Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.
Here in Japan, I am called a nikkei—a person of Japanese descent who does not live in Japan or one who has been brought up outside of Japan. I am a third-generation Japanese-Canadian; my grandparents on both my mother and father’s sides immigrated to Canada in their youth. You may think that being of 100% Japanese descent makes it easy for me to fit in well in Japan. In reality, however, that has not been the case.
My parents were born in Canada, and although they could communicate in Japanese at first, after the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War, my grandparents thought it would be better to make them speak English at all times. As a result, both my parents lost most of their ability to speak Japanese, and I grew up knowing only English (and French as a second language, being Canadian).
Although my family kept many of the Japanese traditions going, there was still a lot I didn’t know about my roots. About seven years ago, I ventured to take advantage of my last year of eligibility in obtaining a working holiday visa, so I went to Japan to learn more about my culture. I ended up loving the culture and getting married to a Japanese person, and I have only gone back to Canada for short visits to see my family and friends. Even so, I have accepted the fact that I will always feel a bit like an outsider in Japan.
Both my first and last names are typical Japanese names, so when poeple see this, they start speaking to me as if I were native. This is understandable, except that I am still learning the language, and when it comes to me at full speed with lots of words not yet memorized by my slowly aging brain, a lot of what’s said will fly over my head. Those of you learning a second language probably know how hard it is to catch everything when people speak 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 very confused.
When encountering someone who hasn't seen or heard my Japanese name, I am often thought to be from China or Korea. To them, if I do not speak Japanese well and have an Asian face, I must have come from one of those Asian countries. Most Japanese people I meet for the first time are 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 try their knowledge of those languages on me. This confuses me because I sometimes take it in as a Japanese word that I have forgotten and find myself trying to rack my brain over what the meaning is.
Will I Ever Fit In?
There have been many times when 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 admiration and curiosity 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 that I was from Canada. When spoken to in other Asian languages, I would tell them I didn't not speak those languages and that English was my mother tongue. The reaction I got was usually one of huge shock because they didn't expect an Asian to be from a Western country. I usually ended up explaining that I was actually a nikkei.
They would go on to apologize, the mood would lighten, and I would hear words like kakkoi, referring to how “cool” they thought it was that I was Canadian and could speak English. They would become really interested and ask questions about my home country.
I also see this deep 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 we 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 get equally excited. Some want to try their English out on me, and others want to talk about their travels to the States or Canada. I feel that to the Japanese, I will always be the Westerner they can talk to about non-Japanese things.
Although Japan has come a long way in global awareness and understanding 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 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 comment. It is not a bad thing; 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. In Canada, you can look different and speak with an accent, but you can still be Canadian. In Canada, I can tell people I am Japanese, but when in Japan, even though that is what I am, I find it hard to say.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.