Emi Itoh was my first violin teacher who introduced me to the life-changing magic of Japanese tea, as we talked about Brexit and Trump after our lessons. Here we talk about how language changes perception and kitsch appropriation of culture.
I’m from Tokyo, Japan, born and raised; my family are still in the area. I moved to the US as a teenager, then I lived in France, back in Japan, and now I’m in the UK.
At sixteen, I entered an essay competition where the prize was a summer in the US. I was set on winning, so I wrote something to please the adults; I think it had something to do with identity, but I honestly can’t remember.
At the time, I was a typical, slightly depressed teenager, who didn’t work very hard at school and who thought she was very clever, unlike everyone else. At that point, I would have gone wherever; when I won, I had a legitimate escape from an environment that felt quite suffocating.
I found that summer refreshing, so I looked for a way to stay.
I was in Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan, a place that’s open and spread out, which was a shock for someone coming from Tokyo, a place that’s tight and crowded.
Open space restrictions
Living there was quite unexpectedly restricting. In Japan, even as young kids, we were quite independent; I could walk everywhere, bike, take a train.
In suburban America, someone had to drive me everywhere.
At the same time, it was interesting, this expansiveness of Wisconsin. I didn’t have the right words to express this at the time, and I still don’t know exactly how to express this, but I remember thinking that somehow the flatness of the mid-western landscape was reflected in the way people there were. Somehow, it was very much, what you see is what you get; what’s in front of you is all there is; there is no past, there is no future.
In Japan, I studied English as a subject at school, but that’s very different to being thrown into a high school with teenagers chattering away.
It was very challenging; I couldn’t share my love of books or have (what I thought were) profound philosophical conversations, which I used to enjoy with my friends in Japan.
In America, I felt there was a version of me that people would never get to know.
But, I thought, I had to persevere. It was my decision to be there; I had to make it work.
Overtime, I found ways of connecting with people that didn’t require language. People noticed I made artworks and played music and they thought that was special, which was nice of them to think.
I enjoyed music and ended up doing it at university, though, perhaps I chose it because my language skills were quite limited and I didn’t think I could do anything else.
At some point, I realised I couldn’t see myself making a living from music. I could play in an orchestra, but I’m not that into playing orchestral music.
To me, at the time, music is a way of expressing personal feelings. In an orchestra, there is no room for personal interpretation; musicians play what the conductor feels.
Now I can see some reward in it, but at the time, I didn’t.
I finished university and went to France where I continued taking music lessons. In a way, I was postponing coming out into the real world.
Readjusting to Japan
In Japan, I had to readjust. In America, to be heard, I had to learn to be more outspoken; in Japan that made me into a loud person who dominated the conversation.
I needed to learn to fit into this very highly organised society where I had to sound respectful.
I did various jobs and started spending a lot of time in the garden, which became an antidote to the stress of urban life. I got really into horticulture.
At the same time, because my brother was studying architecture, I got interested in organising space in a way that gives it form. Slowly, the combination of the two lead me to garden design and, eventually, to studying the subject in the UK.
Aesthetics of organisation
I like bringing order to things; whenever I look at treetops, I’m rearranging them in my mind. Garden design is about organising space in a way that’s very pleasing.
When in harmony, different elements start to disappear, like in Tetris.
I also like the naming system of plants; I find it comforting that in the garden you can organise them by family, genus, species or variety. I also like the idea of growing things from seeds; out of pretty much nothing, there is this big, lush thing.
Gardening makes me feel quite insignificant.
In Japan, garden design is highly particular; somehow, the Japanese do have this right way and wrong way, which can become quite restrictive. England doesn’t have the same attitude; here, anything goes.
The Japanese gardens in England are, in some ways, amusing.
By Japanese standards, they’re wrong, but, if people are pleased with these, why not.
It’s easy for me to point and laugh at the kitsch appropriation of Japanese culture in England, but, let’s remember, I play music written by Austrians and Germans and no one is telling me I can’t have it, even if I don’t play it the way it was intended.
Learning English, again
Since living in England, I’ve been drawn to English more than before. Somehow, now, I feel attached to this language.
By now, the English- and the Japanese-speaking me are equally real, though there is a limit to what I can convey in English.
Sometimes I see and approach a topic in a Japanese way, which focuses the debate on something else than it does in English.
I don’t necessarily come up with different answers; I may just ask entirely different questions. These ideas work in Japanese, but, every day, I struggle and fail to convey them in English.
That might be why I’m in awe of radio presenters’ eloquence. I’m in love with BBC Radio 4. They have programs about some quirky things, like how in some cultures having a gap between the front teeth is considered attractive; I like such quirky points of view, this kind of open-mindedness and curiosity about things that otherwise go unnoticed.
I’m not so attached to the climate. Because I spent a big part of my childhood in Japan, I can’t overwrite what I think is the climate and landscape of home. Hot summers and cold winters with blue sky; I miss this about Japan.
Married in a second language
I’m married to somebody who’s English and settled here, so moving countries is no longer easy. It’s funny because when I first came to the UK, my father was worried that I was moving to a country where I didn’t know anyone.
He contacted his friend who’s son played in an orchestra. I said, I’m not playing in an orchestra. I was eventually convinced by the idea that I could meet someone to play quartets with. I said, fine; I went and I met somebody indeed.
I used to think, and to an extent I still think, that we have overlapping circles of interests and shared identity because I took big steps toward his culture.
I speak English; he doesn’t speak Japanese. I used to want him to embrace my culture more; he likes certain things about Japan, and I think that’s enough; we have plenty to share.
Facing the same direction
Music is a good thing to share. It’s the kind of activity that brings people together without the pressure of looking at each other. It’s like driving; people often get into great conversations when they’re in a car.
Doing things face-to-face is intense; relationships are easier when we’re facing the same direction.
Emi Itoh is a music teacher and violinist who pops up in various musical events in and around Oxford. She’s also a horticulture enthusiast who harbours an ambition for guerrilla gardening in public spaces.