3 Lessons from the Tension of Feeling at Home in Japan but Knowing I’m Not

In my last couple of posts I wrote about the tension of feeling comfortable in Japan, but also being aware that I am a foreigner in Japan. There are, I believe, important lessons for me to learn from this. Here are 3 that have come to mind. I’ll expand on these in the next few posts, which should make the flow of logic clearer, but for now here’s the overview.

These lessons are mainly for me, unless they’re appropriate for you, in which case they’re also for you.

Lesson 1: I need to work hard to understand Japanese culture

It was once said to me that there are two types of expert when it comes to China. The expert who has lived in China for a year. And the expert who has lived there for forty years. When it comes to Japan I am very much the first type of ‘expert.’

I still have a lot to learn and so I need to keep observing, listening and learning. Actually that is not enough. I must seek out understanding of Japanese culture. I need to enquire, question, probe, search, explore, and generally ferret out information from whatever source is available.

As Steve Jobs famously said, I need to “Stay stupid, stay hungry.” And I mean ‘Hungry, Hungry, Hippo’ hungry.

Hungry? Try the "World's Best Coffee and Fresh Donuts."

Hungry? Try the “World’s Best Coffee and Fresh Donuts.”


Lesson 2: I need to acknowledge that I cannot become Japanese

I’m starting to realise that no matter how hard I study I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point of fluency that a person born and raised in Japan has. Well maybe I will. But it’ll take years. Lots of long literal years.

But even if I get to the point where someone on the phone doesn’t realise I’m not Japanese, in person I’ll give the game away when they meet me. Unless I become some sort of masked avenger. But then I’d probably end up the way all masked avengers do: in a film trilogy with a potential-filled but ultimately disappointing third part. No, easier just to leave my face exposed and face facts: even in Japanese garb I look like an Englishman. An awesome Englishman, maybe. But an Englishman nonetheless.

Me looking all Samurai... sort of

Me looking all Samurai… sort of

I’m just not Japanese. Which is obvious to most people. What is also obvious to me is that I cannot become Japanese. Maybe in other countries it’d be possible for me to gradually merge into the culture and become ‘one of the natives’ but I’m fairly certain that in Japan I’ll always be a ‘gaijin,’ an outsider. I’m not complaining or judging, I’m just saying: I love Japan, but Japan is not my home.

Lesson 3: I need to remember that Japan is not my home

These two points might seem to be in tension with each other. But then again they are born out of my own tense experiences. And to resolve such a tension you need a response that is balanced, and contradictory, possibly uncertain.

My point is this: I am not home. Not yet. Not in Japan, and actually not in England either.

You see, I think the tension I feel in going to Japan is really just a magnification of the tension I feel in life generally. A tension that I think is universal. All the aspects of culture shock – miscommunication, embarrassment, frustration, confusion, weariness – these aren’t alien concepts to us, we experience them every day.

The grand irony is that the most familiar thing about going into a new culture is the experience of culture shock.

The reason for this is that as we life we are constantly trying to fit into a world that no longer fits us. (Warning: this is about to get ‘religious.’ If you want to leave that’s fine, but you’re probably adult enough to deal with it.)

We live in the inbetween. The world has been messed up by that most unpopular of three-letter words ‘sin.’ So we don’t get along. We can’t. And no, organised religion isn’t the problem. Nor is politics. Or anything else that separates us into warring tribes. The problem is us, and our insatiable desire to create what C.S. Lewis insightfully describes as ‘the inner ring.’

So as I move out to Japan I do so awaiting the return of my King-Jesus-who will recreate this world as it should be. Only then will I finally feel at home in the place that actually is my home. At the moment I am a nomad. And so I’ll always feel the tension of feeling at home, but knowing I’m not.

Me with one of my adopted Japanese families.

Me with one of my adopted Japanese families.

Disclaimer: I’m aware that Jesus’ Second Coming and the New Creation are possibly the craziest of all Christian beliefs. But I think we should judge future miraculous claims the same way that we judge claims of miracles in the past: how well do they fit into the narrative that we find ourselves a part of? I.e. Not “are they possible?” but “would they make sense?”

Questions and complaints

Right, that was longer than I had hoped. But shorter than I feared. As I said, I’ll expand on these points in my next few posts. This was largely an exercise to help me get my thoughts out of my head so that I can view them properly. If you want to help me do that then please do: share your thoughts. Am I on to something, or just out of my mind?


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