Send Me Back to Japan
After living in Japan for a couple of fun and adventurous years in the mid-2000s, I returned to the United States. Coming home I was very cognizant of the inspiring and enriching experience I'd just had, but at the same time I was very excited to get back, to see all my old friends and family again, and to continue on with the next step in my life.
But upon my return, something unexpected happened.
I missed Japan terribly. I knew this would happen to a certain extent, because I'd had a wonderful time there, but what I felt was of a magnitude far beyond anything I may have anticipated. It was almost to the point that returning home didn't feel quite right.
So what did I do? I repressed these feelings and went about my business, albeit shakily.
The result? Well, it didn't work. All these years later, I'm still kind of a wavering mess, trying to enjoy my life here while always wishing I was there. I'm American, too, so how does this make any sense at all? Why do I want so badly to live somewhere else? Especially somewhere that most people would qualify as being wildly different from the United States?
I will try to explain and to quantify this, as much for myself as for anyone else, since this is something I'm always trying to better understand and rationalize.
First of all, I will make it clear what I am not, since there are many potential phenomena in play here, and this particular obsession is not in any way a new or exclusive thing. After all, the term Japanophile has been around for some time—centuries, even.
What is a Japanophile? In this day and age, here is what most people think of when they hear that term:
There's the stereotype of a guy who's often online, under cover of some kind of clever pseudonym, with a hip little avatar, by which he's playing video games and leaving smart alec comments on message boards while snickering to himself. This same guy might also read manga, and likely he watches anime as well, which are the Japanese cartoons you're vaguely aware of, the ones where all the guys have wild spiky hair and the girls make you feel mildly guilty when your eyes linger on them for more than a few seconds, and each and every one of them has giant eyes and carries massive swords or guns that are apparently weightless. This guy may or may not have a girlfriend and she may or may not wear some kind of wild fashion, something that looks modern while also strangely Victorian, and this is because she has some kind of propensity towards whatever the hell is going on in Harajuku.
Does this guy describe me? I wish! But no, it's not even close, and never has been.
There's a different stereotype of a guy, this one who's probably older than the last one, and he is drawn to Japan in a more traditional sense. He's studying the history, and the culture. He's travelled all over and has been to several villages and temples most people have never heard of. His love for sushi is obvious enough, and more remarkable are all the other unique and less familiar dishes that he likes and asks for by name. He's taken part in ceremonies, and he may even know how to do them properly. His Japanese is sneaky good, and it impresses everyone within earshot, be they English speakers, or the Japanese themselves.
Does this guy describe me? Again, I wish! But no, this one too is sadly well out of reach.
So what the hell am I?
I've never really changed. I'm the same guy I've always been, regardless of the status of my Japan infatuation, and that guy is pretty much the average American Joe. What does that mean exactly? Well, everyone may have their own slightly (or wildly) varying definitions, but to me, there are three critical attributes that describe him:
1) Each day he spends very little time considering what he's going to wear,
2) If there is anything he's addicted to, it is watching football on TV—both college and pro, and
3) For some reason, he has a complete inability to learn any foreign languages whatsoever.
There is yet another qualifier, not one that all average American guys share, but one that is strongly tied to this particular phenomenon that I'm describing, and it's this:
We all joined the military.
It was the U.S. Navy that sent me to Japan—twice, actually. The Navy sent a lot of us there, some of us eager and excited to go, some of us kicking and screaming. But, let me guarantee you, regardless of how we entered, so many of us left with heavy hearts, with Japan having made its mark on us—even those that were reluctant to go in the first place. It took so many of us by surprise—the experience we'd have, and just how striking and memorable it was. Trust me, many Navy guys who served in Japan are reading this and nodding their heads right now. Some of them enjoyed their time so much, they yearn to return. Some of them never left!
So, this is the origin of a different breed of Japanophile that I'm introducing. It is the way in which an "Average Joe" becomes what I like to call "Joe Japan"—with a little nudge from Uncle Sam.
So what happened to us over there? What kind of trip were we on? What wires were crossed in our brains? What did Japan do to us? What did Japan do to me? Such that I've spent almost embarrassing amounts of time thinking about it, pondering it, and even writing things like this?
This isn't the first time I've tried to write this, either. This writing—whatever it is—has had more false starts than an offensive lineman with short-term memory loss. I've tried it from different takes and from different angles, without every really knowing what it was supposed to be.
But now I do. I finally realize what this is:
It's a cry for help. A blatant and unabashed cry for help.
I must go back, see? The world needs me back in Japan, stumbling around, lost, and awkwardly trying to speak the language—but having a lot of fun nonetheless.
Remember one of the seminal moments in the TV show, Lost, when Jack said to Kate that they had to go back? They'd spent so many years trying to get off the island, but then, inexplicably, there he was, proclaiming that they needed to go back—and it blew everyone's mind.
That's how I feel, and that's how I've felt basically ever since I left the island—which, in my case, is not the island from Lost, but instead the island of Honshu. Just like Jack Shepherd, and the rest of Oceanic Flight 815—I must go back. My path leads to the east, back to Japan—specifically, Kanagawa prefecture, the region just south of Tokyo that encompasses both Yokohama and Yokosuka. This is where the Navy sent me. Twice, actually. It's my home away from home.
It is my infatuation too, but not in the way that you think, and not for any reasons that may be construed as stereotypical.
I lived in Japan for several years. While I was there, I spent a grand total of about 25 minutes playing video games. I only saw bits and pieces of a few anime. I spent about six and half minutes reading manga. The wild Japanese style and fashion provided me with mild amusement as I passed it by on the street, and that is all.
I made the requisite trips to the top tourist spots. I saw the sights, and gazed at them in awe, but that was largely the extent of that. I know next to nothing about any kind of ceremony. I dip sushi into a little bit of wasabi and soy sauce, and it tastes awesome, yes, but I'm no connoisseur. I do study the language and gain confidence—confidence which is then swiftly shattered when I join into a real, flowing conversation and cannot understand anything at all.
The truth is that I love Japan, but it's not for anything they've exported, and not for anything that TV or the internet has brought to us.
I've lived there and have made my own discoveries, drawn my own experiences, and found my own great interest and passion, and it is mine and mine own and may not exactly resemble anyone else's.
I'll tell you about it, though.
But first, a small side note that I must mention:
A friend of mine, with whom I served with in the Navy, arrived in Japan around the same time as me. She and I shared the experience together, on that wild ride, and at some point, the trip ended, and we both came down, went back to the U.S., and were promptly bored out of our minds.
But, why do I mention her? Because her name is Kate—a name that I now realize fits so nicely in all of this.
See, there weren't quite polar bears and smoke monsters running around in Japan—but there were bullet trains, and bright, noisy arcades, and a hypnotic, incomprehensible language. And so, so much more.
OK, I'm just going to go ahead and say it:
Kate! We have to go back! We have to go back!