In Japan, there is a word called “natsukashii” (懐かしい) that does not have a direct English translation but roughly translates to a yearning, a nostalgia for past memories. It is very similar to the word for summer, “natsu” (なつ), equating that feeling of nostalgia with the warm, fuzzy feeling of a never-ending summer day.

As I flew into Tokyo with the heat of summer approaching, I glanced out of my plane window and watched as hundreds of people picnicked under the bright pink sakura that are inextricably linked with Japanese identity. In that moment, I felt my own natsukashii. My home in D.C. also has cherry blossoms, and I soon felt more at ease of being in a foreign country for the first time. I would soon realize, as I sampled my first taste of natto in my quarantine hotel, that Japan was unlike anywhere I had ever been before—indeed, that Japan is a place with a unique culture unlike anywhere in the world.

From spending a day watching sumo matches in Ryogoku to spending nights singing karaoke until the early morning sun, I will cherish my time in Japan for the rest of my life. My biggest takeaway from living in Tokyo is that is a city both traditional and modern—it is not uncommon to see people wearing traditional geta sandals and kimonos along the glitzy shopping streets of Ginza, or to see people engaged in prayer at their neighborhood Shinto shrine after a long day at their corporate job.

I was fortunate enough to work at the Nakasone Peace Institute in Toranomon Hills under former Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, a man with over 40 years of foreign policy experience whose office tells the tale of his achievements±the walls are lined with photographs and signed memorabilia from every president since Jimmy Carter. Working in an office surrounded by titans of Japanese government has deepened my understanding of how Japan, one of the world’s oldest seafaring democracies, sees it’s role in the vision of creating a Free and Open Indo-Pacific that respects the rule of law and shared prosperity.

Being involved in the America Japan Society, likewise, has shown me the role America has in cooperating with countries like Japan towards this Pacific vision, and towards the greater benefit of humanity. Ambassador Fujisaki’s emphasis on empowering the younger generation to take up the mantle of global challenges has inspired me – beyond any academic coursework before it -to give myself to public service, and to build bridges between societies with the hope of gaining greater mutual understanding. During a quintessentially American pickup baseball game in my Yahiro neighborhood it occurred to me that, despite our cultural and linguistic differences, our innate humanity shines through.

For me, Japan has been a story of many faces—from my fellow policy researchers at the Nakasone Peace Institute, to a Foreign Area Officer I met at the US Embassy Tokyo, to a pair of English teachers I met in rural Minakami in Gunma prefecture. Each face carries with it a story about life and culture in Japan and conveys more content than can be absorbed from any book about this beautiful East Asian society. I now know what it means for the Japanese to see time together as not a waste, but an investment, and through my time interacting with this collage of kind faces I have come to a greater understanding of the true meaning of life.

by Harrison Nugent on February 20, 2022