Between Worlds: The Complicated Life of a Young Japanese Returnee

““Well, if you’re not speaking in Japanese,” he said, “you're not Japanese.” PHOTO: Shibuya, Tokyo, by S. (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

It's a common perception that living in different countries during your school years is a blessing. What people don't realize is that this blessing comes with its fair share of curses.

I was born in Tokyo and lived in an entirely Japanese environment until I was six. Then my father's job with a trading company moved to New York. He went ahead of us, my mother and I joining him when the school year was over. I still have the album full of goodbye messages from my classmates, wishing me good luck and expressing hopes of seeing me when I returned.

The first few months in New York were a nightmare. Having no English, I didn't understand a word my teachers and peers at kindergarten said. My teacher would get frustrated with me and give me 30-minute time-outs in the hallway, where nobody could be distracted by my crying. The only support I had at school was a Japanese ESL teacher, who aided me when she could, and a half-Japanese friend who used her limited Japanese to the best her ability on my behalf. My mother was worried about me and found me an English tutor. As I was so young, it didn't take long for the language to sink in. After a year of only listening and not speaking, by the first day of first grade, I had somehow learned how to speak and write in English.

The next few years were a blur. I became more and more fluent, to the point where I preferred English over Japanese. I made many American friends and adopted their interests: High School Musical, North Face fleeces, sleepovers. But as the years went by, more and more Japanese kids like me were entering the school. As I interacted with them, I started feeling as if I was American, but Japanese at heart.

Just as I was having the time of my life, the dream was shattered. My father was being moved back to Japan, and, naturally, our family with him. I cried buckets. I will never forget the pizza party my friends threw for me on my last day at school. I promised that I would stay in touch and we would see each other again. I was ten years old.

Back in Japan, I was now a “returnee”. I had to reacquaint myself with activities such as taking the train and navigating the city streets. But the biggest change was the people I thought I knew, who now seemed so different and distant. There was an elementary school attached to my old preschool, so I was going to school in the same location as before. But I knew only about half the people in my small class. Despite that, I thought I would have no problem fitting in.

I was wrong. The first day back my best friend from preschool introduced me to her circle of friends as the “girl that was in America.” Preparing for my English middle school entrance exams while everyone else had a Japanese entrance exam, my homeroom teacher told me not to study English in the classroom because it made the other students nervous. The worst was English class. We were studying types of fish, and the English teacher, who was Japanese, told the class that “cod,” in Japanese, translated to “salmon” in English. When I corrected her, she accused me “disrupting” the class and preventing the others from learning, and told me I should keep quiet. From that point on, I stopped participating in the English class, and the teacher gave me horrible marks on my report card for “not participating.” These things also affected me outside the classroom: I became less trusting of others and fearful of speaking English in public.

The junior high school I went to at age 11 favored returnees, so I believed the discrimination would stop. But as there was a large group of us, junior high ended up being an even crueler place. My grade level comprised six classes. The returnees were divided among two of the classes, while the “normal” students who had entered the school through a Japanese exam were spread among the six. Half of my class were returnees, whom I instantly befriended, as we had all experienced similar discrimination in our elementary schools and understood each other's feelings. The other students, however, didn't look kindly on our bonding together, nor did they like the fact that we spoke English among ourselves or that our entrance exam was easier the Japanese one. They were polite to our faces, but they gossiped behind our backs and judged everything we did. I remember vividly the time the non-returnees in our class made a list of all the returnees and ranked us from the most bearable to the worst, then showed us the list and laughed at our reactions. Some people found this so traumatic they erased it from their memories.

The only positive thing about this first year of junior high was that I became part of a group of friends who relied on each other. After having nobody with whom to share my experiences, I now had friends who understood what I was going through.

The second year of junior high was more relaxed. By then, many were old enough to recognize that being judgmental didn't fix everything. School became fun, and I even started to make non-returnee friends. But with the struggles in the classroom gone, I began to feel judged by society. When my friends and I spoke English in public, adults would stare, whisper, or even point at us. As our dress style was different from other Japanese teenagers, people would stare at us in our skimpier shorts and crop tops. In restaurants when, after talking among ourselves in English, we ordered in Japanese, waiters would act like we were from another planet.

Then my family got the news that we would be moving once more, this time to Australia for two years for my father’s job. I was sad to leave my new friends who understood me, but I also was excited at the prospect of getting a break from the judgment of Japanese society and becoming who truly be who I wanted to be.

In Australia, I made friends who didn't judge me and with whom I felt comfortable with no matter what. My school and my peers encouraged me to try new things and pursue my passions. I believe this helped me develop a better understanding of who I truly am, something that I couldn't figure out in Japan.

I slowly started to lose contact with Japan. I kept up with Japanese news and my friends, as those things were part of my identity, but I began shedding values and judgments about people and viewing others through a less biased lens.

Two years flew by, and before I knew it, it was time to leave. I flew back to Japan armed with the connections and self-understanding that I gained in Australia, ready to incorporate them into everyday life back at my school in Japan. I hoped that people there would have grown up, and would understand how I now perceived myself.

While many of my peers at school had in fact changed and had come to accept and even rely on us returnees for support, the Japanese public hadn't, and I felt the difference in perspective even acutely as I was now more grown up.

When I was 16, I was studying for my SAT World History test with a friend at a local convenience store. As we were discussing the French Revolution, an old man came up to our table and asked if we were Japanese. I replied, as politely as I could, that we were. He then asked why we were studying and speaking in English. We asked him what he thought was wrong with that. His response, for me, epitomizes the Japanese attitude toward things non-Japanese. “Well, if you’re not speaking in Japanese,” he said, “you're not Japanese. If you’re speaking English or French or whatever you’re speaking, get the hell out of my country. Go find another place to live! Nobody here wants you. You don’t belong with us!” His words took me by surprise, and neither my friend or I could muster up a response to the illogical, small-minded, and offensive conclusion the man had reached just by taking a look at our alphabet-covered SAT book.

A similar thing happened when my friend and I were speaking English at the train station like we usually do, and we had bumped into an elderly lady. We said “sorry” in Japanese, to which she replied, “Oh, you're Japanese? Then always speak Japanese, you foreigner!”

In the two years I was away it's possible that the Japanese public had not only failed to change—it had become worse. With so many tourists coming to Japan, among other factors, the Japanese feelings of nationalism seem to have grown stronger, in particular among the elderly.

Now, however. I cannot imagine myself as anything else but a returnee. Everything I am and do is influenced by my experience of living abroad. I now have a broader perspective on things, and understand that there are many different cultures and opinions in the world. In a monocultural society like Japan, it can be hard for my non-returnee friends to understand this point of view, but I know that I can rely on my returnee friends. Since there are only a few of us, we band together. Japanese society may be judgmental towards us, but I always know that my fellow returnees have my back.


  • madmarc

    Japan is no different in many respects from the rest of the world, certainly not when it comes to racism. The Japanese have always sneered at foreigners. Luckily that generation will be swept away soon enough, leaving younger more moderate minded people to choose what they will believe, or not, and leave the traditional racism behind.

  • Simon Says

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences Airi.
    It takes a lot of courage to do so.

    Having an aged and highly homogenised population makes Japan more susceptible to these kinds of things unfortunately.

    I hope it all improves soon.

  • Kikuko

    Hello. I saved this article from someone’s timeline on Facebook and I finally had a chance to read it. My background is somewhat similar to the writer and as I read the article nodding, I also wish she has people out in Japanese society that understands and supports her, and even envy her situation.

    Reading from her article I’m assuming I’m another generation older than her as there weren’t convenience store where we could sit down and study at my time in Japan, and after going through what the writer had, my extra years of maturity made me accept society, and even made me feel I could add good things to Japanese society and culture.

    I wish when writing articles from experience the writer will also talk to elders who had similar experiences and then write. But in any case I’m happy to find another fellow returnee whom I can learn from or share my experience with. I hope she finds a good place to settle when she spends time in Japan.

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