The Question of Disappearance

I should have known. But it still came to me as a shock when I looked around during Wildcat Welcome week and found that though I was surrounded by Asian American faces, not one was Japanese.

Perhaps Japanese Americans or Japanese international students at Northwestern stuck together, and I had not chanced upon them yet, I thought.

Yet a quarter and a few weeks later, I am still in search of that group. I have discovered that the Japan Club is made up almost entirely by non-Japanese students, and though I have met some Japanese Americans, or at least heard of a few people of Japanese descent that apparently exist somewhere in the realm of our undergraduate population, I have yet to meet a concrete group of Japanese students that hang out together. I am close to concluding that such a group does not exist.

I guess after growing up in a conservative, Midwestern town where I was the only half-Japanese, much less Japanese, girl for miles and miles, I expected my college experience to be different. I believed that college – especially Northwestern, a university that boasts diversity – would have Japanese or half-Japanese people who would share my experiences. Chicago, I knew, had a Japanese population, so why would Northwestern be any different?

After searching, pondering, and asking all around, I found that the answer may lie in Japan herself. Japan has become more and more isolated over the years, and has kept most of its people inside her borders. There are many reasons for this; mainly, as I learned while studying abroad in a private Tokyo girls’ school last year, because Japan has a dwindling population to start with. My teacher, an older man, told all of us girls to “have lots of babies to save Japan.” Because of economic prosperity and more work options for women, Japanese women are starting families in their 40s instead of their 20s. Thus, they cannot have many children.

They also cannot afford to have many children. Japanese families are small because supporting a child through the grueling process of education is incredibly expensive. Because succeeding in life is all based on getting into a good college, and getting into a good college is in turn based all upon a single test, parents must spend extraordinary amounts of money on their children to have private tutors, or to go to expensive cram schools.

So the population of Japanese children is dwindling, and the Japanese government cannot afford to lose more people to immigration. That explains the downward spiral of the population of Japanese Americans residing in the United States.

But why are there so few Japanese students studying abroad? South Korea is undergoing the same problem of a dwindling population, but Korean international students are numerous at Northwestern.

This is a difficult question, since Japan – like Korea – knows that the future lies in global marketing. In any job, fluency in English would be greatly valued.

My theory is that Japanese students are so comfortable in their Japanese society that they do not want to experience being a foreign exchange student in a new place and culture. When I was studying abroad in Tokyo, I noticed that most of the girls I went to school with did not have dreams of living outside Japan. They had their puri-cura booths (photo sticker booths where eyes are made bigger and faces are literally changed so that they appear prettier) and karaoke, kawaii (cute) shops, and Disneyland (which they adore to the point of obsession). They had all that they ever wanted at their fingertips – not to mention a complex society which they were lucky enough to understand and navigate.

They did not want to study abroad in college, for they suffered through all-nighters, cram schools, tests and memorization just to be accepted into a good college, which would guarantee them a job. In Japan, college is where students are finally able to escape the strangling pressure to perform and do whatever they want. Tests are a piece of cake, class attendance is almost optional, and the last year is usually spent applying for jobs.

So why would you give that up to suffer through self-consciousness and difficult classes in the States? Not to mention that you would also have to give up a school that would guarantee you a job.

A final theory of mine is that after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands in northern Japan last year, Japanese people felt obligated to stay in the country to help rebuilding their ailing homeland. Every Japanese was expected to do something for their country. So that was yet another reason for Japanese students to stay home.

In the end, it is perhaps not really surprising that hardly any Japanese student seems to exist at Northwestern. And though I miss the opportunity to speak Japanese every day, as I had done at home, I will keep up my fluency in other ways.

For now, I guess I will remain the half-Japanese American student at Northwestern. At least as an Asian American, and as a mixed race student, I do not feel so alone.

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