Japan has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember. I consider Japanese my co-first language (along with English), I celebrate all the major Japanese holidays, and I regularly drive out to Torrance with my mother to go to Mitsuwa and Marukai, two major Japanese markets at which we can purchase all our basic Japanese necessities, likenatto (a smelly fermented soy-bean concoction that requires an "acquired taste" to eat without grimacing) or Japanese rice. I had travelled to Japan almost every year of my life, and each time I visited my friends, family, and, sometimes, tourist sites. Just for fun.
This year, however, was different. Summer of 2011–the summer vacation between my junior and senior year of high school–was the last chance I would get for a while to visit the land of the rising sun. I would be off to college next summer, and surely I would not have the time or money to go. Plus, that summer, my Japanese friends would be far too busy studying for their college entrance exams anyway.
With these thoughts in mind, I arrived at the doorsteps of my best friend Minori's home in Suginami-Ku, Tokyo, determined to make this particular summer one to remember and cherish.
Three weeks flew by in a ridiculous flash of events and I had already purchased enough things, taken enough photographs, and laughed enough laughs to last me a lifetime. In that time, we managed to go to three movies, Tokyo Disneyland, my old elementary school (Hachinari Elementary School), Minori's high school, a production of Robin Hood, and my great-aunt and uncle's home in Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi-Ken. Not to mention Minori's frequent physical therapy sessions (she had undergone PCL surgery in April after tearing it while skiing), which we were embarrassingly late to almost every time.
But the end of my trip was drawing near, and I had not yet achieved that sense of closure I intended to leave with– the satisfaction of being able to leave my country without any regrets.
Minori, her mother and sister, our friend Erica, and I were sitting on the train bound for Narita International Airport in silence. The train ride was over an hour long, but while my four companions slept peacefully, I sat, eyes wide open, gazing blanking through the window. What was it? What was I missing that left me so uncomfortable with my departure?
The green rice paddies that flew by before me somehow had a therapeutic effect on my nerves. I had seen them innumerable times before, and they always looked the same around this time of year–bright green level blocks of tall rice, the product of dedicated farmers who, with their back-breaking work, supported the entirety of Japan. If rice farmers wanted to start a revolution or a coup d’état, Japan wouldn't stand a chance.
My memories and experiences in Japan, I realized, were much like rice paddies. The rice-memories supported and defined me, and although the paddies flew by, when I returned, they would still be there. In my absence, they would still be supporting my ideologies, my character, and my dreams.
This was it. I had been afraid of forgetting, of moving on and leaving my love behind me, but now that I had identified my source of reluctance, everything was going to be alright (cue Bob Marley).
After a lengthy and awkward goodbye, I walked through security, passed through the gate, and boarded the plane. As the airplane's tires left the ground, I smiled. And cried. But everything would be okay.