Having a Feeling of ‘Un-Japaneseness’

Nick and Kei Tsuda discuss Mieko Kamiya’s sense of 'un-Japaneseness' due to her exposure to Western culture, a feeling that resonates with many Japanese who have grown up in other countries today.

Not having a strong grasp of Japanese culture

Nick: So let’s return to the subject of Mieko Kamiya and her life. She had a very unconventional childhood. And in the fourth grade, she moved with her family to Geneva, Switzerland, her father being a diplomat.

She attended, Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, which I think is quite famous. And that provided her with a specialized, unique education. And there, she enjoyed school life, as well as the beauty of nature in Switzerland itself. She was there for three years.

During those three years, she actually became more comfortable using the French language than Japanese. I guess that's where she got exposure to languages. But she also had some struggle during this time in her life, because she was being singled out as a child of high society. She became acutely aware that she was different and being judged, simply because she came from a wealthy or affluent family.

And interestingly, she grew ashamed of her status as a high member of the high ranking elite. At such a young age, she became aware, or paid attention to individuals who were not as wealthy or as fortunate as her. And I find that fascinating.

In her book, she wrote: “There is no denying that my brief stay in Switzerland has left an indelible mark on me: I have become ‘un-japanese.’ Even today it is in French that I think read and write with the greatest ease, and I am still inclined towards European culture.”

So that's something she wrote much later in life. So her time in Geneva had a lasting impact on her. What are your thoughts about that?

Kei: So I can draw a lot of correlations to what I discuss, or my daughters are bringing up. It has to do with the timing of their upbringing, and the location, place, and of course, the language. So I believe Mieko Kamiya spent good enough years in Switzerland, the French region, speaking of the region of Switzerland.

So her heart, mind, and the thinking were already kind of formed using that particular language. And there is actually another study that shows that if you spend your adolescents, let's say, like, between the age of 9 to 14 years of age, in some place, that environment is going to have the biggest impact in your character and identity development.

That is so true, because I can relate to this on Japanese feeling. Because both of my daughters say, especially when they visit Japan, they do feel this ‘un-japaneseness.’ They know they look like Japanese, and they understand the language, they can speak pretty well, too. But something that nags them and say, ‘I'm not truly Japanese’ is how they feel.

Now, the funny contrast is myself, and of course, my wife also, have lived in Japan, until, let's say, the age of 15 and 16, then moved to the US and spent a lot of years there. We actually still think we are Japanese. And we don't have much of this ‘un-japanese’ feeling when visiting Japan or even being outside of Japan.

We kind of recognize ourselves or identify ourselves as Japanese. So we have this firsthand experience of knowing what this un-japaneseness is.