Tokyo Daddy Issues: The Season of Hot-Weather Friends

There comes a special time every year when you finally call all those people that you never call enough. It is not Christmas and it’s not their birthdays. It’s the time called Summer Vacation. That’s the time you need all the friends you can get. If you are a parent of a school or preschool age child, that is.

The Secret Formula of Foreign Friendship

If you are such a parent, you are lucky, because you make new friends all the time. You chat them up (or they chat you up) at the community center, with your feet in the jabu jabu ike, at the mall’s toy store that you can never walk by without getting trapped for at least half an hour. It happens between foreigners and Japanese, but it works best between just foreigners. Without children, foreigners here often approach each other with a sense of suspicion and competition. With kids, however, it’s a warm, fuzzy love fest right from the start. Foreigner + child meets other foreigner + child = instant friendship. You talk, you laugh, you promise to stay in touch, you add your new acquaintances as Line friends.

And then you never Line them. It’s nothing personal. You probably genuinely liked them, maybe you even believed for a second that this time it will be different, that you will write that message, send a sticker, make the call. But then Daily Life happens, and, fiendishly and unexpectedly, it keeps doing so day after day after day. Maintaining friendships simply becomes one of many chores, and not a high-priority one among professional obligations and the duties of parenthood. Before you know it, too much time will have passed, and it will be too awkward to call.

“You can come with us to the Cancer Research Center tomorrow, our daughter is so much looking forward to it”

Then there is that magical time called Summer Vacation. Now your despair is stronger than your fear of awkwardness or rejection. And that’s okay, because those half-forgotten, almost imaginary friends on the other end of the app are just as desperate as you are. It doesn’t matter how you actually word your call or your message, what you really are saying is: “Please help me entertain my kids, I have completely forgotten how to spend entire days with them! I will help you with yours – it’s not a one-way street!”

Usually that works out fine, we are all in the same boat after all. Sometimes you will have something planned that your hot-weather friends will be happy to join, other times it will be the other way around. You might meet at the rooftop playground of Musashikosugi’s Grand Tree shopping center, before it gets too hot, or at the Kid-o-Kid indoor playground one floor below, when the heat takes its toll. You might treat your kids to the toy and play section at Oimachi’s sprawling Labi, and yourself to some consumer electronics gazing. You might enjoy a miniature train ride in Setagaya park, or the shade and water fun at Rinshi no Mori. You don’t need adult company for any of this, but sometimes having another grown-up to talk to makes all the difference.

Occasionally you might hit the wall of incompatibility, though. Recently a casually acquainted mom told me: “You can come with us to the Cancer Research Center tomorrow, our daughter is so much looking forward to it. She wants to be a scientist.”

I had to decline: “Our daughter still wants to be a princess, or a Maori warrior.” New Zealand had been the latest topic in her preschool’s country studies. “We will just go to a park where she can work on her haka routine.”

Convenience Be Damned

Two of the reasons why it is so hard to stay in touch in Tokyo are the city’s sheer size and its public transport system. The latter mostly lives up to its reputation, meaning it is quite excellent. That is the problem. It spoils us, makes us lazy. Exploring the city, which might involve changing trains once in a while, is something for young folks.

When you reach a certain age, you realize that there is so much to do and enjoy along the single train line that runs by your house. You don’t really feel the need or desire to change trains ever again, or at least that is what you are telling yourself. Your potential new friends you will be telling (maybe not in those exact same words): “Oh, you don’t live on Den-en-toshi Line? Sorry, then we can’t see each other anymore.”

Stop Being Cool

Why hang with other parents anyway? Because it makes sense. People without kids tend to mock the fact that their friends who do have kids suddenly start gravitating towards other people with kids. They deem those new friendships more superficial than regular friendships, born out of convenience and despair. Becoming a parent is bad enough, but befriending other parents is a step too far. You have irrevocably stopped being cool. That is the theory.

That theory is wrong. Here is a better one: Sharing the joys and irritations of parenthood is a much more fertile ground for friendship than sharing a fondness for the same music genre or edgy TV show, or whatever else it is that childless friendships are based on (I forgot).

But don’t we parent friends only ever talk about toilet mishaps, family getaways and the rising costs of quality education? Yes, pretty much. And why shouldn’t we talk about those things, which are essential parts of the human experience? I can’t see how these topics are less worthy than pondering which character will be beheaded next week in some preposterous, made-up TV spectacle.

So let us enjoy our bond while it lasts, meaning those few hot weeks or months in summer, when our vacationing children force us together. We will see each other again. Not for Christmas, not for sakura season, but for next year’s summer vacation. And if not, then we will see somebody else from our bottomless collection of untapped Line friends.

Photograph: Shutterstock

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