Kikokushijo: The Story Of a Return

Born in New York, Mayu (pictured here doing a Madonna pose) lived in the States until she was 8, and then moved to Holland for 6 years before coming back to Tokyo. Mayu is what the Japanese consider a kikokushijo, aka a ‘returnee’. Now, I had never heard of the term ‘returnee’ before. In Japan, a returnee is a term used for someone who has lived abroad before coming back to Japan. In my opinion, a more apt label for Mayu is ‘shopaholic’ as you will most likely catch her in a shop over the weekend. I sat down with this bubbly creature to explore the concept of what a kikokushijo was, as I wanted to have a better understanding of the Japanese culture, albeit through the eyes of someone the local Japanese may not perceive as being completely Japanese.

“When you live in America, there are many states, but no matter how much you drive, it’s still America. At that age, I didn’t even consider nationalities. Then when I lived in Netherlands, it was like there was a rainbow of people around me! There were people from different countries with different languages and different religions. Every day was about learning about a different culture. But, we all went to the same school, so we had the same set of values despite coming from very different backgrounds.

When I moved back to Japan, I went to a local Japanese public school where nobody had ever encountered someone like me who had lived abroad and spoke 2 languages. Of course I look Japanese on the outside, but my inside was very westernized! I was a complete stranger to them. When I lived in America and Europe, I had gone for Saturday Japanese school to keep up with the language, and of course I spoke only Japanese to my parents, so I thought I knew the culture and language very well. However, when you actually use the language to communicate and interact with people, it’s a completely different thing.”

“Of course I look Japanese on the outside, but my inside was very westernized!”

“In the Western culture, it’s important for you to speak up for yourself. If you don’t understand something, you question it. Whereas in Japan, the cultural norm is that you don’t ask. You just understand what you’ve been told. I don’t know if it’s a common phrase in English, but we say ‘read the air’. You are not supposed to ask for anything, you’re supposed to get the context by reading between lines.”

Kuuki wo yomu = Read the air

“In class, when the teacher asks, “Okay, do you have any questions on the lecture today?” Nobody raises his or her hands. So the teacher will ask if there are any questions, but it’s just a way of saying it’s the end of the class. Whereas I was like, “Okay, I didn’t get this part!” so I would raise my hand, and everyone would be like, “Whaaaat? She actually has something to say?”

At first I was the weird one, but then I started realizing this is who I am, and this is how I was brought up, and because I want to learn, I should just ask questions when I have one. So I kind of changed that no speaking rule to a ‘I’m going to do it my own way’ rule!”

I wanted to know how she dealt with people in school who said mean things to her. I know firsthand what a bunch of meanies teenagers can be! When I was 16, I transferred schools, and I heard girls from the new school saying things like, “Oh, the standard of our school has REALLY dropped since they’re allowing people like her to get in!” I had more than a few of these rubbish comments thrown my way in the next two years. Thankfully, I ended up meeting some really nice girls I could be myself with. I wanted to see how my unhappy experience in Malaysia compared to her unhappy experience in Japan!

“I did feel this whole judgmental atmosphere. Even when I was walking down the hallway heading home, I could hear people saying, “That new girl in class is so weird. She thinks just because she’s lived abroad she can say anything.” I felt really sad at the beginning.”

“I did feel this whole judgmental atmosphere.”

“It wasn’t as smooth as me getting bullied, and me saying to myself, “I’m all right, I’m just going to stand strong. It was a period where I was very devastated of not being accepted as an individual. I was 14, 15, a very sensitive age. But that’s where the role of family was very strong for me. I came back home, and I was trying to act as if everything was all right, but of course, parents see through you. And especially my mom, she was like, “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m being ignored at school, I’m being bullied, and I don’t want to go to school anymore.”

“I eventually broke into tears, and I said I’m being ignored at school, I’m being bullied, and I don’t want to go to school anymore. And then she told me, “Mayu, what are you talking about? Be proud of what you have. Your experience is very precious. Not anyone can have that. None of the people around you have your experience. Why do you have to feel inferior about it? If they can’t understand that, well that’s them.”

She wasn’t judging them or anything, but she told me to just be who I was, and not to change. Don’t feel inferior. Feel proud of yourself! That’s when I remembered I forgot to appreciate this rich experience that I have. In order to fit in, I had tried pretending I didn’t have this experience. But because of what she told me, I was like, yeah, I need to appreciate it! That day was a turning point for me and that’s when I stopped being afraid of my classmates and even of my teachers. And when I graduated from school, the bullying was over. There was no more bullying, and I was well loved by teachers. I could even put my arm around the shoulder of the scariest teacher, which no Japanese student would do! He would laugh it off and be like, “Oh, it’s her again!” Now that I think about it, that school taught me how Japanese I can be, but also keeping my own sense of space and individuality. So for me, that was a turning point, and an experience. That’s one of the strongest elements that I still utilize in this city.”

What I like about this story above is that it’s not an experience that’s only relatable to kikokushijo or returnees. I think so many kids, myself included, have experienced a not too great time in school. Teenagers can be nasty. They don’t understand the impact they have. I think it’s pretty cool Mayu decided she was just going to be herself and not be ashamed of her experiences. I also think her mother played a huge, pivotal role in making her daughter feel accepted and okay to be who she was.

I wanted to know more about how Mayu felt about moving back from Europe, a culture that valued individuality, back to Japan, a completely opposite culture that prided itself on collectivism.

“It was a huge transition for me. It was the first time I was not accepted for who I was. I was just being me, saying things that I was thinking, but nobody understood me. And that was one of the hardest experience I ever had. But because of that, I think I became more resilient whenever I face challenges or when I encounter new people. If they don’t understand me, I would understand why they don’t understand me. One of the things in Europe is that because everyone is so different, nobody will challenge you. I think when you move to a country where a lot of people share similarities, and you’re just the one that’s different, the sense of exclusion is very strong. But I think it’s good I experienced this, so I can kind of recollect who I am, and how I should act amongst people who have a collectivist culture. I think I’m even more flexible, whether to be in a culture of individualism or collectivism. I think I’m more of an individualist kind of person, but I can play with both cultures now. “

Laughing kikokushijo on the left, amused gaijin on the right.

I find Mayu very interesting because while she can have strong opinions, she is one of the friendliest, kindest people I know. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, but at the same time, she’s never come across as rude or overbearing. I think she’s gotten the best of both worlds – the direct and forthright nature of the West, and the polite nature of the East.

Since she’s lived in three different countries, what’s home to her?

“To me, I don’t label any country as a home. I used to struggle with this concept because people ask me where I feel most comfortable and honestly I don’t have a place. In Japan, yes I’ve lived here for 14 years and I have my family and I feel comfortable here, but there’s always this one part of me that says I don’t fit in fully. Or even if I think I have adjusted myself to this culture, a lot of people say, “No, no, no, you’re not Japanese at all, you’re so different.” And I’ll be like “Okay, I’m perceived differently and so be it.” And if I go to Holland, I don’t speak Dutch and it’s not like I blend into the Dutch community. And if I go to America, I don’t consider myself American because when I speak to American people, if it’s to someone who’s never stepped out of America, they’re also very different. I don’t really call anywhere home in terms of country, but where my family is or where my close friends are, that’s where I call home.”

I was curious to know if being a returnee had an aspirational or derogatory meaning to it.

“A lot of people label us once they know we’re a returnee. I think people have a certain type of image or idea of returnees. One is that they think we are Asian but we are very westernized and we don’t understand Japanese culture. Two, we don’t know anything about Japan. We don’t know about Japanese history, Japanese norms like reading the air or reading between lines. We don’t get that.

Whereas some people are like, “Oh, it must have been very hard for you to experience this whole transition as a child, moving around all the time.” Or, “It must be great that you can speak two languages.” So there are always two sides and it always depends on how the person perceives us, whether it’s negative or positive.

This is just my personal observation, I think it’s because Japan is such a mono ethnic country. If you go to America, this person is American but can originally be from Spain, Italy, or anywhere! In Europe it’s a mix of everything. You can’t really define a person by ethnicity. In Japan, it’s just Japanese people. There are Japanese Koreans and Japanese Chinese but the population is very small. So I think Japanese people tend to label people within their spectrum of difference. I think that’s why the terminology of kikokushijo exists.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the experience I had overseas, and the shocking experience I had after I moved to Japan. And because I have had both these experiences, I feel like my interpersonal skills have grown more. I think I have a story to tell, and I think that feels great. It also really broadens my community. The fact that I met you, and I can share this experience with you, I’m having a lot of fun right now! When I have this kind of situation, I really feel this rich experience and how lucky I am.”

Mayu and I just hanging out ;)
Mayu (left) and I hanging out 😉

What’s next in store for Mayu? What’s a big dream or aspiration that she has?
“I’m in a phase where I’m ready to learn something new – whether it’s language or culture. I wouldn’t say I’m a gypsy, but I have a sense of moving around and not belonging, I want to be free in spirit. It’s the first time I’ve lived in one country for this long, and I think I’ve seen quite enough, so if there were no limits, I would love to just travel around, visiting my friends in Uruguay and Italy and learn what their experiences are. It’s not a concrete dream but it’s something I want to work on right now.”

If you’d like to know a little more about kikokushijo, check out an interesting article I found by the Japan Times here.

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Ann Jie

Loves good conversations and hates small talk. Finds people fascinating and wonders why meanies exist. Loves writing violent, graphic short stories but finds horror movies too scary to watch. Follow me on Instagram @annjieslices or tweet me a slice of YOUR life at @annjieslices!

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