Life After Japan is a new project that I’m excited to share on Hasami & Glue. Join me as I chat with old friends who also have close ties to Japan. While catching up on all the crazy twists and turns that life has thrown at us in recent years, we’ll unpack unique experiences and reminisce about those all too familiar memories of life in Japan. Regardless of when, where, or why they lived in the country, all of my interviewees share a special identity: someone who used to live in Japan.
“I miss having the freedom that I had in Japan.” – Kate, 26
I met Kate back in January of 2001. At the time she still went by Katherine and had just moved from Sicily, Italy to Sasebo, Japan. Sasebo is a medium sized, yet fairly rural city in Nagasaki Prefecture. For those of you who are not familiar with the geography of Japan (I forgive you, I swear!), Nagasaki Prefecture is in southern Japan on the island of Kyushu. Kate and I met for the first time outside of our 6th grade math class – or maybe it was social studies. Either way, it was her first day at E.J. King School. I remember seeing her walk up to the door and start talking with one of my classmates. Not to be too cliche, but it really can be a small world sometimes: they had both lived in Sicily together for several years. Both the “new girls” (I had moved to Sasebo in late November 2000), Kate and I became fast friends and stayed that way (most of the time – you know middle school aged girls!) until she left Sasebo in May 2004.
As you probably have already guessed, Kate also grew up as a navy brat. She spent the first eight years of her life moving every year – or sometimes even more often. Her family was stationed overseas for the first time in Sicily, where they stayed for 3 years. After Sicily, her family was then stationed in Sasebo, where they stayed for 3 1/2 years. Thanks to our shared experiences in Sasebo and similar childhoods, Kate and I still have a lot of common today.
Today Kate lives in South Carolina and is the manager of the Hallmark Store that she has been with for almost 10 years. She is also an accomplished singer/performer and has volunteered extensively in the children’s music and ministry departments of her church.
I <3 Japan
“I don’t think people realize just how awesome Japan is.”
Hi, Kate! Thanks for agreeing to chat with me! I want to start with some “fun” questions. How about..do you have a favorite memory of being in Japan?
The first thing that popped into my mind was the New Years’ Sales. I loved that. Waking up in the middle of the night to go shopping and get those ridiculous grab bags for like 5…10…15 bucks. It was so much fun even though you didn’t know what was in the bags…and even though most of the time it was just complete junk. I miss doing stuff like that.
I also miss having the freedom – that’s what I miss the most! – having the complete freedom that I had in Japan. I used to go on walks all the time in my neighborhood. I didn’t have a phone – I just had a watch and I was told what time to come home. I had a CD player on, too! That would be a huge no-no now in the States. You don’t normally see a 13 year old walking around by themselves wearing headphones. It’s just not safe to do.
That’s such an overwhelmingly positive answer, so I have to ask: do you have any negative memories of Japan?
No. I have nothing negative to say about the culture or the country. I don’t think people realize just how awesome Japan is. How awesome the people are.
That’s great. So, what’s your favorite Japanese food?
I like sushi. Oh, I used to eat seaweed all the time. It’s called nori in Japanese, right?
Yeah. Nice memory!
I remember a few key phrases and that’s it.
Dozo. [Go ahead / Let’s hear ’em.]
There was one that I irritated Kaneko-sensei [our middle school Japanese teacher] with all the time. I’d come in every single morning and be like, “ii tenki desu ne” [Nice weather today, isn’t it?] just to annoy him. He’d be so mad at me. Almost the moment I learned how to say that, I decided that since it was so much fun to say I was going to say it all the time.
Would you say that’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase then?
Yes. Either that or “onaka ga suita.” [I’m hungry.] Those were my two key phrases. So random.
Those are both so random and I don’t know how far they would get you in the middle-of-nowhere-Japan.
I feel like if I could say it with the right inflection and the right hand gestures I could make it work.
Fair enough. Alright, do you have a favorite place that you were able to visit or travel to while you were in Japan?
Well, Tokyo Disney was the best. We did Christmas Eve in Tokyo Sea and Christmas Day in Disneyland. It was so great because there were Christmas decorations all over and no one else was there. But, as far as actual Japanese places that aren’t Disney related – I loved going to Nagasaki and Hiroshima and visiting the peace parks.
I’m fascinated with history – so fascinated. I remember studying about the peace parks before we even moved to Japan. One of the perks of being stationed overseas was that we could do a more in-depth study of whatever country we were in. That was so cool – studying about something and then actually going to see it. I remember going through the museums and just crying. It was so surreal.
Yeah, it was so emotional visiting the Peace Parks. Alright, here’s a random question to lighten the mood. Since you lived off base: do you have any thoughts on Japanese houses? You had tatami floors, right?
I loved the tatami mat floors. I’m still finding tatami mat on stuff 11 ½ years later. I’ll unpack something and there will be bits of tatami.
Anyway, the worst part of living in a Japanese house was the bugs. Every year we had termites! And no one warned us that that was going to happen! The first year we thought we were going to die when all of the termites suddenly came down. I remember we crowded around the computer as my Mom was saying, “Let’s look at the waiting list for base housing because we can’t live like this!”
Then there were the huge, huge cockroaches. There was a flying one one time. We just weren’t prepared for that. We hadn’t experienced that before.
Neighbors & Friends
“One of our neighbors was like a grandfather to us. Sometimes a really mean grandfather, but…”
How do you think living in Japan changed or affected your life?
I feel like I was more sheltered. We were exposed to a lot of different cultures because we lived overseas for so long. But, in regards to other things, we were so incredibly sheltered. Before we moved back to the States, our parents had to sit us down and explain to us how things worked in the south and how different it was.
I think that I also have more respect for different people and where they come from compared to other people who haven’t had the same international experiences. I don’t mean to sound snobby, but there’s a whole other world out there. But even though I did have those international experiences, it’s still like I was in a bubble – and I know that’s the most common phrase. You’re not really in a bubble since you’re in a different country experiencing all of this foreign culture, but you kind of are in regards to American life and culture.
When you think back on your time living in Japan, do you feel like you really lived in Japan or do you feel like you actually lived on a military base in Japan?
I feel like I lived in Japan. My parents did not want us to live on the base – they wanted us to experience the culture. So, we always lived off base. We knew all of our neighbors and we played with all of the neighbor kids. I think because of that we were able to experience so many different things without the bias of an American “lens.”
Thinking back on it now, I realized how ingrained we were in the local community: My mom taught English at public schools. One of her best friends was a woman called Mori-san. She was an Italian trapped in a Japanese woman’s body and, after living in Italy for 3 years, my mom really bonded with her. She ended up being our “guide” in Sasebo – she took us everywhere.
From my perspective when you’re living on a military base overseas it’s like you’re “based” in America, but you’re actually living in a whole different country. This is especially true if you live off base because half the day you’re on base in “fake” America and then the other half of the day you’re in another country.
You mentioned interacting a lot with your neighbors. Do you feel like you were part of the local community?
Yeah. We knew all of our neighbors there. I used to nanny for the other American family living in our cho [neighborhood] and I’d take the kids out to the local playground. I knew all of the little kids, all of the high school kids, and all of the adults. They’d recognize us immediately because the little boy, Carter, had bright red hair. They’d all want to touch Carter’s hair. We also had some of them over for dinner quite a few times. I think we had them over for Thanksgiving, too.
What was that like?
It was really interesting – we went all out! We were excited and it was just so much fun. It was just really cool to see the two cultures meshing.
Do you have any fun (or funny!) stories about people in your neighborhood?
I remember the guy who lived in the house across from us. He had a dog that we’d play with. He’d let us walk his dog and it was great since we were missing our dog back in the States. He was like a grandfather to us. Sometimes a really mean grandfather, but – hey! – he still let us play with his dog.
I also remember playing DDR [Dance, Dance, Revolution] with some of the neighbor kids. They had a home system and we’d do things like that together. It was really entertaining because I did not speak Japanese very well at the time.
I was just going to ask you, how did you communicate?
Lots of hand gestures and lots of emphatic sounds! There wasn’t really the need to communicate verbally. We all kind of understood what the other wanted.
So, it’s been 11 ½ years since you’ve been back. Do you still feel a strong connection to Japan?
Yes. I think I feel that way because I spent so much time during my formative years there. You know, a lot of it probably has to do with the friends that I made. That’s such a strange and awkward time anyway – those middle school and high school years. So to be in a foreign country in such a tiny little community on top of all of that…
Do you want to go back?
“I remember thinking that I wanted to start school at the beginning of the school year with everyone else.”
I also wanted to talk to you about growing up military. I’ve recently read up on a few studies on military children…and basically I just want your reaction.
Cool. Here’s the first one: Military brats have really resilient personalities.
Yes. Oh yeah. I totally agree with that.
How do you think growing up military made you more resilient?
Well, for the first eight years of my life I don’t remember a lot of my Dad. It wasn’t like he was never there, but I don’t have too, too many memories of him. We also moved so much. It was almost once a year, possibly even twice. We moved all over – one time we moved from Goosecreek, which is down in South Carolina, all the way up to Alaska.
Basically, I think that having to move so often and having to move in the middle of the school year really helped me become more resilient. I can remember thinking that I wanted to start at the beginning of the school year. But then I did that when I moved to Iowa and I never wanted to do it again. I learned that moving in the middle of the year is so much better.
No way. Why?
I used to think that when you start in the middle of the school year, all the attention is on you…and that just kind of sucked because you had to be the new girl. But then the one time I moved and started school at the beginning of the year…it was bad.
First of all, the school was in the middle of no where and every one had lived there their entire lives. And then on top of that…it was such a huge school – which I find to be so funny because it was in a tiny town. But anyway, it turned out that when you start at the beginning of the school year with everyone else it’s like everyone is new. New to that year, I mean. So you aren’t singled out as a new person…and that was so horrible. I just kind of got lost in a sea of people.
That’s so fascinating for me…I can both relate…and not…at the same time. Alright, so next one is: military children have a higher college graduation rate. Do you have any reaction to that?
I guess I can see it. I don’t know that it necessarily had anything to do with the schools we went to because I feel like the schools were never really that great. Not that public schools here are the best, but I feel like it was more lax overseas than it was here in the States. Here they do so much testing and the pressure to go to college was stronger. It may have been different if I had stayed past freshmen year, but I feel like we were all kind of lumped together anyways. I mean from middle school to high school – we were all together. That was E.J. King.
Yeah, I remember feeling like I was a high school-er in the 7th grade. Here’s another: military brats who go on to get married have a lower divorce rate.
I can see that.
I think it may be because the military lifestyle in itself is such a huge commitment. It’s something that you work at. I grew up with both of my parents and they pounded it into my head from a young age that marriage is for life. I also saw the commitment my Dad had to his family through being in the military – my mom didn’t have to work so she could be a stay-at-home mom. I feel like when you can witness that kind of commitment – that kind of dedication to something – it translates over into your own life. And I’m not just talking about marriage.
Here’s another one for you: feeling like an outsider in U.S. civilian culture.
Why do you feel like an outsider?
Being in the south, there are a lot of things. At this point I’ve been here for 11 ½ years so I kind of consider myself a Carolina Girl – I mean I even have a Carolina Girl decal on my car. But, I still did not grow up here.
The south is a very interesting place with very interesting people. People grow up with a certain way of thinking. I guess it’s kind of like how I grew up with my military lifestyle – they also grew up with their southern lifestyle. Throughout high school I felt like such an outsider because everyone here grew up with everybody else and no one could understand what I was going through. It wasn’t until I met my friend who had lived in Korea at the same time that I had lived in Sasebo that I felt like I was able to connect with somebody.
Really most of my longtime friends are people who’ve also grown up moving. I think it’s because you kind of cling to that shared experience because you both understand what that’s like. It’s not just being in another country – it’s all the sum of all of the separate components. It’s the military lifestyle. You need someone in your life who understands that because you can tell someone about it all day long, but they’ll never understand even if they want to…unless they actually lived that.
That military connection is really powerful. Next thing that military brats reportedly experience: a difficulty settling down or feeling an itch every couple of years.
Oh my god. Yes. Yes. The thing is because I got into that routine of moving – 3 years in Sicily, 3 ½ years in Japan, 3 years in South Carolina, and then college in Nashville. By the time my senior year of college came…I was so restless. It was horrifying.
Then after I graduated I came back here. It was the first time that I’ve moved back to a place that I previously lived. Being back here now for 4 years – it’s killing me. I feel the need to go.
Identity? What’s that?
“I don’t know if I can identify myself as any one thing at this point.”
The last thing that I want to talk about with you is being a third culture kid. If you’re not familiar with the term, a third culture kid is defined as a child who spent a large amount of their formative years living in a culture that is not native to one of their parents. Military brats are considered to be part of the third culture kid “category.” Based on that brief description, would you consider yourself to be a third culture kid?
Let’s get into that a little deeper. The “first culture” for a third culture kids is said to be the culture from which the child’s parents originated. What would you define your first culture as? American? Southern?
American. I mean my Dad’s from the south, but my mom’s from Alaska.
Yeah, those are pretty far apart. So, the “second culture” is the culture in which the child’s family currently resides. You’re back in the States now, but what would you say that your second culture is? Would you say Italian? Would you say Japanese?
I don’t know if it’s even either of those.
Would you say military?
Right. To finish up, the “third culture” is defined as a mixture of both the first and second cultures. What would you identify your “third culture” to be? Or, let’s me just ask this instead: how do you self identify?
That’s the worst question. It’s going to sound totally weird to say that I don’t have an identity. I know that I have an identity, but I don’t know that I can identify myself as any one thing as this point. I spent so much of my life in the military…living all over – all over the states, all over the world. So, I feel like I’m a weird hodgepodge.
Do you feel like you’ll ever fully be able to identify yourself as something specific?
No. I mean maybe when I’m 80 years old that answer will be totally different – that is if I ever end up settling down in one place. But, I feel like I’m one of those people who’s got to be moving and traveling.
So, my all-time favorite question is: Where are you from? How do you answer when somebody answers, “Where are you from?”
With laughter. Seriously. I just sit there and laugh. Then, I usually have to ask, “Are you asking me where I was born or what?” For a lot of people where they’re from is where they’re born. But even if someone asks where I was born I’m like, “Portsmouth, but I was there for such a short time.” So…I do literally laugh first but then I clarify, “Do you want to know where I was born, where I live now, or where do you think I think I’m from?” But regardless of the question, my answer is usually just, “all over.”
Do you talk about being a military brat or do you stay away from that?
If they press, then I do. It really depends on the person. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Yeah. I was a military brat. I mean navy brat! Because go navy!” But, yeah I’ll just say, “I’m a navy brat, so I grew up all over.” Typically that answers most people’s questions.
Well, thanks for having a really fun conversation with me about stuff that I find really interesting.
That was really long. I’m so sorry that you’re going to have to listen to my voice. Oh my gosh, is that over an hour?
Yeah, I’m going to have to transcribe all this stuff. We beat my interview time with William [I interviewed William for my first Life After Japan post] for sure. Anything else you want to say before I turn off the microphone?
Well, friends – I hope you enjoyed this second installment of Life After Japan! I’ve been having such a great time talking with old friends, reflecting upon our conversation, and writing, writing, writing. It’s a topic that I am really passionate about and I hope that that passion is reflected in these posts. I’ll be back next week (or the week after!) with another installment. But even if I don’t have a Life After Japan ready for you next Wednesday, I’ll definitely be back with something juicy related to Japanese culture!
Before I end this, I also wanted to let you know that Kate just started her own blog! She’s going to be writing about all kinds of stuff – including crazy stories from her experience working in customer service! Check it out here: Kate’s Blog: Wandering Free! She also has an Etsy shop where she sells homemade sugar scrubs and beautiful crocheted creations, so check that out, too!: Barefoot Bay!
Also, let me get in a little shameless self-promotion: If you liked this blog, check out my first ever Life After Japan with William: Life After Japan: The Boy in the Bubble!
‘Till next week, take good care!