Sunday December 16, 2001
When I lived in Japan, between 1989 and 1991, there was no internet, no email, and no weblogs. Because I could neither read nor speak Japanese, and because there was no English-language bookstore or library in our village, I felt extremely frustrated in my quest to understand my adopted land. My Japanese coworkers graciously took me around the countryside, but we lacked the ability to discuss in any detail the history or significance of the places they were showing me.
As for social customs, I pestered my liaison, Murakami-sensei, with questions. “Why do the Japanese do this? Why do the Japanese do that?” She did not understand that my questions stemmed from genuine curiousity and a desire to understand. She interpreted them as attacks on the Japanese way of doing things. As I grew to know her over two years, I realized that she reacted defensively partially because she did not know the answers. She had no curiousity about her own country, its history or customs. Her biggest goal in life, the one thing that consummed her, was to remarry. Also she did not know the answers to many of the questions I asked, so unwittingly, I showed up her ignorance of her own culture. Fortunately, her mother did know the answers. I don’t know whether she went home each night and asked her mother, or whether the questions came out in her general complaints to her mother about having to deal with this inquisitive foreigner, but I did learn a lot as a result. But, as soon as I became aware of how she resented the questions, I stopped asking them.
So left with few tools for research, I had to put my analysis and interpretation on hold. I tried to observe as much as I could and tried to capture the concrete details of daily life.
Now, almost ten years later and back in Texas, I’m at a point in my life where I have some extra time to reflect. The two years I lived in Japan have never really faded in my mind. They are, I believe, the two most significant and deeply-felt years of my life. I write this now, not to wallow in the past, but out of need to understand the things I did and saw there, to clarify the events that so shaped me.
I think, most importantly though, I have never lost my interest and curiousity and love of things Japanese. I do not belong to the “been there, done that” generation. And I’m glad to say that my life in Japan was the springboard for more study and inquiry.