‘I've got two homes now, both New Zealand and Japan’: Corey Wallace on life in Yokohama

This article is the second part of a two-part series on two Kiwis –  Corey Wallace and Rob Thompson -  who live long term in Japan and work at universities there. Dr Corey Wallace is Associate Professor at Kanagawa University in Yokohama Japan, with expertise in Japanese foreign policy, East Asian military and security trends, and science and technology policy. He spoke to Dr Anita Perkins from his new home which he shares with his Japanese wife, Kaori, and their two sons, and which has a view of Mt Fuji.

You can read part one here, where Anita talked to Rob about his life in Hokkaido.

An unexpected journey from Christchurch to Japan

As a student at Canterbury University, Corey Wallace majored in Modern Chinese politics. He was initially intent on learning more Chinese language and doing his postgraduate studies in China. However, two factors led to a change in his projected journey. A friend convinced him how enjoyable the JET programme was, and, at that time, the Japanese yen had superior purchasing power to China. Corey came up with a plan, which ended up changing. “I thought, ‘okay, stay in Japan a year or two, save up some yen and then go to China that way. Travel around and experience and learn the language’…or so I thought. But life has a way of intervening and I ended up really liking Japan.”

Corey Wallace's planned path to do his post-graduate study in China was disrupted when a friend suggested he try the JET programme. Image: Supplied

Knowing only how to count in Japanese from childhood karate lessons Corey set off for three years of English teaching in Fukushima city. He found that his experience there helpfully dismantled some of the ideas he had previously held about Japanese culture. “Seeing it with your own eyes and seeing that people are not that sort of stereotype and are quite complex and different in their own ways was really helpful for me.”

From New Zealand, to Germany, to Kanagawa

During his time on the JET programme Corey met his wife, Kaori. They had their first son and moved back to New Zealand. While back in New Zealand Corey worked as a policy adviser at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology in Wellington. He completed a PhD in Auckland focusing on  the impact of generational change in Japan on foreign policy ideas and perceptions of war and peace, and what that might mean for Japan's future security policy.

After a period in which Corey was working as a Post Doctoral fellow in Berlin, during which time his second son was born, Corey and Kaori ultimately decided that Japan was the place they wanted to settle. Big factors in this decision were the career options and affordability of living costs there. Corey explains “My wife and two kids were comfortable in either New Zealand or Japan. It turned out that the opportunities for me as an academic were opening up in Japan.”

In recent years Japanese universities are opening up to more internationalisation to reflect the changes in society, such as more migrants. This means that more foreign academics are gaining tenured positions. Settling in Kanagawa felt like the right time and place to Corey:  “I really wanted to keep an academic focus to my long term future. So that job came up here in Kanagawa. I remember after many years traveling all around Japan saying I really wanted to live in Yokohama in the future. I  think I've manifested that into the universe, and it happened.”  

Yokohama in Kanagawa prefecture, where Corey and his family moved to. Image: Photo by Gianni Scognamiglio on Unsplash

Life at Kanagawa University

Corey’s current role as an Associate Professor at Kanagawa University has a high teaching load and involves teaching lessons in English to students who have English as a second language. He notes that over the last two decades, the knowledge that Japanese people have about New Zealand and Australia and the differences between the two countries has increased. “I teach a course about New Zealand and Australia’s politics and history and that’s been my most popular course by far.” In terms of his research, Corey is working towards publishing a book on Japanese national security. He also has another project looking into New Zealand and Australia’s changing strategic communications.

Corey loves being part of an international team of academics from English speaking backgrounds – Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK, Hawaii, Malaysia and Australia - who have the opportunity to influence the internationalisation of the university, and wider Japanese society. “It’s an opportunity to influence a Japanese institution that I don’t think we would have had, say 10 years ago”, Corey says. With half as many 18 year olds around now as there were in the 1990s, universities are vying for students. International students are sought after and general application processes are based on wider criteria than just high grades, such as showing international experience by being able to do a presentation in English.

Finding home in Japan and New Zealand

Corey says that over the last almost 20 years his experience of learning Japanese language and culture has had a profound impact on him. “You sort of notice over time that when you speak a different language with native speakers you start having a different personality. It’s a completely new experience having your brain rewired given I was a typical monolingual kiwi from Christchurch.” He remembers the exact moment he realised that Japan was home, as well as New Zealand. “I had just been on a fun but hectic trip to Hong Kong. I remember landing at Narita Airport feeling relieved and doing a bit of a sigh and going ‘okay, I'm home now.’ That was kind of a weird realization. I'm calling this place my home.”

Corey now feels equally comfortable in Japan and New Zealand. After many years of thinking about questions of identity, he feels settled “I got to a point after a few years where I was like, ‘You know what, it's okay just to be ‘Corey in Japan.’ You can speak the language and you know the cultural sort of nuances and all that stuff, but you don't have to completely fit in or ‘try to become Japanese’.”

Enjoying family life in Yokohama

“For me, Yokohama is the best of all worlds.” says Corey. He enjoys the conveniences of the city and being able to take his kids to do entertaining things that he never had as a kid, such as Disneyland or Ghibli Museum. Corey is also sports mad and lives near Zushi beach where the Olympic windsurfing was held, and where his son also windsurfs. Another perk of where they live is close access to other great spots: “Within an hour or two drive, there's a lot of variety of fun urban stuff, but also historical sites like Kamakura, nice nature, rural areas and tourist attractions. So yeah, we're not completely here by design. But as we've settled here, we've discovered more and more things and places to go.”

Kamakura in the Kanagawa prefecture is famous for its Buddhist zen temples and Shinto shrines. Photo by Ale Sansores on Unsplash

Looking to the future

Corey also thinks about the place he has chosen to settle in terms of what the future might hold for him and his family. “My sons will have a completely different experience than me being truly more bicultural, not just bilingual. I don't really know how they will manage that in years to come because that's not the experience I've had. I’m a kiwi first. I’ve had twenty something years of being one. And maybe at some point, I will have been in Japan longer than I ever was in New Zealand, but those formative years are pretty important.”

Corey Wallace is a graduate member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Leadership Network.

- Asia Media Centre