No matter that I find Japan endlessly intriguing, there is a subset of the local population, most particularly post-collegiate women, who find their homeland hopelessly buttoned-up and boring, and who queue up by the exit at their first opportunity. There is none of the “see the home country first” nonsense with these pragmatic folks; they want to get as far from Japan as possible, and for as long as possible, both of which run counter to the rank and file of traveling Japanese. Case in point: I was looking forward to spending some time with my friend Masumi upon my return to Japan last fall, but it was not to be. Over the summer, Masumi had managed to land a position in a school in Frankfurt, and was off to Deutschland in search of adventure and greener pastures.
Over the Christmas holidays, I met Natsue, a thirty-ish Japanese woman with a good command of English, and a wicked sense of humor. Problem was, I met her less than a week before she boarded a plane to Fiji (of all places!), where she would study English and teach Japanese for the next half year.
It occurred to me that I know virtually nobody in North America who does this sort of thing; perhaps I run in the wrong circles, but still, I think it must be much less common with American women than with Japanese. Several years ago I was in Central Turkey, kind of a long way from anywhere, really. I was hanging out in a small town in Cappadocia called Urgup. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But it was clearly a prime destination for Japanese travelers, virtually all women, and mostly in the thirty-ish age range. I was the only North American on hand.
Anyway, this got me thinking about the differences in societal structure (vis-à-vis travel) between Japan and the West, and this is what I came up with (disclaimer: it is entirely anecdotal, and not scientific at all, but it has a feeling of rightness about it): the cultural norm in Japan is for women to marry by twenty-five, and to start families within a year or two after that. The girls who sail past this use-by date still single are statistically very unlikely to marry at all. This is not the huge predicament in Japan that it would be in the Americas, as Japanese tend to live with their parents until they get married, the corollary being that if they don’t get hitched, they go on living at home basically forever. So there is something of a support system in place, and there is always somebody around to talk to. There is much less of the sense of loneliness and desperation among unattached Japanese “of a certain age” compared to their Western counterparts, at least in my experience. So, if they should decide to quit the day job and go on walkabout for a year, in most cases there is a place to come back to, and people looking forward to seeing them again when they get back. Imagine being thirty-ish in the US and trying that; it is doable, to be sure, but it takes a level of bravado, commitment, and possibly sheer lunacy that not many possess at that stage of their lives.
In my perfect “if I were king” world, foreign travel would be a requirement for young people, particularly Third World travel, perhaps for a year or two between high school and college. It would be done solo, so each person would have to make new friends upon arrival wherever. Something with a volunteer component would be ideal, like being conscripted into the Peace Corps. What a concept, a peacetime draft! IPods, internet, and cell phones would not be allowed, although pen and paper would be provided to those with the skill set to compose letters to friends and families. Stamps even, let’s be magnanimous! The draftees would live like the locals, eat the local foods, learn the local language, listen to the local music, and so on. At the end of their tour, one of two things would likely happen: 1) they would echo the sentiments of Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz, so happy to get back home that they would never want to leave again, but (and this is a big “but”) they would almost certainly have an increased measure of appreciation for the happy accident that granted them a First World life, or 2) perhaps, just perhaps, they would find within themselves an affinity for cultures different from their own, and learn new ways of problem solving, relating to others, and being global citizens. This is, in fact, what some Japanese women are doing on their own, and I admire them deeply for it.