Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
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Sibylle Ito (Switzerland)
Ms. Ito came to Japan after a 7-year stay in the U.S. and this is now her eighth year in Japan. She told us how she perceives Japan, and additionally the reasons why she has been living in several countries so far.
We believe she is different from a “typical” foreigner, because she looks at things from different angles and we guess she has cultivated her viewpoint while living in a multicultural environment. We’d like to share our discussion with you.
A place to “return”
I had spent almost three decades in Switzerland, then moved to the United States and finally arrived in Japan. Of course Switzerland is where I was born and raised in. In addition, I’ve been in the US for seven years and lived in Japan for eight and a half years.
When I had to make a decision about my next major after having studied chemistry in Switzerland, I wanted to learn more about Asia. So when I studied at a university in Los Angeles, I chose a major that gave me some practical business advantage in regard to Japan.
Originally I was curious about living in Asia when I was around 20, so I thought of coming here as a future alternative. In order to succeed within the field of chemistry and life science in the international business community, I realized I had no choice but to understand the ways of business and then related the cultures of Europe, US and Japan. That’s another reason why I became interested in Japan.
I came to Japan as an exchange student for my second degree and lived here for six months. I studied at a university in Tokyo and got at the same time an internship at a Japanese company. Based on the study abroad requirement, the goal was to combine study with practical work.
At the end of my study in Japan I had no choice but to return back to LA, but I couldn’t forget the days in Japan. So I “returned” to Japan eight and a half years ago. For me Japan is my home, a place I return to after having travelled abroad. In contrast, for me, Switzerland is a place to “go” to but not the place that I call home anymore.
Japan, a really foreign-friendly country
After living here, I perceived Japanese society to be more foreigner-friendly in comparison to Switzerland or the US. For example, if you cannot speak English in the US, governmental administrative staff will bother to serve you (*However, Spanish speakers are available at many offices).
In contrast though, in Japan, office workers will help you if you have trouble with filling out the forms. For me this kind of support of foreigners is unthinkable in Switzerland or in the US.
I guess Japanese people like to help out others. When I lived in LA, I was very lucky to have other foreign Japanese students or permanent Japanese residents, who were willing to become friends with me. They were even so kind as to help me learn the Japanese language. Having this experience in mind, I believe strongly that Japan is a comfortable place for many foreigners.
Some of you might disagree with my opinion. Because “Foreigners are easy to spot, we face a different kind of discrimination in Japan.” For me discrimination for being different actually starts every time I take a train or simply being in a public place, because someone is staring at me. Even now after quite some time in Tokyo being stared at is quite common. I simply get a different treatment based on the color of my skin. My solution is to just read books on the trains so that I do not notice anymore when someone is staring at me.
Honestly I am a person with rather strict principles. As a foreigner I believe no one had forced me to live here, therefore if you cannot accept the Japanese customs, I believe it is better for you to go home. Of course, for everyone the first year of adjustment is really tough in Japan. But as it was for me the second time that I had to deal with the culture shock and the related adjustments (similar to the experience to moving from Switzerland to the US), the effects on my personality and mood.
When adjusting to new cultural environments such as I had encountered in the US and Japan, I found that you cannot change others, therefore you should change yourself first. I believe this applies to any foreigner in order to accept his/her environment. For the sake of your emotional health, I believe you should try to find good points of the culture and not focus on the bad aspects. Even if you’re challenged by various kinds of differences, it is a valuable opportunity to learn about the different culture in order to get an understanding for the thoughts and values of that country.
The same applies if Japanese people go overseas, because they will run into similar problems. But once they get used to another culture, I believe for Japanese it will be hard to adapt back into Japanese life. Cultures of foreign countries are very different in many aspects.
Ambiguity in a rule-bound country
Because Japan is so different from Switzerland or the US, I took advantage of those differences. For example, although there is a strict set of rules in Japan which local people are expected to follow, in the case of a foreigner, you get the opportunity to be excused. If you say, “Excuse me, I’m still learning about Japanese culture therefore I cannot …”, then Japanese people think, “Well, foreigners tend to have a simpler approach and they don’t set such a high priority on …. That is their culture and we have to accept it.”
On the other hand I believe that foreigners can never become truly Japanese. Even if a foreigner is to be naturalized, a foreigner will never become fully Japanese. Therefore foreigners don’t need to try too hard as the acceptance will be lower here compared to other countries. In Japan, everything is ruled by laws (including unwritten ones). Methods of socializing and working… Japanese people fit naturally into many rules. So even if foreigners are naturalized in Japan and they become Japanese citizens based on a document, I’m not sure if they can truly fit in a kind of rule-bound society. That’s what I believe.
But I think there are some opportunities for foreigners to get to deeper roots such as: Why has Japan been maintaining peace for such a long time, even though there are many people living in such a small country? I believe one of the reasons is that people are used to following a set of rules.
Even within these strict societal rules, there is room to play. For example unlike other countries Japan allows the use of evasive words in everyday conversation. So in those cases when you hesitate to answer someone’s question, then with the use of “Sore wa chotto…” you do not have to reveal anything. I believe this is a useful sentence. Especially when compared to English where you can only answer a question with “YES” or “NO” and you have no other option to escape answering in a polite way like in Japanese.
There are many rules for everyday life or business, but you can use ambiguous expressions here to soften the approach in Japan. That’s why it’s very comfortable for me to live and work here.
Your nationality doesn’t matter at all
I’ve been abroad for a long time so I don’t perceive myself anymore as a Swiss, permanent resident or something similar. Actually I’m officially a foreigner but I don’t feel it or define myself by it. I feel as a multi-cultural person. My husband is Japanese and he feels similar, I believe. So while we are together we don’t think I am a Swiss foreign national or that he is Japanese.
Now I’m very happy with my life in Japan. I’ve met so many wonderful people in Tokyo. Consequently, with my goal to have a happy life, unrelated to nationality; whether you are a Japanese or a foreigner. I simply believe that everyone has the opportunity to experience great encounters and become truly happy.
In order to reciprocate the happiness I have received in Japan, my goal is to write a book. The topic will be focused on dating in order to attain true love and a happy lasting marriage.
It’ll be written in Japanese because I would like to support Japanese who have not found yet their key to happiness.
From left to right; Isao Tokuhashi (My Eyes Tokyo Mgr.), Ekaterina (Singer), Sibylle Ito
@ Radio City 84.0 (Chuo-ku, Tokyo)
What is Tokyo to you?
To me, Tokyo is definitely my last stop on my global travel. I truly hope I won’t have to go anywhere from here again.
When I came here first, I was living in an old housing complex (danchi), but over time I have moved. I think I always lived in an average residential area where there are no foreigners. I love this kind of town. Still I don’t feel comfortable going to the typical gathering places for foreigners.
I do hope that I have the opportunity to be in Japan for the rest of my life. Above all, Tokyo is the city where I feel at home.