Girl From Honshu Island

Japanese artist Keito Yamaguchi found a new home away from home in St. Petersburg.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, Keito Yamaguchi moved to Russia’s northern capital to study at the Repin State Academy Institute. Here, she discusses cultural differences as well as shares her favorite spots in the city on the Neva River.

I studied at the arts university in my hometown of Sendai, where we were taught a bit of everything: design, painting, sculpture, ceramics. After graduation I didn’t know what to do with myself and had massive artist’s block – it was 2011, and soon afterward the earthquake and Fukushima disaster happened. The principal of the Repin Academy is friends with a Japanese envoy, and out of a desire to help, he started a program for Japanese students, who could apply and study for free here. Only I seized the opportunity, however, probably because very little is known about Russia in our country.

It was very hard for me at first: I didn’t know the language or the country’s art history. Russia and Japan are very different – like two worlds far apart. Russia is huge and there is a lot of land, which it seems sometimes that locals don’t appreciate. On the other hand, Russian people are open and sincere, while the Japanese have difficulty expressing feelings or telling the truth. I have been living here for almost five years now and sometimes feel a strange creature – not entirely Japanese and definitely not Russian.

I feel at home in St. Petersburg though. For a time I sang with a chorus here, and we performed Slavic folk songs and Orthodox canticles. My favorite place, however, is the museum of Soviet arcade machines: I am friends with its owner and often come here to work on my sketches or just hang out. And play games of course! I love the huge flea market at Udelnaya station, at which I often buy clothes or souvenirs for my friends back in Japan. Shopping there and in the city’s numerous secondhand stores helps me clear my head and get some rest from the studies that take up most of my time.