Photo: Lost in Translation, © Focus Features

Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt

A few years ago, as I was teaching students, who were mainly from European countries about Japanese culture and philosophy and, I came across two unsettling realisations, that I was old, and did not really know anything about Japan.

Let me explain. I was teaching foreign students about Otaku culture. I begin this lecture by asking, ‘What was your first exposure to Japan, what film or book introduced you to Japan?’ Most students answer ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Ghost in Shell’. After that, It is an easy path to start a discussion about Hatsune Miku and Hiroki Azuma, and the rest of Otaku culture. But not anymore, because for my students, their first exposure to Japan was no Miyazaki films or Kurasawa films, they were born much later. For them, the film was Lost in Translation.

On hearing this, I felt old. I used to lie in these lectures and say that my first exposure to Japan was ‘Akira’, a manga an anime set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. It wasn’t, my first experience of Japan was reading Zen no Kenkyu by Nishida Kitaro, he was writing in the early 1900’s so I felt he wasn’t relevant. For my students, the adventures of Bob and Charlotte was key to their introduction to Japan. I have always been a big fan of the film, and after I moved here, I watch it regularly. It is a wonderful love story that captures the isolation or alienation that many a foreigner feels on coming to Japan, whether It be for a couple of weeks or the rest of their life. But wait a minute, isolation and alienation? That’s why you came to Japan?

Do not mistake me, I love Lost in Translation, but other than making me feel old, my student’s observation prompted another thought in me, and that thought was this: Do we only see the Japan we expect to see?

I am very much an academic, I came here for Buddhism and for philosophy, and that does colour my image of Japan. The Japan I expect to see is one of temples and shrines, to appreciate the togetherness of all things. For my students though, they expect existential alienation, not just because of Lost in Translation, but because good friends told them Japan is a wonderful place, but you may feel isolated at times. And maybe they are right, but we also have to ask, at what point does what they have been told about Japan not just inform, but actually constitute your experience? They came here thinking that Japan would be isolating, maybe they were right, yet I am also troubled by Charlotte assertion:

Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun

How would you know, if you never came back?

Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. He runs the Japan and disability related website ‘The Limping Philosopher’ ( and you can find him on Twitter @Peckitt. Check out his ebooks on Amazon.

Have a Question? Ask us on Tabifolk

Skip to content