Planning and preparing to meet the parents of your girlfriend is a stressful event in any culture, but in Japan it can be even more serious. Meeting the parents is a major step in a serious relationship and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. There is no need to overthink things though if you keep these tips in mind. That way you can actually relax and enjoy yourself in front of her and her parents, and this is the best way to make a good impression at the end of the day.
First of all, talk about the planned visit with your girlfriend. You should both be on the same page as to the reason for visiting and the expected outcome. There are any number of reasons why you might be visiting with her parents for the first time. These range from the very casual, as in they just happen to be stopping by, or they are in town for a business trip and want to say hello, to the very serious, as in you are specifically going to meet them in order to ask for her hand in marriage.
Each situation requires a slightly different approach, but in case of doubt expect to be a little bit more formal with her parents than you would be with an unfamiliar older couple. In other words, the more respect you show her parents, the more that they will tend to like you because they believe that you will also be respectful to their precious daughter. Whether you plan to marry her or not, it is always good advice to stay on the good side of her parents, if for no other reason than this will score major points for you and put you in her good graces for a long time to come.
Talk With Her Before You Meet Them
As I already mentioned, you both want to understand why you are planning to meet her parents. You don’t want to give her the wrong impression and you should both be very clear about expectations. You will also want to discuss things like where you are going to meet them, or if you are going to stay over with them at their house, are there any house rules that maybe you should be aware of before the visit. Japanese families can be very particular and sometimes even traditional or conservative. Also, many rules that are obvious to them might not be to you, so be sure to gather as much information as possible. These rules could be as simple as the well-known fact that you should take your shoes off when entering their house, to more complicated rituals regarding who should take the first drink. It is good to be prepared and know at least a few of these common courtesies, but if you don’t remember them all, don’t worry, you are their guest and they will likely be very grateful to you for visiting them in the first place.
Another great reason to sit down and talk with her about her parents is to get to know them better before you meet them. It is good to know as much about them as possible so that you can give them a good impression. Also make sure you learn as much about her siblings and any other family members as you can. It will impress her parents a lot if you ask about her brothers and sisters and even know their names. Make sure that you ask her about her mom’s favorite colors and maybe her decorating style and about any hobbies that both her mother and her father have. These questions can come in handy when you are making conversation with them later on. Also, these kind of tips can help you pick out a culturally appropriate gift to give them when you meet. Gift giving in Japan is a very important way of showing gratitude and respect and a good gift can really go a long way to making a good impression.
Your girlfriend and her parents will probably protest and say that you don’t need to bring anything, but don’t believe them. You might be used to bringing wine or flowers as gifts, and these aren’t bad ideas, but Japanese people are a little bit more creative when it comes to gift giving. Try to find out as much about her parents as possible and pick something that you think might match their taste. You won’t want to spend more than $50 and more likely around $30 is a good target. Often, when visiting people in Japan it is customary to bring a gift or souvenir from your local area. If your girlfriend’s father is a big baseball fan, a baseball cap from your local team might be a good idea. Other than that, local food and sweets are always a sure bet. If there is a famous local chocolate factory or sweet shop and you could bring something from there, the whole family can then enjoy it together.
In Japan, the wrapping is almost as important as the contents. If you buy something for them in Japan, make sure that you get it wrapped and they will do an excellent job. If it is from overseas, either get it wrapped in Japan, or ask your girlfriend if she knows the most appropriate way to wrap it in a ‘furoshiki’ or cloth. There are a whole set of cultural rules about these including colors and patterns for different seasons and occasions. If you are bringing something already wrapped from overseas, just make sure that it is as beautifully wrapped and presentable as possible.
In Japan, it would be traditional to wear a suit the first time you meet her parents. This might be overkill in your case, though and they might find it a bit strange. Instead, opt for something casual but clean and tidy. Avoid wearing sneakers or t-shirts for example. Polo shirts and clean and tidy jeans should be the basic level of clothing you should aim for. If you are going for a dinner or any other special occasion, a button-down shirt is usually recommended. If you are going to ask for her parent’s permission to marry their daughter you might want to opt for the full suit as is traditional.
In Japanese there is a respectful form of the language that you use when talking to older people or people in a position of power like government officials, university professors, or in this case your girlfriend’s parents. Luckily, you probably won’t be speaking Japanese, but if you do want to impress them, they will appreciate any effort you might make in this department. Learn a few key greetings like Konnichiwa and Ogenki desu ka (how are you?) at the very least. If you have learned any rude or irreverent Japanese words, it is best to keep them to yourself instead of trying to crack a joke with them like you might want to do if you get nervous. Remember, too, that saying I love you has a different connotation in Japanese and is essentially much more private so you don’t need to say that in front of her parents. Keep it cool and stick to basic and polite topics of conversation. If you are stuck, just keep asking them questions and let them do most of the talking.
Offer to be Helpful and Compliment the Cook
If your Japanese girlfriend’s mom is cooking, make sure to ask her if she needs any help, but of course she will inevitably decline. Just offer to be as helpful as possible in any way you can. If you are eating her food remember to compliment her on how delicious the food is. The meal might contain some items that are strange or foreign to you but do your best to finish everything.
Family dynamic can be tricky at the best of times, and even more difficult to assess when it is not your own. Definitely do your best to avoid any touchy subjects and keep your strongest opinions to yourself. If any arguments break out between you and any of her family members, do your best to back down and keep your cool. If there appears to be some family drama happening between other members of the family just stay out of it. Remember that you are there as a guest and want to make your best impression so you don’t need to be a peacekeeper.
Of course you will want to avoid discussing any intimate details about your personal life with your girlfriend. Japanese families tend to respect privacy so this won’t likely be an issue. It is probably a good idea to have a nice and polite way to talk about how you met and a few nice dates that you went on. Hopefully you took our advice and figured out one of these great date spots to go on your first date and came out of it with a nice and romantic story to tell.
Also, avoid any personal issues or health issues about her or her family that you might know about. Finally, the most likely awkward moment might come from her father and mother asking you when you two will marry. If you aren’t ready to take this step it is much better to be vague and redirect the conversation. You might say how much you love her and how happy you are that you met. Even though it is rare to talk about love openly in Japanese culture. Talk about any other big steps that you are taking such as moving in together or any planned vacations you have together but avoid the marriage button as it will surely set both of her parents off.
With these tips in mind, just remember to be on your best behavior and not to get drunk or disorderly and make the most of your time with her parents. If you are prepared and keep calm the visit is sure to go smoothly and score major points in all of their eyes and leave them with a big smile and a gracious bow.