Shoganai: Watching the Election from Japan

Living in Japan means living my life 14 hours ahead of everyone I know in the U.S. As a result, I’ve learned to avoid social media on Mondays, when people back home are posting Game of Thrones spoilers online. While I’m getting ready for bed, my friends are deciding in our group chat where to eat brunch. In Japan, I live in the future but still manage to feel left behind. Everyone’s posting their #tbt photos on my #fbf.

The time difference creates an information gap that often works to my advantage. When news happens in the U.S., it usually takes a couple days to reach local media. That is, if it reaches at all. Larger global events take precedence over America’s constant whining, unless what’s happened is relevant domestically. Whenever President Trump says something outrageous, I have usually a full 24 hours before my coworkers politely inquired about the realistic chances of him being impeached.

When I first moved to Japan in 2015, the warmth many Japanese people felt for America was clear. Strangers frequently came up to me at train stations or in grocery stores to ask if I was American and reminisce about their homestay experiences in high school. A woman once missed her bus describing to me the wonderful time she had visiting her son-in-law’s family in Washington State twenty years ago.

President Obama seemed to play a large part in Japan’s reverence for America. In a move usually reserved for the summer Koshien, the television in the staff room was turned on in May so the staff could watch his visit to Hiroshima live. Together we watched as he folded origami cranes and discussed his hopes for a peaceful world.

I felt so proud to be linked to this great man through our shared American citizenship. He got it. And Japanese people got him.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2016, I woke up each morning to read whatever inflammatory remarks Trump had made through the day in America. Between morning classes, I’d read live updates from the debate transcripts and exasperated reactions from friends. My afternoons were peaceful, as Americans tucked themselves into bed and the online ranting faded. I fell asleep at night wondering what new dramedy the dawning American morning would bring.

However, in the months leading up to the election, I found myself the unwilling resident expert for all things political in my office. As the only non-Japanese and furthermore as an American, I was asked for explanations and predictions that my time away from home made me ill-equipped to provide.

Students and teachers frequently asked if I thought Trump would be elected. It was clear that they didn’t think so. He was as opposite Obama as possible, and didn’t everyone love Obama?

But as I was the resident American, they wanted my reassurances. I told them I was hopeful that America would elect its first female president, but inside I was worried. America felt less familiar with each passing day.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 9th, I arrived at work to find every single computer screen in my office displaying maps of the United States electorate. After months of feeling at once ahead and behind of American current events, suddenly I was watching the future of my home country unfold in real time with 38 Japanese teachers. We refreshed webpages between classes. I texted with friends back home that were at election night parties. My family celebrated local wins in our group text. For once, it felt like life was happening in a single time zone.

I had to teach a class third period, and when I left my desk, Ohio hadn’t turned yet. I walked through the staff room and passed two dozen computer screens with maps of the United States being slowly filled in. The northeast was turning blue. In class, I told the students I was nervous but optimistic. I thought about the map on my computer screen. There wasn’t much red.

When I sat back down at my desk after class, I refreshed the map. Ohio. Virginia. North Carolina. Wisconsin. Pennsylvania. In an instant a dozen states turned red, and I didn’t need to know any electoral college math to know which way the election would go. I gasped, and 38 pairs of eyes fell on me.

What’s wrong? What’s happening? What do you know?

I told them there was too much red.

The teachers tried to reassure me. It was still early, they said. People on the west coast were still voting.

It didn’t matter, I told them. It’s done. Shoganai.

The rest of the day I sat silently, watching state after state turn red. The office was silent. None of us knew what to say. Teachers stopped refreshing the webpages. One by one my friends and family went to bed to escape the reality of what was happening for a few hours. In Japan, it was mid-afternoon. It felt wrong for the sun to be shining.

Later that evening, while waiting for a bus, a Japanese man approached my friends and I to ask if we were Americans.

“Why Trump?” he asked us.

Since that night, numerous strangers here have approached me to ask that same question. They no longer share stories of their time in America. They only have questions.

In the weeks following the election, I did what many American teachers I know did; I used the election as a teachable moment. In Japan, the voting age was recently lowered from 20 to 18. After the excitement of the first year, participation among teenage voters dropped considerably.

My students said they often didn’t vote because they didn’t know about the issues or the candidates.

I told them that if they wanted a say in the future direction of their country they had to demand it. They had to educate themselves. They had to show up. A democracy is only as strong as the people who participate in it. Look at America, I said. So many people didn’t show up, because they thought the outcome was a given. Look what that brought us.

Nearly every day I wake up to read angry posts online about what happened abroad while I was asleep. I drink my morning coffee at my kotatsu and listen to the evening news in America. The Japanese government has started using cell phone and city-wide alert systems to warn of North Korean missile launches. Whenever my coworkers discuss it, I can’t help feeling that I’m somehow responsible. That every American is responsible.

It’s been a year since the election. Well, that’s almost true. For me, it’s been a year. Tomorrow, it’ll be a year for everyone in America. It’s a bitter anniversary. As I drank my coffee this morning, I found myself thinking about the paper cranes in Hiroshima. They are probably starting to collect dust.

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