Dazed from many hours of travel, I stepped off the Narita airport express into the bustling terminals of Shibuya Station. I was greeted with thick air and forceful shoves from all sides, giving me my first taste of Tokyo rush hour madness. Among the crowd of commuters, I couldn`t help but notice the hundreds of students passing through, wearing the kinds of school uniforms that I had only seen before in Japanese television dramas. Despite being dressed in a simple hoodie myself, I knew that in just a few weeks, I was going to be one of them.
My mother is Japanese, my father American. I was raised bilingually, between both cultures, but never before had I spent more than a month at a Japanese school. This year, however, due to my father`s sabbatical, I was to be enrolled for almost an entire academic year, making the hour-and-a-half commute to my high school six days a week.
One unusual aspect of this daily ritual involved the women only car that I was advised to ride, located at the far end of the train line with pink banners on the windows indicating their exclusiveness. These cars were often the most crowded, with women and girls packed in to avoid being groped by men, an all-too common occurrence on the trains that my own mother experienced in the past. I`d certainly never commuted in such a cautious manner before, but it taught me something about the city, myself, and being a woman.
Another important discovery involved senpai [upperclassmen]. On the train, if I happened to see a senpai from my school, I was obliged to greet them formally and with a polite smile. This unspoken rule of respect towards senpai, even if they were only a year older, was something that I had heard about but never put into practice until attending high school in Japan. Although I never failed to acknowledge a senpai, if I had, I may have been subject to a rebuke later on, offering another powerful lesson about Japan and the complexity of its customs.
Commuting to school everyday, I imagined myself as one of those Japanese students that I had observed on my first day in Tokyo. Still, the sidelong glances that I often received for my half-caucasian features reminded me that I wasn`t quite one of them. I wore a standard uniform, made a point of riding the women only car, and greeted the senpai appropriately, yet fellow passengers, assuming I was a gaijin [foreigner], would say excuse me in English, rather than Japanese. It seemed that however long I might live in Tokyo, and however much I might love this city, being absorbed into its cosmopolitan energies would not necessarily translate to a full assimilation into its rich culture, thus offering another valuable insight.
Despite standing out within the largely homogenous population of Japan, not once did I feel discriminated against in my school or on my commute, allowing me to feel comfortable enough in my surroundings to experience Japanese high school life in its rawest form. The eyes through which I saw Tokyo, and the country of Japan itself, for that matter, were not that of a foreigner or a native, but somewhere in between. There were aspects of the culture that felt familiar, even though I had not been directly exposed to them before, while others were more unexpected. Although uncanny at times, this unique perspective allowed me to make new realizations every day, particularly on my commute to and from school.