When I was younger, being Japanese meant nothing to me. It was merely a box I had to check off on a form every once in a while. In elementary school, I remember doing reports on Japan, watching videos about the attack on Pearl Harbor, and studying the war in high school, but more than that, what did I care? Those were just topics I had to read about, compose an occasional essay on, or memorize to pass a test or get a good grade.
My father’s family is Japanese (though more Americanized than anything), and with a last name like Sugiyama, it’s easy for others to recognize as such. Though my father and grandparents were born in America, my ancestry line extends back to a city located on Japan’s east coast, about half way between Kyoto/Osaka and Hiroshima, known as Okayama, the “locale for the popular fairy tale of Momotaro (the Peach Boy).”
As one might expect from a half or fully traditional Japanese household, we have an absurd amount of rice in the house at any given time, and a broken rice cooker is a bump in the road to a balanced dinner. Mostly thanks to my grandmother, there are Japanese paintings/decorations, books, and chopsticks tucked away in different corners of the house, and I have a kimono hanging in my closet as well. Until two years ago, however, these were all things that existed in the background. It wasn’t until my first visit to Japan in November 2012 that my heritage caught up with me, and I was happily immersed in an overwhelming sense of pride about being Japanese.
Impact, Intrigue, and Inspiration
I often ask myself (as does my mother), “Why Japan?” Of all the countries I’ve visited, why has Japan had the deepest impact on me? Why is it all I think about day in and day out? Friends have wondered the same, even those who currently reside in Japan whether expat or native wonder why I’m intrigued by a country in which they feel becomes less liveable by the day. Though my ancestry certainly plays a significant role, there’s more to it than that.
My desire to travel is stronger than anything else, but my love and curiosity for Japan and Japanese culture trails closely behind. Perhaps in a past life, I lived there. The best way I can describe it is like a log cabin in the middle of the mountains. Japan was always there on the map, but in a sense, I never knew about it. When I am in Japan, I feel like a recluse. Even in the center of it’s most bustling cities, I can shut off the world and be completely in tune with my surroundings, the now. As I continue to travel to the furthest corners of the Earth and let the world paint its impressions on me no matter how harsh or gentle, I still trust that I have that quiet space in Japan to seek refuge.
In some form or another, Japan now has a heavy influence on the types of things I do, the way I think and my creativity, the music I listen to and movies I watch, how I speak, and how I conduct myself in public. The unification of traditional architecture and modern technology, natural beauty of Japan’s coastline, efficient transportation systems, delicious food, blinding neon lights, pop culture, and reverence with which everything is done, taken care of, or expressed (see totoro bento box below). All of those things combined are an assault on the senses and a never-ending series of challenges that I can’t yet find anywhere else. One could argue that similar infrastructures and allure exist in places like Hong Kong or Taiwan, but it’s the family roots that tie it all together. Japan is already a second home, and needless to say, a place I itch to visit frequently.
From a cultural perspective, Japan can be a tough nut to crack. In December, I started working at a Japanese supermarket, and it has been an eye opening experience to how they conduct themselves in the workplace. More on that in another post perhaps. Japan is a very homogeneous country therefore the walls are built fairly high making it difficult for foreigners to seamlessly integrate. Naturally, anything that seems forbidden or challenging elicits the strongest curiosity and temptations.
On Being Japanese-American in Japan
As someone who is half-Japanese, much like any foreigner, I run the risk of being alienated and bullied from not having grown up with traditional Japanese customs and etiquette. During my trips to Japan as a visitor, people spoke to me and approached me in Japanese. Most often they were supremely kind, bent over backwards to help, and treated me as one of their own. They could identify the Japanese in me, my eyes and hair color being the dead giveaways. Therefore, there was an unspoken expectation that I should already know and understand the etiquette and way of life. When they found out I was born and raised in America, many were forgiving and switched gears to treat me as an outsider.
As human beings, we have a tendency to keep those whom we don’t understand, we view as flawed in some way or are not interested in the same things at arms length. Japan, however, is a place where I love and find beauty in the blemishes and difficulties not just in the people I interact with or the communities I’m in but myself as well. The environment, the people, and my experiences I have while I’m there destroy everything I don’t like about myself and any former prejudices and stereotypes I held. In a way, I want and accept their struggles as a part of my story, if that makes sense. Whereas in a different city or country such imperfections may turn me off and keep me from finding the heartbeat.
Though there are still a lot of unfamiliar aspects, I crave to be in Japan. I’m comfortable there, I like that English isn’t prevalent, and I’m captivated and entertained by the facade/change in personalities and attitudes from day to night. The impact Japan has had on me extends through many veins of my soul so much that even after all I’ve said, it’s difficult to convey in words how infatuated I am with the country, how important and deep my connection is after just 2 visits. My new dream is to visit at least once a year, until I feel I’ve covered every inch of the country.