English Speaking Nanny In Japan – 5 Things I Learned from Being a Nanny in Tokyo
What is it like working as a nanny for a traveling family in a big city? When I arrived in Tokyo eight months after quitting my publishing job and traveling the world, I had one goal – to do something I’d never done before. But I did not expect to learn as much as I did.
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After my arrival I started looking for a part-time job in Tokyo – on Craigslist, at recruitment agencies and by word of mouth – I found a nanny. With a lot of experience taking care of my dozens of nieces and nephews, it seemed like a breeze. “Famous last words,” I hear you all say. But I thought it would be interesting to see a different side of life in Tokyo – especially what it’s like to raise children as a foreign family in Japan.
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I started by posting a profile on a website called Great Au Pair that allows families and potential nannies to meet in cities around the world. City: Tokyo. Language: English. Experience: Non-Professional. I posted a photo and a little background about myself and hoped to find a nice family.
A few days later I was invited to meet a French family with two young daughters, 5 and 3 years old. I went to his house and we exchanged notes over a cup of tea. They raised their children bilingual and essentially native English speakers. The parents were smart, hard-working commuters – in fact, they needed a nanny because the mother was going back to work at the company. We made my initial decision and my life as a Tokyo nanny began.
I shadowed Mom for the first few days and she showed me the ropes. The family had only been in Tokyo for a few months, but their routine was already disrupted. The children were placed in French-language schools, where their friends were fellow citizens and children with one foreign parent.
Together we picked them up from school, played with them, fed them, bathed them and put them to bed. I took notes because I had a lot stuck in my head, from road directions and timetables to how often to wash my hair and when to wear socks.
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I wasn’t his doting aunt, but I wasn’t his strict teacher either; I was a childcare worker, but part of the family, more of an individual role.
Although their well-ordered lives seemed logical, I managed to mess things up in the first few weeks and quickly realized that what was normal for one person could be new for another. It took some effort to remember to make the kids wear slippers in the house to keep their grandkids running barefoot in the fields to keep their feet from getting cold.
At first I wasn’t sure how Nani looked in detail – I wasn’t his doting aunt, but I wasn’t his strict teacher either. I was a childcare worker, but part of a family, more of a personal role than when I worked at a daycare center. I was nervous the whole time.
It took time for Mom and I to find our communication groove and figure out what needed to be explained; Some things only became clear when I didn’t do them or did them differently.
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Although I’m not much of a texter in my regular life, I quickly learned that it’s best to be careful when someone has left their children in your care. Mom checked in frequently and I responded to her level of communication by telling her when I was leaving to pick them up from school, when they were successfully pulled out, and how their moods and activities changed.
The boys and I also looked for each other’s feet. The oldest spoke English, but the youngest did not. This language barrier made it difficult for me to instruct her and comfort her.
For example, in the first few weeks, when I started picking her up from kindergarten without her mother, she cried hysterically. She will put herself in such a position that some days I do not hope she will believe me. Her teacher and the other mothers (who all speak French) were able to calm her down, but I found her lack of mother tongue a hindrance.
Finally, one day when she saw me, her lower lip quivered—and then stopped. I was over the moon. After about a month, she was happily speaking to me in French and picking up a few English words.
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As the girls got more comfortable with me, they started testing my limits. I wanted to figure out something that no doubt every parent learns through trial and error: when to be strict and when to let up.
They were really well behaved, but they were still small. One day a girl got off the bus in a huff and when I refused to buy a snack from the store because we already had some, there was a small commotion in the street. Other days he thought it was fun to run ahead to the train station.
Stations in particular became battlefields. I braced myself before every trip. The ride was only two stops, but the kerala at both ends made it seem long. Trying to bend an uncooperative pram, tending to two bouncing children as people ran after us on the narrow Idabashi road, carrying prams and schoolbooks up the stairs (keep one hand free in case one trips) – all felt Herculean.
I was surprised how often – in a harmonious society like Japan – people hold on to the past.
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A Japanese officer noticed my daily struggles and started helping him. “Help?” he would say, by way of offer, and sweep the cart away. Unfortunately, he was the only person who ever offered. I was surprised how often – in a harmonious society like Japan – people hold on to the past. I always decided to help someone in the future if I saw them in my shoes.
I also understand why parents in Tokyo put their babies in carriers. As I watched young mothers get off the train and shop for groceries with their babies strapped to their chests—while I wheeled the stroller—I wished it was small enough for my 3-year-old to carry.
One night, the youngest slipped in the bathtub and broke her front tooth. It was a minor disaster. Her mother was at home, so she administered first aid. But she also asked many questions: How did this happen? Why did she jump? I was horrified that it was on my watch. Should I have been more strict?
The parents were obviously upset, but they were sensible people and realized it was an accident. However, when I left home, I was in tears, disappointed and worried that this would ruin our relationship.
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I texted a local friend with the kids. “No matter what you do, kids will get hurt,” she assured me.
The younger one had been wary of me for a few days, associating me with the “teeth incident”. The tooth healed after some time on soft food. I felt a little nervous around Mom, worried that she would trust me less, but everything quickly returned to normal.
Suddenly, it was my last week. I’d been offered an editing job at an English newspaper (one of the recruitment agencies I’d applied to a few months before had contacted me out of the blue) and while I was torn about leaving the girls, it was the career opportunity I’d dreamed of. On my last day, they were so excited to see their grandparents that they didn’t need to know I wasn’t coming back. Ironically, they were sweeter than ever, hugging and kissing my cheeks.
I waved them off sadly. But after the emotional rollercoaster of our short two months, I also felt like I could take a breather and take a moment to reflect on all the great things I had learned.
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I learned about differences in household routines, the importance of asking questions, and how to communicate boundaries and expectations when at least one person in the room doesn’t speak your language. I learned time management in a busy city like Tokyo (the schools here are waiting for us!). This attitude has served me well in my current work – and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.
But my respect for all the childcare workers and teachers in Tokyo grew as I watched them work long hours in small spaces, pouring their hearts into the children they were responsible for – even harder.
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