I sit on the plush red train seat, knees together, watching the nodding heads of salarymen wilt from the day’s exhaustion. For the first time in two years, I am home, but not really. The past 15 years of moving from country to country have suffused the word “home” with a note of ambiguity. Here, in this concentrate of strangers, I feel my lostness keenly.
Japan is my birthplace. I have lived here in three installments: once before the age of four, again for five years between third and eighth grade, and now again from last July onward. I visited twice in the summer after the move to Europe, but this is my first Tokyo winter in four years and a half, and the city has a different edge, intimately familiar and starkly foreign all at once.
These train rides are the hallmark of my Japanese childhood. I recall quiet afternoons coming home from school in uniform with a book in one hand and a FamilyMart snack in the other, keeping to a corner of the lurching train car away from the creepy strangers my mom warned me about. Just as I remember, the passengers avoid eye contact in a shared cultural instinct like magnets repelled from each other and suspended in space. Now, in the middle of cold season, many are anonymized by their white surgical masks. This is a self-effacing country.
Sometimes, I notice people looking at me; they look away when I glance back. I am Japanese, but less so in the way I dress and hold myself. I wonder if they can sense the otherness on me. In the other places I lived — Germany, England, the U.S. — I accepted my status as both outwardly and inwardly alien. Japan, though, my place of citizenship, my birthplace, should be home. Foreign everywhere, I am an eternal tourist.
I moved back to Tokyo in the middle of winter when I was nine-years-old. At the time, I was a happy self-proclaimed American. Living in Texas, I routinely and unquestioningly recited the pledge of allegiance, felt repulsed by the prospect of Saturday Japanese school and gleefully shed my heritage. My parents, enticed by the warm, easygoing Texan life, allowed the fact that our stay had a time limit to slip their minds.
Moving away felt like ripping off part of my body. That part of me was back in Texas where I felt that I belonged, and when I missed my old life, my entire being seemed to want to wrench itself painfully back together across the ocean. The dry Tokyo winter carved deep wrinkles and cuts in the skin of my hands: My home was an organ my body was rejecting. With my dark tan from the Texan sun, love for Disney Channel and stilted Japanese, I knew that my home was rejecting me, too. Upon discovering that my dad was being transferred to Germany, I was overjoyed.
But in our final months there, my knowledge of the imminent move made Tokyo transform itself. Suddenly I noticed the lacey shadows of cherry blossoms in spring, the smell of the city at night, the sun like a large egg yolk in the hazy summer sky. Despite all my professed excitement for the move, I burst inexplicably into tears at the dinner table on the last night before our departure. Living in Germany and, later, in England, my nostalgia for Japan was unbearable. I had left a piece of me behind there, too.
I spend the new year at my maternal family’s home near the coast in Shizuoka prefecture, two hours from Tokyo and within view of Mount Fuji. At dawn, we rise with the locals to watch the first sunrise of the year: the 初日の出. From our vantage point on the beach, a row of wind turbines recedes toward the horizon just where the orange sun emerges on the sea — a futuresque scene, like someone’s vision of a Japanese dystopia.
United in quiet awe with both the family members and the strangers around me, I feel my sense of displacement disappear. Our shared respect for this most ancient of traditions transcends whatever separates my cultural experience from theirs. I’ve spent so many years longing to be wherever I am not, but at this moment, as I stand with my loved ones awash in the new dawn sunlight, I know without a doubt that some essential part of me belongs here.
Japan will never be the clear-cut home for me that I would like it to be. But I’m slowly rediscovering what it means to be Japanese, and I’m learning how to be a foreigner and a local in my birthplace all at once, to exist both outside and inside my culture of origin: To go away home.
Yuka Saji | firstname.lastname@example.org .