“They said ‘Oh, when you finish university, you should go to Japan’.
So I decided: ‘Oh, ok. That sounds like a good idea’.”
When you arrive in Japan, you notice the foreigners straight away. You can distinguish them by their physical appearance but mainly by the way they behave. It’s even more visible in a village where everyone knows their neighbours. Imagine, a thirty-year-old guy, very tall, sporty, with a tanned complexion, because of the years spent under the sun, a bandana to protect his head exposed due to baldness. Picture this character, who arrived in Japan thirteen years ago, and is living in Murayama (which literally means “village of the mountains”) in the Yamagata prefecture. It appears that he faded into the background so well than only his accent and physical appearance allow us to tell that he is not Japanese. English teacher, farmer, husband and father of a young Anglo Japanese girl, I was struck by his energy, his easy-going temperament and his ability to adapt. Another point which made a difference: his humour. Cynical, cutting, off-beat. It was impossible for me to get bored with his jokes. I think his humour saved me when the days were too long, too hot, or too tedious.
I met Sam the first day I arrived in Japan. It was the second cheerful face I saw after his wife Nao. I had decided to work as a volunteer for six weeks on the family farm. They hire volunteers via a platform on the internet. The only bilingual member of the family, Sam’s mission is to select the most motivated volunteers and to warn them by e-mail of the amount of work which is waiting for them. The family lives all together and is composed of three generations: two grandparents, two parents and husband (Sam), wife and three children. They are lucky to live in a community that you can rarely find in France. They are mastering the art of keeping smiling no matter how hard the work is.
“How did he get here?” was the first question I ask myself about him, followed by : “How did he fit in so well in the Japanese country as an Englishman ?” I am extremely curious but always afraid of being intrusive, I took my time to adapt myself to the rhythm of work, the language, and the daily habits before daring to ask any questions. Perched on the top of the cherry trees picking cherries at 4 a.m., Sam and I talked about us, the world, politics, society, books, people, rice fields and cherries. And this until the last cherry was picked. The day before my departure, Sam accepted to do a more formal interview than the unofficial one we had during the few weeks together. I recorded it and asked my last questions.
Sam arrived in Japan thirteen years ago with the desire to stay two or three years and then go teaching to another country. After six months of adjustment, he met Nao. This kind of situation makes us understand that meetings make the journey, and not the contrary. Nao, one foot in Murayama working for the family farm, the other one in Tokyo hanging out with her friends and selling the products. The week-ends where Sam worked at the farm with Nao and the rest of the family became weeks, months and years. He ended up staying.
What is the difference between thinking of staying two or three years in a foreign country and thinking you are going to stay here for the most part of your life? The capacity to adapt to the culture and accept it. “The first three years were very frustrating. Because you don’t understand how Japan works. Every time something frustrating happens, and you get upset… It’s like: ‘Why? It is a stupid way. The English way is much better. Why did I do it in this bullshit way?’ […]The base culture is different. So, people aren’t doing things just to annoy you, they just have a different logic. You have to completely reload this logic. This is relevant for everything, even for using a stamp. Even to simply sign in they use a hanko (tampon japonais). It’s stupid because anyone can make the same hanko You can copy it very easily. But they still use a hanko instead of a stamp.” Then he added: “I would always ask if it is OK to do this or something at school, and the staff or whoever would say: ‘Hm, that might be difficult.’ In Japanese, that just means ‘No’. But to me it was ‘Ok it might be difficult but, we can try!’ and they were: ‘Hm… It might be difficult.’ And I was saying ‘Yeah, it might be difficult, let’s try!’, ‘Hm… It’s very difficult.’ I was the stupid foreigner who didn’t understand that this is a polite way of saying no, because you have different expectations. I’m coming from a British perspective where, when I have a request, I can ask and you can say no. It’s quite open. But Japan is not like that. You have to know the answer before you ask. Japanese people don’t like to say no. »
How many of these small daily details in another country frustrate you? In a foreign country, the behaviour you can’t assimilate irritates us. We find ourselves in a situation where words and gestures are meaningless. “If you always remain outside of the perspective, you will never get the chance to fully integrate. […] But I also understand that it’s very possible to adapt. If you genuinely want to be part of the community, you can, it’s possible. If I hadn’t had a lot of help from the family, and if I had been alone, it wouldn’t have been possible. I don’t think you can do it if you keep being an English Teacher.” To succeed his integration into a culture so opposed to his own, Sam, in a way, had to abandon his English habits in order to leave space for new ones. He distanced himself with his misunderstandings he had experienced in his first years.
You can guess that he has an impressed and respectful outlook on Japan: “I have the feeling that Japanese people understand that civilization is really fragile. You’ve got to work at it, and it’s very easy to slip into barbarism. Because they’ve seen that. You know within living memory. […] Japan is politer, it’s safer, it’s more efficient, it’s cleaner, it’s more beautiful, the food is better.” You could think he just sees the glorious side of the country, but he knows how to take a step back and understand its problems: “Japan has plenty of problems you know. The politics is awful. The education system sucks. Some of their attitudes, like their attitude towards women, is almost barbaric.” Affected by the way Japanese people have strong clichés about foreign countries, he would like the country to be more open-minded and less divided from the outside world. “Even people I know and trust, people who’ve travelled a lot will start sentences with: ‘In abroad, blabla’. Like… Hang on, what abroad are you talking about? Russia? South Arabia? Australia? Most of the time they are using a shorthand like ‘Western society’. You are slicing the world into two zones, you have Japan and not Japan. You can’t say that not-Japan is like this. It’s just a stupid thing to say.”
I understood by meeting Sam and seeing him in his everyday life that to create an authentic bond between yourself and a foreign culture, you have to adapt like in every human relationship: accept that the other is not going to change, and accept that person for what they are, with their faults, their qualities, their impulses. You have to see the big picture, understand all of its facets, while freeing yourself from hasty judgments. Adapting to people is like adapting to a country, without changing its codes, traditions and customs, made after thousands of years.
And Sam, in all of this? Is he more English or Japanese? “I miss marmite, cheese, and good beer. […] But I don’t feel particularly British, I don’t feel Japanese. I don’t know, somewhere in the middle I guess.”