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A Letter, Tucked in a Book

By David Yamaguchi
The North American Post

As I write this, a Yonsei friend is packing for her first trip to Japan, with two twenty-something sons in tow. The trip is a parting gift to the boys, a bookend to the time they have spent together as mother and children. It is among the very best gifts that she could possibly give them now. For from here, as the youngest is a new University of Washington graduate, life’s competing demands will mean that they will no longer be able to travel together easily as three.

At another level, the trip is meant as a capstone to the youths’ formal educations. By seeing the land of their ancestors, they will see themselves in a new light. It will broaden their world views. Not everyone speaks English. Not every country is Caucasian. I do not know a single Japanese American who has not been changed by such a trip. For us, it is like a journey to Mecca taken once, perhaps twice in a lifetime.

As I have lived an unconventional life, that of a solitary wanderer, many have told me, including the okaasan of this story, that I have rough edges, that there is much I have yet to learn about the finer points of life. But the Roots journey is a path I have trod. And so here are the thoughts I am tucking inside a book I am lending her to throw into her carry-on bag.

Read a book about the trip you are taking while en route. Ideally this should be written by an earlier traveler like you making a similar pilgrimage. I learned this from another friend, a world traveler. Such books teach you something about the country unfolding before you. They also lend time-depth to your trip. Facing a delayed departure? What problems did your parallel traveler face? How did she overcome them?

Use the cute japanese you remember from your childhood and UW study at every opportunity. Ne ne (to sleep; in baby talk), pom pom (stomach), bocha bocha (to splash, as in the bathtub)… Such words will both facilitate communication along your trip and model behavior that the boys can imitate. A generation ago, many Nisei were of the mindset to eschew using such Japanese in public out of fear of being looked down on as uneducated country bumpkins (inaka mono) by natives. Yet, since their time, I believe the world has changed. To bare your soul trying to speak Japanese is to invite counterparts to do the same in “En-grish.” And through the pantomime mix, heartwarming conversations ensue.

Travel quietly when not conversing with individual native Japanese.

For speaking English loudly among yourselves on public transportation disturbs the scene and obscures your opportunities to observe unobserved in a way afforded by few gaijin, people from the outside world. A game I play daily in Japan is that of “Japanese-American spy.” How long can I go from morning until giving myself away—Bareta! (Busted!)—as “not a real Japanese?” Early American travelers likened Japan to an oyster. To open it (to the West, to western influences) is to ruin it.

Observe people like you on the streets. Which of them might you have become were it not for the American Dreams of grandparents or for Hawaii-based families, of great-grandparents? What makes the lives of everyday Japanese work, and not? What opportunities have you had that they haven’t, and vice versa?

Enjoy yourself.

Be polite, for you are representing the Japanese diaspora of the past and future. While we tend to think that everyone knows about JAs, the reality is that few Japanese have met one. Make their encounters with you as memorable as yours will be of them. The following comprise a basic list of phrases in Japanese: