As the blog title suggests, I’m haafu; haafu Japanese and haafu English. My mum’s the Japanese one and my dad’s the English one, the Asian-Western way round it seems to be in 90% of cases, at least among the people I know. I was born in London, then lived in Tokyo for a decade, before going back to London. At the time, not only was I unselfconsciously interested in Sylvanian Families and Sanrio (interests which, I’d like to point out, it’s perfectly acceptable for adult women to have in Japan), but I also had, as a result of international school, an American accent so strong my own father could barely understand what I was talking about. These are not the best circumstances under which to join a cliquey London girls’ school mid-year. Both my sister and I suffered some possibly diagnosable trauma at having been moved from a place where it was mostly sunny and everyone was friendly to a place where the sky was continuously spitting on you and everyone was in a permanent state of rage.
We stayed long enough for the rage to become embedded in our very souls as well, for the bulk of our vocabulary to consist of expletives and to believe, with the fervent zeal of the convert, that dark and windswept is preferable to bright and beautiful (in all things, particularly landscapes, personality and men). Despite all that, obviously, I always slightly waited for the sense of homecoming I thought would probably wash over me like a Disney song (maybe the one from Hercules where he’s reunited with Zeus) when I eventually came home, home being Japan. I worked as a travel writer and spent a lot of time in a lot of countries that I loved, and dreamed of Japan. The extended trips I made back here in the intervening years, and even the months I spent in Tokyo again teaching English and working in a maguro-don (raw fish on rice) restaurant, didn’t dispel this illusion.
But a couple of decades down the line, I moved back to Tokyo, a few miles from where I grew up, and it turns out that that homecoming song is only going to play when a small state materialises where kimonoed mamasans serve tacoyaki (octopus balls) in pubs with roaring fires, and Kate Middleton does a taiko drumming display as part of the summer matsuri held on a village green. Neither of which, I suppose, are beyond the bounds of possibility. It’s not that I don’t love Japan as much as I thought, or that it isn’t the way I remember, it’s that it’s so much more, and that so much of that more is so explosively alien to the Anglocised part of my brain. I’ve still got one foot in each home, and am and am not a native of either country, as Japan doesn’t let me forget (a fate bemoaned in this post).
It took me the first year of living here again to navigate daily life (in some ways so convenient; in many many other ways like trying to run through mud) and unscramble my brain (still fairly scrambled) from the things that still make me do a double take every day. Its’s a country of contradictions – everywhere. It’s a whole nation marching to a different beat. It’s definitely the weirdest place I’ve ever been, even though (or rather, because) so many of its quirks lie far below the surface. In any city, two people can be having such different experiences they might as well be living on different planets, and nowhere more so than Tokyo. So here are some thoughts (or rather questions… Tokyo doesn’t make me feel coherent enough to have thoughts) on the Tokyo I inhabit, from my perspective. I have a feeling untangling the meaning of life would be more straightforward.