It has been a long time since I have tried writing anything on this blog, but it’s a good time as any to start writing again! So I am back, back after two years or so of inactivity. The last time I wrote an entry on this blog I had not yet gone to Japan for my year of postgraduate high school study abroad. Now, I have just finished my freshman year of college at George Washington University and have also come back from that one year in Japan.
The way I look at Japan has changed rather a bit since I last wrote anything on this blog. When I think back at how I spoke and understood Japan a few years ago I really feel like I was very naïve about so many things. I am not sure I will ever have such an amazing experience in quite the way I did during that one year of going to school and living with a host family ever again if I am to go back to Japan. Somehow when I left I could not help but feel a sensation of having just experienced a truly definitive and unique moment in my life. Admittedly, ever since coming back home to America and going to college for the past year, life here has never felt as exciting or as interesting. I went to Japan knowledgeable, or so I thought I was, but came back much more matured, fluent, and starkly aware of all of the things that I had assumed incorrectly about Japanese culture and society. Even though I had read so many history books out of my deep passion for Japanese history and culture over the previous five years before my year abroad, and even though I had been to Japan twice before, this time I truly “lived” in Japan. It was not a short exchange trip, and it was not even a trip. It was a year of my life.
When I left to Japan back in the summer of 2007 I was hoping to get a chance to see a part of Japan that is so rarely understood, especially for foreigners of all ages. I wanted to understand what it is like to grow up as a teenager in contemporary Japan. I wanted to know what people my age went through; the hardships and joys of it all. Somehow no matter how many books, articles, and even classes I took on Japan, so much of what it meant to be a young adult in Japan remained so mystified to me. Often when I would read books by western authors speaking about Japanese youth and Japanese schools, the “Japanese youth” in these books would always seem to be so elusive as a subject. Somehow, even if the authors, such as John Nathan, or Alex Kerr, both fluent Japanese speaking American long-term residents of Japan met and talked with Japanese teenagers in their books, I could not help but notice a clear disconnect of comprehension of motives and feelings from the author’s standpoints in their writing. Clearly, just speaking the language did not give all of the tools for succeeding in interpreting Japanese youth culture. And so I began to get curious, in fact more than just curious, I wanted literally to go out and see for myself what it was that the authors of books and articles I was reading were failing to learn. I wanted to go out and learn about Japan’s youth as someone of the same age. I think it began to dawn on me that one of the main problems was that none of these writers had actually ever grown up within a Japanese household, gone to Japanese school, sat through all of those awful boring lecture classes and examinations, and then participated in that common of all routines for a great many Japanese students, commuting to and from school, often a long multi hour trip. By chance and luck of time and place, I had just the opportunity to do all of these things. Rather than waiting for someone to go out there and write and tell the whole world about what it is like to be young and growing up in contemporary Japanese society, I realized I could do all of this myself. And from here on out I became settled on a mission of exploration. I became focused on being my own sociologist. I had an active and imaginative mind, I also had my interest, and I had my language skills. I was set to go.
Well I might have been prepared to go, but as with any great journey, there was a lot that I did not really comprehend. I would find out within the first few weeks one the first lessons about life in Japan, it can be pretty lonely to be a young person there. In addition, I would also discover just how many aspects of youth culture in Japan I had never read or heard about, and just how precisely difficult it was for any of these experiences to go through, not only just as a Japanese teenager, but especially for as an outsider.
Ultimately, I would get more than I thought possible. I got access to Japanese society that as an adult, or even just as a college student visiting or living in Japan, no foreigner can ever witness or take part in. In the midst of my time there, I often appreciated just how lucky I was in light of knowing that I was not going to have the ability to speak with Japanese people so openly and on such an equal footing as I would at Japanese high school. Just like people growing up anywhere around the world, but even more so perhaps in Japanese society, it becomes difficult if not downright frustrating to crack the wall of communication with adults of all ages once they are in a place where society oppresses them into being a certain way.
Although by the end of my year there I had become accepted by classmates and school in such a way that I felt like I truly belonged in my environment as opposed to how difficult school life was when I first came to Japan.