I come from a long line of travelers. Visiting Japan is a family business of sorts. I’ve been in and out of the country since 1966, and my first two arrivals were by ship.
Paving the way was my father, John F Howes, who first arrived here on January 1, 1947.
He was one of 1,200 US Navy officers trained in Japanese language during World War II. By the time he completed his studies, the war was over. But General Douglas MacArthur’s postwar occupation staff still needed Americans with language skills to help Japan get back on its feet.
My father arrived after a 50-day voyage from Brooklyn Navy Yard. He spent most of his spare time getting to know Japan and its people. Studying the impact of Western culture on Japan became his life’s work. During his subsequent research trips, my family worked hard to assimilate.
On my first visit to Japan, I started school on the Amakusa islands of Kyushu. By the time we left, two years after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I was in first grade in Tokyo and starting to learn hiragana.
In Tokyo’s suburbs, the postwar economic miracle was starting to have an impact. People could afford a car or make a deposit on a house. It was a stark difference from my father’s first visit when people barely had enough to eat.
During my next voyage to Japan, I was forced to study kana and kanji in preparation for a local middle school. On my first day, each classroom I walked by exploded with excitement as students pointed and screamed, “Gaijin da!” I was so unusual the police would frequently stop me and demand to see my student ID and gaijin card.
Living in a cross-cultural experiment with your parents is not something most teenagers would relish, but because my father constantly put our experiences in context, the process started to feel natural, even interesting.
There were also few distractions. There was no English on TV and letters from friends took more than two weeks to arrive. Sightings of foreigners were so rare that we often walked up and introduced ourselves to find out why they were in Setagaya.
After our return in 1975, we saw signs of Japan's reengagement with the outside world, as thousands of tourists headed abroad. Most didn’t speak English and travel companies scrambled to find staff. Work as a tour guide meant I could monetize my language study and upgrade my schoolyard lexicon to something that wouldn’t insult people. Forty years later, I’m still using Japanese.
I feel a strong connection with those older Japanese whose youth I shared. Japan is now more connected with the world, and the new imperial era will bring more changes. Among them will be a greater number of workers from different countries. Some may become long-term visitors like me.
I think my father would join me in encouraging the country to think hard about which aspects of the culture and language they want hardwired into immigrants. Within 50 years, they could be some of the most vocal champions of Japan and what it is to be Japanese.
Words: Christian Howes
Illustration: Tania Vicedo