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Japan Day 2023

Anyone who’s ever visited our gem of a city or the townships that form our unique constellation of a region, will notice that what we have here is a special combination of a slowed-down, de-stressed pace of life combined with welcoming people and a stunning landscape. It’s this combination, along with some surprising similarities, that have seen the Japanese community grow in numbers over the last 40 years.

Later this month, the Japanese community will be sharing with us parts of their culture and heritage at Japan Day. I sat down with 8 women who are organising Japan Day to learn how they found themselves in Gisborne, what helped them make this place their home, and the special reasons that they’re putting on this event.

All of our lives could be unique paintings in a gallery of landscapes, revealing the love of the place we call home. When you’re an expat, choosing a new culture to go with your new address, complicated shadows extend across the horizon of that landscape. And just like looking at paintings, it’s wonderful to get up close and look at the brushwork, to see the elaborate texture of their picture of “home”, particularly when “home” means both “there” and “here”.

Newcomers are always asked “What brought you to Gisborne?” One woman was a teacher in Japan and with her husband, found themselves in Gisborne seeking knowledge about different teaching styles. Another was here on a working holiday visa and fell in love with the tramping. When she went back to Japan after her year was up, she realised how much she longed to return, but for good. Another was drawn to New Zealand and Gisborne when she was looking for connection to her late husband, a keen surfer in Hawaii. Learning about Polynesian navigation and waka hauora led her to the shores of Gisborne.

Life the world over can be ruled by a frantic pace and the big cities of Japan might do that better than most. That pressure and intensity is what drove some of the women I spoke to seek a new life in New Zealand, renowned for its reputation of a healthy balance.

Some of the families that call Gisborne home started their new life in Auckland. But moving from one busy-paced Japanese city to the hustle and bustle of Auckland forced them to re-think their priorities. “I was in my late 20s, busy busy busy. I had to ask myself, ‘Is this the life that I want?’” The move to Gisborne, to connect to nature and the beaches similar to her childhood in Japan was the best and easiest decision for one woman. Some of the women faced the cruel realities of racism in Auckland. But when they came to Gisborne, they were met with a warm and hospitable community. The people they met in Gisborne looked after them like guests.

“The people in Gisborne are so nice!” “It all comes down to the people. Come, you’re welcome, they’d say. They wanted to hear about my culture. I felt respected!” “The people I’ve met and worked with are so lovely. And they’re patient, helping me with my English.” With our beautiful landscapes, friendly nature, and relaxed pace of life, Gizzy said “Nau Mai, Haere Mai.”

Here’s where the story takes us to a surprising place – the similarities between their new home and their old. Says Haruru, “Manaakitanga and Omotenashi are very similar - looking after guests and treating others as best as you can.” She pointed out some linguistic similarities with te reo Māori, like awa and the Japanese kawa for “river”, katakata and ketaketa for “laughter.” Once the women started naming similarities, it was hard to stop.

Both cultures respect their elders. Japanese temples and Māori marae both have protocol to uphold the mana of the place. Visitors to Japan will know that many modern people sleep in the traditional way, on special floor mattresses, not unlike sleeping in a marae. And similar to Māori Atua who before time and also every day create the world around us, so do the Japanese have gods of creation, gods of elements, spirits that protect and spirits that destroy. The women I spoke to noted that the vowel sounds between Japanese and Te Reo are familiar and comforting. Said one woman, “Even though I’m a beginner learning te reo, I find it almost soothing to sit and listen to te reo speakers.” Tones of home.

That’s not to say that they don’t seek out the authentic comforts of Japan, the things that will forever be in their DNA. When the supermarket began carrying a particular kind of dumpling pastry, the Facebook chat lit up. “When they got lotus root? That was exciting!” laughed one of the women. And when someone is traveling up to Auckland, the call goes out: “Anyone need anything from Daiso or JapanMart?”

While Japan Day is a great opportunity for our Japanese community to share their culture with us non-Japanese – it’s also a great way for them to connect with each other and they hope this might encourage more regular gatherings.

For some, Japan Day is a step closer to themselves. “This will be only the 3rd time in my life that I’ve worn a kimono,” said one woman. Another, “I’m slowly forgetting my Japanese heritage. I’m surprised by what my kids don’t know.” Another woman has been rediscovering her Japanese heritage through her art. In her words, “Through my art, I’m not only connecting to my culture and my mother, I’m connecting my son to his culture too. I’m looking forward to my boy getting to celebrate his heritage, getting to be proud of being Japanese.”

Some of the women I spoke to have native New Zealanders as partners and fathers to their kids. For these families, Japan Day is a way to reconnect their own children to the things that matter, their Japanese whakapapa. It means looking back to where their stories began.

These expat feelings can be thorny, a landscape painting with lots of shadows. But Japan Day also brings much joy and excitement, as one woman put it plainly: “I love when people want to talk to me about my home. It’s fun!” Mutsuko, who sells her origami creations locally, said “My teaching Origami journey started as a volunteer at Te Hapara school 4 years ago. From that experience, I found how precious our piece of culture is, and how much people were interested in it.” (Mutsuko will be at Japan Day, selling her origami, and her son will be leading an origami workshop.) In the words of another woman, “I was just so surprised when my co-workers were asking me about Japan Day. I’m already so proud.”

Don’t miss Japan Day, in Treble Court on Saturday, 28 October from 10am - 1:30pm. There will be demonstrations, performances, food, and workshops all shared by members of the local Japanese community. See the full list and schedule of events here.

You can behold and take part in activities like Anime, Yukata costume experience, calligraphy, Tanabata (Japanese star festival) and its wishing tree tradition. The women I spoke to, and many more, will be on hand, joyfully connecting themselves and us to the ancient and modern culture that is Japan, alive and well in Tairāwhiti.

Arigatou gozaimasu / ありがとうございます / thank you to the women who told me parts of their beautiful stories: Mutsuko, Reiko, Mina, Haruru, Maiko, Miyuki, Yuko, and lastly Akiko, who brought all of these women together and whose energy is the driving force behind Japan Day.

Don’t forget to ask them about themselves and about Japan. As Akiko says, “This is about people. Come and meet us. You may find lots of things or feelings that we mutually share.” I promise you, when you start looking for similarities, it’s hard to stop seeing them.

Story by Sarah Pocock

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