Have You Been To Japan or: A Love Letter

When I tell people that I have a degree in #Japanese Studies, everyone assumes that I have been to #Japan several times. Surely I have spent an exchange year in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto like all Japanese students do. Even though student me was always broke, had to supplement her pocket money by waiting tables for the rich and still felt like Japan was on another planet, I must have spent some time there, right? But why? Why is lived time in the native environment of one's language seen as the holy grail of language learning?

At this point, my story with Japan goes back over ten years. When I decided to study Japanese, I got the dreaded question for the first time: Why Japanese of all things? I told myself and others 'Watching Sailor Moon as a kid is what got me into manga and anime', 'I wanted to understand the J-pop music I was listening to and read Haruki Murakami in the original' or simply 'I like Japan'. The latter was especially jarring though. 'Like' does not even begin to describe my feelings for this country. As I studied its language, history, culture, society and media, Japan slowly became so inseparable from me that now there is no room for like or dislike between us anymore. Japan is me and this will never change unless I lose all my accumulated knowledge and memories of it.

In some way, this was already true before I went to university. Back when I first heard of the 9/11 catastrophe, sitting in the kitchen after school, heartbroken and for a moment thinking Japan was going to disappear from the map before I had ever seen it with my own eyes. That memory will never go away, but I am beyond glad and awed that affected regions and people picked themselves back up the way they did.

So yes, I would say that Japan is a part of me even though I do not have a drop of Japanese blood in my body (as far as I know). And is it not possible in this age of globalization that we choose our own cultural identity?

I know a Polish woman who spent a significant portion of her childhood in the US before moving to Austria to study law and translation. Her English is impeccably American, yet she was told repeatedly that it was not her mother tongue and she could therefore never do as good a job of translating into English as a native could – an old rule in professional translation circles. She was so irritated by this that she wrote her master’s thesis about how the concept of a mother tongue is nonsensical in so many cases and should be discarded.

If we choose the language we wish to live and communicate in, if language is part of our identity, can we not also freely choose our cultural identity? If Donald Keene and Hideo Levy could choose it to a point where they wrote and published in Japanese, this notoriously difficult language, who is to say that others cannot?

Admittedly, it is also the challenge that attracts me: experimenting and testing how completely I can blend into a culture that is so resistant to, so wary of taking in foreigners (so much so that not every foreigner is automatically a permanent resident – no, that is a badge of honor you have to earn by either rendering exemplary services to the country or by becoming as Japanese as you possibly can, preferably both). I harbor this almost perverse desire to perfect my (already formidable, I'd like to believe) chameleon skills and apparently I am not the only one.

Hideo Levy, author of Seijōki no kikoenai heya (A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard), lived in Japan as a teenager due to his father's diplomatic occupation. When he first walked around in places where no other foreigner went back then, he apparently felt confident that he could 'become Japanese'. In a talk given at Stanford University in 2010, he describes it as a 'crazy schizophrenic drive' that probably contributed to him eventually writing in Japanese. To this date, he has written several prize-winning novels in Japanese and was even nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. He does state that trying to 'become Japanese' was an illusion, but also that he does not regret falling into it.

There are also cases where foreigners like Hideo Levy (who extensively studied and translated the Man'yōshū, an ancient collection of waka poetry) know more about Japanese culture than the Japanese themselves. I have certainly had Japanese friends and teachers who knew less about Japanese literature, kimono or tea ceremony than I do.

Where does this leave us? In this digital age, time physically spent in the country in question is increasingly accompanied by other means of learning and cultural immersion. Hence we should count all time we spend engaging with and immersing ourselves into the language and culture over the course of our journey with it. Some of us might have spent just a few days or weeks in the country we adore so much due to various circumstances even though our journey with it has been years upon years.

So: Have I been to Japan? I have spent exactly ten days in Japan, but at the time of this writing, I have been learning Japanese for ten years and been immersed in Japanese culture even longer and I am sick of the misconception that all this time is worth nothing at all. Yes, living in Japan equips you with a linguistic and cultural skillset that you can only get by living in Japan. There are ways of interacting in Japanese outside of Japan though. Consuming Japanese media in particular comes with its own linguistic and cultural skillset that is just as valuable in a different way and should not be overlooked in favor of more traditional routes of learning about and experiencing Japan.