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Debbie Ridpath Ohi reads, writes and illustrates for young people. Every few weeks, she shares new art, writing and resources; subscribe below. Browse the archives here.

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(Update 12:07 pm: As I've mentioned before, our trip to Japan was motivated by the presence of our friend Alison George, who was in Tokyo helping to organize an event for the NBA. Sadly, the event was cancelled as of yesterday. Happily, however, it means Alison's on her way back to Toronto on Monday...YAY! Jeff and I are leaving for the cottage within the hour to hang out with my sister and her family. Have a great weekend, everyone. :-))

Today's Blathering is this month's assignment for On Display. Today's topic is "outward appearances."

I've read and heard all the sweeping generalizations...the Japanese are quiet, overly polite, repressed, organized, conforming, and (especially since the war), strongly influenced by the West. I can also see how a Westerner might even visit Japan for a while and see only what he or she wishes to see, coming away with the sure knowledge that all previous assumptions were true.

Even during our brief stay, however, Jeff and I sensed much more. There were days when I felt like I could almost fit in; I looked Japanese, after all, and as long as I only had to say arigato gozaimasu (thank you) from time to time, how would they know that I was actually a gaijin (a foreigner)? Or so I tried to convince myself.

But then came moments (more frequently as the days passed) when I felt as if everyone and everything around me except for Jeff was utterly alien, and that even if I lived in Japan for the rest of my life, I would never truly fit in. This wasn't because of anything anyone said or did; it was an accumulation of little things, a gradual recognition of many invisible "rules" in Japanese society that were incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't absorbed them throughout their life.

North Americans have their own set of rules, of course. Perhaps because I've lived in Canada all my life, these rules seem more obvious, blatant. And people who break them are usually told off right away or taken quietly aside and set straight. In Japan, however, I felt as if I was breaking a dozen invisible rules every minute, but the Japanese would never tell me. They were always polite, smiling, and never rude. The only time I saw any reaction to my gaffes was in the Kyoto ryokan, when I forgot to take off my garden slippers when I stepped inside the ryokan...I thought our two Japanese women guides were going to tackle me right there. :-)

I had been warned that a Japanese-looking yet Japanese-illiterate gaijin could elicit scorn from the locals, but I never found this to be the case. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful to the point where, in response to being asked how to get somewhere, strangers painstakingly escorted us outside buildings and along sidewalks so that they could make sure we were going in the right direction. Those who didn't have right answer would look genuinely distressed, so much sometimes that I felt rude for asking them for help in the first place.

Which is where my Japanese influences come in. Jeff said he learned a great deal about me during our visit in Japan. He didn't mean this as an insult (though I confess I bristled a bit at first until he explained)...he meant that he could see traits in me that had clearly come from my mother, who was born in Japan, and that our time in Japan helped him understand me better.

In truth, it helped me learn more about myself better as well, as bizarre as that may sound. I also appreciated even more how it must have been for my mother to move to Canada as a young woman, for instance. She learned to cook and dress like a Westerner, to speak their language and learn their set of "rules"...but did she ever feel as if she truly fit in?

The Japanese may have adopted some Western trends and clothing, but even in a few weeks it was clear to me that this was an outward appearance only. In reality, their true nature consists of many layers, most of which seem mysterious and incomprehensible to a gaijin, to the point where certain concepts are not easily translatable to English.

And yet there were moments during our visit in Japan when something would click and I'd experience a weird feeling of familiarity, a strong sensation of deja vu. It's almost as if a small part of me has always been in Japan, and I've only now just discovered it's there. If you find this explanation confusing, don't feel alone. I'm still sorting it all out myself. :-)

Whatever the reason, I know one thing for sure...I definitely have to visit Japan again.

Today's Blatherpics:

- Tokyo scene.

- I really liked this statue in the National Tokyo Museum.

- Schoolgirl on a Tokyo train platform.

- Tokyo scene.

Today's Poll:

Does your "public personality" accurately reflect what you're really like?

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