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Why we came to Japan — a different realm

by Amy Chavez

“Why did you come to Japan?” We’ve all been asked this question. I still can’t give a good answer.

I certainly know why I came here, but such a point-blank question, usually from someone you hardy know, calls for an equal and reticent answer. Thus, we tend to say what we think our questioner wants to hear: “I came to work,” or “I came to teach English,” etc. But our reasons for coming to Japan are likely more profound. After all, most of us could have stayed in our own countries to work. Some of our predecessors came to fight wars, occupy and help rebuild. Others came seeking a better life. But my generation came to study, to teach, to experience or sometimes just to understand their own ancestors.

Some of us are running away from something at home: love, family, or responsibility. Some of us are the first in our family to ever go abroad. Others are living the life their parents only dreamed of. And some of us are doing nothing of the sort. But one thing is for sure: We came to Japan because we wanted to step into a different realm.

We were bright, we were young, we were full of wonder. We wanted to know: What’s out there? We wanted to step off the airplane and feel the first moonstones beneath our feet. And even now, when we go home, people ask us: What’s it like over there?

We came to Japan because we wanted to know what it’s like to walk down her streets, to feel the history of the samurai, or the sexiness of a geisha sashaying in geta. We came to have our photos taken in front of torii gates and temples and to seek the meaning of dragons, giant Buddhas and ancient Shinto ways.

And this we share with others who have been doing for centuries, just like my great grandfather did when he came to Japan. He purchased Japanese kimono for his two young daughters and when he returned to the U.S., he dressed them and took their photos. This brief, unlikely moment — of my grandmother and her sister as young girls, wearing kimono and holding a parasol between them — is indelible in my mind now because of this photo that hung on the wall in the house I grew up in.

And when we arrive in Japan, depending on our expectations, we either reach for the life jacket or we jump into the rescue boat. We either choose assisted swimming, or a complete return to safety. Some of us will be wowed by the country while others will be disappointed. Some of us will be fascinated and intrigued to the point of wanting to prolong the adventure, while others will prefer to retrace their steps, returning to security of home and family.

Those of us who are frustrated because we can’t find the right shampoo, that we can’t do even the simplest transaction at the bank, or who don’t like sucking up to their bosses, will go home soon. Those of us who are fascinated by all the different kinds of shampoo, and will buy even the last odd bottle on the shelf of the old ladies’ decrepit corner shop, will stay.

Those of us who have a taste for seafood appendages will stay while those repulsed by the same will leave. Those who see the language as a challenge to embrace will stay while those who fear the language barrier, unless they find an assistant, may leave. Those who fall in love will stay while those who don’t may leave.

But we all enjoy our stint living in Japan, a cradle of politeness. Politeness, so often a case of mistaken identity, is not the Please-Thank you kind of politeness, but culturally defined by roles, manuals and rigorous training. Walk into any restaurant and the Way of Politeness orchestra begins. Yet some of us will condemn this politeness for its lack of sincerity. Some will insist that a smile should be genuine. So some of us will go back to where we came from, where the people may be more rude, but they are sincere in their rudeness.

Others of us will understand that the fake politeness is exactly the point. We aren’t always polite because we want to be polite, but because we should be polite. If someone says something we disagree with, is it our duty to disagree? Or can we just quietly, politely, accept their views even though they are not our own?

When we learn Japanese, one of the first things we are told is not to use the word hate. It is too strong. And so it is, in any language. Yet in English it so freely rolls off the tongue: I hate fish! I hate school! I hate that guy! Can we be proud of hating something? Isn’t hate, rather, a sign of weakness?

Japan teaches us that there are many ways to act and react. And that we are not limited to our own. We are presented with a plethora of discernments we never thought we had before, notions of ganbaru (doing our best), shoganai (leaving some things to fate) and kawaii (cuteness). We are challenged by concepts long forgotten such as shyness, stoicism, and modesty. Some peculiarities we may never understand such as shrill female voices, obsession with character goods and the next TV tarento. Yet these are the moonstones we’ve stepped onto as we stepped into this other realm. You don’t have to choose them. But then again, you can.

We all had that curiosity — what’s out there?

So when we do go home, if we do go home, we are changed. That’s why we came to Japan.

OK, on to the next question, “How long stay Japan?”