Outside Looking In
In 1988 I wrote a small textbook titled Outside Looking In which was a collection of 25 small essays in which I reflected on my impressions of Japanese culture. In those days we foreigners were not called 外国人 but merely 外人, a term I personally prefer. That is because I do not feel like a foreigner, but more like a citizen, however, a citizen who is “outside” the society.
Although Japan has become much more international in the more than half century I have lived here, it is basically a homogeneous society. This was especially true when I first came and was often pointed out to me by Japanese. As a result of this homogeneity, Japanese have a strong cultural identity based on race. It seemed that regardless of one’s ability to speak Japanese and follow Japanese customs, in short, “be like Japanese,” it still was not possible to “be a Japanese” because I was of a different race.
I did not mind this at all and in truth found it comfortable because instead of being forced to conform to cultural norms and customs, I was allowed to participate or not. In other words, I felt more like a guest than a member of the family. This suited me because of my own personal sense of independence and preference to avoid membership in any group. For me, life in Japan has always been good and living in Japan has always been more comfortable for me than living in America.
So, it was from the sense of being an “outsider”, of someone looking at society from the outside, that I made that book title.
As I mentioned earlier, I consider Japan my home and never plan to leave. Thirty years ago I obtained Permanent Residence which enables me to work and live freely in Japan. The only right I do not have that Japanese have is the right to vote. I had the option of naturalizing, becoming a Japanese citizen, but at that time I still felt more like an American than Japanese. Today that is less the case and probably if given the opportunity today I would become a Japanese.
In many ways I imagine this is how my great-grandfather felt when he emigrated from Norway to America and became an American. Like him I crossed a large ocean and made a very different country my home. Perhaps it is the Viking blood in me. I think it also runs in my children for my daughter traveled to China to study at university, met her future husband there, and ultimately married and moved to Bangkok where she now resides. My son has traveled and lived abroad for almost ten years, first in Texas and then Hawaii before returning to Japan.
Though I still may sometimes “look in from outside”, I feel myself becoming increasingly more like someone “on the inside looking out.”