“So, why Japan?”

When you think of Western expats living in Japan, what comes to mind?

Go ahead, you can say it:

Manga geeks. Anime devotees. And, most of all, Western men on the singular mission of getting a Japanese girlfriend/wife. Protest all you want, I just said what many of us were thinking.

None of those things are bad! They’re just the stereotypes. And it’s easy to see why: each of those types of people has a particular fascination with Japan, a specific reason to come and make a life here.

Which brings me to a small problem I’ve been facing: many Japanese coworkers and friendly strangers expect me to have a special cultural interest that brought me here. Last week, when I met the principal of one of my schools, we sat down to chat over some cold tea and one of her first questions was: So what is your #1 interest in Japan?

I was caught off guard and ended up answering lamely, “Learning Japanese.” I could feel her wanting me to say “tea ceremony,” “karate” or “Arashi,” and no matter how much I think about it, there’s nothing like that that really resonates with me.

So, if we’re talking about my reasons for coming here, let’s just get the pragmatic one out of the way: yes, I just graduated and am still not sure what to do with my life and the job market back home is abysmal. Yes! No shame! For a year, I can support myself, and if it happens to be in Japan, so be it.

But beyond that, what I failed to explain to the principal and to many other people here is that my interest isn’t so much in Japan as in the world beyond the United States in general. I don’t want to live here forever; I know deep down that my home is America and that’s where I’ll be long-term. But I do love the challenge of living in another country. I’ve always loved learning other languages, learning to express myself in new ways, and examining the ways culture determines how people live their lives.

But if the interest is that general, why did I end up in Japan? I guess I feel a sort of affinity with the culture of politeness, as overbearing and tedious as it may be. As an introvert, as someone who worries about pleasing others, I feel a little more comfortable here than in the U.S., where inflated individualism is a major influence (to say the least!). Maybe I’ll expand on this in another post.

But even if I knew how to explain that in Japanese, I’m not sure it would really satisfy people. “Your culture is good for quiet people like me.” Hmmm.

So is it bad that I don’t have a passion for anything uniquely Japanese? Is it my responsibility to have a keen interest in the nation I’m now a part of (even if I’m still kind of a guest)?


5 responses to ““So, why Japan?”

  1. Totally feel you on the introvert angle…and I effing haaaate when people assume its the wife/girlfriend thing…

    • Yeah, I’ve noticed that the JET community tends not to fit the stereotype so much. I think for many of us, Japan was more of a sudden opportunity than a lifelong passion…

      • I mean, I actually had significant interest in Japan before coming here for the first time in ’09, but that interest just isn’t so easily defined. My family has a history of taking an interest in cultures totally removed from ones in our own family heritage. My mom studied Russian and French, and my dad studied Arabic and Chinese at one point. None of those languages are from countries we have any relation to heritage-wise, but I think it just comes more from being internationally-minded than anything else. I happen to find Japanese aesthetics and history pretty interesting and I enjoy certain Japanese traditions like kendo, but not BECAUSE they’re Japanese per se…I dunno, it’s hard to explain but I sympathize with your sentiment.

  2. Yes! You just expressed it better than I did. 🙂

  3. When my supervisor asked me, I was really honest and said “it’s hard to find a job with a major in art”. She just nodded with understanding and then started talking to me about how she saw a lot of artists on the street with their little cans for change when she visited New York and San Francisco. lol :c

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