Best-Laid Plans

“If we pay attention to ourselves, we already know what we want. We just forget it because we’re so caught up with work or too stuck in our comfort zones. Growing up as a 6-year-old in Portugal, I knew I wanted to set foot in Japan after seeing images of Himeji and Todaiji from a book about temples and castles around the world. As years went by, I got comfortable and ‘happy’ only to realize it didn’t make sense anymore. Having a stable job and a house didn’t complete the picture. So I tried to get back on track with my Japan plan. In 2013 I came to visit Japan for the first time and train in karate, which I’ve been doing since I was 10. Then just to be sure I wasn’t romanticizing this country too much, I came back the second time in 2014 to test the waters in Osaka and Tokyo. That’s when I decided to move here. But I faced many obstacles, mainly with myself. The problem is we always try to come up with the perfect plan. I thought, ‘maybe this was too big a move’ or that ‘my Japanese had to reach a certain level first’. But life is about moving. You need to move for things to happen. Otherwise they won’t on their own. So I let go of my fears and anxiety—like quitting my job of six years—and took the plunge. Now I’m a freelance graphic designer and illustrator in Tokyo and I’m glad I made that big jump. Finally, everything makes sense.”

Marcelo in front of La Porte Aoyama

High-context culture

“I’m twice the outsider in Japan; I’m a freelancer and a ‘gaijin’ (foreigner). So I don’t exactly belong to the company I do projects with because of the contractual nature of my work. And on top of that, I’m not Japanese. And you know there’s a sense of hierarchy in Japanese culture. You feel this, for example, when eating at a restaurant. The boss or guest sits farthest from the door, while the secretary or most junior member is positioned closest to the exit, so they can easily order or ask for the bill. Having been a karate practitioner has helped me understand the culture of respecting older or higher-ranking members. I’ve lived with those tenets for 23 years. Although I know I’m never going to be Japanese, I want to make them feel that I’m with them; that I’m one with them. Here in Japan, you can be anything but you need to respect the space of others. I’m inclined to accept things and try to understand. Like how putting your hands in your pocket while talking to someone or with a client in a business setting is seen as rude. Rather than losing my mind over ‘why’, I try to see things their way. After all, it’s easier to adjust by keeping your hands out of your pocket anyway. It’s all about adapting, just like what a famous TV personality once said: ‘Be water, my friend.’”

(Maru is an “illustrator by nature, designer by passion.” For more on his work, visit

Bare Necessities

“People have this really fantasized and idealized image of Japan. Like `Japanese people are so quiet, educated and sophisticated.’ And that their traditional arts is considered top-of-the-world, thanks to great attention to detail in craftsmanship. Some of these perceptions are true, while some observations can be enhanced or even a bit exaggerated. Other views don’t really reflect that whole reality because when people think about Japan, they only think of Tokyo or Kyoto.

“The reality is that there’s so many types of Japanese people. If you go to Tokyo, it’s so clean, people are so respectful and everybody’s quiet. People have all this formality. But if you go to the countryside, it’s completely different.

In front of the entrance to Meiji Jingu in Harajuku

There, people are much more informal and they smoke everywhere. So you have this idea that the Japanese follow rules and this and that, which may be true for specific groups of people or regions but not necessarily for the whole nation. Japan is so big and if you go to Okinawa it’s another world.

“This is one focus of my research—people’s image of Japan or what foreigners think of this island nation and their culture and arts from a social point of view.”

(Born and bred in Lisbon, Portugal, Liliana moved to Brazil at the age of 22, and lived there for eight years before coming to Japan. Today, she’s doing her PhD research on Japanese culture and arts from a social point of view, under a scholarship program from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.)

Enjoying a walk in Yoyogi Park

Life in the countryside

“We live in a time where we don’t value enough our connection with natural things. And the only way we can keep living on Earth is if we protect nature and start valuing things that people make from it. Our planet isn’t big enough to sustain all the cities in the world. They’re too densely populated and just too big. It’s not humane; at least not at this scale

“That’s why even though I live in Tokyo, I often visit the countryside. Sometimes I don’t even need to go to the supermarket when I’m there because the neighbors bring things that they plant. So I’m more interested in this kind of life, in small communities.

“Before, when I was in São Paulo, I was working too much just to make rent every month in the central part of the city, which was absurd because I chose to live in the city for all the exciting things to do. But I couldn’t really enjoy myself so it was pointless.

“After 7 years in São Paulo, I moved to the countryside and spent a year in a ceramics town. I saw more of the same faces every week, every month. I met people so much more often there even though I had more friends in the city because everyone was so busy with work or had no money to go to restaurants.”

“To be fair, I also don’t want to idealize life in the countryside and life as, say, a farmer. I know it’s a hard life and people don’t make that much money and they spend the whole day toiling under the sun (or rain).”

Liliana studies foreigners who come to Japan to engage in pottery/ceramics. Her research takes her to various regions where she observes different cultures, while in search of crafts and people who “make stuff”.