I live in a black hole. A vortex. A bubble. A land mass almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. There is an invisible shield around this country and it is impervious to outside influence. Somehow I made it in, but now I feel like I have been abducted by The Borg and they are trying to make me a clone…a part of the collective hive mind that is Japan.
After 15 months of living in Japan I have begun to assimilate. The cultural differences that began as novelties have slowly infiltrated my life and like a tap dripping over time…they have gradually filled up my existence. As my purikura obsession reaches epic proportions, rivalling that of any 14 year old Japanese girl, I realise I have been subject to ‘Japanification’.
Wikipedia describes Japanification as ‘the process of ex-pats becoming members of Japanese society because of a feeling of isolation or desire to conform’. Isolation. To say I am part of an isolated minority in Japan is a gross understatement. When 80 year old Ken Tanaka at the corner store stares at me for the whole 20 seconds I feature in his life, it is for good reason. Because it’s highly likely that he has never before seen a blond haired, blue eyed woman. ‘Why not?’ you might ask…since we live in a global society where travel is readily available to first world citizens and immigration is common practice worldwide.
The answer? Again…I live in a bubble. Japan is unique and has strict immigration policies to supposedly ensure the ongoing welfare of the Japanese economy. To punctuate the point of just how strict these policies are, here are some statistics for you: Japan’s population today falls just short of 128 million people. Of these 128 million, a mere 1.5% (1.92 million) are immigrants. Now compare that to Australia, where the population is 22 million people, but 24% (5.28 million) are immigrants (yes, we let any old riff raff in). This low immigration rate, compounded with fact that very few Japanese people have the time or desire to travel only exacerbates this ‘us and them’ divide with the rest of the world. So it’s really no wonder with such little connection to the outside world, I have begun to emulate the habits of my captors.
The other aspect of Japanification that Wikipedia mentions is ‘the desire to conform’. I’ll be very clear on this point, I have no desire to conform. It was never my intention to ‘become Japanese’ living in Japan…beyond respecting the day to day customs and courtesies Japanese society requires of me. I refuse to wear stockings to school in summer, I make it no secret that I have no desire to get married and even my tattoo is making more appearances in public these days. Yet lately many of my teachers have commented on how I am more Japanese than them. How did this happen?!
The first clues that I had become Japanified surfaced post earthquake, when I flew back to Australia for 2 weeks. It seems that time spent outside of the bubble is what I needed to notice that I had unwittingly been sucked in by the inextricable forces of Japanese culture. I’m not sure if it was the hysterical giggling from my little sister when I bowed to fellow motorists while driving, or hearing myself say ‘hai’ to a sales girl that gave it away…but I knew very quickly after arriving in Australia that I had changed.
I began to notice other subtle differences too as reverse culture shock set in…why were people wearing shoes inside? Why could I not survive the day without my 3 cups of green tea in the morning? And why could I not start a meal until the phrase ‘itadakimasu’ had crossed my lips? It was all so confusing…who had I become?
It got me thinking…all these little changes have added up to a substantial shift in the way I live. I now eat with chopsticks every day and I eat 10 times as much rice as I ever have before. Sometimes Japanese words come to me before the English ones, I swat away compliments with a wave of my hand in front of my face and I automatically use food and weather as staple conversation topics. I now peel my mandarins meticulously so that the skin can be removed in one whole piece and all my rubbish is neatly folded at the end of a meal for disposal. And these are just the involuntary actions that I have taken on in the last 15 months. I have also willingly partaken in taiko lessons, these days I make misanga, origami is a daily hobby and I have recently taken up karate too.
This makes me wonder…how far will it go?! I live in a country where scrunchies, 3 stripe tracksuits and floral print overalls are deemed the height of fashion. A pop group consisting of 48 girls singing about vegetables captures the attention of the entire nation and Johnny Depp, Prince William, David Beckham and Lady Gaga are the only celebrities to enjoy notoriety in Japan. Surely the line has to be drawn somewhere? I refuse to become completely assimilated to the point where can’t answer a question without first checking with my best friend that he agrees with my answer. I may not be able to stop the Japanification process, but I swear I will never wear a bum bag, eat natto with a smile on my face, speak in katakanised English or play tennis with a soft ball…