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…

My 3 years in the UK gave me cynicism, an appreciation of the colour black, an appetite for big cities and a love of world travel. The question now is, what will I be left with after Japanification?

Tennis Mafia & Taiko

That’s right OC followers…it has almost been a month since I left the safety of Australia to embark on this Japanese life…and let me tell you, the last week has been very eventful! From my induction into ‘Tennis Club Mafia’ to my first Japanese Karaoke experience, every day has been an adventure…

Things started quietly on Monday with a normal school day and ongoing introduction lessons as I continue to plough my way through the first 14 classes. In an effort to stave off boredom in the teachers’ room and show the kids I have an active interest in them I also made the somewhat rash decision to make name tags for the students…all 400 plus of them. My JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) were fairly surprised and pleased to discover I could read Hiragana (one of the Japanese syllabic systems) and that I was willing to translate into English for the kids. A week later I have finished 1st and 2nd years…hmm.

In a bid to win over my main JTE, Masuda Sensei…and some of the kids, I signed up to join in with tennis club on Tuesday afternoon (as Masuda Sensei is the tennis club coach for the boys team). Again, not really thinking things through, I forgot that the boys and girls are separated and that in fact I wouldn’t get to talk to Masuda Sensei at all! Despite that, it was a gorgeous day and I had a blast. I haven’t played tennis in SO long though and I have certainly never played ‘soft’ tennis on a dirt court, so it was a very new experience.

The girls seemed to enjoy having me there (they particularly liked my praise…’great smash’) but my biggest fan was Isono Sensei…the tennis club coach for the girls. She thinks I am a star on court and as such I somehow agreed to buy a racquet and play against her on a regular basis! She is a pretty cool teacher…I reckon if I was 15 years older and Japanese I would be a lot like her. I think she suffers from my competitive streak so the games could get interesting. So yes, I am now a member of the ‘Tennis Club Mafia’. Hopefully this won’t dent my plans to get to some other clubs like kendo, art, volleyball and table tennis in the near future.

The rest of the school week was spent befriending the teachers as classes were light on due to exams. I think the teachers are realising one by one that I have an honest love of Japanese culture and that I am willing to embrace it and try everything at least once! I had a conversation with Shiba Sensei and I told him I was wanting to sit the Japanese proficiency exam…the next day he came in bearing a gift of Japanese sweet biscuits for me! My street cred also improves every day that I eat the school lunch too…with chopsticks. The teachers have developed a keen respect for me as I scoff down everything served up to me…when half the time they don’t even know what it is we are eating!

Friday night brought with it a chance to let off some steam and try my hand at Taiko…Japanese drumming. Those that know me well know that I can’t play any musical instrument to save my life. So understandably I went into the class with some trepidation…trying to channel some Dave Grohl, circa Nirvana days. Much to my surprise and delight I have more rhythm than I give myself credit for and had great fun thumping the life out of the big drums with the other ALTs in the area.

Sadly my school week extended to Saturday as it was parent’s day at Omiya Junior High School. I should have seen it as an omen when I awoke to snow outside…this was not going to be a good day. Silvy (my trusty nana bike) and I trudged off to school in the snow and after feeling returned to my extremities I was informed that I would be participating in a demonstration English class for the parents. Now this in itself was a terrifying thought only two weeks into this teaching gig. Now add to the equation that the lesson was to be with the 1st year students who can barely speak any English. Compounded with the fact that the 1st year JTE is fresh out of university and is even more scared of being up in front of those kids than what I am, it was bound to be an ordeal.

I was told by Kurosawa Sensei five minutes before the lesson that we would be teaching phonics (a-a-ant, b-b-ball for those of you playing at home). Not too scary a thought…until you find yourself trying to describe the sound for ‘x’ with ‘box’ as your sample word…in front of 34 terrified children and the watchful eyes of their parents at the back of the classroom! Kurosawa Sensei and I battled through and I made a mad dash for the teachers’ room as soon as class was over to hang my head in shame. From now on I am reading the textbooks at least five lessons in advance…just in case.

After the torment of PTA day I got to relish in social activities with my favourite English speaking ALT counterparts. First up was dinner and karaoke in Mito to celebrate Sam’s birthday…oh what fun! Considering that before I moved here I abhorred the thought of karaoke, my first Japanese experience of the sport (yes, after Saturday night, I consider it a sport) was unreal! Perhaps it was the awesomely bad film clips that accompany the tunes or the freedom of belting out tacky 80’s numbers at the top of your lungs in a small smokey room with 11 others? Whatever the reason, we left Mito in the wee hours of the morning with sore throats but feeling very satisfied indeed.

Last night was a little more sedate as past and present Hitachiomiya ALTs gathered to farewell one of it’s own, Lisa…who is off on another adventure in China. Another trip to Mito for Izakaya (all you can eat/drink) but thankfully an early night after the Karaoke antics on Saturday!

I wrapped up my weekend today by road tripping with JJ to a nearby shrine and scoping out the local gym. I use the term ‘gym’ loosely here as it is probably twice the size of my shoebox (apartment) and feels more like somebody’s home set up in their garage. To counteract the claustrophobia I felt afterwards I went for a run out of town amongst the rice paddies…