“Nice to meet you! My name is Narumi Akita”
“Na – ru – mi”
“Oooh, and where is your name from?”
“And do you speak Japanese?”
“And have you visited Japan?”
* Brief silence, followed by an awkward smile *
It has been years and years of responding the same way every time I met someone for the first time. Eventually, I even came to the conclusion that my destiny was to be “name only”. It is not easy to have an oriental name, eyes torn and not “bring them justice”.
A little background…
For those who do not know me, I was born in Asunción; my dad is Japanese, my mom is Paraguayan. Their marriage ended very soon, they separated when I turned 2. I was raised with my maternal family. Due to the difficult context that involved my parent’s separation, I was not able to interact with my Japanese family as much as I would have wanted.
In addition, my grandfather Kaoru died when I was 4 years old so I almost didn’t spend time with him. Although my grandmother Yuuki lived until she was 95, I only had the chance to see her on a few occasions over time. Even so, the love for my Obaachan deeply captivated my heart.
Given these circumstances, I grew up without a big piece in my identity puzzle; with many unanswered questions; curious about my family history; with a lot of love that couldn’t be shared; with certain shame and shyness to get involved in the community of Japanese descendants; and always missing something I never had.
There are those who have great-grandparents, grandparents or parents of other nationalities but never feel the need to dig further into their ancestry. That is not my case. I always had interest and longing for Japan, especially given that I am such a direct descendant. Life, however, took me down another road, where I had to watch “from a distance”, without even learning about the stories behind how and why it was that decades ago my grandparents, together with my father and my uncle, crossed oceans by boat from the Prefecture of Kochi to arrive in Paraguay.
So I grew up, raised and loved by my Paraguayan family, with a silent longing for my Akita-Yamawaki side. Until two events changed everything: a visit and a quote.
It was 2016 and it had been 15 years since I last saw my Japanese grandmother. There are details I prefer to keep to myself, but the point is that I felt “a push from heaven” in my heart telling me: “It’s time, Naru. You have to visit your grandmother. Arm yourself with courage. Overcome the discomfort and reach out to her to tell her how much you missed her all this time and that you love her. This may be your last chance”.
So I visited her at her home in Paraguay, along with my brother… and it was amazing. Although she was already very old, her smile and her loving eyes of love were the same ones I remembered. Her first words were in Japanese in the midst of sobs, and I did not understand them but I know they meant something special.
We shared an afternoon that I will cherish forever and this was indeed my last chance.
In November 2017, a friend invited me to dinner at her home for Thanksgiving dinner, a traditionally American holiday that her family has the great habit of celebrating every year, even though we live in Paraguay.
I exchanged a typical conversation with her father, that initiated like this:
“Do you speak Japanese?”
“Have you been to Japan?”
“No, I have not.”
And there, Mr. Chihan replied in a way that caught me completely off-guard:
When time comes and you get off the plane and set foot in Japan … your blood will know”
He – a Syrian descendant – knew what he was talking about. His personal experience gave him enough credibility to express those words with conviction.
Those words chased me for months and once again I felt a push from heaven.
So that it doesn’t hurt so much
“I will not allow myself to feel”: this is the most commonly used defense mechanism when there are issues we prefer to avoid, especially when they are painful, enigmatic or difficult to address. And I felt like this when approaching my oriental roots.
It was not just about setting a goal to speak the language or visiting the country. It was about uncovering memories from my childhood; trying to understand the Japanese mentality. It also meant to travel to the other side of the world to such a different culture, without knowing what it would generate inside, to build my trust and dignity as a Nikkei, and to discover my family tree with its lights and shadows.
But my grandmother’s visit and that quote were the key in my hands to open a transformative door in my life.
“… your blood will know. “
So I started an internal reflection with thoughts like these: “Your blood never left you; your blood has memory; your blood gives you the credentials. There is no such thing as ‘name only’, your mind made up to get away from something that has been calling you for years. Through your veins not only runs a red liquid but also runs a family legacy. It was not a coincidence that you were born a mestiza. Do not deny your blood just because the past hurts and generates uncertainty for the future. An ancestral land is awaiting for you. It will not be easy. This concern will never go away until you are encouraged to cross those 18,000 kilometers and discover what Japan has to reveal to you”.
And I determined myself…
After restless months, I knew I had to do something about it. My first step was to studying Japanese with a Japanese teacher. In addition to the language with its three alphabets (hiragana, katakana and kanji), the classes also included recipes for food, origami, history and culture. Something that had been dormant for years was suddenly awakened in me. Each class with my teacher revitalized me more and I felt challenged like never before. I even set a goal to go to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and determined myself to save money.
After a month, I was notified about the opening of a scholarship to travel to Japan for 10 days for Latin American Nikkeis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan – through the Embassy of Japan in Paraguay – for a 10-day trip. The objective was to learn about Japan as much as possible so that upon returning to their countries, each Nikkei could spread culture and learning experiences, using their communication skills.
I am a communicator by profession and I am nissei (second generation), so I met the fundamental requirements. I applied and submitted all the documents, including an essay entitled “Japan has a piece of my puzzle”, replying to the question of why I was applying to this scholarship. It was a very sincere and at the same time risky text. However, if selected, I wanted them to know exactly to what kind of Nikkei they were going to provide the opportunity to visit Japan.
The program included visits to the Imperial Palace and meetings with Japanese government authorities; informative meetings with representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; discussions with external intellectuals; visits to museums, historical and beautiful sites surrounded by nature, several temples, traditional restaurants, northern prefectures affected by the 2011 tsunami, a sake factory, meetings with JICA volunteers, among other activities.
As I anxiously waited to know whether I was selected for the scholarship or not at the end of August, I received the news that my Obaachan had passed away.
With sadness I went to her funeral on a Monday with my brother. And there was something I did not expect: my father introduced us to his cousin – my grandmother’s nephew – who had come from Japan for a week. His name: Toshifumi Yamawaki (my grandmother’s last name). We had a brief conversation and I told him that if I was selected for the scholarship, two weeks from then, I would be traveling to Tokyo.
As if it were a roller coaster of emotions, on Wednesday of that same week I received a call from the Consulate of the Embassy of Japan: “Hi Narumi. I have good news for you…” said the voice on the other side of the phone.
They had selected me. Me, the “name only!”. This meant that I would join 14 other Nikkei from Latin America, who had competed among hundreds of applicants.
I could not believe it. Less than two months after I had determined myself to learn Japanese and go to Japan, all the doors started to open. However, there was still one additional door to open, a transcendental one.
On Sunday of that same week I went to say good-bye to my uncle Toshifumi at the airport and we agreed that I would stay 5 additional days in Japan at the end of the program, in order to learn more about my family roots. This made a difference in my trip.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Using Star Wars’ opening lines, that’s how Japan looked like to me. Despite globalization, the Internet, and the experience of having traveled to more than 40 cities in Latin America, Europe, and Africa, I still thought that knowing the land of my ancestors was a “… far, far away” possibility. Yet at the same time so fascinatingly different: in history, in culture, in food, in geography, in language, in religion, in clothing, in social interaction, in work. The closest I had gotten to Japan was whenever I went for lunch or dinner to my favorite restaurant, Hiroshima.
I mention this so that you can appreciate the fact that after so many years of longing, my feet were finally going to reach the Land of the Rising sun. Compared to other Nikkei, I’m relatively young. There are people who hope to travel all their lives. So that helps me to value the experience even more and not take it for granted.
I found myself scrubbing my eyes often when looking at my plane tickets to make sure I was not dreaming.
My family celebrated the news and understood that this was an extremely necessary process for me. My Japanese teacher gave me the biggest smile in the world when she found out. “God’s plan,” she told me. “Why is everything happening at the same time?” I asked her, referring to studying the language, the scholarship and meeting my uncle. And she replied:
Because there is a purpose, Narumi-san”.
How I arrived
Two weeks passed after my grandmother’s funeral and the trip date arrived. I spent 40 hours traveling between layovers and flights to São Paulo, Amsterdam and then Tokyo. I went to the future with a 12-hour difference with Paraguay.
Thanks to technology, today we can see the flight map on the screens in front of our seats and know how much time and how many miles are left to reach our destination. Instead of watching a movie, every now and then I looked at how close I was to the archipelago of islands. And when we finally descended to land at the Narita International Airport, my legs were shaking. “This is real. It’s happening”, I told myself. It was there that I remembered the quote once again: the moment was coming when I would get off the plane and put my feet in Japan.
And I did.
I had 15 absolutely transforming and unforgettable days, so I will need several blog entries to break them down. Believe me, this experience was intense, surprising and deserves to be told in detail. Japan taught me so much. That’s why this is just an introduction, a prologue to my story.
But I don’t want to leave you with a great intrigue, so here is how I felt the day I started the long journey back home:
How I said goodbye
I was in my seat and the plane was about to take off. In that moment, I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes started to get wet. Why? Because the puzzle finally fit and the image was completed.
And, at the same time, as we were moving on the track, a part of my heart was staying. Tears began to fall through my cheeks without being able to contain them.
Japan was no longer a galaxy, far, far away. I no longer felt like “name only”, I no longer felt an intruder, I no longer felt unqualified. I felt complete. I felt found. I felt like family.