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Why I’m Leaving Japan, Again

I slid my feet into the old leather shoes one last time. I knew I would have to get rid of them, because the right one had a little hole in its toe that let the rain in, and the soles were worn so thin that I could almost feel the pavement directly on my feet. But I had grown attached to those shoes. People often complimented me on their unique style, and the wear on the leather almost made them look better, as if they’d been made with an intentional “worn” look. They looked like they had been some places. They’d seen some things, man.

But what had they seen, really? I found myself thinking about it as I stepped outside in them, feeling the now familiar bit of leather insole curling up against my toes on the right side. I walked down the drab gray stairwell of my apartment building, onto the sidewalk past vending machines and convenience stores in the artificial glow of neon signs, and I thought, what have I done in these shoes?

oldshoes

I did some more interesting things in them in their earliest days, before I came back to Japan two years ago. Among some other things that shall not be mentioned here, I made my first real attempt to record my original songs, saw a flamenco show in Madrid, got fired from a job in Taiwan, and lived in Honolulu for 3 months. A lot of those things were impulsive and some were downright stupid, but at least they were interesting.

But after that? Oh, I did some things that were worthwhile, of course. I even did some things that were pretty cool. I taught an amazing bunch of kindergarteners who inspired me and made me laugh and gave me love and affection in the unconditional way only children can. I made a couple of good friends who I hope will remain friends for a long time. I took a trip to Germany to spend a few memorable days with the biggest group of language nerds I’ve ever seen. I worked hard studying German and became conversationally fluent. I got a little better at playing the guitar. And perhaps most bizarrely of all, I once spent an afternoon hanging out with owls in Tokyo.

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(In Japan, “owl cafes” are a thing. Seriously.)

And yet, as I walked the short distance to the supermarket in those old leather shoes on a dreary winter evening, I couldn’t help feeling like much of the time I’d spent in those shoes had been far too dull, far too unworthy of their stylish functionality now so sadly spent. It seemed a little ridiculous to be changing my mind yet again after having gone back and forth about it for so long, but now I was sure: I had to leave Japan. Again.

Despite my impulse to wander, Japan has long been the place I seem to keep coming back to. For a long time it was the place that felt like home, even more (actually much more) than my native country of the United States. In the United States I was raised like a typical American, and yet somehow I never felt like one. I felt fundamentally different from the people around me who seemed constantly bothered, almost offended even, by my quiet, reserved nature and lack of exaggeratedly expressed emotion. Americans seemed to think that if you weren’t smiling and talking all the time, there was something wrong with you. Since I had no other frame of reference, for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me. I seriously thought I had some sort of social disability. I had few friends in school, and mostly escaped from the reality around me by spending all my spare time drawing pictures, secretly writing songs I never shared with anyone, and studying foreign languages. I often fantasized about literally escaping to another place, but of course as a kid I had no way of doing that.

I began teaching myself Japanese when I was about 13, I think. At first it was just for fun and I didn’t take it seriously, but I quickly fell in love with the language and got it into my head that I wanted to move to Japan. I wasn’t sure why, but somehow I knew that was the place I wanted to escape to. So I kept studying all through high school and college, and when I eventually got the opportunity to actually visit Japan through an internship program at my college, I felt at home from the moment I set foot in the country. Every moment I spent there seemed to confirm this feeling, and before long I had an idea of the reason why: In Japan, quiet, introverted personalities are not considered “weird” at all, but are actually the norm. Typically noisy American tourists got disapproving looks from the locals, but I was graciously accepted as my normal quiet self. No one asked why I was so quiet or badgered me to smile more. Having stereotyped Americans as loud and extroverted, many Japanese people even expressed disbelief that I was actually American. They said things like, “But you act so Japanese!” Such comments made me feel oddly proud. After that brief first visit, I felt more sure than ever that Japan was my true home.

And every time I’ve returned to Japan, I’ve felt quite content to be here for a while. But yet some unstoppable force seems to prevent me from staying put. I think the force is a combination of wanderlust and disillusionment. At first it was mostly wanderlust, but every time it seems the scales tilt dangerously further in the direction of disillusionment, to the point that I now find myself afraid of turning into one of those Bitter Expats (™). You know, those miserable people who seem to spend all their spare time on Internet forums complaining about the backwardness of their adopted country.

japamericanThere are still many things I love about Japan. I love the Japanese attention to detail and sense of aesthetics, and how convenient it is to live here, and how safe it is, and how the Japanese show such enthusiastic appreciation for good food, and how polite and hospitable they are, and of course, how they know that there’s nothing wrong with being quiet and keeping to yourself. But the longer I’ve lived here, the clearer it’s become that there are also some things about Japanese culture I find very difficult to accept. I am very Japanese in some ways, but oddly enough, living in Japan has helped me to see all the ways in which I’m actually much more American than I thought.

For one thing, I cannot adopt the Japanese mindset when it comes to work. The cultural norm here is to prioritize the company you work for above all else, even your family (unless you’re a woman with children, in which case you are expected to be the main caregiver while your husband is the provider). Throughout the years I’ve lived here, I’ve watched my Japanese friends and colleagues working long hours and never taking their vacation days. Many of them basically have no lives outside their jobs. Some of them seem to be just fine with this, but others seem to be quite unhappy and do it anyway out of a sense of obligation. Perhaps because I’m a foreigner, I’ve been lucky not to have been put under the same kind of pressure as my Japanese friends, but even so I have always gotten the impression that my Japanese employers expected me to put the good of their company above my own personal well-being and happiness, and that is something I simply cannot do. I cannot, nor do I want to, shake the Western mindset that insists although work is important, there are some things that are more important. Besides, how can I put my best effort in at work if I don’t take care of myself first?

And although I appreciate the Japanese acceptance of introversion, there is another aspect to this that I’ve come to see I don’t like so much. There is a sense that you shouldn’t say certain things, that you should censor yourself. Everyone generally avoids bringing up anything critical or controversial for the sake of saving face, and if they absolutely must bring up a touchy subject, they do so in such an obscure, roundabout way that an uninitiated foreigner may have no idea what they’re trying to say at all. It takes time to master this Japanese art of saying things without really saying them, and even when you start to get the hang of it, you’re still left with the suffocating feeling that you can never really speak your mind. Although it is sometimes helpful to be able to approach things in the Japanese way and avoid speaking too directly to avoid conflict, much of the time I find this atmosphere stifling. And it’s not just me– I’ve even heard from some rather Westernized Japanese people that they prefer to speak English instead of Japanese because they find it too limiting having to say things in the roundabout Japanese way.

All this disillusionment with Japan has left me in somewhat of an identity crisis. I still don’t feel like an American, but now I don’t feel Japanese either. I can’t accept American culture’s pressure to act like a happy-go-lucky extrovert, and I can’t accept Japanese culture’s pressure to bite my tongue on issues that matter and sacrifice myself to my work. Both cultures have some aspects that I love and values that I share, but their respective problems have been enough to eventually drive me out of both countries. Of course, there’s also the fact that I’m just plain restless and want to explore other countries anyway. But now I find myself wondering: Will I ever be able to find a place that feels like home?

I used to think that eventually, I would have to find a place to “settle down”, someplace I would be happy to spend most of my time for the rest of my life. But now I’m not so sure. What if every place and every culture has some fatal flaw I will ultimately find unacceptable? What if my true home is actually in perpetual motion, staying just long enough in a place to absorb the best of it and moving on before the worst of it jades me? Am I destined to keep wandering around without end? Or could it be that just maybe my perfect place is out there somewhere, and I just haven’t found it yet?

Or maybe it isn’t actually about places at all. What if “home” is really a person? What if it’s really a feeling, or an experience? What if it’s an attitude? Is it possible to be so secure in yourself that you feel at home wherever you go?

I don’t know where or what or who home might be, but in any case it doesn’t seem like I’m going to find it here. Just two more weeks now, and I’m gone. It’s time to move on– but sadly, in a new pair of shoes.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Miguel Salhuana

    There are some things I didn´t like about the countries where I lived and others that I did like. I don´t think we have to belong to just one place. For all that I´ve read in your blog you are neither American nor Japanese but unique in your own way. like everyone else I suppose.
    Nice to hear from you after so long greetings from Peru!

    • I’m neither American nor Japanese, yet at the same time I’m both. But most of all I’m just me. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Scott

    No place nor person is a perfect match. Take comfort in two things: we (humans) have made a go of it all over the Earth for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’re all more alike than different. Let us know where (or with whom 🙂 you land.

    • We are definitely more alike than we tend to think! I may not necessarily “land” anywhere or with anyone and I’ve stopped thinking I need that to happen, though I’m open to the possibility. I’m just trying to find my own way, whether it fits into the mold of convention or not.

      • Scott

        It’s a good sign you’ve already recognized you don’t need to follow others’ milestones. Now you just need to figure out if you want to set up any yourself. In my experience, being “open to possibilities” is inefficient, at best.

        There is a interesting YouTube channel called Sailing La Vagabonde by a couple named Elayna and Riley. They’re Australians, met each other in Greece, and within a month, Riley asked Elayna to sail full-time with him. They’ve been on adventures ever since. I don’t think they know what life will be like a year from now, but they are enjoying the present. That’s the beauty of life–there is no set course; we can surrender to where the wind takes us. But we’re not all free spirits. Some of us are nesters. Some are careerists. Some are spirituals. And some are . . . less easily labeled.

      • Scott

        My apologies. Ignore my other response. I’ll leave it up for posterity, but I’ve now ready your old post “I’m Back”, and it’s plainly evident you’ve thought deeply and lucidly about life goals, making forward progress, comfort vs. excitement, etc.. Carry on, Jana Banana.

        • Well of course I’ve thought about those things… I mean, it’s my life. ^^;; How could I not think about it?

  • Philip Newton

    Come to Germany! You say you’re already conversationally fluent, and we’re generally not that extroverted 🙂

    It does sound a bit as if perhaps your “forever home” is not necessarily a place, but more of a state.

    Aside, I like the look of those shoes. (And you’re pretty, too!)

    • Germany does seem pretty cool! I will be in Berlin for the conference in May, at least! 🙂

      Yup, I’ve definitely had to let go of the idea that home has to be a specific place.

      I know, right? I loved those shoes! I’ll have to see if I can find a similar pair.

      • Philip Newton

        I won’t be able to make it this year, unfortunately, but I wish you lots of fun in Berlin! I had a great time there and I’m sure it’ll be lovely again this year.

        • Oh, too bad! It would have been nice to see you again.

          • Philip Newton

            And you!

            The polyglot’s dilemma: so many language-related events, but time and money won’t let you attend them all every year, so I have to cycle a bit.

          • Indeed! It’s great there are so many events happening though!

  • Yuri Zhdanov

    Jana,

    have you ever considered giving Russia a try?
    Like, teaching here for a couple of months, and then deciding whether you’d like to stay for more?

    • I can’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. 🙂 I love the Russian language and people, and I have considered participating in some sort of program to spend a couple of months there. I’m not sure if staying longer would be practical though.

  • Joo Lee

    I am so happy to see a new blog post from you! And it says something about you that several people quickly commented despite your being absent from the blogosphere for so long. If I were a shrink, I would say that your sense of homelessness is compounded by the fact of you having lost faith in religion as a young adult. But that’s neither here nor there, as I know from my own experience that there’s no cure for this (love is a temporary salve, but for me at least it doesn’t last). So where to now? My one piece of (unsolicited and perhaps unwelcome) advice is to spend some time with your parents, as they have probably missed you dearly (Skype is not the same).

    • I’m not so sure if it has anything to do with having lost my religious faith… I mean, I always felt like I didn’t belong where I was even when I was religious. And I am actually going to spend some time with my parents– my first stop after Japan is the U.S. to visit family. 🙂

  • jason

    You are an excellent writer!! I have read other things that you have written, and they’re all very good. However, It’s obvious that you are EXTREMELY hard on yourself, and you feel shame about not having been able to connect with people easily in the past. You seem haunted by what you perceive as previous social rejections. GIRL, ya gotta let it all go!!! If you defined your ability at work based on your job in Taiwan, you would think that you’re just not a good worker. Right?? However, you were Wrong!! Your next job worked out extremely well. It’s the same way with the people that thought you were weird, or rejected you in the past. You just didn’t have the right kind of chemistry with them. You have to forgive the people who hurt you, forgive yourself, and move on to people that would absolutely fucking love you!!!! Language learning is awesome. Escapism is not. Sorry if i seemed to go Sigmund Freud on your ass, but you needed somebody to tell you this sh**. You’re waaay too pretty and talented to not have more confidence. It’s like a twilight zone episode. You just need to surround yourself with friends that know you and adore you. A person as mentally and physically gifted as you are should have no problem finding people like that in ANY COUNTRY, regardless of the self limiting lies that you have convinced yourself of. Anyhow, I love your blog. It’s refreshingly honest. Good luck to you!

    • Thank you very much for the compliment on my writing. 🙂 As for the rest of your comment, I know you wrote it with good intentions, but actually you are wrong. ^^; I don’t “feel shame about not having been able to connect with people easily in the past”. I’m not beating myself up or holding a grudge against anyone. And my adventures learning languages and moving around to different countries have nothing to do with “escapism”. I *did* struggle with some insecurity and social anxiety in the past, but I have since learned that there is nothing wrong with being who I am, and immersing myself in other cultures like that of Japan has played a huge role in helping me come to that realization. So, once again I know you had good intentions, but the pep talk was completely unnecessary.

  • Miguel

    Hi, I am leaving Japan in one month, I am happy and sad at the same time. What you wrote is very close to how I feel, I have experienced the same things and many other. I love Japan but I have to agree with you that it is sofocating many times. We are going to Mexico, ( I feel it is like going to the completely opposite place),….. And I know I will be back again and again and again to Japan, but when I come back, I will be doing the things I enjoy the most in Japan…… visiting places, people etc… and Work here is not one of them…. I usually think a mix of Japan and mexico could be a great mix… Well nice shoes by the way…

    • Hi Miguel, thanks for commenting, and sorry for my very late reply! I guess by now you have left Japan. I hope you’re happy with the way things are turning out for you. I also know I will keep going back to Japan, as it is definitely a part of me, but I don’t know if I could live there full time again. If nothing else, I know I definitely don’t want a job at a Japanese company, and as a foreigner having such a job is pretty much the only way I could stay in Japan, unless I married a Japanese person. If it weren’t for that, maybe I would stay there.

  • Paulo

    I feel exactly the same in the entire post! Expect ,i’m brazillian!

    I’m leaving Japan tomorrow and i’m feeling really happy but at the same time depressed…
    I’m also extrovert, i’m born in Brazil but never felt like native , never liked the culture/social aspect of it. When i came to Japan 3 years ago , it also felt like home!!!
    But i never really liked the work aspect of the japanese society and it’s something that drove me away from it.

    Man… i don’t how to feel… I don’t want to return to Brazil , but also can’t really see a future working in Japan because of the work culture here..

    Maybe in the future , buy a real state and build a holiday house would be good?
    I love to live in Japan , really feel like home , but can’t assimiliate with the work environment at all

    • Yeah, it seems a lot of people who live long-term in Japan as foreigners end up feeling the same way. For now I’ve found a sort of balance by returning regularly to Japan, but not living there permanently. Like you I also don’t really feel at home in my native country, so I’m sort of wandering around exploring for now, hoping eventually I’ll find someplace to settle down. I can’t tell you what you should do, but maybe you can find some sort of compromise. I hope you can work things out. 🙂

  • DB1

    My wife and I are currently in Japan on a break. We were in a bar with locals having a good time when two Americans walked in and completely obliterated the atmosphere with loud tales of Herculean drinking feats.

    It is a beautiful country with amazing people but their “work at all costs” attitude is way off the mark. Although it is an INTJ’s paradise 😂

    • Haha, I totally know what you mean about clueless Americans who have no idea how loud they are. Everyone is clearly annoyed but no one says anything… Pretty funny.

      And I completely agree with you, though I’m not entirely sure if it’s an INTJ’s paradise. I’m an INTP, which isn’t far off, and at first I thought it was great not being expected to be more extroverted. But then I realized being an introvert surrounded by introverts makes it doubly hard to make friends. :/

      I still love Japan and always will, but I don’t know if I’d want to live there again.

      • DB1

        How long did you live there for?

        • About five years. (Sorry for the ridiculously late reply, by the way!)

  • Shantanu Batta

    Hello Jana, I came across your blog when I was searching for the reason that why many foreigners and even some Japanese leave Japan and looked some videos also. The professional life or work culture part is a common reason for many people. If you don’t mind telling me then I just wanted to know that are you happy in USA now or have you given a second thought about moving back to Japan PERMANENTLY or is it the travelling nature of yours which makes you feel that your body is your home and travelling to different places is your way to live life? Even I find Japan very safe and clean and way much better than my country.
    I came this year to Japan on a student visa but am very depressed after learning about not able to get a very good job if one cannot pass N2 Level Japanese Language Test despite having skills and good academic score. So if you have any suggestions or advice on this issue then I will be very much thankful for your reply.

  • Rc Enhancer

    Great article! I quite relate to your experience. Especially when it comes of being lost between “Wandderlust” and “ Disillusionment”. I am also introverted but this aspect of my personality made it difficult for me to make close friends. I am like many other Japanese people but cant even speak the language so I basically alienated myself from everyone. One aspect I regretted is that I didnt give serious time to study Japanese before coming here…I was too excited about my adventure living and traveling around Japan. And when I actually came I enjoyed my first few months then basically became workaholic with my Master’s studies. I worked too hard thinking that this is the way to get respected but most importantly accepted…but it wasnt the case! In fact in my laboratory the more you achieve the more they give you things to make you even busier which was a total shock to me. I realized too late that I was simply been manipulated as “everyone else”. You do what you have to do, play your role to the best of your ability and even going beyond that, and still be expected to smile and say thank you to your senpais and senseis…after that journey I realized that my sacrifice was for other people’s interest which as a foreign student is quite damaging. Now am still struggling to find a job with days before graduation.

    However the thing that is keeping me going is not the culture nor the people but rather the country and its history. I really respect how the Japanese society evolved to be the way it is today. I really admire their discipline, dedication and sacrifice to a higher cause above their own self. I feel I would benefit extremely by joining the work force here…it is tough that is why it is worth it! Every person I met that lived quite a long time in japan has amazing stories to share! Thats why I look up to successful people here Japanese or foreigners and thats why I want to make it happen here.

    I dont think that you need to agree with everything in order to call a place home. It is more about how much you care and how much are you willing to give of yourself to the things you seek to accomplish or have.