Lindsay Arakawa (she/her) is a yonsei/gosei creator born in Hawaii, currently living in Tokyo, Japan. Since graduating from University of San Francisco’s Media Studies program, she’s worked for companies such as Refinery29, TABI LABO, Netflix, Instagram, and Girlboss. On the side, Lindsay creates digital illustrations over her own film photography, and sells her own prints and “Okay です” tote bags, which can be found on her Instagram (@blindsaay) and website.
I followed Lindsay while she was still working for Refinery29, in 2018. I saw this series of posts, and fell in love with her work. Lindsay has been an inspiration of mine since I stumbled across her content. I felt really inspired after seeing a Nikkei creative creating such powerful work at Refinery29, and shortly after I followed her, Lindsay moved to Japan and began documenting her journey. Since her move, she’s been working as a creative in a different country, became a dog mom, and grown alongside her art. I had the pleasure of speaking with Lindsay last month about her journey and life in Japan as a Nikkei content creator.
Yo!: How did you end up in Japan?
Linsday Arakawa: I'm coming up on my three year anniversary in October of living in Tokyo. Before I moved here, I always knew that I wanted a career outside of what Hawaii had to offer me because I really wanted to work in media. For college I moved to San Francisco, and when the right opportunity came up for me to work at Refinery29 I moved to New York and just really loved it. But ever since I graduated college, I've always been so career focused. From the time I graduated in 2012, it's always just been like, JOB, JOB, JOB, JOB, JOB, and trying to advance my career, which was fine for the time. But after a certain point of working so long in New York, I kind of was like, there's more to life than just being a cool career woman. I felt like I accomplished everything that I wanted to at a very young age, because my goals weren't that ambitious, and I was like, “What do I want to do next with my life?”
Growing up in Hawaii as a Japanese American, the culture of being Japanese was something that I was raised up with, and was constantly surrounded by. I've always gravitated towards the culture and I wanted to move [to Japan] to strengthen that bond and have a deeper understanding of why I am the way that I am. And my mom was like, “Yeah, you should move! You're single, you don't have any kids—go.” I was like, “Okay!” and that's how I got here.
Yo!: You've been doing an amazing job of documenting your language-learning experience and studying Japanese in Japan. How has it been learning the language as a working adult? Is it sustainable?
LA: When I was in first grade up until high school I was constantly in Japanese language school. In high school it was like the language that I chose to study, and when I went to college I minored in Japanese studies. I've always been around the language, and because of that I came here thinking that I knew the basics. But because I didn't grow up in a household where my parents spoke Japanese and my grandparents didn't even really speak Japanese, I just didn't have the necessary language skills to do daily tasks.. I couldn't even respond to a simple question like, “Do you want a plastic bag or a paper bag?” Unless you have daily practice and real-life settings, it is a very difficult transition. It was a huge wake up call for me when I first moved because I did think that it was going to be an easier transition than it was. It actually was really depressing for me when I first got here.
If I didn't meet Ray, my partner, I honestly think I would have left and I don't think I would still be living here. The way that I moved here— and there's obviously easier ways to do it—but I really wanted my own place. With that, you need to figure out how to set up your phone number, and how to turn on the water in your apartment, and all these like day-to-day things that you don't really think about. And because here in Japan, not a lot of people speak English, you have to be able to do all of that in Japanese, so it's a very defeating feeling. It was so soul crushing and because of that I did enroll in Japanese language classes here through a school called Coto. During that time I was also freelance, so I was able to do classes every morning for three hours Monday through Friday. That was a really good experience for me, but then when I started my full time job in November I just didn't have the energy because it does feel like you're doing two jobs at once.
It’s so difficult, and I was just really naive because I also thought as a social media strategist that strategy was the same everywhere, and I can just apply what I learned in New York here in Japan. But if you don't know how to communicate that in Japanese, it's hard to convince people that you are an expert or have experience in your field.. I was lucky enough to find situations where people did speak English, but it's just not the most common thing. I can't stress how important it is to be fluent and how much easier your life would be if you are able to hold yourself up in a daily conversation. I don't know how helpful that is, but it's just so difficult and that's the reality.
Yo!: How has building community been for you? Has that been very hard, or is it something that you're still working out?
LA: When I first moved here, I wanted to make friends with a lot of people who grew up here, but it's hard to do that if you don't obviously don't speak the language. I still am kind of in this phase where I'll hesitate to talk to my friends who are Japanese, because I just feel like I can't always get my point across. It's very hard for me because I love meeting new people and I love socializing, but I’m not able to show who I am with the Japanese skills that I have because all my sentences are very [much] like “I just have to get my point across without any personality.” It's very difficult.
Yo!: It’s nice that you found a way to stay and a reason to stay too!
LA: Definitely. The first year makes you take a look at—and this is going to sound so sappy—like who you are as a person because I remember when I first moved here, I was still so “New York” the whole time. Like, “I fucking hate Donald Trump. And everybody here needs to know where I stand with my politics.” And I remember one of the first nights I went out I met a bunch of these cool Japanese skater boys. And then I was like, “Oh, did you guys vote in the most recent election that just happened?” And they're like, “No, we don't really care.” And now that I look back on it, it now feels like an instance where I went into a situation assuming that someone my age would be more concerned about local politics , and in a way putting my American-ness on other people.
As you’re thrown into this new environment, you also need to learn about the culture and how people operate. You kind of need to relearn how to be an adult while also navigating a new home..., because it was my decision to move to Japan—nobody asked me to come here. I'm slowly learning that I need to be able to integrate in a way that's me still being me, but also being very respectful of my environment and the new community that I'm in. So it's been a big learning process.
Yo!: Do you ever feel pressure from the platform that you have to use your platform beyond just sharing your art?
LA: Sometimes yes, and it's probably just an internalized pressure that I put on myself because I have this platform that is built up from me doing this one specific thing, and I sometimes feel like I need to provide for the people who are following me. I don't know how to phrase this because I don't want to sound ungrateful , but I think from a somewhat vulnerable place , it can feel like a lot of pressure.
Yo!: Living in New York and working in a social media company must be super different from living in Japan. Is this change hard to navigate, especially when you don't want to make waves, or when you're new and don't really know what's going on?
LA: When I first moved to Tokyo , I freelanced for this website called TABI LABO. My coworkers at the time really encouraged me to write some articles about my experience of moving here as a Japanese American, and before I got started I wanted to be very conscious about how I presented myself because their audience is primarily local. So one of the first articles I wrote talked about the five things I noticed when I first moved here that kind of made me feel some type of way. And when creating the list, I tried to keep it as non-confrontational as possible and included things like “I get noticed more because I have tattoos on my arms,” “I dress differently,” “My makeup looks very different from your ‘typical’ Japanese girl,” and “The bacon here is different from American bacon.” Maybe the last thing I said was, “The conversations that I have with my peers aren't as politically-focused as the conversations I have with my friends in the states,” which is fine! But then when it was posted to their Facebook account, all these very angry people in the comments were like, “Well, if you don't like it here, then just go back.” That was kind of sad to see because I thought I was very careful and deliberate with my opinions and
Yo!: Did you experience any culture shock moving to any of the cities that you lived in?
LA: I moved from Hawaii to San Francisco because I knew I wanted to experience more and get off the island. I was just always surrounded by people who look like me, and Hawaii is also kind of a bubble. It has its own culture, its own food, its own like way of life that once you leave that bubble, you realize that the entire world isn't like that and doesn't talk the way that you do. Like not everybody speaks Hawaiian Pidgin [laughs]. When I moved to San Francisco, I knew that it was going to be a big change for me. I was introduced to this whole new way of living where I started to be categorized for who I was because of my race. Before even asking, people would put a label on me and call me Hawaiian, which really upset me because I’m not ethnically Hawaiian.
Maybe after Japan, [San Francisco] was the second hardest transition that I'd ever had to make because it made me question a lot of who I was. Growing up, I always was a little bit different. My friends in Hawaii would tease me for wearing high-waisted pants because everyone wore low-rise jeans or shorts. I would also wear Keds sneakers and then everyone would be like, “What the fuck are you wearing?” because everyone wore rubber slippers to school. Despite being called out regularly for my fashion choices, I felt really confident in who I was growing up in Hawaii. But then when I moved to the mainland, I found myself in many situations where I questioned things like, “Do I need to be acting and dressing more similarly to my white peers? Thoughts like “Maybe I need to buy a North Face jacket to fit in with the cool kids?” crossed my mind more than once.
Those years were really difficult for me because they were a huge chunk of insecure and anxious feelings while learning who I was outside of my Hawaii bubble. It wasn't until I moved to Oakland where I finally had time to separate myself from my college life, and I actually started a blog to get to know people in the local community called Growing East. I would go out to like different neighborhood businesses as an excuse to make friends and asked them if I could feature them on my so-called blog. That’s when I started to pick up the momentum of “This is who I am, I'm remembering again, and this is fun!” And when I moved to New York, it was just such a cool vibrant environment to be in because everybody who I worked with was so confident in who they were, and it made me really take take a step back and be like,” Okay, this is who I am, this is who I want to be. And this is how I'm gonna get there.”
But then now that I'm here [in Japan], I will occasionally start to feel those insecure feelings of “Who am I again?” But it’s been interesting to continue to discover who I am in the country where so many of the cultural practices and beliefs that are rooted in my family come from. I’m learning so much about myself, my past, my family’s culture, and I think that it has been a really amazing and eye-opening experience so far.
Yo!: As someone who feels very confident in their identity at this point in your life, is acceptance something that you’re still striving for? Or is this something that you acknowledge and are actively working against?
LA: When I first moved here, I definitely tried to conform. For the longest time now I've always had kind of crazy colored hair, and worn cat-winged eyeliner, and also dressed a very specific way where it just didn't look like the standard way many Japanese girls dressed here. At the beginning, I did feel this immense pressure to look like everybody around me because I wanted to feel accepted. I dyed my hair brown, shopped at Uniqlo, and ended up wearing some fugly clothes that didn’t feel like something I’d normally put on my body [laughs]. I mean, Uniqlo has nice clothes, but then I kind of changed a lot of how I looked and wanted to express myself, because I felt like I needed to.
When I first moved here, I got stared at on the train because I looked a little different and stood out. I don’t think most people are trying to be rude, I think instead they’re just trying to figure out your story and who you are. And especially because my partner and I are not white, I think people tend to get a little more confused—especially when we traveled to the countryside. And in the beginning those kinds of stares really bothered me, and I would point it out every time that it happened.
I did eventually come to a place now where I am pretty comfortable with how I dress myself and the makeup I wear, and basically how I present myself to Japanese society. But it did have to go through me trying to conform to get to this point. Something that I hear a lot in the expat or foreigner community is that you're never gonna actually 100% feel integrated into Japanese society because you just weren't born here. And I think that that's something that you just need to come to terms with pretty early on in order to be happy here. You are going to meet people who are going to accept you for who you are, and I think a lot of the younger generation are pretty open to diversity and having more complex conversations that are uncomfortable. That's been really nice too.
Yo!: But bringing it back to your digital identity—Have you felt like you've changed a little bit since becoming sort of a digital person. Do you feel like you've changed or how is your art and how has it affected your art too?
LA: Growing up, I never really felt very insecure about who I was growing up in Hawaii. And it wasn't until I was confronted with different environments from what I was used to, that's when I started to feel a little bit insecure. And I think with social media, there are goods and bads to having this kind of access to the world, essentially, from your phone. It has definitely taken a toll on my mental health, like it does for most people. But it has also introduced me to a lot of really cool friends who I would have never met otherwise. I don't know if it's necessarily changed me any differently than it would anyone else who uses it, just because it's such an integral part of life now. Sometimes I think about taking a step back, but then at the same time, I kind of feel like you can either adapt and learn to be okay with how things have changed, or just not be on the internet, which is also fine. But I like the internet! So I stay on the internet [laughs].
Yo!: Did you initially start wanting to post your art online? Or just like to share it with friends? Or how did that kind of come about?
LA: It really wasn't something where I was like, I'm gonna be an artist on the internet. It was just something that kind of happened. And I think because it got such a good response from the people who ended up finding it. I was like, oh, okay, you know, maybe I'm onto something here. And I'm really glad that it did work out the way that it did. I've always been in art classes my entire life, but never felt like I was good enough to take it seriously. I guess it kind of just worked out in a really nice way that I never expected it to.
Yo!: I'm glad that you shared it! It kind of turned into something different, right? Because you have your IGTV series, Ara-kaiwa now.
LA: When I was younger, I was like, “Mom, I'm gonna be the next Oprah.” And she was like, “No, you're not, you're Asian.” I guess that was the mindset back in the ‘90s, but that kind of stuck with me because at the time it crushed my dreams from an early age. [laughs] sorry to put you on blast, mom. So now that I have this following on Instagram, I'm gonna show my mom that she was wrong! [laughs] I love talking to and meeting interesting people, and then being able to introduce the people who follow me to that part of my world. At the moment, my IGTV series is a fun side project that I attempt to do in my spare time, but now I’ll occasionally feel pressure to get those done in a more timely manner... I promise I'm working on one that should come out soon.
Yo!: Do you have any advice for creatives and artists?
LA: My current advice is
“Don't feel like you need to perform for others. Just do whatever you want to do when you want to do it. “
I noticed that if I'm not feeling great about something I’ve made, then whatever I end up putting out there will feel pretty shitty and I end up deleting it anyway. I just feel like my art can sometimes be so reflective of my personal current state, so if I'm not proud of something and I post it on the internet, then it’s reflected in a way where I'm like, “Oh, this is so bad.” When it comes to creating, just like, listen to your heart. It's so important to do what you actually want to do, and not what you think other people want you to do.
Yo!: That can be really hard for a lot of artists to kind of internalize but it is true, right?
LA: Yeah, yeah, just know that you are your own worst enemy.
Yo!: If you could just give one piece of advice to anyone who's interested in moving to Japan, what would it be?
LA: My piece of advice is to realize that your world is going to be flippity flopped, upside fucking down. It's gonna be a fucking roller coaster ride. But if you're moving here, with the right intentions, and with the will to just get through all the bullshit to see the light at the end of the tunnel, because you know that you're going to have a better life here for yourself, then move. But if you're just moving here because you like cute things and you like Japanese girls? Don't come. You need to want to move here for the right reasons. It's the hardest thing I've ever done—it's the most expensive thing I've ever done—but it's been worth it. I love living here. It's so clean, I feel very safe, the food is delicious. And the community of friends who I have been able to surround myself with are amazing. It’s just going to be a lot of work, but it'll be worth it. Like most things.
You can find Lindsay on:
Why Is The Salaryman Carrying a Surfboard? By Ray Masaki
Thank you Lindsay! <3