How Japan Has Changed Me


I've been in Japan for about nine months now. I've had a birthday in Japan, experienced every season, been to awkward drinking parties with Japanese coworkers, and have probably eaten more onigiri and taiyaki than what's considered normal. Before moving to Japan, I knew it would change me. I had no idea how it would change me, but I looked forward to wholeheartedly embracing a country and culture that is so different from my own, and welcomed any changes that came with it.

I came to Japan with absolutely no expectations, but I had hoped that being an English teacher would just be my ticket into the country. I had hoped that I'd eventually get a real job and be able to live here for a long time. I may have been wearing rose-colored glasses at the time.

I don't know if I was just naïve, had an inflated sense of self-confidence and thought everything would be easy and work out perfectly, or if I had over-romanticized Japan so much in my head that I thought it would be perfect. Being in Japan has changed my views on myself, others, and our place in society.

The thing that people had warned me about most, or worried for me about most, is how my tattoos would be perceived in Japan. I was already aware of Japan's long history of relating tattoos to organized crime groups (yakuza), but, and this is really bad of me, I didn't give a shit. It really didn't faze me at all. I knew I had to wear long-sleeved shirts for work, but that's no different from any type of job I'd seek anywhere else. I didn't give a shit to the point where I'd joke about joining the yakuza and coming home with one finger missing or that I'd be kidnapped because I've been mistaken for one. I know. Terrible. But, that all has changed.

I still think tattoos are sick and I'd still get more, but I have never been more conscious of the fact that I have tattoos, than I am now. I think it may be because I look Japanese and have a Japanese last name, so no one thinks I'm foreign.

When I first got here, I liked that everyone thought I was Japanese (from Japan). I liked how no one treated me differently and that I didn't draw attention every time I left my apartment. It made the transition to living here very smooth because I never felt like an outsider.

Now, I wish everyone would treat me as a foreigner. I wish everyone would give me that foreigner leniency and say, "oh it's okay, she's foreign," every time I do something out of culture for a Japanese person.

When everyone treats me as a Japanese person, I almost forget that I'm not. I've always been very aware of how others see me (whether that's a good or bad thing is debatable), so knowing that every person around me probably thinks I'm Japanese, I oddly put pressure on myself to act Japanese and to be Japanese. And consequently, when someone figures out that I'm foreign, I almost feel ashamed. Isn't that weird? I feel like I'm being a bad Japanese.

So, when people stare at me for my tattoos, I feel like I'm a bad Japanese, and it makes me want to hide them. I have never regretted getting my tattoos and I never will, but it sucks not being able to truly be myself for most of the hours in the day.

Being in Japan has made me subconsciously try to conform to the standards of a Japanese person, and I don't like that. That statement, in itself, reveals a lot about Japanese society. Here, most people want to fit in, sticking out in a crowd is frowned upon. But, why? Why is it that most Japanese people are not comfortable in expressing themselves? And why is it actually encouraged for one not to express oneself? This is so deeply rooted in society that even though I've only been here for nine months, Japan already has me trying to conform to its ways.

But, one thing that I admire the hell out of about Japanese society is the work ethic that is instilled in almost every person. Sure, there are people who work solely for the money, but it seems to me that most people take pride in whatever work they do, regardless of the amount of money they're making. You will never walk into a store and encounter a sales associate that seems like he/she hates his/her life, unlike how incredibly common of a situation that is in America.

Observing the work ethic of Japanese people has really made me realize that I am not entitled to anything, and neither is anyone else. Hard work is always eventually rewarded in some way. But, I've honestly never worked that hard at anything in my life, like Japanese people do, and I've still always been rewarded. That has made me ridiculously lazy. But, being here has made me realize that not everything is going to be easy. And it shouldn't be. I'll never learn anything if everything is always easy for me. I've just been lucky up until this point.

So overall, Japan has changed me into being overly self-aware. And I really don't know how I feel about that. I've had moments when it's so bad that if I'm with someone who does something embarrassing, I think to myself, "I wonder what every person around us thinks of me for being with him/her?" Yeah, it's bad, especially in that sense. It's borderline self-consciousness, and I hate it. However, I do like how Japan has made me really self-reflect a lot. Always being in a familiar place with familiar faces doesn't encourage nearly as much self-reflection as being in a new place with new faces does. And it had made me really think about how I've lived in the past, how I'm living now, and what I can do to live the way I want to live, in the future.