Aaron Smethurst now calls Washington, DC home, but he has spent sixteen years in New Mexico, four years in Germany, and two years in Japan. He is presently the Director of International Intellectual Property Promotion at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Aaron’s hobby is studying new languages, and when work travel takes him to Beijing, Sao Paulo, Geneva, and Tokyo, he always packs his running shoes to collect some kilometers for his “running-souvenir trophy case.”

As a member of the Business delegation to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP-10) in Nagoya, Japan, October 2010

When did you first visit Japan?

The first time I visited Japan was in the summer of 2001 to visit friends I made while at American University, including my girlfriend (and future wife) at the time.

Any particular episode from that visit that stands out in your mind?

One particular episode began even before I set foot in Japan! This involved some misguided kindness that ended up making me late for a meeting with my future father-in-law. I was flying into Narita Airport and on the plane had a basic conversation in my broken Japanese words with my seatmate, an older woman from Japan who spoke little English. She knew that I was supposed to take a bus into the city but was convinced that this would take too long given the traffic in Tokyo. Instead she recommended that I take the Narita Express train into the city. I appreciated her advice and having never been to Tokyo before decided to heed her warnings about the traffic and the optimal path into the city.

When I arrived at Tokyo Station, I had no way of knowing where my father-in-law would be, and the woman took me through the train station searching for the bus end-station. It turned out that my father-in-law had been expecting me on a particular bus and when he didn’t see me on it, didn’t know what to do next. Without a cell phone, I had no way to contact him and no way to find him so he had to patiently wait for me while I searched the station.

That’s quite a first impression!

Two things were remarkable about this experience. The first was that the woman took me through the station and never gave up helping me until we found my father-in-law. She did this despite not knowing me at all when we boarded the plane and despite our inability to communicate well in either Japanese or English. The second is the fact that my father-in-law waited patiently for me to show up late and despite this had no qualms about greeting me with a smiling face and a welcome heart. I was immediately amazed at the lengths the Japanese would go to make someone feel welcome and cared for in their country. The rest of my first trip bore out these experiences as well. I was welcomed into my wife’s family, and my friends worked hard to show me a good time and the flavor of Japan.

Speaking at a conference on intellectual property and biotechnology in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 2010

You’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Japan—both visiting and living there. What makes you feel at home?

This is a difficult question for me because I have always felt most at home away from the place where I grew up. The first cognizance I had of this realization was when, at seventeen years old, I wept bitter tears about the prospect of returning to Albuquerque, New Mexico, after living abroad as a high school exchange student for one year in Celle, Germany. The last place I wanted to be at that point was “home.” Albuquerque was not an awful place by any means, and I was loved by my parents, but there was something intoxicating about knowing that I had made a whole life for myself in a foreign land that I couldn’t let go of. I had developed my own set of German friends and had people that cared about me, not only because they “had to” (like I supposed, at the time, my parents did) but because they wanted to… I had earned that love and respect on my own. That always meant a lot to me.

So how did that experience shape your relationship with Japan?

By the time I first traveled to Japan, I had already lived in a foreign country for three years and had come to think of Germany as a second home. I would spend one more year in Germany before moving to Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program in 2002. By that point, I felt like I had reached the apex of my German experience and was eager to be more deeply involved with Japan.

Having had those years of living abroad really helped prepare me for adjusting to my life in Japan. Despite the obvious differences between Germany and Japan, my heart was open to new cultures and new ways of living so that adjusting to Japan was not as foreign as it may have been had I come straight from the United States.

During my two years as a JET participant in Kobe, I got to know and love my wife and her family and came to associate visits to their apartment with “home” much more than the place I lived near the school where I taught. It turns out that it is not so much the place that means home to me but the people. I found my home in the hearts of those who love me and have given of their lives to help me be who I am today.

Whenever my parents visit us in Washington, DC, or my wife’s parents or siblings visit from Japan, we are home. Japan, the country, is a wonderful place and I feel welcome there, but it would not be home without those that I love. The experience of home for me, for those reasons, is extremely personal. It’s not about a country or a place—it’s a feeling. You once asked me how I defined “home,” and I believe I responded that it was “the place I can be with the people I love.” I think that is the way some people describe heaven, and isn’t that what home should be?

Free time in Paris along the Seine in Spring 2009