Cheryl Lewis Ames is originally from Canada, but she currently lives in the Washington, DC area and works as a research assistant based at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. She spent six years in Japan, during which she earned her Master’s degree in marine biology. In the future, she hopes that her research will bring her back to Japan.

Cheryl, in the Johnson-Sea-Link II manned submersible, during a deep-sea coral cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.

When did you first become interested in Japan? How did that interest evolve and what eventually brought you to Japan?

Growing up in a small city in Canada I was not exposed to a wide variety of cultures. In fact, other than my seventh grade science teacher, I had never met a Japanese person until my first year in university. I befriended a Japanese guy (Sanchiro) and became almost obsessed with hearing about life in Japan. One day Sanchiro said, “Why don’t you just go to Japan and see what’s it’s like for yourself.” Thinking that was a novel idea, I did some research and discovered that Canada and Japan have a reciprocal agreement called a Work Holiday visa that promotes young Canadians going to Japan (and vice versa for young Japanese) to work and travel. That’s when I started saving money.

With only a few Japanese phrases memorized, such as “How much is this?” and “I don’t speak Japanese”; a phone number my dad gave me for a Japanese friend of a friend; and the address of a Japanese inn in Shinjuku Tokyo in my pocket, I packed my bags and headed to Japan for my summer holidays. The first couple of days in Tokyo were chaotic, to say the least. I met up with some other Canadians staying at the same inn and managed to find food and shelter for a few days while exploring this city of 27 million people. After figuring out how to use the pay phones, I called the only Japanese phone number I had and arranged to meet with the Japanese contact provided by my dad.

While I can easily give credit to my university friend Sanchiro for sparking my interest in Japan, the Japanese family that invited me for dinner on my third day in Japan – the Yamazaki’s – are definitely the reason I got hooked on Japan. They spoke great English, cooked me amazing food, found me a job teaching English, and then asked me to live with them for the summer. What more could I ask for?

After a wonderful summer in Japan, I returned to Canada but not before vowing to my host family that I would learn Japanese and then go back to Japan after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in biology. Two years later I was back in Yokosuka teaching English. I was fairly proficient in Japanese and was searching for a Japanese professor who was looking for a master’s student to do research on jellyfish. After meeting several times, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus (Okinawa) offered me a spot in his lab. Shortly after I was awarded a Japanese Monbusho government scholarship to study marine biology. Thus began my adventures in Okinawa.

Can you share a little about your experience in Okinawa? What are some memorable moments?

Though Okinawa is in fact a prefecture of Japan, living on this beautiful island was quite different from life in the bigger cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Yokosuka. Mainly, the pace is much slower in Okinawa, as is generally the case, of course, with small subtropical islands. Also, there was no train system on the island (though now I am told there is a monorail from the airport to downtown Naha). The island is surrounded by beautiful coral reefs; the food is different (but equally delicious as the Japanese food I was used to on the main island), and it initially took me some time to understand the uchina-chu (Ryukyus) accent. I found the traditional music and dance to be upbeat and the costumes very colorful. Life in Okinawa had very little stress, and I was able to adjust quickly.

It was exciting doing marine biology research in Okinawa. I had a car and was able to dive and snorkel day and night on beautiful coral reefs, or I could just lay on the beach writing papers and studying for exams. The research facility for the Department of Marine Biology is located on a tiny island about 200 km north of the main campus. In the southern part of the island – near Naha and Okinawa city – there is a big American presence due to the military bases there, but north of Nago, I encountered very few foreigners, other than the visiting researchers and international students that would occasionally stay at the research facility’s dormitories. The local people of Okinawa, being extremely friendly and hospitable, made every effort to make me feel welcome. I talked to fishermen, yacht club workers, and other students and research scientists at the university to determine seasonal occurrence of jellyfish, and then I developed a research plan to study their sexual behavior and development in the lab. I also introduced myself to the director of the Motobucho Aquaculture Center, as it was off the pier in front of the center’s gated facility that I needed to collect the tiny nocturnal box jellyfish. I was soon given full access to the facility, at night and day, and was able to use their microscope and video equipment to produce the film that would serve as evidence of courtship and copulation in the tiny box jellyfish, Copula (=Carybdea) sivickisi, and consequently allowed me to defend my thesis.

In Okinawa, where did you live? What were your interactions with the local community like?

When I first got to Okinawa I lived in the international dormitory of the University of the Ryukyus on the main campus in Ginowan – just a ten-minute walk from the marine biology building. Living there with different people from so many different cultures speaking different languages was one of the best experiences of my life. Most of us were graduate students, there for two to four years, and a few were visiting researchers or Japanese language students on shorter stays of six months to one year. We would all go out in groups to the local restaurants and festivals and on outings to the beach or to the American base with military personnel we met who were interested in meeting internationals. We also attended parties and get-togethers in the dormitories where our Japanese classmates lived too. In addition to Okinawan food, I ate home-cooked food from Myanmar, Bangladesh, Western Africa, Central and South America, Greece, and France too. And though many of us were fluent in English, depending on the linguistic strengths of the people in the group, for many it was easier to communicate in Japanese or have side conversations in another language like French, Spanish or Arabic. I met so many interesting, intelligent people from all over the world, and that was definitely a major factor contributing to the great success we all experienced as international students in Okinawa.

After my second semester, I got an apartment with another international student also studying marine biology. It was a beautiful, new apartment. We slept on Japanese futons, placed directly on tatami mats that lined the floor. We would have other students over for dinner but could also enjoy studying in the tranquility of our own place. As sweet as that apartment was, however, it was not easy to get.

This brings me to the only negative experience that stands out in my mind about my time in Okinawa. Due to the general anti-American sentiment that had surfaced due to the rape of an Okinawan girl by an American serviceman in the 1990’s, curfews were established for servicemen. Moreover, during a certain period some bars, restaurants and clubs in the bigger cities of Naha and Okinawa City were off limits to all foreigners – not just Americans. While it was difficult experiencing such discrimination, we tried to be sympathetic and did our best to improve the reputation of foreigners by abiding by the rules. It was during that time that many landlords were refusing to rent to anyone who did not have Okinawan family members. Fortunately for us, my classmate was half Okinawan and almost her entire family still lived in Naha.

These inopportune circumstances did not prevent us from enjoying life in Okinawa, as these isolated exclusions were the exception rather than the rule. In fact, even in the bigger cities people were friendly and happy that we spoke Japanese (as we rarely met Okinawan people who were fluent in English). For example, in the market or smaller restaurants we would often get asked if were “ai-no-ko” (literally “mixed American and Okinawan”) and lots of questions about what we were studying.

Cheryl, behind the scenes at Enoshima Aquarium in Enoshima, Japan.

What role does Japan have in your life now?

Japan continues to play a large role in my life today. I live in the Washington, DC, and work at the Smithsonian Institution where a variety of international students, post docs, and other visiting researchers pass through every year. Among them are always several Japanese scientists conducting research in the field of natural history. These colleagues have provided me with an array of connections to Japanese research institutions, and in some cases have opened up the doors for scientific collaboration. Along the same lines, I continue to collaborate with former Japanese professors and peers who are well-established faculty members in Japanese universities, aquariums, and other research institutions. Though English is the current language of science, international collaboration is not only about speaking the same language; it helps to understand the culture and the lay of the land. Being able to communicate in a common language is a bonus: for example, I have been able to work on new species’ descriptions of Japanese jellyfish because of my ability to read original Japanese manuscripts. On the other hand, I have also had the pleasure of editing Japanese colleagues’ manuscripts written in English, to help facilitate publication in international journals.

Science is by far not the only connection I have with Japan. I still keep in touch with my homestay family, the Yamazakis. In fact, the entire family came to my wedding, and my husband (an American I met in Japan!) and I have been back to Japan to visit them and other friends we met while living there, as well as Japanese friends we met in Canada and the USA who have since returned to Japan. Living in the DC area, where there is a significant Japanese population – who work at the Embassy, Japan-related NGO’s, Japanese companies and cultural organizations, and museums or who study at the various universities – has allowed me to stay connected with Japan. I regularly participate in Japanese cultural events and festivals and attend screenings of Japanese films. The Japan-America Society of Washington, DC, has an excellent Japanese language school where I have attended a Japanese newspaper discussion group over the past few years in order to keep up my Japanese and stay abreast of what is going on in Japan.

What advice would you give to foreigners who plan on living in Japan?

Japan is becoming more and more globalized, due mainly to influence from the West, China, and Korea. But its position as a distinct country cannot be underestimated. While “patriotic” or “nationalistic” are typically not adjectives Japanese people would use to describe themselves, a strong cultural identity still determines how the country functions on a daily basis. Any foreigner attempting to spend more than a few months in Japan should not underestimate the importance of these deep-rooted mores when trying to integrate into the culture.

There is a very fine, almost invisible line, between adapting to Japanese culture and trying to become “one of them.” While Japanese people are very happy when foreigners (gaikoku-jin) make efforts to learn about their culture, language, and social exchanges, it can be baffling for them to encounter a gaikoku-jin who speaks flawless Japanese, makes perfect tempura, or who beats every Japanese opponent in kendo. It is important to keep in mind that humbleness is the key to success in Japan. The best Japanese baseball players, sumo wrestlers, and film makers have all mastered the skill of resisting pride and arrogance in exchange for embracing humility, in order to rise to the top. Sometimes, it appears that this unassuming nature is really a false humility, but that too is a clever art form customary in Japanese culture.

It is understandably difficult for gaikoku-jin, who may come from cultures where pride is a positive attribute, to balance the ambition to adapt to Japanese life while avoiding the appearance of overconfidence. In fact, my first year in Japan was the most difficult for me. I strived to learn the language and understand the culture and to not offend with my western ways, but every word that came out of my mouth in Japanese – from a simple hello to a technical discussion on marine biology – evoked the same response “Wow! Your Japanese is perfect!” This was disconcerting because I knew my Japanese was far from perfect, especially in the beginning, and also because I was not soliciting comments on my language skills, I simply wanted to exchange greetings or discuss an interesting topic.

My frustration finally subsided when I was able to understand that while every day in Japan I was building on my understanding of the language and culture, for the Japanese people I encountered, many of whom had never met a foreigner, everything was new. In fact, after six years of living in the country Japanese people still commented on how well I use chopsticks and my amazing ability to say “thank you for the meal” at just the right time. Learning how to humbly accept compliments such as these, which seemed to make light of my major achievements, was a revelation that would bring me closer to interpreting the Japanese mindset. The result – discovering how to be myself while respecting their strong cultural mores – was a major turning point in my decision to stay in Japan beyond the first couple of years.

And what can local residents in Japan do to help their foreign neighbors settle in and become a part of the community?

During my first couple of years in Japan, I was fortunate to live close to a church where many people spoke English and near a community center where free Japanese language lessons were offered once a week to foreigners. The people at the church were very happy to use their English, and the teachers volunteering at the community center were pleased that gaikoku-jin were making an effort to learn Japanese. I think the balance of giving a little to get a little is very important. Often, when foreigners first arrive in Japan they are obliged to Japanese people that speak English (or their native tongue) because the initial adjustment is often the hardest. But as they progress in their understanding of the Japanese language and culture, their initial appreciation can transform into sentiments of resentment because they feel “used” for their English language ability. It is important for foreigners to contribute to their community in their own capacity – volunteering or forming an English conversation group – but it is also vital that Japanese people in the community recognize that gaikoku-jin need a certain amount of independence after they have gotten beyond the biggest learning curve of the initial adjustments.

Concrete examples of methods to involve foreign neighbors in the community are not always apparent, but schools, community centers, and international organizations would benefit from conducting research on the international population in their communities, and establishing contact with gaikoku-jin in the neighborhood via phone, mail, or email. In Okinawa, local elementary and high schools contacted my university and invited international students to participate in their classrooms and school festivals. We were asked to talk about our country of origin and our studies at the university. I was also approached by the rotary club and international organizations to give talks to participants. These opportunities helped me feel appreciated and provided me with a way to get involved in my community.