By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Way back in high school, I had already decided that I would live in Japan one day. It wasn’t enough to simply vacation there, I wanted to fully experience life in Japan.”
That’s Lucas Kelleher, current Seattle resident, originally from Iowa. The author of “Shakotan Blue,” a memoir assembled from his blog posts about teaching English in the small Japanese town of Shakotan, he says he grew up with Japanese influences around him, even in his native Iowa.
“I think most kids of my generation had a similar experience with Japanese pop culture,” he elaborated.
“One day you discover ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ or someone shows you ‘Akira,’ and suddenly you want to know more about where this stuff came from. For me, my brother introduced me to quality animation like ‘Lupin III’ and Studio Ghibli, and with each new item of pop culture, my interest grew.
“I was also rather obsessed with ninjas growing up,” he admitted. “And, if I’m being honest, I’m still kind of obsessed with ninjas today.”
Kelleher originally planned to live and work in Sapporo, Japan’s fourth-largest city and home to the famous beer of the same name. But literally the day before Kelleher flew to Japan, he received a phone call from his new employers asking me if he would be interested in being deployed elsewhere. They had just secured a new contract in a rural town on the coast, about two hours outside of Sapporo.
“This remote fishing village, called Shakotan, had never had a foreign resident English teacher before, so I’d be blazing a new trail, so to speak. Besides the junior high English teacher, no one there spoke any English. Despite the fact that I had forgotten all of my Japanese in between college and that time, I thought Shakotan sounded like more of an adventure than the big city, so I accepted the change in placement.”
Even after all of his Japanese studies, Kelleher experienced some culture shock. “For me,” he explained, “the hardest things to adjust to were driving on the left side of the road, spending a lot of time completely on my own, and not being able to express myself very well. After some time struggling to communicate my more nuanced opinions to friends and colleagues, I just started keeping a lot of ideas to myself. I came to realize that people in Japan are often slow to share what they really think with you (unlike Americans, who won’t stop telling you). I decided to just be a bit more reserved while living abroad.”
Asked for the top five cultural surprises in Japan, Kelleher offered this list:
1. “When drinking with a group in Japan, your friends and/or hosts will constantly refill your beer. The Western impulse is to always finish your drink, but the Japanese custom is to never leave a glass empty. The combination/clash of these two customs can leave an American very, very drunk.
2. People in Japan give lots of compliments, but they don’t accept any. I was always thanking people for all the nice things they said about me, but in hindsight, that probably made me look like a bit of a braggart. You’re supposed to wave them off at all times.
3. Gift giving is so much more ubiquitous in Japan; lots of little gifts exchanged for even the smallest occasion. I received so many gifts from people but never had anything to give in return.
4. People in Japan generally don’t steal anything, ever. Leave your fancy digital camera on a park bench for several hours, it’ll be right there waiting for you when you get back.
5. The face masks that everybody wears when they have a cold or allergies these days were kind of jarring at first. People don’t often cover their faces in the U.S.”
Cultural misunderstandings from both sides can arise. “Americans,” Kelleher elaborated, “tend to think Japanese people are all the same, super serious, stoic, and business-minded, live hi-tech lives, love anime and video games, and they often expect young people will know anything about Pearl Harbor. These things don’t represent Japanese people overall.
“The Japanese tend to think that Americans are tall, blond, brash, outgoing and extroverted, love to eat bread, cannot use chopsticks, are incapable of understanding simple aspects of Japanese culture, and they often expect Americans to know [little] about the world outside of the U.S. These things don’t represent Americans overall either.”
Coming back to the States wasn’t easy on the author. “After forging some incredible friendships, it was really difficult to leave,” he recalled. “Saying goodbye to my students, and my fellow teachers especially, I choked up repeatedly and just broke down crying. I felt like my colleagues had done so much to help me and I couldn’t properly express my immense gratitude. There was a family in Sapporo who I spent many of my weekends with, and I came to regard them as my own family. Saying goodbye to them was definitely the hardest part.
“Readjusting to America was particularly interesting,” he concluded. “When I first got back, I had no filter when it came to overhearing strangers’ conversations in public places. After having to strain just to follow the words of someone speaking directly to me in Japanese, hearing comprehensible English everywhere made me feel like a mutant telepath who couldn’t keep the thoughts of others out. I was like Professor X! It took a long time to just ignore the random conversations around me.
“It also felt impossibly weird blowing my nose in public, or not take off my shoes when entering a house. Relearning to drive on the right side of the road just took careful practice. But I found myself using Japanese hand gestures all the time, even when speaking on the phone — in English! I still do some of those gestures today. I’ve at least finally stopped bowing to people, though I still give people a head nod, which is really just a mini-bow.”
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.