One of the hardest questions that people in Japan ask me is also one of the first questions I received, and one of the most common for every expatriate living here. The question: Why did you come to Japan?
Every time I hear this, I have to ask the same thing to myself. And despite any seemingly logical explanation I can piece together based on a variety of reasons, in the end there is no clean answer. But I know for sure that this is where I want to be and where I should be.
I had an interest in Asian culture in general starting in high school, and from my university days onward I poured my efforts into studying Japanese language, literature, history and culture. I was driven by the need to be different from the America I saw around me, which to me seemed to be falling apart little by little. I studied at Waseda in Tokyo while living with my host family in Nippori, and I grew ever more fascinated with everything about Japan. Upon returning to the United States to finish my studies, I knew that I was only killing time before going back to Japan after graduation. I ended up crossing back over here without any job, stuck in the intolerant, backwater town of Toyama (a place I will never return to), and eventually I made my way to Osaka and subsisted on instant ramen and instant yakisoba until I found my first real job.
But perhaps I’m getting off track. These are some of the underlying reasons that I came to Japan and the process that led me here, but they don’t explain what prompted me to choose Japan and Japanese to begin with.
This is where things get even more complex and less clear. As I mentioned, there were many things about American culture I felt uncomfortable with, and one of those was the seeming inability of people to learn other languages and participate in an internationalized world. My older sister was a huge inspiration for me (whether she knows it or not), because her long pursuit of the Spanish language and her time studying abroad (during which time I visited her, giving me my first real chance to see a foreign country) showed me that there is so much to do and see if one is able to live comfortably within another culture. When I entered college, I was determined to make the most of myself, and one of my main goals was to master a language. Because of my aforementioned interest in Asian culture (still a foggy cluster of misconceptions and romantic ideas), I took both Korean and Japanese language classes, and finding both languages along with a music major too much to handle, I stuck with Japanese, which interested me at the time mainly because of its kanji characters. No, I’m not joking: despite how much most Westerners hate memorizing kanji, I absolutely loved it from the start. After the music major fizzled out, I experiment for a while and found that history was of great interest to me, particularly Japanese history. I also found myself in love with Japanese literature, which I could only read in translation at the time, and it was one of my major goals to learn to read fluently so I could enjoy classic and modern literature in its original language (something I have accomplished and am deeply grateful for).
But even after I’ve explained all this, many people will continue to push for a better answer: Why Japanese and not another language? Even if you preferred Asia, you could have studied any Asian language. Why did you choose a place like Japan? And it is at this point that I find myself stumped. The only real answer I have is that I felt it in my gut, and I followed my instinct. In the end, I just felt it was my calling to come here, and I still feel that strongly today. Many people struggle to figure out what they want in life, but for me, that thing in life seems to have found me.
I was born in the United States, I spent my youth there, and my family and many close friends are still there. In ethnic terms, I am basically American. But in cultural and mental terms, I am more Japanese, and many of my personality traits that people claim are “very Japanese” are traits have been with me since I was young. These traits always made me feel somewhat out of place living in the United States. I suppose I could easily live in either country, but Japan, where I have spent my adult life, is where I have come to feel most at home. It’s an undeniable fact that most Japanese people, when seeing me for the first time, will look at my face and see me as a gaijin (foreigner), but I’m willing to put up with that.
Nowadays, when asked why I came to Japan, I tend to give a simplified answer in order to avoid tedious explanation, but in reality, I would love to respond someday with my own question: Why not? This is who I am, and I came here because I wanted to.