I’m inspired by how he navigates life in Tokyo while looking different from everyone else
This First Person column is the experience of Trevor Kew, a Canadian who lives in Japan. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ (new window).
I'll never forget my son's first day of school. The backpack slung awkwardly over his slender shoulders. His arms swung hard at his sides. His footsteps moved slowly away.
Before my son reached the corner, he turned to wave. He looked determined but also uncertain. Part of me willed him to go on. Part of me wished he would come back and never grow up.
My son's first day of elementary school in Japan was very different from mine. The Japanese school year starts in April, not in September as is typical in Canada. Pink cherry blossoms fluttered down from the sakura trees that line the streets in our part of Tokyo. His route to school meandered past the tofu shop, the police box and a small shrine honouring the horse of a famous samurai. The vast majority of children in Japan still walk to school without their parents, so I made sure that he left with plenty of time to make it to class before the bell.
I, however, was late for my first day of kindergarten in Rossland, B.C., in 1986 because a small bear was trapped up a telephone pole near our home. Every kid in the neighbourhood walked down for a look before our parents intervened and sent us off down the dirt lane that ran behind the church to school. The leaves of the trees were already beginning to change colour.
Growing up in Rossland, at that time a city of just under 4,000 people and one stoplight, I could have never imagined that one day I'd be raising a child in Tokyo, a megacity of nearly 36 million people and many, many stoplights. Even after I moved to Japan in 2008 for work, the thought had never entered my mind that I'd ever be a dad to a boy who studied math, science and everything else in a totally different language.
I speak Japanese and can read well enough to enjoy a Japanese novel, but language acquisition is different as an adult. I never thought I'd need to know
isosceles triangle or "photosynthesis" or how to quiz someone on their times tables in Japanese until my son needed help with his homework.
But the differences run deeper than language or scenery. I find my son's school life endlessly fascinating. When he arrives at school, he takes off his street shoes and slips on his white uwabaki (indoor slip-on shoes) for the day. He eats kyushoku (cooked lunches prepared by the school) at his desk at lunchtime. He does his duty as toban, who are tasked in turns with serving food to classmates, sweeping the room or throwing away garbage. Each year, he spends weeks preparing for the annual undo-kai (often translated as sports day) — a tradition unique to Japan with elaborate mass dance routines interspersed with sprint races run to the tune of the Can-Can. There is so much more attention to detail than I remember at school in Canada, including an emphasis on organization, rules, homework, eating well and doing your job. It has felt like a fresh lens into Japan, giving me insight into how my friends, colleagues, and even my wife spent their formative years.
I know that most of the time my son just feels Japanese. But because he doesn't look particularly Japanese, he has also always been
the Canadian guy at school. It has been inspiring to see him embrace this role, regaling his friends with daring tales of surviving -26 C temperatures when we visited my parents in Rossland for Christmas. During the 2022 World Cup, he switched gleefully back and forth between the Canada and Japan soccer jerseys until both countries were knocked out of the tournament.
And yet, I'm not sure that's enough. Living outside Canada, it's hard to teach my kid to be Canadian — maybe because I find it hard to pin down what being Canadian means. I've told him my stories of camping, mountain bike rides and bears up telephone poles. I've read Robert Munsch and Jon Klassen books to him since he was little. We play board hockey together on the kitchen table like I used to with my father and grandfather. We speak to his Canadian relatives as often as we can.
Such piecemeal efforts can feel like inadequate representations of the vast range of experiences across Canadian life. I hope that they spark an interest in my son to discover more about the country where his dad grew up.
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What has surprised me is how often he requests to hear my stories of Canada, almost like treasured novels, and his favourites aren't always the ones I would expect. Just this year, he started spontaneously inviting friends over to our home after school. It's not a common practice in Japan, but my son said it was because he liked the stories I told about my friends Mike, Jake and JB coming over to my place for after-school shenanigans.
These stories hadn't been intended as any sort of cultural lesson, but somehow my son had taken something Canadian from them and brought this to his life in Japan.
It made me hopeful that one day he might spend at least some of his life in Canada and carry something of Japan to my country, too.
Trevor Kew (new window) · for CBC First Person