these kinds of pieces how well a person knows Japan.

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