Plotting a Return to Japan

October 18, 2013


It’s no secret Japan has weighed heavily on my mind since I left in 2008. I had a good setup there:

– A brand-new apartment in a quiet area with a heated toilet seat. In the mornings I could run to a park overlooking Kinko Bay and see Sakurajima smoking in the distance.
– My job, though not challenging in the least, was with a stable Japanese company and employed good people. My income was exceptionally high when compared with that of the average ALT.
– In Kagoshima, I was well positioned to see sights most visitors had never heard of: climbing Kaimondake, visiting Tanegashima and Yakushima, cycling to Cape Sata.

So why did I leave? I was just starting my journey. I was fresh out of university when I applied to AEON, and Japan was all I knew of the working world. I was having an incredible adventure, but even in the midst of my happiness, there was a sense of emptiness, and I knew where it came from.

“…polite Japan is no match for Thailand when it comes to gentleness. The politeness is there, but at critical moments Japan’s fatal flaw, rigidity, spoils the effect. A flexible and ad hoc approach to life gives the Thais the extra wit and endurance to remain unfailingly pleasant, even in painful or unhappy circumstances. It’s a huge achievement for there simply is no other country that manages it.”
– Bangkok Found, Alex Kerr

Japan wasn’t the world. I had originally flown into Osaka thinking I would stay and continue on to the rest of Asia, but all of my vacations were spent domestically, on the Sapporo Snow Festival, southern islands of Kagoshima Prefecture, and chasing the cherry blossoms across Kansai. If I were to become a true traveler, I would have to abandon the comfort of Japan and start exploring. To see if there was a place that would suit me better.

Do I regret leaving? Not in the least. I’ve learned more in the past five years than I did during my time in Japan, and lived in several different countries. To be honest, I’m not sure if I should keep exploring, keep looking for that perfect match. But I can say for certain: Japan is the closest I’ve come so far.

As Alex Kerr points out, the rigidity and rules in Japan can drive many an expat insane. Living there is like inhabiting the mind of someone with OCD; everything has it’s place, and chaos can erupt if one dares to break the mold. However, for the same reason, things work. Safety is paramount, and never in question. Transportation is reliable and efficient. Food is healthy and delicious. Japanese people have a work hard, play hard mentality to which foreigners easily take (often not accepting the “work hard” aspect). The rigidity, while unfortunate, is a necessary part of this balance.

I’ve considered the pros and cons of returning for quite a few years. Thailand, while interesting, isn’t the best match for me. New Zealand isn’t foreign enough. China is dirty and polluted. Peru wouldn’t allow me to make a living teaching (or doing anything else, for that matter). The US is home, and always will be.

The problem I have to face now is how I will plot my return to Nippon, and whether I can settle there for more than a year on my own. I haven’t ruled out saving up from a job I’ll have in the US next year, staying in Japan for several months just living and working on my book, and coming back… to something. But I also realize I want to be in a position to take more control of my destiny. And my destiny likes being abroad, but also having a place to call home, with a comfortable bed and a nice bottle of wine… or sake, as the case may be.

To that end, I will be exploring the possibility of setting up a business in Japan in 2015 with my savings. It’s time I took a risk on something other than hopping the next border.

One Response to Plotting a Return to Japan

  1. Tanya on November 2, 2013 at 10:37 am

    ‘I was having an incredible adventure, but even in the midst of my happiness, there was a sense of emptiness, and I knew where it came from.’

    I relate to your feelings. I came back to the UK in April from Japan. Initially I enjoyed the novelty of expressing how I felt and understanding everything, but I began to miss Japan. This is a normal reaction, but recently I’ve been thinking of how i would go about living in Japan again and whether I could manage it better.

    The problem I had with ELT teaching was that whilst you could pour all your energy into it there isn’t a progression. However creative you are in setting yourself goals outside of teaching, after a few months that feeling of emptiness/ lack of challenge niggles at you. The only option in Japan is to teach at university. This will take years of doing a masters and also learning Japanese to fluency standard.

    Japan is a haven for foreign guys. They have Japanese girls fawning over them. This is not the case for foreign girls. I didn’t mind this because I was content doing my own thing. It was just an observation. In the long term, it could be difficult.

    Going to Japan with specific goals is great. If it is just to learn Japanese fluently, it might not be enough. You say you want control of your destiny. In Japan, after the initial euphoria of being back, you might find that your levels of control start to disappear. One must forget their culture, adapt and be ok with all the things that are non sensical to a westerner. If you want to go to experience the same feelings, a holiday is probably better.

    I know how you feel though. I ask myself if I could realistically stay for 2 years or more, but as you say in another post, it does feel like you are putting off real life. There are so many 21 year olds, guys with Japanese girlfriends, people who are just passing through that you have to really have a strong reason to go back again. Eventually most people go back home. The ones that stay usually have family. It makes me question all sorts of things such as would it be harder to come back again to the UK? Unless I want to teach, it would put me at a disadvantage. Also, finding like minded people/ foreigners is a challenge.

    I sound negative, there are of course many amazing experiences you could have if you go. The first time around was amazing. I also subscribe to the idea that if you are positive and look at life lightly, everything turns out well. There are so many questions in my mind right now. Thank you for succinctly vocalising thoughts that are shared by many repatriates.

    Thank you! ^ ^ And I hope that whatever your decision is, you will be happy!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to OAT

Created by Webfish.

Need Advice on Living Abroad?

Thinking of teaching English in Japan? Volunteering in Thailand? Backpacking around New Zealand? If you're looking for some insider tips on the places to go and the people to meet, check out my consulting services. If you just have a few questions, no worries: email me.