Junior Takanori Sawaguchi couldn’t sleep for two days preceding and following April 4, 2006.
His bags were packed with a few necessities—namely clothing and money—his bedroom was dismantled and shoved into nondescript boxes and his head was filled with worry. Fear trumped excitement as the shy, 12-year-old boy dwelled on images of blond-haired, blue-eyed monsters, carrying guns and riding in convertibles while devouring hamburgers and french fries—all of them speaking a language he couldn’t understand.
Taka’s father, the president of Point Incorporated, a company that makes Global Positioning Systems (GPS), had been transferred to Kansas City that spring. His brother-in-law had told him of the wonders of the spacious and fast-paced city from his experience living there, leading Taka’s father to make the decision of bringing his own family to the United States to live––permanently.
“I remember me and my mom and my sister were all talking, like, ‘Oh, this is going to happen, this is gonna happen,” Taka said.
After the two hour train ride from his small village to the city, the stay overnight in an airport hotel and the 13-hour transcontinental flight, he found himself stepping into the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, which smelled distinctly of waffles.
As he went to claim his bags, he found himself thinking it: this is America.
In the far southwestern corner of Kanagawa, Japan lies a prefecture called Minamiashigara, a town known for its mountainous countryside and agricultural economy. The area is not a long shot from Kansas, sans the difference in square-footage (as Taka put it, “if you have seven hours, you can drive from the very top of Japan to the bottom”)—but, with narrow roads, set neighborhood gangs of friends and houses so close they didn’t have side yards, Kanagawa Minamiashigara was as small-town as Taka and his family could bear.
Though the surroundings of his home in Japan and his home in the United States are similar, the one word Taka would use to describe the move is “new”––the differences in culture threw him and his family through a loop.
The size of food, buildings, roads and people came as a shock to Taka. The homes in his neighborhood in Japan all featured traditional Japanese-style flooring called tatami, and none of them had basements. The roads were fit for one car, and all drivers had to be 18 and over to get an official license. The cup sizes at McDonald’s were double the size of the same kinds in Japan, and the size of stirring spoons for tea were at least triple the size of those that Taka was used to.
The biggest shock, however, was the difference in schooling.
“In the U.S. we have like business class, you know, econ, and accounting class, cooking class, sewing class, drama, newspaper, tons of class,” Taka said. “In Japan, you don’t have that. You have physics, chemistry: normal classes.”
As an incoming sixth-grader, Taka’s mother Chiemi was reluctant to let her son go to school unprepared, thinking he would be prone to teasing and neglect. According to Taka, students in Japan are often prone to suicide and avoidance of school altogether, due to the teasing they receive for their characteristic introversion. He recalls one of his friends in Japan staying home from school for five weeks due to verbal abuse at his elementary school.
“[My mom] thought I would be really shy and nervous, and really shocked, thinking I wouldn’t want to go to school again,” Taka said. “She didn’t want that to happen.”
Quashing her fears, Chiemi integrated Taka and his older sister, Ayako Sawaguchi, now a student at KU, into everyday life as elementary and high school students––the siblings were made to go to English Language Learning (ELL) classes, as well as tennis lessons and volunteer jobs. At first, Taka’s experience in his regular sixth grade class at Briarwood Elementary only lead to exasperation.
“I was really frustrated,” Taka said. “I wanted to speak, but I didn’t know how to put it into words.”
Academic success is stressed from an early age in Japanese culture: to even gain admittance to high school, one must study for and pass an end-all-be-all test of their mental capability that will determine the course of their academic career. Considering it a relief, Taka was exempt from having to take the test to determine his placement, a pleasant coincidence sprung from moving to Kansas City before he hit middle school. The main struggle for Taka at that time was mastering the language barrier, with little help from his elementary school teachers.
Using his knowledge from ELL sessions and the pocket translator he carried with him, Taka began to communicate with his peers. A group of four or five boys in Mrs. Todd’s class took Taka under their wing quickly, helping him out with classwork and dubbing him with the nickname “Taco.” One of his peers, junior Matt Cantril, sticks out in Taka’s mind as a long-term friend.
“I helped him because I knew what it was like, and how hard it was to be the new kid at a new school,” Cantril said. “I figured it must have been even harder not knowing the language.”
Junior Tyler Nelson recalls Taka’s progress in acquiring the English language to be a quick process, noting that his computerized translator made a world of difference in his learning process.
“He caught on to English very quickly––by the end of the year he was already speaking it very well,” Nelson said.
The increase in Western knowledge gave Taka the upper hand in his homework and tutoring sessions. By the time he was in high school at East, Taka had integrated into the flow of Prairie Village consciousness, barely realizing he’d done it; his teachers now treated him as an equal contributor to the discussion in class, and talked with him when he needed clarification, instead of pawning him off to the specialists. Taka and Chiemi were both impressed by and infatuated with the school system at East.
“The teachers were really nice to me, and supported me,” Taka said. “That’s why [my mom] felt East was really good school: it actually supports its students.”
After graduating from East, Taka hopes to attend college back in Japan, where, according to him, the academic world is much more competitive, as well as promising for the subsequent job market. Admittance to prestigious Japanese undergraduate and graduate schools requires what is, in his mind, even more difficult testing, and hours of prep courses and studying. Taka hopes to study enough to get in, and dreams of using his multi-cultured mindset to bridge the gaps between nations in his future profession.
“I don’t want to just stay in America and Japan: I just want to go to another world, probably Europe, or China or India to make another bridge,” Taka said. “I want to be, like, International Bridge Person.”
The small, Japanese teacup makes no sound as Taka rests it on the soft leaf-shaped coaster his mother, Chiemi has set out in front of him. His preceding slurps were the only sound cutting through the still silence of the modern apartment building at 105th and Mission, nestled in behind popular local restaurants, a swank hair salon and a new-age boutique. Chiemi mutters incoherently, clicking her tongue.
After a moment of thought, a stream of fluent Japanese erupts from her lips, her facial expressions emphatic, her inflection undulating. She directs her words toward Taka, who replies just as easily, pushing her deeper into thought and waiting for her next rebuttal. He then dissects her words and pieces them back together.
“She wanted me to meet well with all the American people, all the country people,” Taka says, choosing his words carefully. “She made me go to class, or tennis lessons, to talk, volunteer. That made me talk to people and adjust better.”
Chiemi nods and smiles, understanding that her youngest child is relaying the message, without understanding the message itself. Where once she was in charge, she now takes the back seat; Taka has taken over many of the communication aspects within the household, from welcoming guests to calling the plumber.
“She tells me things, but I can’t translate very well sometimes,” Taka explains. “She’ll tell me what she wants to say, but I just hang up the phone.”
The duo is still battling with the language barrier, an obstacle that they’re surmounting with more and more ease each day as they acclimate to Western culture. In spite of their struggles, the two consider themselves lucky; out of the many Japanese people who long to travel to the United States, they’ve found a place here.