What is Japan? It really depends who you ask and when. Ask me what Japan is five years ago before I have experienced parts of it and I would tell you something generic and cheesy like “It is a land of mystery and beauty.” After living in Japan awhile, I developed a more mundane view that it is just another country with different issues than the one I left – I’m just still trying to fit into it.
While I think we all would politically-correctly say we each experience our own Japan, I have seen others’ and my own view of Japan labeled untruthful, invalid, and just plain wrong. But why?
Perhaps the largest contributor to creating someone’s Japan is geography. For example, living on the Japanese mainland versus living in Okinawa will certainly produce different views of what Japan is. Type of environment can multiply contrasting perspectives. I’m talking about country or city living. While I’ve been to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Sendai on several occasions, I can’t honestly say I know the detailed ins and outs of city life, spending probably less than a total of two months in large cities. I can appreciate and navigate the city, but I’m a country boy at heart. I studied and worked in the inaka, a place you city folk only read about on blogs or in fairy tales. The citizens have an accent and speak a variation of Japanese I never learned in the classroom. Meanwhile, rest stop toilets seem as old as the farmers tending rice in the nearby fields. It’s a slower pace of life and things are done differently here.
There is still a very community centered way of living in the countryside. The local fish market is as much a place to buy fresh seafood as it is a place for older citizens to socialize. Generations of the same family live in the same household, a disappearing rarity as social norms and affordable property in larger cities transform. Traditions reign supreme and a day of fishing with long bamboo poles is for more than leisure, it could be for dinner. Besides the physical environmental differences throughout Japan, there are language differences as well.
As non-Japanese, our Japan will probably contain a mix of the English and Japanese languages. Some of us live on military bases or work as English teachers or ALTs, so our day revolves around English. However, I have met one foreigner (an American to be exact)—and I am sure there are more—that have immersed themselves in Japan by becoming a citizen, only speaking and reading Japanese, and claims he seldom even thinks in English anymore. I have spent three months on a military base then another year studying abroad at an international university. I may have used more English than Japanese inside these bubbles of Japan, but I also had the chance to meet soldiers’ and students’ from other parts of the United States or the world and get a glimpse of their experiences of Japan. Surely I was influenced in some way.
Did my country life and living most of my Japan experiences within an English-friendly environment present a skewed view of Japan? Possibly… and probably. Furthermore, my love of traditional culture has inherently left me in a position to do little more than listen when my younger friends converse about the latest anime. I most certainly experienced and continue to experience a different view of Japan than many others, and a similar Japan to many others as well.
No one’s Japan experience is the exact same as someone else’s. While a well-rounded view from someone who has spent over a decade in Japan and lived in its various locales would be ideal, it’s not a privilege most of us have, or have yet, attained. It doesn’t need be a contest who knows more about Japan—which I see as a reoccurring theme in online forums. Even a western (or a city, or a rural) view of Japan is still a legitimate view to that person, even if not entirely correct by another person’s standards. So we share what we know, ask questions, and create a discussion to learn more from each other. A friendly reminder to us all: My Japan is not yours. Your Japan is not mine.