Aishiteru, Nippon

Dear Japan,

We’ve had a complicated relationship, haven’t we?

When you first propositioned me, I turned my nose up at you. Remember that? It seems so funny now, the way things that become glaringly obvious in hindsight tend to be. You weren’t my type. You weren’t very tropical or laid back, you didn’t ooze calm, cool confidence or romance me with your opportunities for adventure. No, you were just stubborn and persistent. You were nerdy, into gaming and technology and upholding traditions – everything I thought I couldn’t stand. But you kept strong, and eventually, I said yes, even though I was certain we would never reconcile our differences.

Those first few nights together, I wanted to run away – to get the hell out, as they say. I couldn’t understand you or eat your food or even drink your drinks. But you were patient. And when you insisted I conform to your standards of etiquette, demeanor and femininity, I said no way – take me as I am or not at all – and you were, mostly, gracious then. But gosh, we eventually compromised on that one, didn’t we? You agreed to listen to my ideas, as I did yours. Somehow we negotiated a middle ground – somewhere between buffalo wings and sashimi; it was the Stir Fry Compromise – your grains, my meats.

I remember that night; it was the first time I opened my kitchen window and allowed the smell of your rice fields in summer to fill the space. I ate our stir fry at my western kitchen table, clumsily holding my hashi and staring out at the vividly green hills and fields dotting the horizon. I fell in love with you that night, feeling for the first time the magic and depth of your history and, later, the delightfully soft touch of your tatami under my bare feet.

That’s when our romance really began. I tried new foods at your encouragement; bike rode through your impossibly narrow streets; strolled among the rice fields, offering friendly bows and “konnichiwas” to all I passed, even in the stifling humidity of late July; I frolicked in your oceans, stripping down to my sports bra and laughing my way – arms outstretched (is there any other image of frolicking in the ocean?) – into your welcoming waves. I learned to love your sake and we spent nights drunk on the newness and excitement of our courtship, like honeymooners sequestered to there Casa del Love.

But even then we fought, didn’t we? As the humidity faded to heat alone and then, finally, the cooler breezes of a tragically short autumn, we fought. I was lonely every night alone in my apartment, trapped from the outside world by a failed internet connection and restless energy. Furthermore, you treated the woman I worked alongside so poorly. “It’s not worse, it’s different.” I got so sick of hearing that and reading that and thinking that I wanted to flail and bonzai scream my way through my offices, as if somehow the disruption would awaken everyone to the massive injustices around them.

But even after our worst fights, I never went to bed angry at you. Instead, I devoured books about you like they were my life support (I think they were). I read about your history, your customs, your lifestyle and pop culture, even your gangsters and prostitutes (for what else makes a culture?). You set out a challenge for me, if an unspoken one: choose self-righteousness (you would forgive it, after all) or be courageous enough to step outside your ideological comfort zone to hear other ways. Even though I’d spent 24 years perfecting the former and occasionally chose it (sometimes I still choose it), mostly I chose the latter.

And always, no matter my choice, I rolled my eyes at how rigid you are – Lighten up, already! But, of course, the more I learned, the more that nagging voice in my head kept pointing out – are you not rigid in your thinking, too? Annoying. But through all that and my resistance to change and your resistance to my resistance, I loved you anyway, and I accepted your challenge. It even halfway worked.

As the fall turned into the freezing six months of winter, I needed a break. I needed out, so I headed abroad. I went to Thailand and then Korea and finally China, and each time I was courted by the Dames of English and sunshine and the Dukes of laughter and individuality. I flourished then, hungry with desire for flavorful food, fields that weren’t made of rice and oceans that turned turquoise at a glance. After the first times I came back, we yelled. I yelled. I cursed you for never changing, never relaxing your rules, not offering any more than you’re supposed to offer – not doing anything, really, that you’re not supposed to do.

But after the third, after China, it was different. I cried when I stepped off the plane and proudly shimmied my way into the “Foreign Residents” line. When I was greeted warmly with a bow, in an airport filled with efficient lines, quiet, patient waiting and signs answering every question, I felt… at home. I hadn’t known you had become home until, well, until I knew in that moment. Instead of lambasting your sameness and hostility towards change, I marveled at your orderliness, efficiency, cleanliness and respect for your own cultural heritage. I began to think like this and in other new ways, and it was then that we moved past infatuation and intense disfatuation to mutual respect and affection.

I guess I could say that even through dancing at your clubs until the sun had risen again and making ‘paper, rock, scissors’ a permanent fixture in my life – I grew up.

So where does that leave us now, on the one year anniversary since the day I first stepped off that plane into the sweltering humidity of a late-July Tokyo summer and at the start of my new, separate journey? It leaves me saying this: I came to Japan 365 days ago intrepid and impatient, improbably stubborn and impressively Western, and I leave that same exact person… but the paradigm has shifted. I’m not somehow greater, wiser or more correct because of my cultural heritage (even if it is the brilliance of cracker jacks and Paris Hilton). I leave appreciative and respectful and filled with adoration for a country that is none of the things I am but so many of the things I have come to treasure. You have been a mirror through which I have seen myself, vulnerably and honestly, and I have come out of it a better person. My relationship with you this year has been a relationship with myself, and it’s the healthiest one I’ve ever had.

Saying “yes” to JET one year ago is the best decision I have ever made. Thank you for this year and for the memories.



Fuji-san, what a beautiful beast.


~ by C on July 26, 2010.

3 Responses to “Aishiteru, Nippon”

  1. Beautiful.

  2. i love this –

    I cried when I stepped off the plane and proudly shimmied my way into the “Foreign Residents” line.

  3. lovely 🙂

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