Returning to Japan after a Decade

February 17, 2017

When I left Japan nine years ago, I thought it was the right decision. I had a decent job in a stable community, but I wasn’t really stretching myself: I spent my evenings hitting the gym, eating, watching satire news from the US, and passing out from exhaustion. My work days weren’t challenging either; my job as a proofreader had very little incentive for me to learn Japanese, and sitting at a desk for nine hours a day wasn’t inspiring me. Of course, I appreciated the fact I was in a beautiful area like Kagoshima – I literally woke up every morning and could see the sun rise over an active volcano, and my weekends were filled with trips to neighboring islands.


Through it all, though, there was no perspective. I enjoyed this life because I had never tried another. Coming to Japan almost straight out of university left me with no real world job experience. I knew what I had, but I also knew there were other possibilities worth exploring. Refusing to consider them would ultimately leave a bad taste in my mouth. How could I carve out the best life I was capable of living?

I tried. I honestly did. Volunteering in Thailand called me from my time in a sterile office, and soon I saw myself facing a dozen little kids, some of whom couldn’t even afford pencils. New Zealand gave me the opportunity for some quiet time, off the grid and alone with my thoughts in a Buddhist monastery. South Korea taught me I could find friends in even some of the most remote places on Earth if I was willing to look; I was happy there, despite being in a very small town with the Internet as often my sole source of entertainment.

For the last few years, I’ve been searching for stability. At first, I thought this meant accepting a “boring” position at a regular company and just becoming one of those people who sends out a group email to meet for drinks on Fridays and rants about the nature of our work. However, this proved very ineffective, because I discovered I could no longer relate to many Americans. I couldn’t understand why there were so many people out there who saw travel as this ethereal concept, as something to strive for, but not easily obtained. For me, travel will always be a necessity of life, not a distraction or escape.

And so I thought if I could find the right group of people to incorporate into my life – the friends most people in the world take for granted – it wouldn’t matter whether my job was terrible or my pay inconsequential, because I would have them for support. I would have a running buddy, a girlfriend, a lounge-around-all-day-and-watch-Netflix friend, and a party-it-up crazy person. You get the idea. This was easier said than done. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about friendships as you get older, it’s that they become infinitely more complex; people aren’t afraid of cutting boring or harmful friends out of their lives, no matter how long they’ve been a part of them. You have to work to schedule time together; it’s rarely spontaneous fun like you had when you were ten.

As it stands now, I realize neither of these approaches was good for me. I couldn’t reconcile not fulfilling my passions if the majority of my time was spent doing menial tasks simply to make money, and I couldn’t have decent friends or a significant other if I wasn’t the kind of person who pursued his dreams; people see that in others. No one is attracted to mediocrity.

I needed an opportunity to stretch myself but still have a stable income. A place where I would stand out enough to make it easier to make friends and have adventures.

Yes, Japan. The irony is just sickening. It didn’t quite take me a decade to come to this conclusion. I’ve been searching for ways to return for a few years now, but something has always held me back. I didn’t want to end up at a cookie-cutter private language school like AEON again, with fresh graduates raving about how awesome Japan is and how they were going to eat sushi and watch sumo every day. I wanted to be closer to Tokyo, where there were more opportunities for expats to socialize and get involved, whether it’s theater, protests, or just meeting and collaborating on something creative. On the other hand, I also didn’t want the chaos and anonymity of a big city. I wanted a place where I was free to run into the mountain if I so chose, and be recognized as part of the community.

I believe I’ve found that opportunity. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was pure luck that I happened upon the position in time. The previous teacher at this science-oriented high school had been there for nine years, and his replacement ended up taking another position at the last moment. Although they were looking for someone in-country, I threw my name into the running (because I have no problem with using points to book a flight).

There are still many hurdles to jump over, but for now, it’s looking good. I passed the initial and followup interviews, and sent in my paperwork for my Certificate of Eligibility (COE) to be processed. My flight is booked just in time for cherry blossom season, and the school seems to be stable and trustworthy.

I do still have concerns. This would be one more year “wasted”. It’s not as though I’m running away with this job, but the bulk of the work wouldn’t be building on any career. It may be harder to socialize. I wouldn’t be too far from Tokyo on the weekends, but this area isn’t exactly in the middle of all the excitement. My odds would go down for meeting friends and… more than friends. There will be a lack of variety, e.g. food. I’m sure Japan has more options in terms of imported food since I left and it’s not as though Japanese food isn’t delicious, but the variety of cuisines in America is beyond all belief, and addictive. I will learn the hard way about standing out in the crowd and the societal pressure surrounding it. Japan is 99% ethnically Japanese. This comes with a certain stigma every time a foreign-looking person steps out the door. It can be suffocating at times. Because I’ll have a set schedule, I won’t have as much freedom to take a day off, work from bed, or pursue other kinds of work.

However, I found that after I sent the email confirming my interest I was excited to be returning. I have looked for a few ways to go back for some time, with my criteria being close to Tokyo yet still in the suburbs with a lower cost of living and room to run and get in shape. Now that I’m better about finding a balance between work and life, I would like to dedicate more time to finishing my travel memoirs. I’ll have a healthier diet; I’d have to try really hard to gain weight in Japan. I’d have access to a modern gym, track, and running trails. A steady paycheck does take the pressure off. When walking out the door is a challenge, your mind is more active, working to solve these problems. Having a language thrown in is educational and productive. I’ve been in touch with many people since leaving Japan, and it would be great to finally meet them in person.

I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was originally planning to fly into Hanoi to try a stint as a digital nomad for 3-6 months, and it’s not as though I’m doomed to renew my contract year after year. I can finally settle if Japan is where I want to be. No one can figure that out but me, but I’ve certainly considered it.

The area I’m considering is Sano, home to fresh strawberries, the Japan Cricket Association, premium outlet shopping, and close to Nikko. If all goes well, I should be reporting for duty in a black suit on April 3rd.

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