Junko Yagasaki

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Through every twist and turn, live life to the full so you’ll feel happy about it later on!

Junko Yagasaki
Professor of Law

“My Attraction to Foreign Cultures”

 For some reason, I was attracted to foreign cultures and dreamed of studying abroad as early as grade school. I even spent my allowance on a subscription to my favorite magazine, a monthly called Study Abroad. My father was a geographer, but his research focused mainly on Japan. Considering I wasn’t raised in a particularly international home, it’s curious that I developed a penchant for faraway lands and customs. In the autumn of my final year in high school, I applied for a Grew Foundation scholarship that promised four years at an American university. I made it to the final interview but, unfortunately, finished a close runner-up to the recipient. My parents must have felt sorry for their discouraged daughter because they said if I applied for university in Japan and failed the entrance exam, they would send me to school overseas. Five months later, I passed the exam and the opportunity to spend four years abroad vanished. While attending university, though, I gained a place on a privately funded program for one year only. This was long before AlC and such institutions emerged to offer support for international students. I spent a full year making preparations on my own—selecting a university, taking the SAT and TOEFL tests, getting in touch with the university, and so on. At my parents’ request, I chose a destination safer than the United States. I went to McGill University, in Montreal, Canada. This was in 1976, before any travel guide hit the bookstore shelves. During the span of a year in Canada, I met only two Japanese. One was a graduate student, and the other a working adult.
 I had had brief encounters with foreign cultures before. But this was my first long-term stay abroad, and in a setting with practically no Japanese, too. I made some dear friends, and it raised a simple but big question in my mind. Why was it that people of different cultures could feel close on an emotion level, while people of the same culture might not feel close at all? Which is more significant, differences in culture or differences in personality? This would form the basis of my research thereafter. McGill also introduced me to the fascinating discipline of anthropology.
 At the time, I majored in English literature at the University of Tokyo. When I returned to Japan, I took my big question to a professor of psychology but couldn’t obtain a satisfactory answer. Drawing on my experience at McGill, I decided I wanted to explore the relationship between people and cultures. Later, through a series of twists and turns, I changed my major, enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Tsukuba, and conducted research into the United States through the field of cultural anthropology. My master’s thesis dealt with the identity of Jewish Americans, an interest I developed while studying abroad. I then followed the advice of my advisor, the late Professor Hiroshi Wagatsuma, and obtained a Fulbright grant through the graduate school at Hitotsubashi University to enter a doctoral program in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). This was my second long-term experience of a foreign culture. In the first year, I met my husband. Together we aspired to earn PhDs, him in mathematics and me in anthropology. My doctoral dissertation analyzed the experiences of foreign cultures in adulthood based on interviews with Americans on long-term stays in Japan.

“Balancing Work and Child-Rearing”

 After we obtained our PhDs at UCLA, I landed a job in Japan and my husband at a British university. We got married in the United Kingdom and immediately began to live apart. The separation continued even after my husband returned to Japan, as he took up a post at Hokkaido University. For me, this meant raising our newborn virtually as a single mother. It was an incredibly difficult time. True to form back then, my previous workplace was not very sympathetic to the plight of working women. It took all I had just to keep up with my work and domestic schedules. I lived a humdrum life day in and day out, at times feeling miserable because nothing I did seemed satisfactory. My husband flew in from Sapporo to Tokyo every other week and did his best to attend as many of our son’s school events as possible. Thankfully, he was good at taking care of household chores, too.
 The chance for my third long-term experience of a foreign culture came while I was still in effect a single mother. I undertook a research project in a rural town in Oregon and took my son along. This turned out to offer precious insight into American society through the world of children—an experience I couldn’t acquire as a student. Again, my husband flew from Japan to the United States every other month, even when he could stay for only a few days.
 Initially reluctant to take this trip to the US, my son adapted to American culture in no time. In fact, after we returned to Japan, he chose to keep up his schooling in English and is studying abroad as I write this. It occured to me recently that my son is living my unfulfilled childhood dream. He was thrown into a foreign culture at the age of nine and had his whole life turned around. Yet he managed to see the bright side of things, for which I am grateful. They say, “all’s well that ends well”, but I still look back and think that what I put him through was a huge gamble.

“Messages to Students and Young Researchers”

 It’s important to continue your studies or your job, even if you can’t give it your undivided attention. If you quit once, it will be difficult to pick up where you left off. I was lucky to have a partner who was not only good at housework but also didn’t mind doing it. My husband thought of doing household chores not as helping out but as fulfilling his share of our joint responsibility. This was an enormous help, especially at an emotional level.

“A Third Life”

 In youth I traveled a lot. Besides North America, I went to South America and Europe, and parts of Asia and Northern Africa. All of my experiences, both in Japan and abroad, serve as valuable references for my research on the relationship between people and cultures. The significance of culture to us humans is a complex subject that I will enjoy exploring even further from now on. With my son now independent, I have more time for myself than before. I see this moment as the beginning of my third life. I look forward to reflecting on my days at McGill and carrying on following my passion.
 Researcher, professor, mother, wife, and a daughter caring for aging parents—I have taken on quite a few roles in my life up to now. Perhaps each position I filled was incomplete and I am not much of a role model, but I have one piece of advice. Although many things in life don’t go as planned, embrace your fate and live life to the full so you’ll feel happy about it later on. An optimistic mindset will help you emotionally at every twist and turn. Before, I felt I was lost in my day-to-day tasks and rushing through life. On reflection, all of my experiences have become a part of my work in seeking to understand people and cultures. Life is one grand fieldwork project. Let’s carry on. Life goes on.