The Perspectives Series: Introducing the personal stories of individuals who have lived in Japan and their reflections on life and diversity in this country.

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.

To read the full interview, click here.