People often ask me, “What was it like growing up in Japan?”
To which I always respond, “do you want my two hour answer or my three hour answer?”
My childhood was full of wonder and adventure. Wading through rice paddies, building forts in bamboo forests, exploring the mountains and rivers of the countryside of Nara, soaking up the mysterious and spiritual energy of the Buddhist temples in my neighborhood.
I split the neighborhood – kids either hated me or loved me. My Japanese friends willing to hang out with me did so knowing many in the neighborhood avoided me.
I was popular in Japanese kindergarten, but far from it in Japanese elementary school. As a diplomat at the U.N. put it, “Matthew, you at least survived to talk about it!”
I was a perpetual outsider – many of my friends’ parents refused to let me into their homes. People would point fingers at me in public, yelling, “Look, there’s a gaijin (foreigner)!” Bullying, and the threat of it, was always around me.
My parents eventually enrolled me in a missionary school in the town of Ikoma, where I received a fundamentalist Christian education in English. Unlike many of the expat families in Japan, my parents actively encouraged me to remain involved in Japanese communities. I attended Japanese church, I took calligraphy and karate classes, and I was immersed in Japanese pop culture.
I would read all the time in Japanese.
My lifelong interest in international affairs stems from my childhood in Japan. I would read geopolitical historical fiction such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Americans, due to our immigrant and isolationist past, on average are not very interested in world affairs compared to other societies and tend to lack a sophisticated understanding of international relations. I am very much the product of East Asia with its rich history of IR.
My childhood was good overall. Yes, it would have been easier growing up in the States, but who ever said easier is better?