Married to the Japanese Self Defense Force

Married to the Japanese Self Defense Force

How being married to a Japanese soldier isn't quite what one U.S. woman expected
Married to the self defense force sdf
Arwen and Masanori.

Like many love stories, this one begins with a chance meeting. It was Thanksgiving 2008 and Arwen Niles, a university English teacher in Chiba, was feeling homesick, so she and a friend went out to a darts bar. 

Across the room, Niles spotted three SDF soldiers having drinks and one of them in particular caught her eye.

She didn't speak any Japanese, but with the help of a little liquid courage, she marched up to the group and busted out the one phrase she knew: toire wa doko desu ka (where's the bathroom)?

Unfortunately, they were standing right next to the bathroom door.

“Masanori thought I was such an idiot, he didn't want to talk to me anymore,” recalls Niles.

Married to the self defense force sdfWalking a mile in her husband's shoes and camouflage.

Cornering a soldier

Still, she was not to be discouraged. With the guys locked out of the base for the night, everybody went back to her house to carry on with the party. She laughingly remembers cornering her crush in the living room.

“I kept moving closer and closer, and he was [moving away,] but eventually he hit the side of the sofa and he couldn't move anymore. I guess at that point he just gave up!”

Two years on, Niles and that shy soldier are married, and she finds herself in the uneasy role of a military wife. 

It's a position that requires her to navigate not only the well-documented pitfalls of cross-cultural marriage, but also the unknowns of life in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

The SDF's negative image

Most Japanese don't personally know anyone in the SDF and they tend to have a negative image of soldiers.

In a culture where non-violence is prized, it's hard to grasp why someone would choose the military path. Often they are seen as strange, square pegs in a country of round holes. 

Niles agrees, saying, “Japanese people are incredulous [when they hear about Masanori's job]. I have heard that I can do better than a jieitai man. I don't know what's supposed to be better -- someone better educated? With more earning power?” 

For her part, she thinks her husband's job is something to be proud of because it reveals the strengths of his character, like loyalty, commitment and discipline.

Her husband is, she says, a pretty simple guy. He is something of a homebody and likes to keep to himself. If he lacks the sharp ambition of your average salaryman, he makes up for it by placing similarly few demands on Niles. 

"There's no pressure for me to do anything I don't want to do, to work an unfulfilling job or be a nice little housewife. I can take classes -- yoga workshops, online courses. I can travel," Niles explains. 

"So while it used to baffle me that he didn't feel compelled for me to be out there 'doing' things all the time, now I really get to benefit from him just letting me 'be.'" 

Married to the self defense force sdfTanks fire as helicopters fly above during a live fire exercise by Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) at the foot of Mount Fuji.

Mission secrets

However, she will be the first to say that living with a military man can be tricky. 

First and foremost is the changeability of his schedule, which shifts every three months. He is away a lot for training and often has to leave on short notice to do things like climb Mt. Fuji in the middle of winter.

"We can't spend a lot of time indulging each other's interests and he has to cancel things last minute, which drives me crazy. I hate that we can't make plans for even the near future most of the time!" Niles says.

It's especially troublesome because Masanori can't always tell her where he is going to be or even what he is going to be doing, beyond the fact that he is doing training exercises.

She suspects, however, that he kind of likes this secret-agent aspect of his work, which can be a source of frustration when you come from a culture where more openness is expected between spouses.

Since the couple don't live on the base -- where some couples can apply for cheap housing -- and there are few work events, Niles doesn't really know any other wives who could commiserate and she doesn't have a network for support and information in the way U.S. military wives generally do.

“I had to come to terms with it,” she says. “He has this life he had before he met me, I have my life, and they don't mesh in the way I always thought our lives would.”

Married to the self defense force sdfA member of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force holds his children upon arrival at the Komaki Air Base in Aichi prefecture.

Permission for marriage

Masanori also reported that his superiors were not thrilled about him taking a non-Japanese wife.

One even suggested that Niles would have to nationalize in order for them to receive the usual spousal benefits.

This is not the case, but she did have to surrender a great deal of personal information regarding her finances, professional history and family background before the marriage was approved.

Considering the difficulties obtaining permission for the union, Niles had to think long and hard about Masanori's proposal.

She wanted her husband to be someone who brought out the best in her and who pushed her to be a better person than she could be alone, but this match was looking more constraining than empowering. 

It would mean giving a say in her life not just to another person, but also to an organization that remained mysterious and at times intimidating. And it would mean staying in Japan, far from her close-knit family.

She turned to them for advice, and in that ego-deflating way that parents sometimes have, her mom counseled her to rethink her expectations. "[She] pointed out that sometimes it's not as much about being able to bring out the best in someone as being able to handle them at their worst."

So with her family's support and keeping in mind Masanori's patience and knack for making her laugh even in the worst of moods, she decided to tie the knot this past June. 

“What really tipped the scales,” she explains, “was the realization that no matter what they say, nobody really knows how they are going to feel or what they are going to want five years from now, or 10 years or whatever. I'm not sure what will work for us, but somehow other couples seem to figure it out, so I suppose we will too.” 

Married to the self defense force sdfArwen and Masanori step out.

Looking ahead

Those may not exactly sound like the blissed-out words of a newlywed, but Niles prefers to think of it as a healthy dose of realism. 

"Our partnership is still pretty young, so it's hard to be too definitive -- and I'd like to take the optimistic route, as well -- but committing to Masanori and everything that comes along with him seems to be more of an exercise in acknowledging the truth than anything else," she says.

Not understanding or accepting the challenges of an international marriage and military life would be far more damaging in the long-term than recognizing them now, even if it means feeling a little ambivalent about her situation at times it seems.

"I'd be hard pressed to promise some kind of ever-after with a straight face, as if our love were magical enough to outmuster the SDF or our cultures or anything else," Niles explains. "But that's not unique to a situation like this, is it?"

After all, every couple faces challenges, and the best they can do is try and face them together.