My Life and Bushido Ghosts
Exiles, immigrants, expats, foreigners, outsiders, refugees – whatever you want to call us, we’re all displaced peoples. The square pegs, the forced out, the seekers and the wandering drifters, each uprooted and elsewhere. It happens to the biggest of us – Napoleon removed and sent to die in Saint Helena, The Stones as tax exiles in fading French chateaus. It happens to the smallest of us too – ghost ships washed up in Barbados, filled with desiccated corpses of young African men, Iraqis fleeing their home tinderbox in any direction they can.
Here in Tokyo, I label myself an ‘expat’. To me, it says that I exercised choice over my displacement. However, to the rest of this still closed global hotspot, I’m just another foreigner and that is what I’ll stay. Always on the outside, looking in. Party perhaps, to the appetiser, but never the full meal.
This is as it has always been. Born in England to an English family, then raised and schooled in Wales, I began with one foot in each camp yet not quite fully fitting into either, ‘different’ from the start. Identity is always so interchangeable and muddled through in the UK that it’s a tough job to convincingly claim to be a nationalist.
About three years ago, I tied up all my loose ends, condensed my life into two suitcases and a laptop and jumped onto a plane at Heathrow – bound for the other side of the world with a blank slate in my head and an empty diary in my bag. Leaving a childhood home or home country, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
I’ve often been asked why I came to Japan, but rarely ever why I left the UK. Most people leave home at some point and all have their reasons, whether they walked out with head held high or were kicked out with tail between legs. I did so for two main reasons. Firstly, because the world is changing rapidly and becoming ever more interdependent, I wanted to experience and understand that transition. To taste and perhaps even help shape some of that emerging global identity. To become a citizen of the future, not a relic of the past. Secondly, my ghosts crowded me out.
Even my original and later readopted hometown of Brighton had begun to teem with them after a while. They laid in wait for me on street corners, in pubs and supermarkets, in the books that I read and the songs I listened to, in the successes of others rightfully mine, and the new bonds made that I was excluded from. Most of all, they laid deep down inside of me, weighing me down and forcing me to chase my tail instead of following my nose or my dreams. I ran away to the new world and I ran away from the old one.
Of course, Japan has its ghosts too. A Tokyoite once told a tale of awakening feeling pressured, only to see the disembodied head of a samurai resting on her chest, and his body slumped in the corner of the room. Then there’s Hiroshima’s living ghosts, the hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) and the terrible tales they still tell about one fateful summer day in their childhood and its aftermath. But perhaps as Japan’s ghosts belong to others, I don’t see them in the same way as my own.
Exile, expatriation and exploration seem to run in the family. Both parents are well travelled and weave snapshots of recent human history into the family narrative. My mother, who actually recommended Tokyo to me, spent a little time in Soviet-era Moscow and Leningrad. It can be difficult to visit somewhere that my father’s not been before me. He was in Berlin a week before the fall of the Wall. My sisters, fellow siblings-in-exile, respectively live in Toulouse and Dar Es Salaam.
It goes back further and stretches out wider too. On Dad’s side, an uncle in North Carolina, a cousin born in Zambia. On Mum’s side, an uncle who sent himself to Cameroon, and another uncle in Germany, who’d rejected London at the end of the 1960’s and headed off with a camera round his neck. Hitching on some autobahn or other, he was picked up by a busload of hippies on their way to a Pink Floyd show and later married one of them.
Yet further still, the bloodlines intermingle with the bloodshed and fault lines of the last century or so. Another uncle, this time belonging to my grandmother, seemed to have lived the whole Empire boy dream. He found himself in Shanghai in the 1920’s, where he hooked up with a Russian girl he met. She turned out to be a minor royal that had fled the Revolution in 1917, and was now down at heel, selling matches on the street. Together, they fled China to escape from the invading Japanese and on to Batavia (now Jakarta). The Imperial Army had their sights on Indonesia too so they fled again, ending their days in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was).
Completing the circle, it was a visit to my sister in Tanzania, during the week that the Americans and the British began their assault on Baghdad, that I decided I was finally ready to up sticks, put Blighty behind me and head far East. At the turn of the millennium, the rock ‘n’ roll gang I fronted began getting our first taste of fame by bursting into the national media by accident. Amidst our meteoric rise, however, I was ousted in a coup and thus began my English decline. In time, my senses became dulled by my daily grind and I needed to reawaken them with new experiences. Tokyo lured me with dreams of a high-tech, glittering city of the future.
My life here is both similar and different to the old one in England. I eat more fish than I did before and am also more used to earthquakes, but as I did in the UK, I teach English for cash and occasionally still sing in a local bar band. The all-efficient technology is so pervasive, however, that it’s barely noticed after a while.
My social circle is drawn from a much wider pool than my British one was. A Californian pal tells me tales of living on otherwise uninhabited Hawaiian islands. A Nepalese friend invited me to join him and his family in celebrating the Hindu Festival of Light, at home in Kathmandu. I became the global citizen I was aiming to be.
One part of the story remains untold. As with any haunting, you can only run from your ghosts for so long. In time, if the exile is ever to come home, he must also become exorcist.