I just returned from Kyoto, and there were foreigners everywhere I looked. In fact, it was harder to find a Japanese person than a foreigner. My ears were constantly filled with the mysterious sound of foreign tongues, and my eyes with the sights of exotic foreigners, most of whom seemed to be Chinese or European. In fact, I don’t think I even heard much English. You would think that being American I would feel comfortable surrounded by people like me, people who stick out in this land a homogeneity, a land where 98% of the population is ethnic Japanese. But I didn’t feel comfortable at all. My city of Munakata has only 500 foreigners in a population of 97,000, and I suspect that number is inflated by a large number of ethnic Koreans who were born and raised in Japan. I found myself not only uncomfortable with the crowds, which I have an almost OCD-type aversion to, but also with the large number of people who looked like me.
Why was that, I wonder? As I pondered my complicated feelings, I came to a few conclusions. First of all, perhaps just like a little kid, I wanna be special–and that is hard in a land of a million or so foreign tourists. Second of all, I think I have a kind of pride, a pride that says, “I am not like these foreigners. I live here. I speak Japanese. I love the Japanese people with all my heart. Heck, I even like Japanese pickles.” I think that in my heart, I am at least half Japanese, and that is a huge part of my identity. While I am constantly reminded that I am not Japanese by cultural things that drive me nuts (ambiguity, obsessive sports clubs, indirectness, PTA, etc.), a very big part of me, of whom I am, is Japanese. I love Japanese people, and I want to spend time with them. There is always this awkward, half eye contact, greeting thingy when I meet another foreigner somewhere. It is almost like we feel this responsibility to talk to each other for the sole reason that we are part of the the same super minority in Japan. I mean, I would never talk to a random white person in the U.S. for no reason. Well, maybe I would talk to the cashier at Walmart. Still, the truth is, with the exception of some close friends at church, I don’t have much desire to hang out here with foreigners and speak English very much. I did that when I first moved to Japan in the late 1990s because that was a comfortable bubble for me to be in, but I find now, that I am happy with my Japanese friends. I got irritated and slightly offended when the sales clerks in Kyoto tried to speak to me in English, thinking that I didn’t understand Japanese. I realize from their perspective that there is a pretty good chance that I cannot speak Japanese, and that they are just trying to help, but it still irritated my pride a bit. I mean, I am different, right? Can’t they see my heart for Japan? Can’t they see how much I am totally in love with this country and these people? Can’t they see that I am not like everybody else? Well, of course they can’t. They don’t know me, and they have every reason to believe that I am just passing through, hitting as many temples and eating as much mochi as I can like the thousands of other foreigners who pass through everyday. And while I realize that this is normal and can’t be helped, the part of me that has committed my life to live and work and love among the Japanese people is a little put off. I realized that in many ways, I don’t think of myself as a foreigner. But, then, I am not entirely Japanese either.
Mine is a complicated identity. There are days that I feel I am totally in line with the Japanese spirit, and that I understand what makes these wonderfully complex people tick. And then, there are other days that I am confused and feel like I don’t know anything. We were standing in line at the famous Fushimi Inari Temple in Uji, Kyoto on a totally miserable day. It was raining cats and dogs, and was freezing cold. The kids (and adults) were soaking wet, and our socks and shoes were so thoroughly soaked through that we could hardly feel our feet. The kids were whining and complaining about standing in line to walk up the path to the 1000 torii gates, as the line was moving miserably slow and our destination was nowhere in sight. At the same time, there was an even longer line of Japanese people, waiting patiently and without complaint to offer their prayers at the temple altar. It struck me that, while most Japanese claim that they don’t really believe in a personal god, and that religion is not important to them, the worshippers were waiting patiently in massive crowds, freezing cold, and the pouring rain to offer up prayers to gods that they may or may not even believe in. Watching this line of worshippers calmly waiting in a slowly moving line on a miserably rainy day made me want to learn more about what makes them think and act the way they do. For while there are many things regarding beliefs and worldview that I do not share with the Japanese people, I am definitely committed to learning about them. Because this is Japan, not America, and if I really love them and respect them, I will dedicate my life to understanding what is important to them, learning their language and seeking to understand their worldview. I have come a long way since my first trip to Kyoto more than 15 years ago, when I was way more like the throng of tourists, struggling to get by in broken Japanese or praying that someone would speak to me in English. I am not a foreigner anymore, not in my heart anyway. My heart belongs to Japan, and I want to spend all my life learning all about her.