"Honestly, I think the biggest reason why I stayed was because I have a good support system here. Over the years I made a ton of friends for life, even chosen family, so I feel very settled down in Japan." (Farrah, Episode 86)
"It all started with a breakup!" That's the unexpected answer I received when I asked this week's guest, Farrah Hasnain, about how she got started in academia. Farrah is a writer, researcher, and Japanese pro-wrestling fan from the Washington, D.C. area who's been living in Japan for almost eight years. She began her journey there as an English teacher in Hamamatsu, and she's currently living in Tokyo pursuing a master's degree in peace studies. I don't remember when or why I initially began following her on Twitter, but she came to my attention anew via her very outspoken tweets about the online bullying and other wrongful circumstances that led to the 2020 death of a young female pro-wrestler named Hana Kimura. I interviewed Farrah at the beginning of October 2021, and was thankfully able to hear directly from her about the research she's been doing on immigrant communities and multicultural identities in Japan. And of course, we talked about why Japanese pro-wrestling is so appealing to her as well.
Like many Americans who become interested in Japan from a young age (myself included), Farrah's fascination with the country began with anime. She watched 'Sailor Moon' as part of her Saturday morning cartoons as a child, but didn't find out about its country of origin or its original language until years later when she rented a 'Sailor Moon' DVD and heard its Japanese theme song. The affinity was instant ("Wow, this is a beautiful language. I'm obsessed with it. This is my life now!"), and even though studying Japanese at school wasn't an option in her not-so-well-off area of Northern Virginia, Farrah learned the language passively through Japanese music, film, and TV shows.
She finally got the chance to visit Japan for the first time at age 17, on a two-week trip that took her and a group of her high school classmates to Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, and Nara. Even though they went "only to the most touristy places" in each city they visited, the trip still blew Farrah's mind because it was her first chance to determine whether an obsession with Japanese pop culture would translate into her actually enjoying Japan as a country or even wanting to live there. As a first generation Pakistani-American with numerous relatives who have moved around a lot (including a paternal grandfather who was a third-culture kid and diplomat in Turkey), Farrah was already keenly aware that, "What you see on Flickr, or now Instagram, or somebody's J-vlog might not tell the whole story about what living somewhere else is like, because everyone has their own experience."
Witnessing other young American students interact clearly and easily with local people in Japanese during that trip confirmed for Farrah that she could do the same, and she finally began taking Japanese classes as an undergraduate student at George Washington University in D.C. She started out as a Japanese and engineering major and then later got burnt-out and switched to majoring solely in English, which is actually her second language. She grew up speaking Urdu at home, and as someone who successfully mastered English, she felt drawn to helping people with ESL as she got older. Meanwhile, Farrah's interest in Japan hadn't waned, and having already searched online for ways to live in Japan since middle school, she had her sights set on joining the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program after college. She was even set to study abroad in Japan, but the program was cancelled following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.
Still wanting to prove to herself that she could handle living in Asia, in 2013 Farrah went to China for five months, where she lived with a host family and did an English teaching internship through an organization called AIESEC. In addition to teaching English at her host father's workplace, she was also the live-in English teacher for her young host sister, splitting her time between the dad's home in a gated community in Zhuji (two hours from Shanghai) and the mom's home in Guangzhou. Farrah applied for the JET Program after returning to the States, and after graduating from GW she moved to Japan in August 2014 to teach at a high school in Hamamatsu. Or "Dramamatsu" as one of her colleagues jokingly called it, referring to the small town nature of the city's local rumor mill.
Hamamatsu is in Shizuoka Prefecture (which contains part of Mount Fuji within it), and Farrah believes JET placed her in that specific city because of her immigrant background and the ideas she expressed in her application. In her statement of purpose, she referenced being in China and seeing how much of a white, Hollywood-centric view Chinese people seemed to have of the U.S., to the point of not realizing that Farrah was American or understanding the notion of multicultural identity. As a JET, she wanted to represent a part of the U.S. that Japanese people couldn't easily interact with, as well as reassure those aspiring to learn English that, "You don't have to be white to learn English. You can be whoever you want to be, just be a good person."
A large and diverse immigrant population—including Peruvians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and especially Brazilians/Japanese Brazilians—is one of Hamamatsu's hallmarks, and as Farrah learned more about various immigrant communities there, she gradually became interested in doing academic research with a dual focus on education and ethnic minorities in Japan. A breakup with her "hot P.E. teacher" boyfriend led her to nurse her sorrows at a bar, where she happened to meet a professor who invited her to his upcoming thesis defense regarding international and cross-cultural couples. There and at the gathering over drinks afterward, Farrah met other academics from throughout Shizuoka, one of whom took her under their wing. What began as doing data collection for this other professor evolved into her networking and going on various university-funded trips to academic conferences. (To date, she's traveled to 40 of Japan's 47 prefectures by doing so.)
Realizing how much she enjoyed interviewing people and specifically doing ethnographic research on minority communities, Farrah believed it was time to pursue graduate degrees liker her colleagues had. She also began writing articles for the The Japan Times (after being scouted by one of its editors in fall 2018), which further solidified her desire to focus more of her efforts on writing and researching. After five wonderful years of teaching, she forwent a full-time job offer at her high school in favor of moving to a bigger city to jumpstart her new life as an academic. Farrah applied to the Rotary Peace Fellowship hoping to get funding for grad school but didn't make it to the final round of applicants, and after a brief bout of "funemployment" and relocating to Osaka for a teacher trainer position, she reapplied for the fellowship the following year and was accepted. In addition to fully funding their fellows' graduate study and providing a research stipend, the Rotary Peace Fellowship also places them at one of numerous selected universities around the world. Given the location-specific focus of Farrah's master's thesis, she was placed in the peace studies program at International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo and moved there in August 2020.
"Whose terms are you integrating for?"
Farrah's thesis examines Sansei Japanese Brazilian people—those who were born and raised in Japan, the now-adult children of Nikkei Japanese Brazilians who relocated from Brazil to Japan largely for industrial jobs—and the impact of the educational environments that their parents chose for them. She divulged to me with warmth and pride that she was heavily inspired by her mother, who led a multicultural household, didn't know English upon arriving in the States, and endured much hardship in acculturating into American society, "My mom is my thesis, basically."
When I asked Farrah about what ethnographic research is and how she approaches it, she described it as a branch of anthropology where, "You basically try to view the culture of the society or the experiences of someone from their perspective... My research involves a lot of listening and actively observing things and people." She collected her data over summer 2021, interviewing 20 participants in Shizuoka, Aichi, and Gunma Prefectures. And while her Japanese has progressed to be able to conduct these interviews on her own with no problem, many of the participants preferred speaking in their native Portuguese (their "heart language", as Farrah put it), so she hired a Portuguese interpreter to accompany her the entire time. Her findings thus far, in addition to her own personal experiences, have reinforced the idea that integration means different things for different people. "Does it mean you're completely conforming and assimilating into the host country and what the majority wants from you? Or are you living comfortably on your own terms? Like, whose terms are you integrating for?" Now in her second year of her master's program, she's concentrated on completing her thesis and looking for programs that can fully fund her PhD.
While the fellowship is enough to survive on, it's not enough for Farrah to experience Tokyo the way she wants. She needs "fun money"! As such, in addition to writing for The Japan Times she also does translation, works with a disaster relief organization, and is a classroom assistant at ICU. During her funemployment back in Hamamatsu, Farrah got exposed to pro-wrestling through watching Hana Kimura on the Japanese reality show 'Terrace House', and now she can take further advantage of living in Tokyo by attending wrestling matches. Luckily for her, she's in the company of a small yet mighty number of fellow fervent female fans, supporting such favorites as Kota Ibushi. Her last pre-pandemic international trip was to Taiwan and South Korea, and in the future she hopes to finally travel to Toyama Prefecture (to see the glow-in-the-dark "firefly squids"), Bali and Manila (the destinations she had planned just as the pandemic started), and all over the rest of the world. Especially, of course, to Brazil. Farrah can be found on Twitter (@farrahakase) and Instagram (@farrahakase).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Dramamatsu (HAMAMATSU/TOKYO)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!