I wrote this article for a newsletter for researchers in Japan.
My name is Shaney Crawford and I am a Canadian woman who has lived in Fukushima Prefecture for five years and Ibaraki Prefecture for eight years. As a foreign resident of Japan, I am often asked to describe the things that surprised me when I first came here. However, I first came to Japan in 1995, which is now 15 years ago, and to be honest, I don’t have a very clear recollection of that time. (Imagine being asked to recall what it felt like on your first day of junior high school. You can probably remember that you were nervous, but not the details of what was going through your head at the time.)
However, I recently watched the movie “Avatar” and it made me pause and reflect a bit on my time here in Japan. I don’t want to ruin the plot of the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it yet (I’m sure there are still one or two people who haven’t seen it, right?), but the basic idea is that a man gets the chance to become a member of a group that is initially extremely foreign to him. (It is a very similar story to Dances With Wolves, or the Last Samurai, but it is set on another planet.) The movie served, at least for me, as a reminder of what it felt like when I first came to Japan.
I hope you will forgive me for sounding ungracious or ignorant, but I remember thinking to myself, when I first came here (and after the initial honeymoon phase was over), that there were a lot of things wrong with Japan. At the time, I saw everything with “Canadian eyes” and I was frustrated with several aspects of Japanese culture. I couldn’t understand why everyone was so concerned with what their neighbours thought about them, or why meetings seemed to go on for so long and rarely resulted in any decisions being made. I didn’t like how there were no senior positions available to women and that everything that I bought was individually wrapped and then covered in plastic only to be handed over to me in yet another plastic bag.
I found a lot to complain about in these early days. I was also prone to making sweeping generalizations about Japan and Japanese culture based on my limited experiences. Even though I was living in Japan, and on the surface enjoying my time here, I had not lost my Canadian eyes, and couldn’t understand why the people in Japan couldn’t see what I could see.
And then, something happened to change my thinking. It wasn’t an immediate change, but looking back on it now, I think I know what it was that caused a fundamental shift in my worldview: learning to speak, read, and understand Japanese. In particular, I believe it was through studying the 1006 kanji characters that Japanese students study in elementary school that made the difference.
By studying the kanji characters, and not just learning the meanings or the readings, but trying to understand each character by deconstructing it into its elements, I became more familiar with Japanese culture and history and, more importantly, I became able to find out information on my own and not have to rely on others to explain things to me. If I had a question about something in Japan, I could try to read a book or a website, or ask a Japanese person directly. When I first arrived in Japan, I did not have that choice. I could only learn about Japan from people who could speak to me in English. If I had a question about Japan, I had a very limited range of people to look to for answers. If they could not supply me with a satisfactory answer, I was forced to give up.
Through learning the Japanese language, I was given the key to understanding the culture at a much deeper level than I had when I first arrived. Suddenly, I could understand the forces working behind the decision-making processes at an office because I had spoken to my Japanese friends and colleagues about my experiences and they had explained the intricacies to me. Instead of seeing things at a surface level, or always having my understanding coloured by the understanding of the person who translated for me, I was able to dig deeper, and develop my own understandings based on direct contact with a variety of people and resources.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that I am some kind of genius in Japanese. I am not. I can get by in Japanese, but I still have a lot to learn. I stumble on very basic grammar points, I have a very limited vocabulary, and I don’t think I will ever be able to pull off “keigo”, just to mention a few of my many weaknesses. But the key point here is that I kept on pushing until I was able to make sense of what was going on around me rather than just accepting what I was seeing at face value.
I feel that learning the Japanese language gave me the ability — and sometimes it almost feels like a magical ability — to see with Japanese eyes. Rather than criticizing everything that I saw in Japan, I became better able to see why things happened the way they did. And, slowly, I started to realize that there were also a lot of things wrong with how we do things in Canada. We Canadians often rush through things, prizing speed over accuracy. We will say anything with conviction, whether we have proof that it is true or not. And we will always put ourselves and our own interests first, rarely considering what might be best for the group or the community around us.
In the movie Avatar, one of the main characters initially refuses to teach the “foreigner” anything, saying something like “there is no point in trying to fill a cup that is already full”. When I first came to Japan, my head was full of Canada and there was no room for Japan. I thought my way was right and I think, in retrospect, I wasn’t capable of nuanced thought about what was happening around me because I didn’t have room in my worldview for other possibilities. Learning Japanese has provided me with another cup to fill. And, to continue the metaphor a bit longer if I may, it has made me realize that my “cup full of Canada” was only the appetizer. More than anything that I have experienced or obtained during my time in Japan, I feel that I am indebted to this country and its people for providing me with the chance to see the world through different eyes and, hopefully, keep my cups from ever becoming full again.