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Dreaming in Japanese

"You’ll know you have arrived when you start dreaming in Japanese." Grandma’s voice on the other end of the line was so reassuring – in a Nisei, sage-like sort of way – that I decided to pay closer attention to my dreams and less attention to my legs, which were falling asleep from sitting cross-legged on the tatami of my cramped roku-jo1 apartment. It was Sports Day at my school and I didn’t really have much time, but I could never turn down one of Grandma’s early morning calls. With two years of college Japanese and a month of JET2 under my belt, I wondered if I would ever "arrive" as she had described.

Grandma was a Nisei from a line of Kumamoto farmers, born and raised in northern California as "the pretty one" of ten siblings. She fell under the spell of a charming Canadian-born Nisei, the oldest of eight from a line of Tottori Samurai, and they soon married. Defying anti-Japanese immigration laws in the U.S. and Canada at the time, they fled to Japan for the right to live together. One world war and three children later, the second one being my mother, Grandma returned to California forever changed – speaking and behaving like a native Japanese rather than her previous Nisei self. While Grandma’s siblings had been interned in camps on one side of the Pacific, Grandma had been on the other side, negotiating the Japanese way of life, yet choosing to raise her children with English in anticipation of eventually returning to North America. With the war’s end, Grandma continued to forge close ties with her Japanese relatives, and took great pride in being our family’s bridge across the Pacific. Now, she was encouraging my Japanese studies with weekly phone calls and the passing on of her trusty Word Tank3 before I left for Japan.

And so here I was, a hapa living in the inaka4, fully immersed in all things Japanese, courtesy of the JET Program, yet feeling my gaijin half winning me over as Sports Day unfolded at the junior high school to which I had been assigned. Students and teachers alike were bustling busily about in preparation for the big event. I sat at my desk in the Teacher’s Room observing and straining to catch bits of Japanese that I might recognize in hopes of figuring out what was going on, and where I might fit in to this confusing flurry of activity.

Having made no progress whatsoever, I stared blankly outside the window to the field behind the school. Unlike most American schools, the field sported no grass or beautifully paved track, and lacked basketball and tennis courts. Instead, because it had poured heavily the night before, the field resembled an Olympic-sized swimming pool -- of mud. And though it was not raining now, the sun was nowhere to be seen.

I approached one of the English teachers, Yoshikawa Sensei, in an attempt to insert myself into the proceedings, and said, "That’s too bad that we will have to cancel Sports Day!"

"Maybe no…" replied Yoshikawa Sensei.

"Chotto wakarimasen. Doushite?" I asked, trying to understand what, exactly, "Maybe no" meant in this context.

"Maybe the students will clean up the field."

Before I could respond, Yoshikawa Sensei had quickly excused himself and began directing a group of students. Clean up the field? Surely I had misunderstood. I decided to ask another teacher, Hatta Sensei, since her English was pretty good. She confirmed what Yoshikawa Sensei had said. I couldn’t help it, but I burst out laughing in a glorious display of skepticism. "Now THIS, I gotta see!" I ran over to peer again out the window. Hordes of students were flooding out of the building onto the field, taking their shoes off and rolling up their pants. They carried buckets and rags. Before long, they were crouched in happy cliques, scattered about the field of mud, diligently sopping up water with their rags and ringing it into the buckets. The sight was so unbelievable and ridiculous that I knew photographic evidence was in order for my fellow ALTs5 and friends at home. I grabbed my camera and ran outside. Within minutes, I had snapped about a dozen shots of smiling students giving me the peace sign with mud all over their hands and faces. This was priceless! Then somebody called me.

"Julia Sensei!" It was Sugimoto Sensei, one of the youngest and friendliest English teachers. "Maybe you should stop taking photograph and help!"

"Okay, hai, wakarimashita!" I said, taking my place at her puddle. While I felt silly for taking part in this effort, I also felt a bit guilty for being identified as someone who was not pitching in. I went to work with Sugimoto Sensei and some students. Nobody was complaining or questioning our mandate. As a previous high school teacher in the States, I imagined American students in this scenario and chuckled to myself. They would never participate, much less cooperate, and if anybody would be doing the mopping, it would be a janitor. My thoughts were interrupted when one of the students spoke to me.

"Tanoshii deshou?" She laughed and continued to ring out her muddy rag.

At that moment, I realized that yes, this was fun! As I looked around, students were laughing, talking, and enjoying the mud on their feet. And so was I! Before we knew it, the sun had come out and some of the teachers were leveling the last of the mud with a squeegee.
About an hour later, it was perfectly dry and Sports Day was a smashing success. It was as if it had never poured all night prior!

For the first time since arriving in Japan, on that quirky Sports Day, I had abandoned my American, hapa, gaijin self, and made room for the Japanese way. This seemingly absurd group effort had, in fact, paid off and benefited all in not only the end, but in the means to that end. I suddenly saw the best of being Japanese in action – the unified, cooperative spirit, and unselfish group emphasis. Had this been an American school, Sports Day would have been cancelled and nobody would have experienced the joy of mud on their feet. I realized that if I were ever to "arrive," I would have to do more than learn to speak Japanese and live in Japan. I would have to embrace my inner Japanese and be Japanese.

When the opportunity came to renew my JET contract, I did not hesitate. This would be the first step of my personal journey toward reclaiming and sharing my Japanese heritage. In the sixteen years since JET, I have managed to trade bows with African American middle school students as a Japanese teacher; experience the life of a Tokyo "shosha6 woman"; lose a lot of sleep studying kanji on my way to a Masters degree; chat with Kiichi Miyazawa and Akebono’s mother; forge a friendship with one of my Japanese relatives; and best of all, dream in Japanese.

Just as my second year on the JET Program was getting started, Grandma passed away. I never had the chance to tell her that I had finally dreamed in Japanese. I like to think that I arrived though, perhaps in ways that even she never had. Japan had found the Japanese in me, and I was learning how to open myself up to embracing this culture and my heritage.

Now, I am trying to pick up where Grandma left off. To ensure that my family’s Japanese heritage is not lost, I am doing my best to be our bridge across the Pacific. I have made a conscious decision to raise my children, ages two and four, with Japanese language and culture. They attend a Japanese preschool and are now teaching me Japanese songs and games! I continue to learn an entirely new kind of Japanese, that of a parent, by speaking and reading with them every day. I look forward to the day when we will visit Japan together and wonder if they will find their own way to Japan in the future. In the meantime, I wait for that special moment when they tell me that they too are dreaming in Japanese.

1 six tatami mat room, a standard sized room for a Japanese apartment, about 150 sq. ft.

2 JET is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program coordinated by the Japanese Ministry of Education

3 a pocket electronic device with a Japanese/English dictionary

4 countryside

5 Assistant Language Teacher, the title of JET Program participants

6 a commercial firm


* Dreaming in Japanese was one of the winning essays of the 2007 JETAA USA Kintetsu Essay Contest.

© 2008 Julia Hibarger