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Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2003


At home in japan without the kinks

Japanese abroad have no trouble finding bearings, but Kaori Shoji feels a little lost

So is this what they mean by globalization?

From Tokyo, Japan to Boston, USA, there are no direct flights. It takes roughly 24 hours before you find yourself blinking in the lobby of Logan Airport, where likely as not you will be among a lot of tall, blonde people saying things like: "dude, that is AWESOME!"

The scenery should feel sufficiently foreign but it doesn't, not really, though you can't place a finger on exactly why.

The familiarity of it all is amplified once you hit downtown: there are Japanese restaurants with Japanese language menus pasted onto the double glass doors, Japanese hair salons with posters featuring Japanese models, Japanese travel agencies touting roundtrip, discount business class tickets to Tokyo -- in kanji.

Most of all, you see the F.C.P. (Fellow Countrypersons) everywhere, walking in pairs or threes: students at Berklee Music College (each year, a good third of the graduating class are Japanese), Boston University, University of Massachusetts, or any of the other numerous academic institutions which make up Boston's primary industry.

These students shop at the same Japanese grocery store, whose shelves boast all the Pocky and Pretz flavors, not to mention bowls of gyuudon and videos of the latest Japanese trendy dramas, flown into Logan at the pace of twice a week.

At this point I feel compelled to turn cranky and start reminiscing about the hard old days.

When I was growing up in New York about 2.5 decades ago, America felt downright . . . different.

This difference manifested itself in the most basic ways, reminding us constantly that we were here and not there.

My parents had to drive an hour to Freeport where they could buy fish fresh enough for sashimi, if they were lucky. Soy sauce was available but it tasted weirdly sweet. As for miso, it was difficult to find anything that wasn't additive-saturated and way past the legitimate sell-by date.

My friends in the neighborhood were Irish and Italian. I had pop-tarts for breakfast and carried peanut butter sandwiches to school. I wore Yankees T-shirts and went to summer camp. I had learned to say "up yours" before I learned the multiplication table.

As for Pocky, one knew such wonders existed but they were far, far beyond our reach. They were, in fact, in another country.

Upon my family's return to Tokyo, the feeling of difference kicked up all over again. Suddenly home life shrunk into the confines of the Japanese 3LDK, violently lit by overhead fluorescent lights.

School seemed to be a similar version of what Tommy Kealey's 21-year old brother had once described about boot camp.

No one spoke English and, if they did, it was an English I had never heard.

Life had turned into a whole new game with a different set of rules and the relearning process was accompanied by big doses of pain and frustration.

Now, of course, the hang-ups of U.S.-Japan relocation are far less burdensome or severe.

Pointing out the parallels between life in the States and life in Japan has become far easier than listing up the differences -- increasingly, here threatens to merge with there.

Even language, that great divider of cultures and borders, has gotten vague about enforcing discipline.

In Tokyo, as in Boston, it's possible for Americans/Japanese to go for weeks without uttering a whole sentence in the native tongue.

The staff who work at the Japanese grocery shop "Cherry Mart," for example, say their English has actually deteriorated over the years, what with serving Japanese customers, talking to Japanese sales reps and associating mainly with Japanese friends.

Americans are referred to as "Ame-jin" and viewed from a polite distance.

Masako Kakutani, a 28-year old student at Berklee, describes the American experience as "Japan, with the kinks out."

Born, raised and educated in Tokyo, Masako had worked at an HMV (Hunter Music Video) store in Shibuya for 4 years before deciding on the move to Boston: "I was working 14 hours a day and getting nowhere.

"Life in Tokyo was so tiring and I had just broken up with my boyfriend. It felt like the right time to do it." The Boston life she says, is "relaxing and easy, more like a vacation than anything else."

She works in a Japanese restaurant to pay for rent and the tuition fees are on loan from her parents.

Now in her third year in the New England city, Masako has not returned to Tokyo even once. In her own words she "has never felt freer." She knows that if she goes back, the problems of work and family will encroach on her private life. Her parents will pressure her about marriage and her friends will urge her to come over and look at their babies.

"Don't misunderstand me, I love Japan," she says. "It's just that I don't feel the need to go back."

True enough, since she can duplicate the Japanesey facets of life right here in Boston (J-anime books available at Borders, authentic, hand-baked An-Pan sold at the "Japonaise Bakery" to name a few examples), genuine homesickness seems beside the point.

Masako and her friends' lifestyle have a lot in common with the American expat in Tokyo, who lives in the expat luxury apartment and sends their children to ASIJ.

There's no urgent need to get local or to speak Japanese and supermarkets like Kinokuniya or National Azabu stock all the familiar foods. The one glaring difference is the cost -- the American lifestyle in Japan costs twice as much as the Japanese lifestyle in America.

But if the financial hurdle is not a problem (and it's often not for the expat executive), then what is?

Nothing, as far as I can tell. Freed from the irksome pressures of difference and exoticism, both Japanese and Americans have come to celebrate our knack for co-existence while at the same time leaving each other well alone.

Still, I can't help feeling nostalgia for the foreign-ness that (for me, anyway) once defined both America and Japan, the foreign-ness that forces the outsider to open up or shut down, to reveal inner vulnerabilities and strengths, and that ultimately taught you what the hell you're all about.

America is another country, yes, but this time around, I seem to have a hard time getting there.

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