An Interesting Experience for a Japanese-Canadian in Japan
Here in Japan, I am called a Nikkei, a person of Japanese descent not living in Japan, or who has been brought up outside of Japan. I am a third generation Japanese-Canadian; my grandparents on both my mother’s and father’s side immigrated to Canada in their youth. My parents have, as a result lost most of their ability to speak Japanese. Although my family kept many of the Japanese traditions going, there was still a lot I didn’t know about my roots. About 7 years ago, I ventured to take advantage of my last year of eligibility in obtaining a Working Holiday Visa, and came to Japan to learn more about my background culture. I ended up getting married to a Japanese, loving the culture and have only gone back to Canada for short visits to see my family and friends. One thing, however that I’ve noticed, is that being of Japanese descent with a lack of ability to speak fluent Japanese gives for a unique experience of living in Japan.
Both my first and last name are typical Japanese names, so this immediately means that when poeple see this, they start speaking to me as if I were native here. This is understandable except that I am still learning the language and when it comes to me at full speed, with lots of big words and keigo (the honorific form of Japanese), a lot of what’s said will fly over my head. Those of you learning a second or third language probably know how hard it is to catch everything when said at a normal speed. This naturally leads me to have a worried or confused look on my face. Sometimes I forget to explain that I may be Japanese but was brought up in Canada, and in turn the speaker will also begin to look confused.
Those who have never seen my name often assume that I am Korean or Chinese, because ‘if I do not speak Japanese well and have an Asian face, I must be Korean or Chinese’. Most Japanese I meet for the first time will be surprised that I am Canadian because their image of one does not include an Asian appearance. Countless times I have been spoken to in Chinese or Korean by people wanting to use their knowledge of the language on me. This confuses me because I sometimes take it in as a new Japanese word that I have forgotten, and find myself trying to rack my brain over what the meaning is.
Can't Help Feeling I Will Never Fit In
There were many times where my Japanese roots and childhood upbringing probably helped me understand the ways and the mentality of the Japanese when I first came to Japan. However, as time went on, I realized that with my broken Japanese and with the love that the Japanese have for western cultures, I will always be set apart. I used to work in a restaurant as a waitress in Japan, and even though it was probably not their intention, I was hurt sometimes by people making fun of my imperfect Japanese. When asked my country of origin I would tell them I am from Canada. When spoken to in other languages, I would tell them I do not speak those languages, and that English is my mother tongue. The reaction I get is usually one of huge shock because they least expected an Asian to be from a western country. I usually end up explaining that I am actually of 100 percent Japanese descent. I have received many apologies from people assuming a different background. The mood then seems to lighten and I hear words like kakkoi, referring to how “cool” they think it is that I am Canadian and can speak English. They become really interested in Canada and ask a lot of questions about my home country.
I also see this interest in western cultures when I walk around the city with friends who, to the Japanese, are obviously from the West. We immediately get heads turning our way, and always get really great service wherever we go. People often seem eager and happy to kindly help us with directions, or with finding something in a store. Again, once people find out that I am Canadian, they usually get excited. Some want to try their English out on me and others want to talk about their travels to the States or Canada. To the Japanese I will always be a foreigner.
Although Japan has come a long way in global awareness and understanding of other cultures, the Japanese still don’t have the advantage of being directly surrounded by various cultures like we do in western countries. Sure there are plenty of foreigners living and vacationing in Japan, but naturally, most of them try to conform to the japanese ways as to not offend or scare the locals. The story may be different in Tokyo, but where I live in Nagoya, there are few non-Asians and the sighting of one still turns heads or sparks a comment. It is not a bad thing though, in fact it's one of the things that makes Japan a wonderful place to visit, but it makes it hard for me to fit into the country of my roots. I do find it amusing, however, how much I now like to tell people that I am Canadian. I think that this experience of being a Nikkei in Japan has made me realize why Canadians are so proud of their cultural mosaic.