Stories from Life in Rural Southern Japan

This is the second in a three part series from Georgia Dorey, See the previous diary entry Learning the Art of Patience.

Georgia Dorey lived and worked in Japan for two years. Georgia is now based between London and New York and is a maker and lecturer with a specialist interest in Japanese cultural studies.

Story 2 – Focus

In Western culture, one of the first (dreaded) questions you are often asked upon meeting someone new is: ‘what do you do?’ We tend to use this as a tool by which to judge the new and unknown person standing before us, as a way to discern where they sit in comparison to you on the socioeconomic scale. In Japan, I quickly learnt that the go-to first meet question is often ‘what are your hobbies?’ The first time I was asked this I was not prepared. What were my hobbies? It had been a long time since someone had asked me such a question, and likely it was on a playground somewhere.

Stretching way back into the history of all the activities I have ever enjoyed participating in, I found myself listing off a whole bevvy of hobbies… hiking, swimming, surfing, skiing, horse riding, reading, photography, camping, running, writing, ballet, dogs, drawing, tea ceremony, cooking, gardening…

I was met with total astonishment, wow! You do all those things?! To which I confidently replied that yes I did indeed do all these things. At first, I felt rather accomplished, look at me doing all the things! I realised that perhaps I had been misunderstood when for the fifth or sixth Monday morning in a row, my co-worker asked me if I had been hiking over the weekend. On each of these occasions, my answer was no, I hadn’t. I found it odd that he assumed I went hiking every weekend. I had listed it in my menagerie of hobbies but I participated in the activity maybe once every couple of months, tops. I decided that the reason for this repetition was due to his limited range of conversation starters. However, when discussing this peculiar Monday morning interaction with a friend over lunch (this friend is a New Zealander who had lived in Japan a lot longer than me) she told me that the Japanese take hobbies very seriously. If you say your hobby is hiking, it’s likely you practice, train and participate in it at every moment of your free time, have all the gear and equipment and it’s possible that it forms a substantial part of your identity.

So with this in mind, I realised that I was in fact, a showoff. How could I possibly have so many hobbies? Sure I am interested in a variety of pursuits and practices, but of those, there are perhaps only two that I actively participate in on a regular basis. That evening I spent a long time thinking about how the culture that I had come from grants praise for the more accomplishments and interests that you have. Being able to say that you can ‘do’ many things is almost seen as a sign of accomplishment.
I could see that I had become so overwhelmed with wanting to do and try as many pursuits as possible, but had never properly invested time to understand or learn about any of them in depth.

When I started to focus in on the couple of hobbies that I was really passionate about, I became aware of how much scope to learn and improve there was. I had only been skimming the surface of understanding, I hadn’t realised how incredibly freeing and rewarding it can be to re-focus your energy onto only those things that truly capture your imagination and fulfil you.

From this point on whenever I asked others what their hobbies were, they would confidently reply with their one hobby answer, at which they were most likely an expert.

I believe there are two lessons to be learnt from this story:

1. We so often define ourselves by what we do to earn money that we neglect to give lip service to the things that fill our time outside of work. To ask about a person’s hobbies, or what they enjoy doing in their free time, is a more relevant and important way to understand who they really are, and to find new ways to form unexpected connections with them.

2. There is more to be gained from finding something you are passionate about and to understand, learn and experience as much as you possibly can about it, than just skimming the surface. Instead of spending so much time trying to participate in everything, I would encourage you to find what you are passionate about and jump in completely. Immerse yourself, nurture your interest and make it your mission to become a master at whatever it is that brings you satisfaction. It is not physically possible for us to experience everything, to attend all the parties, visit all the galleries, hike all the mountains and be part of all the groups. But by being specific about what it is that really enhances your experience of life, and investing time in these things, you will expand your understanding and yourself.