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Lost in Translation one Year in Japan

Leaving behind the land of the rising sun meant leaving my home away from home, and the site of so much adventure, friendship, laughter, frustration, bafflement, and personal growth – or so I’d like to hope.

It’s funny how you come to a place and think you can kind of predict what it’ll be like – the sort of life you’ll have there, the sort of things you’ll learn, what you’ll have to show for it at the end, and so on. What I’ve realized though, is that in almost all of those areas, when it came to Tokyo, I was completely wrong.

I have loved and hated Japan for none of the reasons that I thought I would. And although I can’t quite remember what it was that made me come here in the first place – probably some sort of combination of being given the “Useless Japanese Inventions” book by my cousin years and years ago for my birthday; seeing the Fruits Harajuku travelling fashion exhibit; reading and loving Memoirs of a Geisha; the ‘Simpsons go to Japan’ episode; and Lost in Translation.

Maybe it was all of them, maybe none, but I know that when I came to Tokyo, I knew nothing. In many ways, as always, I think that if I’d known everything about it that I know now, I wouldn’t have had the … what word am I looking for? The ‘ganbate’ (the ‘you can do it’ attitude) to actually do it.

And that is not to say it’s particularly hard. My god, Japan is probably the easiest place for a gaijin (a ‘foreigner’) to live in! People stay here for years, as their egos thrive on the superficial adoration of countless nihonjin (Japanese), as they pick up everyone that moves (and ideally breathes at the same time!); as they justify their job of being “English teachers” with the air of people who spend day in, day out, being admired and placed on a pedestal for nothing more than being able to speak a language they were born to speak.

Learning Japanese is an option – one that most gaijin don’t bother too much with – because why bother? Even I find, with my rather minimal knowledge of their language, that many Japanese people prefer the mystery of talking to someone who doesn’t make any effort to learn the language – even if I asked a question in perfect Japanese, the answer would always be directed to one of my non-Japanese speaking friends, whose blank smiles and blond hair were infinitely more appealing..

But the idolization of everything foreign is, unsurprisingly, an excellent confidence boost. There’s something to be said for being surrounded everywhere by perfectly manicured people, while no matter how long I’ve spent getting ready, the feeling that I still look like a bum has never left me. And yet, in spite of all that, as a foreigner, you are still constantly checked out, constantly complimented on your (nonexistent in reality) kawainess (cuteness), on your eyes, your hair, your freckles – in fact, pick a feature that’s at all different from those they see in themselves, and your instant appeal is a given.

Except of course that anything ‘different’ or ‘individual’ in themselves is, for the vast majority of cases, crushed and forgotten. Individuality is a non-issue in this country. The first indication of a poor understanding of the Japanese language being the constant use of the word “I” or “watashi” by foreigners. A native Japanese speaker would almost never name themselves in a subject, which often makes understanding what they’re on about a strenuous activity – themselves, you, the neighbor’s dog? Who knows.

But the most surprising anti-individual discovery for me was the fashion – I had thought of Japanese fashion as the ultimate form of self-expression in an incredibly visually-stimulated society, but what I discovered was that the only reason people dress a certain way is that by NOT dressing that way, they would stand out. It’s fashion assimilation – whether your style is “young, trendy mother” – with the ultimate baby accessory; “Harajuku goth” – with a $400 price tag on your outfit; “Shibuya freak” – complete with orange skin, panda eyes and fluro green hair; “hip-hop wannabe” – covered in bling to the max; “construction worker” – in giant pants and a towel around your head; “hippy”; “corporate”; you name it. There is no individuality in dressing specifically with the purpose of indentifying and being identified with a certain group. It turned out to be just another Japanese illusion.

When I had been in Japan for just 5 weeks, a friend from work asked me to give him an interview for a radio documentary he was making about foreigners living in Japan, and after I’d been there for nearly a year, he played it back to me. My god, what a difference a year makes! How quickly one goes from being completely wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, from seeing absolutely everything as one big bubble of brilliance …

For me, being in Japan was much like being in a year-long relationship.. in my wanna-be Carrie Bradshaw mind-frame, Tokyo became for me what New York City is for her – though of course without the lengthy and complex history. When I first came here I was so completely overwhelmed, so overjoyed and lust-ridden for everything to do with Tokyo. Every day brought with it new discoveries, and every discovery only worked to convince me that I had found true love.

But of course, as we all know, true love is not so simple, and after spending some quality one-on-one time with Tokyo, I discovered so many things that I didn’t like, that I even thought about ending it all on several occasions – going back to something familiar from the past, or perhaps something new and unknown.

I criticized Tokyo to all who’d listen, especially those in a similar position, I took time out – a trial separation if you will – by leaving a few times, but something kept dragging me back. And eventually, my feelings moved on to the next level. I started to love Tokyo in spite of all its flaws – perhaps even because of them. I began making fun of it only with those who felt the same, and defending it bitterly to all those on the outside.

I absolutely loved my time in Japan and ended it at its peak – and I really do miss it, oh so much. I miss the delicious foods, the great desserts, the convenience stores on every corner, selling multitudes of onegiris (cheap and delicious sushi triangles). I miss the convenience of trains never being more that 30 seconds late, the aesthetics of everything – the incredible gardens, the understated nature, the flashing lights. Shibuya, Harajuku, Kichijoji, Asakusa, Tsunashima, Nakameguro.

I miss being instantly recognized by all, being called sensei by my students, miss speaking Japanese and especially hearing it. I miss the crazy ads, the mystery of living in a place where so much of everything is completely beyond me, where even the simplest task can become a complete comedy of errors. I will miss the friends I made here – both foreign and Japanese – people who filled my time with more laughter, fun, silliness and drama than I ever could have imagined. People who were, for a year, so much more than just friends – who were my family, my lovers, my community, my support network – my replacement for everything I’d left behind.

And so Japan and I move on – but it wasn’t sayonara – just matane – see you soon. I’ll be back. Itekimasu – I’m leaving home.