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Moto Ohtake was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1952. Only a twenty-five minute train ride from Tokyo, Moto experienced quite a modern upbringing, and was exposed early on to American culture. After receiving a BFA in Design from Nihon University, Moto’s mother encouraged him to study abroad in the U.S. for his Master’s degree. Arriving in San Francisco at the end of 1976, he moved into a studio apartment by himself. Unlike some Japanese students in the United States who tended to stick amongst themselves and quickly return home upon graduating, Moto immersed himself into American culture and acclimated quite easily. In the following years he received a BFA in Sculpture from the Academy of Art College as well as an MFA in Design a few years later from the San Francisco Art Institute. While he did not originally intend to stay in the U.S. permanently, he soon met a woman during his time in school and they eventually got married in 1982.
While he was studying at Nihon University, Moto did not search for a job to start once he graduated. Traditionally in Japan, the junior year of undergraduate study is spent job searching and securing a position that can begin as soon as one has graduated. For Moto, he put off finding a permanent career during this time, falling into the category of a “moratorium man” – a term his uncle (a psychologist) dubbed him. In the 1960s, psychologist Keigo Okonogi (1978) observed a social phenomenon in which young men who were typically expected to take on responsibilities in their young adult years chose to reject these commitments. Instead, they would delay career advancements and responsibilities until later in life. Fitting into this trend, Moto decided to put off committing to a career and instead went to the United States to continue his education.
Moto was one of 6,000 immigrants to enter the United States from Japan in 1976 (Census, 1977, p. 83). He came with a student visa, intending to only stay the duration of time it took to receive his degree. Unlike previous waves of immigration from Japan, he did not enter the U.S. under circumstances of labor or familial ties and his intention was not to reside in the United States permanently. The fact that his intention was not to become a citizen when he first arrived has influenced the way he has formed his identity as a permanent resident here. He does not feel fully American or fully Japanese. Rather, it seems to be an intricate relationship that has more to do with switching roles depending on the geographical place or social circumstances he finds himself to be in.
One of the stark differences he has noticed between the two cultures is language. Language is able to dictate culture, and the expressions in each reflect the mentality of those people. In Japan, the communicative style is intuitive and indirect (Clancy, 1986). A key part of being able to understand social situations, “reading the air” is a necessity that Moto says he was never able to master, especially after going back to visit. When speaking English in the United States, Moto says, the language is very straightforward and clear. There is no need to guess what people really mean. Today when Moto speaks Japanese with other native speakers, they will often notice that his tone and cadence is actually quite American.
Moto frequently returns to Japan, visiting his family every summer for weeks at a time. When talking about the life and identity he has maintained in his hometown, he compares himself to Urashima Toro, the fisher lad (Ozaki, 1908). In this children’s tale, Urashima leaves his fishing town to go into the sea with a turtle he rescues. After spending many years below water in a magical palace, he returns to his town to find he has grown too old to remember anyone. In today’s popular culture, it is used to describe someone who is unfamiliar with a formerly familiar surrounding. In this way, Moto began to feel disconnected from his life in Japan and the current events of his home country. By reading the Japanese news regularly he has established a way to stay updated with events so he does not feel so out of touch when he returns annually. He keeps his cultural connection with Japan through food, keeping rice as a staple in his diet and cooking at home for his family. He also loves to cheer on Japanese players and teams, and takes great pride when Japan wins (even if it’s against the United States).
When discussing American and Japanese cultures, Moto brings up an interesting realization he had some time after emigrating. He describes the interest and excitement he had for American culture while growing up in Japan, always looking forward to visiting the United States. Once he moved, he realized how little he knew about Japanese culture, and this motivated him to educate himself. It was not until this time that he grew to really appreciate and understand his own culture. He likens it to a Japanese saying about a lighthouse: the light shines out onto waters far away while the base of the lighthouse remains the darkest. In this way, people tend to focus on far away things, but not be aware of things that are right in front of them. In some ways, he says, moving might have helped him to realize how important it was to know about his own culture.
Overall, Moto is happy to call the United States his home. He considers himself very fortunate to be able to work in his field of study. He teaches furniture design at De Anza College and also works as an artist, with installations of his sculptures located throughout the Bay Area and internationally. He says, “I have two sons who have graduated from college and a great wife. What else can I possibly ask for?” Moto has built a happy and successful life in the United States while maintaining a piece of Japan in himself.
Abbey Beltram wrote this story as part of Professor Maggie Hunter’s Sociology of Immigration class at Mills College.
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