"My story of learning Ukrainian began when I was a child. I was born in a small town in western Japan. My dad worked as a geography teacher at school, and I loved reading his books about different countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1990s, the Japanese started writing about it and its former republics, including Ukraine. My dad had a book of about 30 pages - short facts about culture, tradition, language, history. Basic things. I wondered why I had never heard of such a great country, why I didn’t know about it. It is the largest country in Europe, and it was strange we had so little information about it. So I became interested and started searching the internet.
I was more and more interested in Ukraine. So I learned that there is a university in Tokyo where you can study information about Ukraine - Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. So I decided to try and join it. Ukrainian was not a specialty, but an optional class, once a week. My specialty was Russian, or more precisely, Russian-Eastern European studies. I studied Russian for two years, and then in the third year, I chose an optional class of Ukrainian language. But I understood that Russian dominates in the learning process, so I decided to stop studying it until I learned Ukrainian. I confused the vocabulary and grammar of these languages so I couldn’t speak properly. That’s why I deliberately preferred Ukrainian.
My family didn’t understand why I chose Ukraine or the Ukrainian language. For our small town, it was strange. But they are already used to such decisions because I make them all the time.
Why does he want to work as a photographer after graduating from university, where he studied Ukrainian or Russian? Why does he say that he wants to move to Ukraine and teach Japanese afterward? But this is him. He always does something like this, so let him do as he wants.
The general tendency of Japanese parents is that, for the most part, they do not interfere much in children's lives if they want to do generally acceptable things. They respect their decisions. So I felt pretty free.
Then I didn't find any work related to Ukraine because in those days, before the Orange Revolution, there was no demand for it in Japan. And I started working as a freelance photographer in Tokyo. I earned very little - I was an art photographer, and not everyone understood my works… In addition, my work period came at the time of the transition from film photography to digital. People stopped buying paper magazines, and publishing houses cut budgets…
It was challenging to live like that, first of all, because of low earnings. I had to do something to get noticed. Then I found an advertisement for a job as a Japanese language teacher at the University of Lviv. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to go there, live for at least a year, take photos, do a photo exhibition, collect a portfolio. To create a PR.
Lviv accepted me, and I moved to Ukraine. When I started living here, it was much more interesting than my humble life in Tokyo. Teaching Japanese also inspired me and added motivation.
A year later, I had many acquaintances and friends but realized that I had not achieved anything. My students began to study Japanese seriously, and I thought if I returned now, they would lose the opportunity to develop it further. Moreover, I was very interested in teaching. I stayed and lived in Lviv for five years. I continued to earn little and saw no prospects in teaching practice. Some people advised me to work at the Japanese Embassy in Ukraine, in Kyiv. I had to pass the exams, which I did. I graduated with a master's degree from the Faculty of International Relations in Lviv, and in 2014, during the Maidan, I moved to Kyiv. I was accepted as a political attaché at the embassy, where I have worked for four years.
I went to the Maidan several times. The embassy is located in Museum Lane parallel to Hrushevsky.
On my first working day, the embassy was evacuated from the lane because there was a buffer zone between the Berkut group and the protesters. So I started working in the "Ukraine" hotel room. At night I listened to the anthem of Ukraine from the window.
It's hard to say what I felt in those moments. There was definitely a commitment to this process because I was well aware of the political and social situation in Ukraine.
My job at the embassy was to gather information about events in or around the country and send it to Tokyo so that the Japanese government could make the right decisions. In the process, I met many people - activists, journalists, researchers, politicians. I heard that Ukrinform wants to start the Japanese version of the site. They were looking for a person who knows Japanese well and will be able to represent Ukraine at a high level. This work required not only knowing the language but also understanding the political situation in the country. It was difficult to advise anyone. So I thought that I would be able to work there after the end of my contract with the embassy. I have been working for Ukrinform for several years.
In Kyiv, I like Podil, but sometimes I feel like I'm lying about it to myself. It's really hard to say. For example, when I walk through Troieschyna, I think it is quite unique and interesting, even though compared to Podil, it is just a purely living area. For me, this is a sign of a big city - some incomprehensible constructions of houses or combinations of elements that create chaotic processes. And in Podil, it has been created for a long time, and there are just preserved historic buildings. It is good, but as in Lviv - the preservation of the former appearance of buildings does not reflect the current dynamics of the city.
I love Kyiv for the fact that there are well-preserved elements, organic and sometimes chaotic development - all this is Kyiv. Diversity of views among people, difficulty in reaching consensus. It's all a city, and I like it.
When I began to explore the Black Sea region, I delved into its history and was interested in the Crimean Tatar language and Crimea. I learned that there is a separate culture, language, history. I knew a little Turkish, so I wanted to compare, but there were no Crimean Tatar textbooks. I looked for them in Lviv bookstores and found only a primitive Russian-Crimean Tatar phrasebook. As a language teacher, I realized that if there are no materials for learning, this language will sooner or later die. So I started talking about this problem with experts and activists. They remembered me as a person who often asked about the Crimean Tatar language. A friend thought I really wanted to learn this language and advised me to take a free course near my apartment. So I decided to go.
When I started learning Crimean Tatar, I understood more deeply the problems of teaching this language, and I saw what exactly people could do to preserve and develop it. It motivated me to talk more often on this topic. I also attend Crimean Tatar events because I find them interesting. I translated a Japanese fairy tale into Crimean Tatar - it was homework in class. Now I can communicate in this language at a basic level. I visited Crimea only once, before 2010.
I traveled a lot in Ukraine. I wrote a book in Japanese, "Ukrainian fanbook" - for Japanese interested in this country. It was released two years ago and sold in Japan. It has a high score of 4.5. in Amazon.
Most often, I go to Lviv because I still have friends there. I still love the Kherson region, Henichesk - the nature there is unique and reminds me of Crimea. Salt lakes, white and pink, the beginning of the Crimea (from the mainland), the sea, strange landscapes… I just walked there and took pictures.
During my entire life in Ukraine, I have hardly encountered racism. The only incident happened in Lviv before the Maidan: drunken guys threw me a beer bottle and said Ukraine is for Ukrainians. But this was the only manifestation of aggression. As for unpleasant looks, I experience them less now. After the Maidan, it happened rarely. Compared, for example, with the Japanese living in western Europe, there are rare cases. You are tolerant, I would say. At least to us.
Here I miss Japanese food - some dishes are challenging to prepare due to the lack of ingredients. For example, soba - buckwheat noodles - I can’t find it here, only some kind of imitation. I like cabbage soup from Ukrainian cuisine, but not the one popular in most regions, but purely Galician western cabbage soup with clear broth. I also love borsch and banosh.
In Japanese, there is no abstract concept of "home" - this word means only the physical place where I live. The first time I heard a question about my home, I didn't understand what they meant. So I say that I feel my home is where I live now.
In Kyiv, I don't like that people often lack a long-term vision of what they want to do for the city. They often look for short-term profits or benefits only for themselves. I would like them to see the future of the town, to make sure that in many years their children, the next generation, will be happy. The main difference between the Japanese and the Ukrainians is that we are a bit calmer. Maybe because of history, I don't know why. We used to think long term: plan for 10-20-30-50. Here people plan for a maximum of five years ahead. Probably because the country is very young. Independence was restored only 30 years ago, and it is difficult to think long-term.
In the future, I plan to stay in Ukraine, if it is possible. I don’t want to obtain citizenship because dual citizenship is prohibited here, and Ukrainian citizenship means leaving Japan and claiming only a Ukrainian pension.
It's hard to say when I decided to stay here. Now I don’t think I will return to Japan. First of all, I don't have a career base there. My key experience is based on knowledge of Ukraine and the Ukrainian language. My skills and abilities are most useful here, not there. It is also more interesting to watch life here. The dynamics of change are much more active than in Japan. It is interesting to be in these changes, and I feel that I can be helpful in this process.
I'm good in Kyiv, where I have friends. Any place can be beautiful if you can find your people there. Sometimes I like to have guests, and I cook for them. I think it can be good anywhere, but the fact that my friends and I have a common understanding of what is happening in Ukraine and the world - gives us a common background. We share views and opinions, go to restaurants, eat well - all this makes me happy.”
The material was created by:
Tonya Smyrnova, Khrystyna Kulakovska