In between worlds — thoughts from a short trip to Japan

Naginata-hoko against modern skyline

Every time I come back to Japan I ask myself: could I live here again? I spent 8 years here. I met my wife here. Both of my daughters were born here. There is so much about this country that I enjoy. The infrastructure is great, the safety, helpfulness, richness of culture and history.

Yet, I don’t think I could live in Japan again. At least, not at this point in my life. And the reason is a simple one: community.

We have lived for 3 years in Kelowna. Since leaving my hometown at 18, this is the longest I have ever lived in one location. I am involved in a few different community groups including the startup community, Japanese immigrant community, the wider immigrant community, and others. Once my children are more independent, I plan on being involved in more. This year, my oldest daughter completed kindergarten. That has a whole new community, a long term one made up of teachers and best friends and other parents. I care about what goes on in my city, province and country, and think of myself as an active and engaged citizen. I cherish my right to vote, and can voice my opinion to my political representatives which I have pretty much all met at one time or another.

If we moved back to Japan, I would lose all of this.

My wife takes our daughters back about once a year and puts them in school for a month or so, that they might have some Japanese education. Walking the kids to school, listening to the daily recap from the teacher, attending assemblies — even though I am pretty fluent in Japanese, my outsider status is pretty apparent. Not having the same shared experiences, I cannot contribute to my full potential.

This year’s visit coincided with the Gion Festival, a month long series of events, dating back to 970CE, heralding the beginning of summer. Gion matsuri is one of Japan’s three major festivals and the pride of Kyoto. It is a hot sticky mess as the summer rainy season brings humidity and typhoons. Everyone looks forward to going out in the (slightly) cooler evening, admiring the 33 floats, running into neighbours, drinking and revelling. Families are out with younger children way past their bedtime. Teenagers run around, flirting and sneaking drinks. It is a real carnival atmosphere. The floats represent different city neighbourhoods and are maintained, built and paraded by the community members. There are months of preparations, meetings and dance practices, bringing the community together. Parade members are selected as representatives of their neighbourhoods. The participants are full of pride, and are looked on by their community members with pride. Although there is the occasional foreigner in the mix, they are inherently a “guest.” Experiencing Gion matsuri this year just reminded me of how difficult it is to integrate into a foreign society.

My 8 years in Japan were not as an “expat”, but as someone who intended to live their forever. I am fluent with the language, knowledgeable about history, know more about Japanese traditional culture than many Japanese, and kept up with domestic politics and economic issues. Even armed with all this knowledge, lacking a common experience with natives makes it exceedingly difficult to integrate completely. I think most lifers in Japan find a comfortable niche and make it work for them. This would have been my approach, had I chosen to stay.

These challenges in integration have given me a little insight into the immigrant experience, which has been very useful in Canada. My wife got her Canadian Permanent Residency over 5 years ago, yet there are still many struggles. She is grateful that I can understand her feelings and at the same time be her “inside man” when it comes to Canadiana. I enjoy helping other immigrants, not from a pedestal of privilege (as a white male) but as a pool of understanding, to be drawn upon if needed.

I am a collection of strange experiences, without any real special skill or knowledge. I have always been in between worlds, serving as connective tissue between different communities — stuck between Canada and Japan; between Eastern and Western Canada; technology and politics; nerds and “normies”; between the past and the future. Always cartilage, never the bone.

However, at this point in my late thirties, with all the connections to the local community that I have been building over the past few years, I am finally achieving a sense of long-term belonging. Japan is a wonderful place, a place that we Canadians can certainly learn from and aspire to in many things. But for now, I am content just visiting. I have much to live for at my home in Canada.

Summer 2015 in Japan

For those that are interested, here are a bunch of photos and videos from my trip to Japan this summer:

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com