I am turning Japanese…
Everyone always asks me “Why Japan”? And it seems only fair to tell you all as well, especially as we are there right now…
My grandfather Albert was a Japanese Prisoner of War (PoW) during World War Two. He was captured in the Far East and ended up at Changi Prison in Singapore. He was then transported by cattle trucks for several days by rail to Thailand to build the famous railway to Burma. He volunteered to learn the local languages, dabbling into Malay, Thai, Cantonese and Japanese and was used by his officers as a translator.
After his return to England, he studied Mandarin at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where I actually ended up studying Japanese myself many many years later. Then he returned to Asia, working in Malaysia for a few years, where my father was born and grew up.
After returning once more to London, his wife passed away and he met a Japanese lady called Yaeko. They were married before I was born, and to me, she will always be my grandmother. From birth, she taught me a few words of Japanese and cooked delicious Japanese food. My grandparents would have huge parties in their backyard and it felt like the whole Japanese population of London came and enjoyed summer evenings with us in that garden.
Alongside this, I was brought up in West Acton, London – the Japanese neighbourhood of the UK. There is a Japanese school, which pushed Japanese people into the area and our neighbours were always from Japan. My first ever friend was called Megumi, from Tokyo, and I spent more time with my Japanese neighbours than with any of my other friends when I was little.
Then suddenly I was introduced to Mary-Grace Browning. She organises trips for grandchildren of PoW’s to go on trips to Japan, in order to bridge the gaps between the two countries. At first I was interested in a two-week fully-paid trip to eat real sushi and see Mt Fuji. When someone dropped out of an opportunity to live in Japan for 5 months with a host family and go to a local school… well… you know me… I just said yes. A few weeks later I was packing my bags and flying towards the Land of the Rising Sun.
It was a crazy experience – my hostfamily wanted me home at 5 o’clock – at first I thought they meant in the morning… but alas, my freedom of being an adult in London didn’t mean the same for this 18 year-old in Japan. My classmates were 16-17 years-old and very immature compared to back home. But as I adjusted and learnt the language and settled into my new home, I grew to love it more and more. I realised that for the first time in my life, I went home and opened a book to study. I had winged it through school, doing my homework on the bus and revising the day before a test. I didn’t really enjoy school or studying, but all of a sudden I found myself going home and retracing one letter of the Hiragana alphabet after another, for hours on end. When I said “Neko ga hashirimasu” (the cat runs) on my second evening to my host sister when we passed a running cat on an evening walk, even I couldn’t believe it.
When I got home to England, I ended up applying to study Japanese at SOAS, just like my grandfather. During my university studies I found myself studying in Kyoto for a year.
I was poor but so happy, cycling around that beautiful city with all my new friends. It was a wonderful and very happy year. When I returned to finish my final year, I realised I wanted to go back to Japan once again.
This time I went back on the JET Programme as a Coordinator for International Relations. I was out in the sticks. A tiny little countryside town in the mountains. A beautiful town. With lots of very old people who were farmers.
These three years were very different from before. Now I had money and could travel all over Japan as well as Asia. I had a respectable job and many opportunities were available. It was even where Jason and I officially met, alas for one evening only, but that’s another story.
At the end of my three years, I was tired. Being foreign and female is very hard in Japan. I have lots of stories to tell you about those crazy years, but they have yet to be written. For now, I just wanted to explain why I love Japan so much and how it influenced my life. I would never have imagined I would be there again right now, in a place so foreign and alien and yet it always feels like I’ve come back home…