If Hollywood is to be believed, then gap years are the sole domain of white folks “finding themselves” in foreign lands.
From Sean Penn’s accidental comedy Into the Wild, in which a diary entry that keeps threatening like a storm cloud to be a meaningful anecdote is reduced to an absurd cautionary tale about the danger of berries, to the psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, there are a lot of films dedicated to blue-eyed, well-financed college graduates who don’t know shit about life, spreading their don’t-know-shittyness around the globe—and that’s cool.
I enjoy many of those films. But when I began my global journey to do the same thing, I found exactly zero representation about the challenges I would face specifically as a single black woman living, working and traveling abroad.
So when I graduated in 2006 and hopped on a plane to teach English in Japan, I did it with very little knowledge of what I would face ahead, or how much one year could (and did) change me forever.
I thought living in Japan would mean embracing a society where robots serve you dinner in cosplay, and weekends were spent in karaoke bars (which mine were), racing finely tuned little cars through crowded intersections (which mine were not), and buying bizarre oddities out of vending machines (which happened on occasion).
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But after I was located to a town the size of a peanut called Kudamatsu (population 55,000), my knowledge of the country was forced to include weekend mountain hikes, typhoon parties huddled up in hostess bars, narrowly escaping death every time my bicycle and I braved an extremely narrow residential road buttressed by rice paddies, developing an unhealthy obsession with mochi and learning to live in harmony with insects (except mukade—fuck mukade).
By the time I left Japan, my scope of the country had expanded to include being invited to my students’ homes to drink green tea with their families; taking days off from work to traverse Shikoku with my colleagues in search of the perfect bowl of udon; collecting elegant shōdo signatures from the famous Kyoto temples and shrines; and sitting beneath the sakura trees during hanami to appreciate the transience of life before the sweet-smelling flowers wilt—as they always do—exactly two weeks after they bloom, and turn into an acrid funk.
Japan annoyed me. Every time my students called me “Beyoncé-sensei,” or every time my body was inspected in the onsen (communal hot baths) like an exotic African curiosity, or every time I couldn’t find cute shoes in a size 11, or every time my shōdo teacher, who was otherwise a complete angel, took the calligraphy brush out of my sinister left hand and forced me to use my right instead, I felt like screaming.
But Japan also changed me. I know I sound like every cliché Last Samurai trope ever written, but I learned to be mindful of how my actions affect others, to consider the effect my footprint has on a place long after I’ve left it and to de-escalate when I am all up in my emotions—because in the larger picture, how I feel if someone looks at me in a way I don’t appreciate really does not matter.
In other words, I, too, did not know shit about life. And that was a lesson I would not have learned if not for living in a country of the kindest and most patient people I have ever met anywhere.
For such a small country, Japan’s culture is incredibly complex and varied, at times contradicting and overflowing in rigid invisible social rules. It’s one of the reasons Japanese people will pray at the Shinto shrine, then immediately cross the street to pray at the Buddhist temple, even though the two religions were historically at odds with each other. It’s also why, after the devastating 2011 earthquake that nearly ripped the northern part of Honshu apart, the media was flooded with stories of citizens turning in valuables that did not belong to them or lining up to collect rations of water in an orderly fashion without trampling over one another.
… It’s also why the country has such a crazy reputation for sexual deviance, bizarre violent crime and, quite sadly, a very high suicide rate (which has finally begun to fall).
Shaniqua Nyetta Bizzell has seen it all. She lives in Yamaguchi City in Yamaguchi, at the southern tip of Honshu. We met in 2007. Arriving in 2006 as an English teacher to adults with the Aeon program in Shunan City, she now works as a professor at Yamaguchi University.
Her first impressions of Japan were of the differences in spatial awareness. “Everything is so close together ... like a snow globe!” she says, referring to the small rooms, beds and (death traps that I call) residential roads.
Though she originally had no intention of leaving the U.S., she says that a series of Google searches during a job hunt inevitably led her to an event in Atlanta, where she quickly formed a good relationship with a recruiter, who selected her for the job.
“Japan chose me, honey,” she says, laughing. Embraced by her colleagues, friends and community with tremendous warmth and acceptance, Bizzell is now a local celebrity, having been featured on Japanese national television three times as a singer. She even travels with a Japanese band.
Since Japan was the first foreign country she had ever visited, her experiences with local ignorance were acute but amusing.
“Everyone was so friendly—it wasn’t until I had been here for six months that my head teacher told me that she had never met another black person before,” she says.
“I couldn’t even fathom what she was saying,” she adds.
Though Bizzell says she has never been on the receiving end of any racialized violence, she notes that there is still a lot of ethnic discrimination between the Japanese and other Asian ethnicities—something that resonated with me.
After I returned to Kudamatsu from a trip to Seoul, a friend’s Japanese girlfriend asked me about the food (which was fantastic), to which she replied, “Well, you know what they say about the Koreans—they’ll eat anything with four legs, including a table.”
And that’s to say nothing of continued biases against mixed-race Japanese residents. Just ask 2015 Miss Japan winner Ariana Miyamoto, who is also half black. Her win caused controversy because many locals refused to see her as Japanese—instead calling her “hafu” or “half.” It’s a phrase she says she has learned to embrace despite the emotional toll she says she’s suffered growing up in such a strict, homogeneous society—one that her childhood best friend, who was also hafu, could not tolerate—leading him to take his own life.
Japan only opened up its borders to foreigners in 1853, so to many Japanese people, whether you’re white, black or Korean, you will always be a gaijin (outsider). Bizzell says that there was only one instance when she was made to question that presumption—when a taxi driver closed his door to her and drove away. When her colleagues suggested that it was because he didn’t speak English, she replied, “He probably didn’t, but he did not stop to think that I spoke Japanese, and that’s what makes him a dummy.”
And though marriage equality has a long way to go in Japan (like, a really long way), Bizzell also says that being gay has never been an issue for her. “My friends are extremely accepting and they treat my girlfriend extremely well,” she says. “I think it’s because [this isn’t] a Christian culture ... that probably helps.”
After more than a decade spent in Japan, Bizzell has developed a very comfortable lifestyle for herself. Now living on a diet of mostly vegetables, rice, tofu and fish, she says she’s fitter, stronger and healthier than ever before. “I play softball with my students, and they tell me, ‘Ms B. You are not 41,’” she says.
Yamaguchi City is also affordable because it’s inaka, or in the countryside. Bizzell lives in a refurbished three-bedroom flat for approximately 380 U.S. dollars a month.
You won’t find that in a big city in Japan. Just ask Stephen Jackson, 33, who, after several years spent in Chiba, moved to Komae—on the west side of Tokyo.
Originally from Battle Creek, Mich., Jackson moved to Japan from Saudi Arabia, where he was working as a professor, and was a place he describes as materialistic and shallow. Inspired by a childhood friend who was already living there, Jackson says that Japan sounded like a much more appealing place. “He was one of my best friends, and he loved Japan—it was his dream place,” Jackson says.
When his friend died suddenly of complications from a rare blood disease, Jackson says, he made the decision to move to Japan himself and pick up where his friend had left off, to continue his friend’s legacy.
“[Saudi Arabia] was definitely a stepping stone to get to Japan,” he says.
Arriving in August six years ago, Jackson says his first impression was about the weather: “It was hot—because it was the middle of August, so it was Obon.”
A heavily tattooed, dreadlocked black man, Jackson says he was told that he should wear long sleeves to avoid intimidating locals with his ink because tattoos are still seen by many to be gangster culture.
“It was humid, I was sweating. The person who picked me up at the airport asked me why I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, so I told him about my tattoos, and he said, ‘You really didn’t need to do that,’” Jackson recalls, laughing.
While working as a teacher through Interac, Jackson developed a passion for photography, eventually going into business for himself as a professional, which he has been doing for the past four years. This led him to move from Chiba to Tokyo, to have more access to work with less commuting.
Though he now is happily working as a professional photographer on an artist’s visa, Jackson says it was a long road to get there, noting that making friends, in particular, was a challenge.
“In the beginning, the Japanese friends I made treated me like a zoo exhibit—you know, like, ‘This is my foreign friend, Stephen.’”
Eventually Jackson decided to de-friend all of them, and he set out to meet new people—a move that he says has made all the difference because it forced him to ask himself what he needed to be happy abroad.
“Once I felt comfortable being myself, it was great,” he says.
“The Japanese friends I have now—I love them to death because they realize that the world is bigger than just what’s around them. It gives me hope for the future of this country because it’s slowly changing.”
As a creative professional, Jackson also has a unique insight into how art informs progress in one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.
“People will hide their talents, that are so original, because they don’t want anyone to know. They don’t want that criticism of being told that they’re not good enough,” he says.
This probably has something to do with the rigidity of Japanese social structures. Conformity is seen as the highest value, meaning that any new form of art is often heavily criticized.
“One of my friends thinks that art is dead in Japan—but I disagree. I think people are just shy,” he says.
This attitude also informs dating life in Japan, which is drastically different from dating in the States. Whereby Americans are usually blunt, the Japanese enjoy dropping “subtle” hints, which can easily translate into someone wanting you to ask them out, or someone telling you to fuck off—it takes time to figure out which is which.
Because Tokyo is a much bigger city with a more varied petri dish of issues, racism has been more a part of Jackson’s reality than Bizzell’s.
“A lot of closed-minded people associate dark skin with something negative,” he says.
He’s had his share of run-ins with closed-minded authority figures. “Mostly police,” he says. He even relays an elaborate story of when he was randomly taken into custody and questioned but not fingerprinted (because he refused), not photographed (because he wouldn’t let them), and escorted home in a police car (because he insisted).
Needless to say, the experience would have played out very differently in the United States. But he says he believes that these confrontations are more about stereotypes than who he really is because black people are still seen as intimidating.
“Even the biggest Japanese guy is more scared of me than I am of him,” Jackson says.
Despite the challenges, he says that he has really come into himself while living in Japan in a way that he hopes would make his departed friend proud. And he recommends it on the proviso that people are comfortable in their own skin.
“Not every day is going to be great,” he says. “Ignorance is here, but ignorance exists everywhere ... you need to have thick skin, and you have to pick your battles. Some aren’t even worthwhile.”
Bizzell agrees, but she has another message specifically for Americans: “We can be some extremely nonforgiving and proud individuals that think our way is the best way—and we think it’s the only way.
“Before you come to Japan, just leave that attitude at home.”
Just like Tom Cruise did, in The Last Samurai.