“Where are you from?” A sea of little Japanese faces stare up at me expectantly. I pause for a second to gather my thoughts, whilst the genkier kids start to throw guesses at me: “America”, “Canada”—“Peru” from one innovative guesser. Being an army kid, born in Germany, raised mostly in Northern Ireland, and with my uni years spent in Scotland, I have no discernible accent (unless I’m drunk or angry and the Belfast slant starts to creep in), and with both a UK and an Irish passport, the answer to this question has often caused confusion at home. However, my multiple nationality disorder has taken an increasingly strange turn in Japan due to the unique grasp of geography that many Japanese people seem to possess.
Raised by an Irish father and a Scottish mother caused some loyalty issues for me and my sisters growing up, especially when the rugby was on. For the sake of familial harmony, we usually deferred to whatever team had beaten England. This is the crux of the matter: We were a little bit Irish, a little bit Scottish, but we definitely weren’t English. Explaining this complicated national identity, the stereotypical anti-English sentiment that permeates the humor of the rest of the UK is lost when faced with a Japanese person who, having worked out that Scotland is in the UK, excitedly declares you to be an ‘Igirisu-jin’. Fair enough, I’m not expecting them to know all the words to ‘O Flower of Scotland’ but, still, to be informed that Scotland is just a region of England makes me want to subject them to a solid year of watching ‘Braveheart’ as punishment.
Occasionally, as a break from inevitable discussions of the Beatles, scones and the Queen, I’ll use Ireland as the go-to answer. This should be easier—no mistaking it for another country. Sure, the north/south issue can be a little tricky but we’ll leave it out for now. However, this has proved even more confusing, with bemused faces looking at me asking just which island it was that I was from. Some people thought I was from Iceland and were even more confused that I spoke English.
Ah, the old English language marker—at least conclusions about my nationality can be drawn from the fact that I’m a native speaker of English. Unfortunately, Japan has other ideas, with looks the most accurate indicator of your nationality, as with one group of Japanese people who, not swayed by the fact that I don’t speak the language and have no ties to the country whatsoever, insisted that I was Russian because, to them, I looked Russian.
Even after passing the initial dance around nationality, misconceptions of the country we’ve settled on have been even more bizarre, making me wonder just how geography is taught at Japanese schools. Now, I know the UK’s political relationship with the US has, at times, been a source of embarrassment but, to my knowledge, it did not result in us becoming one big country, as one student thought. The UK’s geographical position isn’t even clear here, with one person expressing surprise that it was a separate island, having thought that it was joined to the side of France—the English Channel being a new revelation. I have shattered numerous students’ dreams of visiting Paris, the capital of England, and watched in amazement as many had trouble pinpointing any countries apart from Japan on a world map.
Back to my students, eagerly awaiting an answer. Considering my options, I suggest I am from Hokkaido. They nod in agreement, concluding that it must be true as people from Hokkaido are a bit strange. Good to know the north/south divide exists the world over. However, this geographic illiteracy is worrying in a country suffering economic decline. Surely geographical knowledge is important to create citizens better equipped to deal with the issues that are facing their own country and to maintain perspective on the complex cultural, political and environmental relationships that make up our world today.
by Becca Maxwell
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn161, May 2012)
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