- Born: Rural Georgia, USA, 1986
- Cause of death: Catastrophic burnout in 2026 (predicted)
- Loves: Geeky stuff (mics/cameras/computers), bicycles, Yokohama
- Hates: Japanese falsettos, ‘working for exposure,’ anywhere south of Sendai in August
- Web: john-matthews.net (link)
Learning Japan & Giving Up Wonderland
Excerpts from the book in my head I’ll probably end up writing one day
Japan was the end goal of a long, drawn-out process for me – since I started slowly picking up Japanese as a twelve-year-old young’n in Georgia, having Japan, its culture, or its language as part of my life became inescapable. Language learning was fun, and the most interesting language (and the culture behind it) offered by my high school was Japanese, so off I went.
Eight years and two student exchanges later, I finally came here to be a non-temporary part of the culture – but then very quickly realized that I would never be that, and it was possible that I didn’t even want to integrate. If you’ve listened to the show, you probably know cultural integration here is hard – possibly even from this story told in an early episode:
A Japanese woman of grandmotherly age is asked by a friend, “if I were to marry a Japanese man, and we were to have a son, raised in Japan, fluent in Japanese, would he be Japanese?” “No,” she replies, “he would not.” Her friend asks again, “And what if my son then marries a Japanese woman, has a child, also raised in Japan, and the only language spoken in the household is Japanese?” “No.”
This is of course a story told by one person, and is not indicative of all people despite Japan’s cultural centralization – yet still, this is not an uncommon perspective. You’re either Japanese or not – predestined, and immutable, regardless of effort expended. Ask pre-eminent Japanologist Donald Keene, ask ever-curmudgeonly Japan critic/citizen Debito Arudou – even if you hold the passport, speak the language, you’ll automatically be painted with a certain broad brush unless you make contact and decisively shatter a few of the stereotypes you’ve by default been pinned with.
Back to my own story; my first exchange here was as a high school student, for one whole month. I was in awe – the stories of neon lights, beautiful landscapes, polite people were all true, and they remain so to this day. I returned again in university on exchange, armed with another four years of Japanese language learning – which were insignificant and left me tripping over speech and written communication alike, and I struggled through a year of intensive language. All the while, the impetus built in my mind to integrate, integrate, integrate! I’m learning the language – I’m trying! – so I should be able to work my way into this culture…shouldn’t I?
Don’t get me wrong – I hold no bitterness about my exchanges, nor about my life here in Japan. My year on exchange in Kansai was nothing short of magical, a nerd’s finest honeymoon with his happily wedded nation. I made wonderful friends of all nationalities, my Japanese ability skyrocketed (and some small competence in Mandarin made its way into existence), but my rose-tinted glasses were fused to my face – although I constantly had to subtly indicate my understanding of Japanese language and culture to people on a day-to-day basis, I lived with it, in a sense of pride of my own accomplishments internally, even if the waiter forming an ‘x’ sign with his fingers and saying ‘No English’ didn’t know the time I’d spent coming this far.
Naturally, most people of my (hilariously pale) skin color in Japan just don’t speak Japanese extremely well. Naturally, a store without any English-speaking staff or an English menu (or picture menu, I suppose) would have a difficult time serving a customer who doesn’t speak anything but English. Naturally, black people commit lots of crimes, so they should be avoided. (See what I did there?) And yet, despite those blatant rejections and the regular microaggressions that would come from even the people I had acquainted myself with, I eventually began to distance myself from the expatriate crowd, looking down on those who weren’t enlightened or motivated enough to have spent the effort learning Japanese or integrating into the Japanese culture, and even developing a bit of a phobia of Japanese-speaking foreigners (borne out of my own intense desire to win at everything). Hint: I got over it. Mostly.
Since then, I’ve learned to accept that I’m never going to be Japanese – but that wasn’t the hard part; coming down off my high horse and not turning around and stereotyping my fellow expats was the challenge. Each of us occupies a certain group or clique that helps us identify who we are. The expat community may be large and incestuous (one downside of not dating Japanese), but it can also feel very lonely. I distinctly felt that lonesomeness for some time in Tokyo, and even in Osaka. Here in Yokohama, I’ve been lucky enough to build a great network of people I enjoy being around – not the least of whom is my elusive co-host Gavin; maybe that’s part of what has made me love this city so much. That, and rent isn’t so damned ridiculous as it is in Tokyo.
More info at: http://john-matthews.net