10 Years in Japan – From Gaijin Gyaru to Mama
It has officially been ten, yes, TEN years that I’ve been living in Japan. Ironically, I am celebrating this very important life milestone from my home state of South Carolina!
Then again, it’s perhaps fitting that I come full circle by bringing baby to my home state. As stated in my about me page, I left South Carolina straight out of college with a dream of a life in Japan, and now I’ve returned as a mom having had achieved that dream and many, many, many more. I celebrate this milestone with a blog post about why I chose to move to Japan, how I came to live in Japan, while giving a brief look at my ten years in the Land of the Rising Sun.
How Did I End Up Here?
To begin, I was one of those “OMG I love anime/manga/J-Pop/J-Rock. It’s ~so~ much better than what we have in America!” type kids in high school. I guess it could be embarrassing, but I’m not embarrassed about it. How many of those kids can say that their hobby turned into something so awesome?
I didn’t formally start studying Japanese until my first year of college. Before that, I studied on and off independently by casually looking through a dictionary and looking at subs of anime and translated J-Pop lyrics
I had even taken up the task of studying Japanese independently so that I would be able to read manga, Japanese comic books, and watch and my favorite animated series without relying on translations. I didn’t know it then, but it was very naive approach as 15 years later, with 10 years residency in Japan, I still find myself adding new words to my vocabulary nearly everyday.
Believe it or not, I actually entered college as a Spanish major and graduated with a dual degree Spanish Language and Literature and East Asian Studies. I studied Spanish from fifth grade, and tested pretty well on AP exams. My AP test scores, combined with my college’s placement exam scores, enabled me to place into the 300 level classes in my first year.
Because I placed into the high level Spanish classes, I had the flexibility to take on another language, so naturally I decided to take up Japanese. And, when I had the chance to do a study abroad, I jumped at it. I was a Spanish major, but chose to study abroad in Japan over Mexico because the program in Tokyo was for one year, while the program in Guadalajara was only for six months.
Study Abroad in Tokyo
I arrived in Tokyo in August 2004, and it was my first time on an airplane, and my first time in a foreign country. My place of study was International Christian University, located in Mitaka, a city in western Tokyo. To be perfectly honest, it was difficult for me to keep up my classes because was so distracted by life outside my campus. Students rarely strayed outside of Mitaka or Kichijouji, but I loved the scene in the center of Tokyo, in Shinjuku and Shibuya. Living In Tokyo, the public transportation is cheap, efficient and amazing – you really don’t need a car, so I was free to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted to.
On top of that, I placed into the intermediate level Japanese classes, but had absolutely no speaking skills, so in class, I was always behind. Combined with my late nights out exploring, I was always sleepy and lost. I quickly made new friends and began to ditch school and textbook Japanese in favor of real life, practical Japanese language classes.
My friends were gyaru, young women wearing super high, chunky heels, flashy clothes and mini-skirts, deeply tanned skin, bleached hair, and tons of contouring and highlighting. The place to be was Shibuya 109, a shopping mall where only the most fashionable ladies worked and did retail therapy.
My days and nights in Tokyo were filled with fun and color. For school holidays, I spent spring in Kyoto and winter traveling up north to yukiguni, the snowy region that bordered the Sea of Japan.
My love affair with Tokyo was so intense that after my year abroad ended, I returned for winter break in December 2005 and December 2006. I worked part-time at a local supermarket, saved enough for a ticket, a month-long stay in a guesthouse, and of course, for shopping. The highlight of these trips was shopping for fukubukuro, “lucky bags” that contained tens of thousands of yen worth of clothing for only 5,000 yen or 10,000 yen.
I knew that I wanted to live in Japan after graduation and relocated to Japan permanently in June 2007. At first I thought I should teach English; after all, I was a native speaker of English. However, I decided that if I taught English, there would be no makeup and blonde hair and mini-skirts in my future. My backup plan was to become a grad student, and Sophia University accepted me into their graduate program in Global Studies.
You Betta Work!
When I returned to Tokyo in June 2007, a shopping trip at Shibuya 109 changed my life. What if, instead of being a grad student...What if I worked here? I thought. I could always be a graduate student, but working in Shibuya 109, that’s something I can only do now.
As a gaijin, a foreigner, with a basic command of Japanese, I knew finding a job would be a challenge, a challenge that I happily accepted. I bought a few fashion magazines, new makeup, and got to work studying Japanese honorifics.
I started working at a shop in Shibuya 109 in July 2007. This arubaito, part time job, was my best chance to truly learn Japanese and experience Japanese culture.
With the bit of cash that I brought with me, I rented a room in a guesthouse, the same guesthouse that I used when I visited during winter vacations in college. Within three months of working, I managed to save enough money (around 155,000 yen consisting of first month’s rent, key money, and deposit) so that I could rent my very own apartment with my company as my guarantor.
I scoured Craigslist for free furniture and kitchen ware and bought a futon set and pair of hot pink curtains purchased from Nissen, my favorite mail order company that I still use ten years later. In fact, the plates that I got from one sayonara sale are still in use, and I still have the very first pair of chopsticks that I bought when I first moved back to Japan.
I used to be so good at budgeting my money, but now, I don’t know. Maybe I could have saved more before giving birth, but I like to enjoy life. Then again, now that I’m on child care leave and only have my freelance money to keep me afloat, I’m feeling the same kind of hunger, and I like it, the pressure, knowing that the only place I can go is up.
Nowadays, we have Lawson 100 yen shops, but ten years ago, those shops were 99 yen store. I befriended a store clerk, a cute, young guy who was a student at nearby Asia University. He always made sure to secretly stick discount stickers on my salmon onigiri (rice balls), yogurt, and vegetable juice whenever I checked out. I don’t smoke, but I enjoyed hanging out with him behind his shop on his cigarette breaks. We loved to talk about working in customer service and just life in general.
Working Fashion Retail in Japan
Within one year my Japanese and sales skills improved so much that my responsibilities went from folding clothes, dusting, and taking out the trash to writing daily sales reports. (By the way, those were hand written at the end of every night), conducting stock inventory, and closing the register at night.
I also had a few side jobs modeling in gyaru magazines and appearing in tv shows and movies as a gaijin talento. At first, it was an amazing experience, but it began to take a toll on me. In a way, it was all for the best. After the Lehman Shock no one spent money on clothes like they used to. Gyaru were falling out fashion for more relaxed styles.
Customers were tight with their money and fast fashion took over Japan. Pricey, domestic Japanese brands were now competing with inexpensive pieces from international powerhouses like H&M and Forever 21. Uniqlo used to be the clothing for the unfashionable, now they’ve taken over Japan and the world as well.
The domestic brands that didn’t go bankrupt merged together or dtiched in-house designers for made in China clothing. My own store in particular, was losing its individuality, and I had come to realize that my journey was coming to an end.
Good-bye Fashion, Hello Education
With that in mind, I decided to take a break from fashion, and became a graduate student at Sophia University in September 2010. Working part time in fashion retail, teaching at an eikaiwa (English school) for little kids and doing research for my Master’s was incredibly tough. I cried. A lot. Especially when meeting with my advisor.
Still, somehow, despite all the stress and pressure I put on myself, I managed to graduate in March 2012, a whole semester early- yay! From then to the end of 2013, the pace of things picked up. I spent those years ~finding myself~ and fulfilling my ~wanderlust~
I almost wish I had an Instagram back then, because my feed would have been filled with photos of me at airport lounges and eating all over Japan, Asia, and Europe. And in between all the travel pictures would have been tons of photos of my Shiba, Kokuto, my fabulous high rise apartment with incredible views of Tokyo, all mixed in with fancy lunches and dinners from restaurants and cafes of Nishi-Shinjuku.
After all, what does the good sis RuPaul teach us? “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” At that time, I was going though a lot of issues and decided that the only person who give me what I wanted was myself.
While that was going on in my personal life, professionally I was going on a career change. After I graduated, I thought I would want to work with older kids since my research focused on adolescents and how they picked up languages. But, from my experience working with kids at my conversational English classes, I enjoyed being with kids and found them easier to teach than older kids. That’s how I started my career in early childhood education and bilingual education, by teaching kindergarten at international schools.
At the end of 2013, I met my now-husband. I always say that I knew he was “the one” because my dog liked him so much. We got married in 2014 with Kokuto as the inu (dog) of honor at our traditional Shinto wedding.
Everything after that is kind of boring. Honestly, truly: a sprinkle of travel here and there, struggling to get pregnant, and successfully giving birth earlier this year.
It’s Really Been 10 Years…
Naturally, not everything has been pleasant in these ten years. It was hard to find my identity in the first years of living in Japan when it was literally my job to wear the latest fashions and to look good. I haven’t mentioned the exes and the heartbreak, nor the friends that I’ve lost. And there was that night that makes the movie “The Hangover” look like a tea party. Did I mention I nearly drowned once when scuba diving?
It’s been a crazy journey and I’m not sure of my destination, but I am enjoying the ride. I’d love to make a toast to the next ten years, but you know, breastfeeding. I’d non-alcoholic frozen margaritas, but the baby is sleeping… I guess that toast isn’t happening any time soon.
10 Years in Japan – From Gaijin Gyaru to Mama
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