Hi everybody, this post was originally intended as a personal update about my arrival here in Tokyo following my departure from Toronto, but it’s been delayed a lot just because so much has been going on and I’ve been trying to do a lot with my time here (posting also got delayed in part due to some drama, followed by more drama ha!). I have visited Japan previously, although the last time I was here was almost seven years ago, and I’ve been looking forward to returning for a long time 🙂
Notably, perhaps, the previous visit was before transition; in fact, it was during my time in Japan in 2006 that I finally decided that I could no longer put off dealing with my feelings about my gender. When I returned to the U.S., shortly afterwards I began coming out to friends and family and, not long after that, took the first steps of physical transition.
Now I’m glad to be back in this country, feeling like I’ve moved forward in so many ways and I’m in a much better place with myself. Not that I didn’t enjoy my time in the country the first time around, but sometimes it’s difficult to engage when you feel like you’re holding back such an integral part of who you are. And in fact, I remember having fun during my first extended stay in Japan, but I remember feeling a lot of loneliness as well.
So far has been pretty good. I’ve started working with my new research group here (I’ve known my advisor for years and he has always been really supportive of me) and I’ve got a lot of interesting new physics problems in mind that I’m looking forward to working through. I’ve felt especially productive since I arrived.
Foreign language has always been difficult for me, but I’ve taken a short class and studied some on my own since I arrived so hopefully I can gradually improve a bit. I’ve always thought that the writing system is very beautiful, so that is one fun motivation… although there is a lot to learn!
The Japanese writing system is fairly complex, being divided into three main scripts, which are called kanji, hiragana and katakana (though arguably romaji based on the Latin alphabet represents a fourth). The kanji script consists of borrowed Chinese logographic characters, although of course there have been some modifications. The interesting thing is that China’s influence on the Japanese writing system is largely an historical accident. In fact, China’s complex symbols are perhaps somewhat of an awkward fit for the more polysyllabic Japanese language. Hence the Japanese devised the other two alphabets, hiragana and katakana, as simplified extractions of the original Chinese symbols. (Hiragana is then used for native Japanese words while katakana is primarily used for non-Chinese foreign loan words, or for emphasis.)
Meanwhile, I’m also look forward to learning more about Japanese culture and politics. I have no idea if I would be able to get involved with trans politics in any meaningful fashion here in Japan or not, but I am certainly hoping at some point I can meet some trans women in the city and get to know the local situation better. I did come across this unfortunate story recently, according to which a Japanese trans man was not allowed to register himself as the father of the child his wife (a cis woman) recently had via insemination, which is clearly a case of discrimination given that sterile cis men are often allowed to register themselves as the father under similar circumstances.
As for my time in Japan so far, I feel that I’ve settled in nicely and I’ve enjoyed seeing a bit of the city so far. One thing I enjoy about my office is that I have a nice view from an the upper floor of my building. Here is a picture of the sun setting on the city that I took from the balcony. You can see Mount Fuji quite prominently as the sun is setting almost right behind it:
On the other hand, it took me a while getting used to the earthquakes (being on the upper floor in a tall building means that our office will feel the quake more strongly than someone standing at ground level). About once a week we get a small tremor that is noticeable from our building, and it took me a while to adjust just to those. I remember that for the first couple of weeks while I was adjusting to all of this, I started to imagine the ground was shaking even when it wasn’t. Then in early December we had an actual small earthquake. It was still only a level 3, which isn’t all that strong really, but I admit it’s pretty disorientating to feel the entire building shaking around like that!
One fun thing out of this however would be the earthquake drill we had at my dorm, which was part of a larger safety education demonstration that was put on for us by the local fire department. The highlight of this demonstration was unquestionably the aqua green earthquake truck they brought in to teach us about earthquake safety. This was kinda like a trailer-truck where one side of the trailer slides up to reveal a facsimile of a small kitchen with a table in the middle. The trailer itself is set up so that it can be shaken around by a small engine, in order to simulate the vibrational forces of an earthquake (it can simulate a magnitude 2 up to magnitude 7). The idea is for participants in the demonstration (two or three people maybe) to practice ducking under the small table for safety during the simulated earthquake. In practice, it was pretty wild being on this truck while it shook around, and everyone laughed and had a lot of fun participating in the demonstration 🙂
So far I feel like I pretty lucky to be able to live and feel supported here in Japan. In December I had the opportunity to visit Kyoto for a physics conference, which was held at the Yukawa Institute at Kyoto University. While I was there I had a lot of delicious Japanese food, including my first time having the Fugu fish, which was prepared in a variety of ways: raw, bbqed, then boiled (I admit, the whole time I was eating the fugu I couldn’t get the voices of Charlie the Unicorn’s friends out of my head). I also got to visit Nijo Castle, which is where the shogun stayed during visits to Kyoto in the Edo period of Japanese history.
The artwork and metalwork inside the castle were really beautiful. It was also interesting to see the wall murals showing tigers and leopards, seeing as how these animals are not indigenous to Japan. In fact, it turns out that these paintings were based on hides that had been imported from abroad (hence the artists must be forgiven for a lack of accuracy in the faces of these animals!). Another highlight were the “Nightingale” floors, which are designed to squeak as someone walks along the corridors. These were intended as a security measure to make sure that no one could sneak through the castle undetected.
Pictures were not allowed in the interior of the castle, but here are a couple I took from the outside:
Then a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to view a performance of “Rose of Versailles” by one of the Takarazuka Revue troupes. Takarazuka is an all-female opera style; it’s definitely camp to the extreme and it kind of turns on its own internal logic. There was a lecture at my University about it before the showing and the arguments were made that on the one hand it is somewhat subverting of traditional gender roles but that in other ways it somewhat reinforces them.
We were way at the back of the theatre and it was a bit difficult for me to follow up until closer to the end of the performance (even without understanding Japanese, the outbreak of the French Revolution and the tragic love story are pretty easy to recognize!). Overall I was glad to take in the performance, but without speaking much Japanese it’s hard to make any kind of detailed analysis about the gender presentations.
And a couple other pictures that I like… the backdrop for my desk in the office, including reminders of some of the people I miss back in Toronto:
And a picture of snow in Tokyo from back in December: