When people write about the experiences of foreign residents in Japan, they nearly always do so in terms of the binary relationship between their home culture and the new Japanese one they are experiencing and absorbing.
This is grounded in the notion of the home culture as a known, fixed identity (though home cultures are in truth neither truly known or fixed) and Japan as an unknown culture, which can enrich the visitor through exploration — and sometimes this journey of exploration can be a lifelong one.
But I would like to suggest that there is another aspect of this relationship between two cultures that is very rarely written about, which is its tendency to push people in the direction of a third cultural relationship somehow linked to the other two cultures.
Over the years, I have witnessed many visitors to Japan go the whole hog and steep themselves in the language and culture and find themselves blissfully happy doing so. But I have also observed a considerable number of people use their experience of life in Japan as a conduit to a third culture or set of cultures.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You quite often see people who come to Japan in their 20s to teach English, but who are slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of learning Japanese. It requires a huge amount of time and effort — so at some point they give up and abandon the idea: They simply do not wish to put in all the long years required for complete fluency.
But the appeal of mastering a foreign language has been planted and remains strong in their mind, and so they decide to attempt a language that they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as being easier to learn.
In my experience, the “substitute” language chosen is nearly always Spanish. I have known so many English-language visitors to Japan who have gone on to move to a Spanish-speaking country and devote themselves to Spanish that it is a wonder the Cervantes Institute is not paying royalties to the Japanese government.
Here but mentally far away
This form of “Japan-refraction” is by no means limited to a frustration with learning the language and ultimately leaving the country. There are plenty of examples of people who while actually living in Japan have developed passionate interests in other parts of the world.
I had an Irish friend who, while teaching in Japan, developed a life-transforming interest in the Middle East. He read well over 100 books on the subject and began posting articles on the subject in newspapers and on websites across the world. He had never lived in any part of the Middle East and, apart from brief trips, all his knowledge was gained from books read in a flat in Osaka. Yet he could debate the often highly controversial issues with some of the leading experts in the world.
He was far from alone in this regard — Japan is a hotbed of anti-establishment thinking on Middle East politics and home to vloggers with hundreds of thousands of viewers. One town in Nara Prefecture is rumored to have an entire colony of iconoclastic Western commentators.
There are several reasons for this phenomenon. One is simply economic: Teaching in Japan allows enough time and space to nurture one’s passions and interests. My Irish friend used to teach just two or three days a week and spend the rest of the time conducting research on the politics of Iran, Syria and Israel.
But the psychological impact of the surrounding Japanese culture is also surely a key factor. There is a school of foreign inhabitants of Japan who reject the standard path of devoting themselves to the study of Japan. Perhaps, like the language, they consider it too much of a commitment, but more likely they simply can not find in it a means of expressing their own individualism and interests. As so-called foreign “Japan experts” are two a penny in Japan, they aspire to be something else.
Yet the frustration and isolation engendered in being in an “alien culture” acts as a considerable spur to their ambition to fully master a third cultural relationship. More than that, away from the noise and babble of their home culture, being in Japan offers a kind of silent space in which to think and be themselves.
This has, I think, nothing at all to do with being “disrespectful” of Japan, and works equally well in the reverse direction. I have a Japanese friend — a brilliant author — who once lived in an anonymous suburb of London. He had relatively few English friends but saw his English base as the perfect place in which to concentrate on his writings, such as his book on a famous Hungarian pianist and her wartime imprisonment in Indonesia, dreaming of subjects on the other side of the world during a different historical era. London was simply acting as a protective womb to his creative talent.
Another American friend who used to live in Osaka is one of the most knowledgeable people about 20th-century world history I have ever met. There seems to be no small nation in any corner of the world you could name that he could not tell you about what was happening there in the 1920s or 1950s. How on Earth does he hold so much knowledge in his head?
Yet after 15 years in Japan, he spoke hardly any Japanese, and one time when I happened to mention the 16th-century unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi — one of the most famous figures in Japanese history — I was astonished to discover he had never heard of him. This was rather like living in the U.S. for 15 years and never having heard of George Washington.
But here was another example of a person for whom living in Japan acted as means for them to nurture their true interests — modern world history in his case.
Learning from the samurai
Foreign residents who develop idiosyncratic interests in this way are actually following the lead of the Japanese themselves. Japan is known throughout the world for its work ethic, but it should be equally known as a place that is extraordinarily nurturing and supporting of personal interests, no matter how seemingly outlandish and incongruous.
Take just about any interest you can think of — Sherlock Holmes devotees, tango and flamenco dancers, traditional Irish music players — and you will find the Japanese in the front rank of enthusiasts throughout the world. I was recently amused — though not surprised — to discover that the British Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell has her own appreciation society in Japan.
This passionate belief in the importance of personal hobbies and interests — even above and beyond working occupation — is deeply grounded in Japanese culture. It can be traced back to the samurai ethic of regarding pursuits done merely for the sake of money as demeaning and unworthy. Applying oneself to a “way” (a belief system or interest), done for its own sake, and cultivated with the highest standards of care and excellence, is a profoundly Japanese style of viewing the world.
All the time in Japan, you see examples of people who have reinvented themselves while they are here. That “reinvention” may not necessarily involve a particular interest in Japanese culture, yet may still have benefited in subtle, unnoticed ways from Japanese attitudes toward personal development.
The list of distinguished authors who have “found themselves” in Japan, from the English novelist Angela Carter to the American writer Jay McInerney, is relatively well known. The Irish author Lafcadio Hearn expressed it best in his essay “My First Day in the Orient,” in which after absorbing the bewildering stimuli of sights and sounds around him, he climbed 100 steps and discovered at the heart of a temple a mirror with which to view his own face.
One of the hallmarks of a truly great civilization is that it affords the visitor the time and space to be anything they want to be, to reinvent themselves on a blank slate, and allows their voice to sing. It invites you not to just to learn about that culture, but ends up informing your thinking about all cultures. It is an aspect of Japan you very rarely hear discussed, but it is in fact one of the key aspects of this country that should be prized above all others.
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IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5