Exploring My Cultural Identity in Japan

by Naomi Lopez
my cultural identity in Japan

What does it really mean to belong? Here I am, wandering down Takeshita Street in the heart of Harajuku, Japan, when a girl wearing a pink maid outfit — complete with a headband, perfectly white gloves, and frilly skirt and stockings — saunters past me. Culture shock hits hard. I am exploring my cultural identity in Japan. This is my first time in another country besides America, and my fourth plane ride ever. I’m half Japanese and half Mexican, but due to my upbringing in a predominantly Hispanic hometown, I’ve always been more in touch with my Mexican roots.

Naomi Lopez

Japanese Heritage and Cultural Identity

Most of my Japanese relatives live far away, so growing up we would only get together once a year for the annual Obon festival, a Japanese Buddhist celebration of ancestral spirits. I remember these family gatherings fondly. My sister and I would dress in colorful kimonos (traditional Japanese dresses), and I’d always be extra excited to wear geta (traditional Japanese footwear resembling flip-flops made of wood). We’d eat traditional food like udon (noodle dish), shop for handmade knick-knacks, listen to taiko(drum) performances, and dance in a giant circle. It was a special event that made me feel deeply connected to my Japanese culture, though I couldn’t comprehend its significance at the time. Apart from the Obon, I’ve never really felt Japanese.

Hyperaware of my unique cultural background embarking on this trip, I’m eager to absorb all I can about Japanese culture and lifestyle. I’m equally anticipating the unprecedented personal insights and intimate inner feelings I’m going to have. To what extent will I fit in, or feel like a complete outsider? Will I identify strongly with the culture? How will my perception of self-change? How will others perceive me?

Will I belong?

Three Degrees of Separation

The warm, distinct smell of steaming takoyaki (a popular Japanese snack of battered octopus) wafts into my nose as I wander down Takeshita Street amongst the noisy, bustling crowd. It’s my first day in Japan. Shops in every direction catch my attention, imploring me with their colorful signs and decorations to go inside. The summer heat is tolerable, but the humidity makes me impossibly uncomfortable. My moist legs stick to my long skirt each time I take a step, and I constantly dab my face with the back of my hand to get rid of the ever-forming sweat.

(Photo by Naomi Lopez)

I am one of many. I do not stand out. While I am seamlessly integrated into the mass of curious people looking for new trendy food to try, I feel miles away. I tune out of the conversation, sounds fade away, and I realize there are three degrees of separation between me and the sea of others around me — 1) I am American, 2) I am Japanese, but only half, and 3) I don’t know the language.

A foreigner in a place that is supposed to be home. I look sort of like everyone else, but not completely. I wear clothes like they wear, but they’re not quite the same. My skin is light like theirs, but my eyes are hazel and my hair is curly, not straight. I have no clue what anyone is saying.

As strange as I feel, I don’t pity myself nor wish things to be any different. These realizations are in large part why I want to be here; to explore my cultural identity in Japan. To understand how I fit into this world. I snap out of my ruminative state and rejoin the conversation. The busy sounds of Harajuku fill my ears again. I wonder how my thoughts and feelings will change over the next 26 days.

Memorable Time and Discoveries in Yokohama

It’s approximately halfway through my trip. I’m in Yokohama, in a neighborhood called Nokendai. It’s Friday, the final day of the global studies program at this week’s school. Through this volunteer program focused on self-growth and cross-cultural exchange, I’ve met and built relationships with Japanese high school students who have changed my perspective in countless ways. But the main reason I can say this is one of the most memorable five days of my life is because of a 15-year-old boy named Tomoshi and his family.

My host family and I all eat breakfast at the table together, as is routine. Included in the spread is tamagoyaki (grilled egg), rice, salad, and toast with blueberry compote made fresh from the garden. Before we eat, I take a photo of them on the old Japanese film camera I bought in Osaka.

The previous night, Tomoshi’s father closely inspected the camera and gave me four rolls of film. He had Tomoshi translate and tell me to take all 24 photos on the first roll so we could print them and see if they came out before I left Sunday. Though I had at first declined the generous offer, they were both insistent and I could tell his father was excited and happy to help. I couldn’t hide my own excitement even if I wanted to. A wide smile spread across my face after I accepted the film and Tomoshi exclaimed his classic phrase, “It’s very nice!” he uses to express joy.

my cultural identity in Japan

Exploring my cultural identity in Japan with my host family (Photo by Naomi Lopez)

Breaking Down Language Barriers

After I finish eating breakfast I mumble, “Gochisousama” (thank you for the meal). I’m still embarrassed by my Japanese pronunciation, but my host father smiles and nods at me reassuringly, repeating the phrase. My host mother hands Tomoshi and I our bento box lunches and a bottle filled with hōjicha (green tea). I happily gather my lunch and tell her thank you, trying my best to show through my smile and bow just how excited and grateful I am for these meals each day. Tomoshi and I shout our daily, “Ittekimasu!” (I’ll go and come back) as we put on our shoes and head to school.

It’s a normal day. Hot and humid. The cicadas’ chirps are deafening, but I’m used to it by now. Tomoshi holds his umbrella so it blocks the sun from both of our faces as we walk to the train station, he in his school uniform and me in my dress. We have our typical, fascinating conversation — Tomoshi tells me about different Japanese habits and traditions or places we pass by, and I talk about America and ask him about how his brass band club is going.

Task At Hand and Beaming Smiles

Today, though, we have a task at hand: take 24 photos by the end of the day so we can get them printed. Tomoshi enthusiastically takes a couple of the train — specifically the red ones on the Keikyu Line, as those are his favorite. He takes another of a Lawson convenience store. (There are two on the street, but he says the one we were at is “the best one.” He means to say it is the better of the two, so I give him a hard time and exclaim, “This is the best Lawson in ALL of Japan?!” He responds no in between laughs, catching my sarcasm.)

I take a couple photos on the walk over to the school from the train station, scenes I’d been wanting to capture since the first time I saw them. At school, I take some of Tomoshi and his friends, and a couple of my group of students. They thrust up their peace signs with beaming smiles — a vast difference in demeanor from the shy, almost nonverbal teenagers I met four days ago. After a bittersweet last day of saying happy goodbyes, Tomoshi and I head to a local arcade for some more photos.

my cultural identity in Japan

(Photo by Naomi Lopez)

On the Town

Throughout the day, he insists on taking photos of me and especially wants to get one of me in front of the Keikyu train as it passes by. With only one shot left on the roll and a few more blocks to the camera shop, Tomoshi motions to me and starts running through the street filled with stopped cars and pedestrians. Confused and slightly alarmed at first, I take off after him anyway. I smile and I feel so carefree as I run, and it doesn’t matter that people are looking at us because I already know I will remember this moment forever. The wind blowing across my face, Tomoshi gets the perfect picture of me just as the infamous red Keikyu train flies into the background.

To both of our pleasant surprise, the photos turn out perfectly. “Watashi wa totemo tanoshi!” (I’m very excited!) I exclaim. Just one of the several Japanese phrases I’ve learned today. “I am happy! It’s very nice!” Tomoshi says as we start walking back home.

my cultural identity in Japan

(Photo by Tomoshi)

Living Like a Local

That night, I go with Tomoshi, his mother, and little sister to the local park to light hanabi (fireworks.) Lighting sparklers is a common summer activity, so before we leave Tomoshi’s mother dresses me in one of her yukatas. (It’s like a kimono, except it’s made of cotton instead of silk for the hot weather.) The living room is calm and silent, except for the distant hum of the cicadas outside. I stand with my arms outstretched as she kneels before me and meticulously wraps multiple pieces of cloth around me. A slight furrow in her eyebrows and purse in her lips, she makes perfectly tight folds and knots. I’m reminded of the times, years ago, when my own mother would dress me in a kimono for the Obon festival.

At the park, children are dressed in yukatas and light their sparklers cheerily as mothers stand nearby with soft smiles on their faces. I light some of my own, happy to partake in the hanibi activity Tomoshi had talked so much about. Later on, Tomoshi and all the kids wander off to play tag. Feeling immobile in my tight outfit and thinking I should probably act like a grown-up 21-year-old, I join the mothers at the park table.

Content in the Moment

They are all extremely kind to me, of course, but it’s difficult speaking with them. Tomoshi’s mother tries to include me in the conversation, mentioning that one of her friends visited California some time ago. But after a few brief words with said friend, I feel the exchange fizzle out. None of them speak English very well, and they are rather shy about it. I feel uncomfortable — not because I’m a silent yet noticeable presence at the table, but because I don’t want them to feel bad for me.

After a week of working through the language barrier with Tomoshi and his family, my lack of Japanese no longer embarrasses me. I’m content just being part of this moment, dressed in my yukata and sitting amongst the other women, feeling more Japanese than I ever have before. The kids run around and shout in the distance. I smile as I watch them, already missing the sounds of the cicadas and the warm summer breeze.

my cultural identity in Japan

(Photo by Noami Lopez)

Back on Takeshita Street

I’m back at Takeshita Street. I’ve got an hour left in Tokyo before I head to the airport, where, after an 11-hour flight, I’ll begin reacclimating to life in the United States.

The now familiar scent of takoyaki fills my nose again. The crowd I walk amongst is still bubbling with curiosity and excitement. It’s still as muggy as ever, but I sweat less and no longer stick to my clothes. I glance around at all the enticing shops, but today I’m on a mission for candied strawberries served on a stick.

As I wait in line, I remember the first time I bought something in Japan. It was at a 7/11. After minutes of wandering around wide-eyed in awe at all of the tempting delicacies, my hands were full of treats. (One of them was my first ever onigiri (rice ball), which soon became my favorite Japanese snack.) Anxiety crept up within me once I reached the register, fumbling my yen and coins as I tried but failed to secretly figure out the machine. The cashier was extremely kind, patient, and helpful – qualities I found to be widespread in people across Japan. But as soon as I finally paid, I hurried out of the store abashed.

Perfection Is Not a Requirement

Once outside, I asked another program volunteer, “To say thank you it’s ohayo gozaimasu, right?”

(Wrong. I told the cashier “Good morning.” It was 11 p.m.)

Now, with the sweet aroma of sugary fruit pulling me back into the present, I take out my yen, place it on the tray, smile, and bow my head confidently as I say, “Arigato gozaimasu” (thank you) to the cashier.

My friends and I enjoy our skewered desserts outside. We then make our way back to the hotel before heading to the airport. As we maneuver our way through Takeshita Street once more, we share about our program and host family experiences and reflect on what an amazing trip this has been.

my cultural identity in Japan

(Photo by Naomi Lopez)

Exploring My Cultural Identity in Japan and Learning I Belong

I am American, and it is my home. I am different here in Japan, and I do not fit in. But visiting Japan and exploring my cultural identity, I know I belong to this place, and it belongs to me. Japan is also my home, and it is a part of me.

I may not look the same, sound the same, or even act the same sometimes. But I’ve discovered that this is not what it means to belong. Belonging is not found in appearance or sameness. Belonging is found in human connection.

Through the invaluable relationships, interactions, and cultural immersion I was able to experience over the last 26 days, I’ve found my place in a place I don’t belong.

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-All photos by Naomi Lopez, except as credited.

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Lee M. April 3, 2024 - 8:56 am

Lovely story! Sounds like a great experience. Next time bring me a souvenir!!!

Nancy Zaffaro April 3, 2024 - 11:49 am

Hi Lee,

So glad you enjoyed Naomi’s article. We’re really happy to be share her personal story and observations; these are my favorite kind of travel story!

Hmmm, I wonder what kind of souvenir you’d like Naomi to give you? 🙂

Naomi Lopez April 6, 2024 - 11:53 pm

Hi Lee, so happy to hear you enjoyed the piece!


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