The Tokyo Olympics has been a steady topic of conversation in recent months. Although to hear Japanese folks tell it, they might as well be discussing a collective ice bath. Can’t we just put off this horrible thing a little longer? No? Mmmnn, could we at least make it less awful? Okay, how ’bout if nobody watches? And here we go . . . whew, glad that’s over. Now, why’d we do that again?
If nothing else, this year’s Olympics did a great job of reinforcing Japan’s longstanding image of foreigners as a bunch of wacky bastards who’ll never fit in here. Athletes and staff jumping on beds, openly consuming alcohol, intermingling between teams, being arrested for cocaine, and running off to go sight-seeing in the face of Tokyo’s highest-ever COVID-19 levels did little to improve Japan’s traditional perspective toward visitors from the outside world. Well, bring on the Paralympics.
Although the details are new, the problem is ancient. Long before the pandemic forced Japan into lockdown, the nation was struggling to accommodate the waves of foreigners washing up on its shores, who often stood out glaringly from the local population. In many countries, there’s debate about immigration, but also a template for it. In Japan, the belief is that “outsiders” could never grasp the singular way of thinking unique to those born on this archipelago. There’s “the Japanese” and then, well, everybody else. Schoolkids in the U.S. learn their country is “a melting pot,” an amalgamation of different races and cultures. As a teacher in Japan, I’m a daily witness to children being taught just the opposite. Japanese instructors emphasize the uniqueness of Japan—its kanji, kimono, karate, koi, kendo, karaoke, and cup noodle. And that’s just the K’s. Wait till you see the W’s.
The Japanese Identity
Japan doesn’t have a strong sense of religion. Instead, it’s a nation grounded in the unwavering belief that its language, bloodlines, and customs are found nowhere else. The national identity depends upon maintaining a clear boundary between “Japanese” and “foreign.” Never mind that chopsticks and ramen came from China, along with a reasonable percentage of the population and the entire backbone of the writing system. Landlords routinely deny apartments to “foreigners,” and it’s common to hear discussions on the nuances between “pure Japanese” and “hafu”—persons born with “mixed blood.” “Asian racism” has a wholly different meaning in Asia.
Yet, in modern-day Japan, the traditional culture is crumbling at the edges. Budget-conscious shoppers purchase cheap imported goods by the crateful through popular 100-yen shops. Wooden homes passed down through generations are increasingly surrounded on all sides by rapidly-constructed concrete apartment complexes. The fabled diet of centenarians is ignored by a younger generation stuffing its collective face full of steak and hamburgers, washed down with milk and coffee. While “cultural appropriation” has become an overseas buzz-phrase, Japan conducts white dress and tuxedo weddings held in mock chapels with foreigners hired to impersonate ministers. The Japanese language itself is filled with thousands of foreign loanwords, rendered into phonetic script. Nobody’s bothering to devise kanji for “French toast ” and “orange juice” at Japanese Denny’s.
Old Japan Versus New
The 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi depicts an aging chef and his sons getting up before dawn, shopping at the fish market, then laboring for hours to craft sea creatures into edible delicacies for a few fortunate customers. Set to stirring music, it presents an idealized and somewhat fictional portrait of a noble yet fading Japan. Basically, an American production that conveniently omits showing Japan as full of restaurant chains with sushi machines. Thousands upon thousands of plates go out daily atop conveyor belts for Japanese customers in Adidas and Columbia sportswear. Doing things the old way turns out to be neither cheap, efficient, nor particularly popular.
Japan has painted itself into a corner, between the forces of capitalism, a precipitously aging population, and a similarly anemic birthrate. Japanese kids don’t want to spend years washing rice, mastering tea ceremony subtleties, or inspecting cameras on the Canon assembly line; they aspire to become YouTubers, web designers, and e-sports athletes. In the struggle to maintain altitude in the international marketplace, Japan’s hurriedly jettisoning its trademark culture.
The Setting of The Rising Sun
Immigration has always been a thorny issue in Japan, although these days it’s unclear if immigrants are ruining the country, or saving it. With a decreasing population, one could argue the nation needs all the Mongolian and Russian sumo wrestlers it can pack onto the Yamanote Line. Japan either needs to rapidly manufacture an army of animatron priests for its Buddhist temples, or upskill some foreigners.
Immigration is no longer the biggest threat to Japanese culture; rather, the Japanese themselves are. Like its empty countryside homes, Japan’s being abandoned by a generation under the spell of Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix. Once the internet plugged the nation into the rest of the world, the eroding border between “Japanese” and “foreign” began collapsing altogether. For better or worse, Japan’s becoming like everywhere else.
To be a Japanese person in the 2020’s requires an astonishing level of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, there’s Italian-style pasta, but if it’s served in a hot dog bun then, hey, it’s magically Japanese. Japanese people now sport tattoos and blonde hair, but they also sit at low tables on tatami mats, if only after all the regular tables in the restaurant are taken. And of course, fans worship baseball as the de-facto national sport, although they still cheer in Japanese, in between mouthfuls of nachos and beer.
Even a casual observer can’t fail to be struck by the nation’s deep denial, where a dreamy Japanland of citizens espouses the virtues of its traditional culture while simultaneously slipping into Crocs for a shuffle down to 7-Eleven to grab a Chinese meat bun and a Coke. Even the notion of “Japanese” appearance is shifting. It’s becoming harder to ignore the foreign lineages of Japanese Olympic athletes, basketball stars, tennis stars, entertainers, singers, governor, and Miss Universe. Japan requires an ever-larger rug to keep sweeping all its exceptions under.
Foreigners Visiting Japan
Japan remains an interesting place, and well worth a post-pandemic trip. But foreign visitors should anticipate some culture shock—not from the fish markets, shrines, and Chinese tourists dressed as geisha, but from the sight of so many Baskin-Robins, KFCs, and Starbucks. For their part, Japanese folks aren’t wasting any tears mourning the loss of their mythologized, ancient culture; they’re too busy enjoying double-dip cones, buckets of wings, and oversized cappuccino. Whether you view internationalization as a plus or a minus, it’s made what was once foreign an inseparable part of the nation. So while it’s still common for “the Japanese” to maintain a line between themselves and “outsiders,” it’s increasingly difficult to avoid catching a glimpse in the mirror, to see how foreign they themselves have become, from the inside.
47 Replies to “Japan and What the Hell to do With Foreigners”
Great post sir. Been here 27 years and I still can’t figure out Japanese people and during my time here they have made no progress on the problem of reversing a rapidly shrinking population with new blood from abroad. People ask me what I like about Japan, hoping I will say the food or the kindness of the people and I always say ‘ the topography’.
Bought your book by the way. Fantastic read!!!
Topography—heh, that’s awesome! I’m gonna start using that.
Yeah, there’s a lot not to figure out. Looking back, it sure seems like the internet changed everything, with maps, translation, camera, and the ability to look up anything, all in your pocket. That, plus cheap air travel and Starbucks. Showa-era Japan went away too soon.
Thanks for buying the book, Michael, seriously. Really glad you enjoyed it.
Japanese LOVE the odd gaijin who has made a “success” of himself in the country. You must have seen them in the media more than once. It makes them feel so good about themselves. But the Japanese government would never allow and entire immigrant class to become successful because it would threaten the power structure. Can you imagine a major Japanese city going through a transition like what NYC did long, long ago as the immigrant class replaced the ruling WASP class?
“the problem of reversing a rapidly shrinking population”
I don’t see why a shrinking population should be seen as a problem. The Greens have been saying for decades that there are too many humans on the planet, and in the absense of culling, a managed population decline should be seen as something to extract opportunites from.
Europe losing a third of its population due to Black Death triggered a revolution in industrial and social development. When my great-grandmother died she had only one heir, resulting in the whole inheritance being passed on as a useful size to be useful for the next generation. When my grandmother died there were seven heirs squabbling over the estate, resulting in all of them getting almost nothing. With a reducing population there’s a greater share of the pie for everybody.
I’m far from an expert on this, but my understanding is that a rapidly declining population creates problems both in the workforce, and in maintaining a social security system.
With more people exiting the workforce than joining, industry can’t find enough workers to support existing production rates. Capitalism seems to function best with an expanding supply of workers and consumers. Contraction, not so much. For example, if your family of 7 ran a popular restaurant, and then 6 of them retired, you’d be left with one guy running the show. Better pray for robots. Of course, eventually the elderly will die off, so the customers will also decrease. Gonna be a fun restaurant with one server and one customer.
Plus as the older generation retires, they draw from the social security system at a rate greater than existing workers are contributing.
“Ballooning Social Security Costs
The government says that social security expenses, which is now 16% of national income, will rise to 30% by 2025. When combined with spending for other public services, the total burden will be equivalent to 60%. The figure today is 37%.”
Ultimately, population decrease may be a good thing, but in the short term, it’s going to cause a lot of pain.
To put this into perspective, I can showcase Germany which faces a similar problem with insufficient birth rates.
I have worked through some time ago, so my numbers might be a bit off.
Japan has a population that is 50% larger than Germany.
Germany is currently receiving a net immigration of around 250k people yearly.
Currently, around 49% of the population is at a productive age. If the current demographic trends continue, we would have only 37% of the population at a productive age in 2060. The population as a whole would also shrink from 83mil to around 70 mil.
Germany would actually need to get around 400k immigrants per year to keep it steady.
Proportionally then, Japan would need 600k net immigrants per year. How many do theu actually get? A bit over 100k.
If this doesn’t frighten you, then you have either given up on Japan already or didn’t let it sink in.
Well, I for one am fully terrified.
Karaoke and Baseball are Japanese traditions?
My understanding is that Karaoke originated in the US, and Baseball originated in the UK.
I read a story about the invention of the karaoke machine that stated it was first made in Japan. Of course, the story was in Japanese, so you never know.
As for baseball, it’s as Japanese as apple pie.
Baseball is just rounders for people who can’t hit the ball.
wellll, the word karaoke is Japanese as well, so maybe?
Japanese haven’t figured it out yet but those of us who spent many long years in the country before finally leaving see it clearly: Japan doesn’t have anything anybody wants anymore. They are still living off the fumes of the Bubble Jidai.
“anything anybody wants anymore.” Wow, that’s a lot of “any’s.” There’s nothing good here? For nobody? Never?
True, modern Japan is facing some challenges, but then, everywhere is. So okay, where is better? Cause I’m packed and ready to move there.
Don’t puts words in my mouth Seeroi. I didn’t say there is nothing good in Japan.
Fair point. Your words need no help from me.
Except you said exactly that, just in different words. You could rephrase it if you meant something different.
Great article. I lived in Japan for 22 years and just returned to the U.S. in 2020. I lived in Shibuya for 6 of those years and would always chuckle to myself looking at the frustrated western tourists struggling to find any kind of Japanese food beyond yoshinoya. There was a kaiten (rotating) sushi shop that always had a line a mile long outside, since it was the only “obvious” sushi restaurant near the center street of Shibuya. Of course, there are plenty of izakayas and Japanese restaurants in Shibuya, but they’re not always easy to find if you can’t read Japanese.
That being said, I think the Japanese soul is still alive and well. The food and clothes and sports are more superficial additions. Work for a standard Japanese company, and you’ll feel like you joined the Japanese army circa 1880.
On the immigration front, I’m fine with America being a melting pot, but something in me hopes that Japan takes a different path. Maybe I’m being selfish…
I also feel, somewhat selfishly, some hope that international tourism takes a long break from Japan. It was getting way overrun when I left.
Just my two cents.
Yeah, you and I are on the same page. I wish Japan could stay Japan, whatever fictional place I imagined that to be. And you’re right, many of these things are superficial, but I feel like they’re reflective of a deeper change within society. In just the past year, I’ve seen an amazing increase in tattoos, graffiti, colored hair, and people wearing running shoes. I almost never see a man in leather shoes or a woman in heels any more. Not that those are bad things (except for the graffiti), it’s just that they don’t seem like the Japan I knew. Well, everything changes—you lose some, you gain some. That’s progress and all.
Call it devil’s advocate, or just my shallow opinions. I think Japanese need to stop worrying about losing its identity by opening itself up to other cultures or ‘foreigners’. As in, as far as I know, there isn’t a single country that really lost its authenticity by opening up to the international community. Sure protection and preservation can be done to certain cultural assets or traditions, but as a whole, or rather, the ‘image of Japan’ isn’t concrete enough to be preserved? What do you think? Not in the sense that even if they try to keep Japan authenticity they will lose it anyway, but the fact that it isn’t something that can be lost anyway. A lot of European countries that had a lot of history didn’t get blend in when EU union was formed as well. Or maybe it’s the inability of adapting said Japanese subcultures/traditions/quirks into modern society?
My impression is that Japanese people are pretty insecure about their culture, because they know a lot of the images projected are merely a facade. Samurai, geisha, kimono, kendo, tea houses, and temples? They’re all about as authentic and relevant as a Renaissance Fair. Which isn’t to say Japan’s not a fine place; it is. But when people talk about “Japanese culture,” well in 2021, what is that? A vending machine on every corner? Green tea ice cream? Miles of housing projects along the canal? The Japanese identity is tied up with such modern realities, complicated by the fact that everyone’s still clamoring for the nation of their great-grandparents.
Spot on! There’s nothing authentic about a Renaissance Fair. All the characters are dressed as and acting out *MEDIEVAL* culture, not rennaisance culture.
Sorry for interrupting your conversation, but Japan did a very good job at losing itself around the Meiji period. There even was a big discussion about abandoning the Japanese language and adopting English instead.
We all know how far it went and how it ended during WW2.
So I’m sure Japanese people can try again and maybe be more successful this time.
Not that I want it.
Also bought your book. I’m a lurker on your blog and have visited japan often. You are always right on the nose with everything and your humor is the icing on the proverbial cake.
Thanks much for the kind words. I’m always glad to hear from people who’ve been reading for a while without commenting. And big thanks for buying the book!
Japan jettisoned a lot of its traditional culture in its haste to adopt whatever was in vogue in Europe and the US during the Meiji and post-war eras. Absorbing global trends and re-inventing what it means to be Japanese is a Japanese tradition. Not that the current situation isn’t alarming.
I don’t want Japan to stop being Japanese, whatever that means. It shouldn’t become completely McDonaldized or throw its doors wide open to mass immigration. But a solution needs to be found.
Go out of the big cities and you see half-ghost towns. No young people. Gaze at the picturesque rice fields. All the farmers are stooped-over elderly men and women. Who’s going to grow the food when they’re gone?
Stroll through town. A few mom-and-pop shops here and there. Usually empty, the elderly owner sitting inside, staring out the window. But there’s a conbini at every corner. Who doesn’t love the conbini? They’re now as Japanese and as integral a part of the landscape as Mt. Fuji.
Step into the conbini and you may see elderly men and women running the till, working alongside college kids or South Asian immigrant workers. Maybe they used to own a shop before. Now they can’t afford to retire.
Damn, that was well said.
To; Ken Seeroi,
I got your message on face book, Sorry as I cannot remember where I found you, at any rate I did request more info about Japan. Why you went back to the states I will never know. It is not the AMERICA that once was. I am from Reno Nevada, Raised on a Cattle Ranch there,.and now its all being destroyed, no more Ranches & no More Cattle. California is all but gone and is a communist state. I have been gone since 2011, and my daughter who is still there said IF I EVER came back I would not recognize it. While I was growing up in Reno I happen to find the Bushidokan Martial Arts Temple. I started attending at 11 years old, IT felt like Japan as soon as you walked onto the property, I LOVED the feeling there, WE were also hooked up with the Japanese Federation Association in San Francisco California & Mukoshi / Cherry Blossom Festival, I was dubed Sake Sama, and was put in control of the Sake at the festival, Everybody LOVED ME! I simple fell in LOVE with the event, and wished it would last forever. I soon become a second Degree Nidan in Jujutsu/Ken-jitsu at the dojo, and a confirmed Japanophile. My Place where I lived was all in Japanese Decoration / Furniture / Kitchen ware and food, You would never know a Gaijin lived there. Eventually I got my Disability and was able to get out of the States before it took a shit. My head Sensai just married a Filipina to be able to get out here shortly and come here to the Philippines. A step closer to Japan. My life here is 100% better than in the USA. While here I have been doing research into Japan and what is wrong. ANd I have discovered something that has probably happened almost everywhere. Rome / Spain / England ? and America are 100% Guilty of it, and I call it “Culture Rape”. Japans problems stems from the most destructive aspect of Japanese culture, the Complete dismantling of the Samurai Class and way of life. You see there is a Reason why things are the way they are. Because it WORKS and in that society keeps Balance and because of this complete shut down of the Samurai Class & Shogunate, basically you have Castrated the Men in that society. They tried to bring it back during WW2, but with Japans Defeat that all but sealed the deal. Japan then Became Modern, and it is like a Cancer eating away at their Culture until it is almost gone. The Japanese men are like SIMPS now, dating Hologram Cartoon female characters, some kill themselves, or juts sit and waste away. The Japanese Male has LOST their Identity, just as the Women have, for some weird reason the women there make more money than the Men. So it brings shame on the men, who either start drinking or using drugs heavily, or they hide in their Parents house and completely shit themselves off from the outside world.Most Japanese women act like western women and are NOT interested in a Husband as they make tons of money so they can go Rent a Man to fulfill their needs for a short time. Japanese culture is completely turned up side down. The only place that tries to maintain the old ways is the Yakuza. I have been told that they as well are starting to fall apart. New born Babies are dropping below where they should be to sustain a Society, and now Japan is being flooded by Koreans, and other Asian and Middle eastern nationalities that soon there my not be any REAL Japanese left. I am not sure of what is going on with the Japanese Colony in Sao Paulo Brazil. they say total population is around 22 million and 50% of that is Japanese ! IT may be the only Japanese left in the future, maybe the New JAPAN! It is a shame, as Japan has a Great History & Culture with the Greatest warriors to have ever existed. I love ancient Japan. Everyone should have left it alone , SO WE DREAM OF A JAPAN THAT IS BEAUTIFUL AND CULTURAL LIKE IN THE MOVIES, BUT WHEN WE GET THERE IT IS A DIFFERENT STORY, SO I ASKED ABOUT WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF RELOCATING TO JAPAN, BUT WHAT JAPAN, AS I DO NOT WANT A MODERN JAPAN, SO WHAT IS LEFT ?
Thanks for the comment, Rob. Just a few little things.
First, I’m still in Japan, and haven’t moved back to the U.S. Just wanted to clear that up.
Second, your comment would benefit from being a little more focused and a whole lot shorter. Please don’t rant. That’s my thing.
Finally, in response to your question, I hate to say it, but Japan doesn’t exist to fulfill our fantasies. You seem to have constructed a fictional Japan in your head. But it’s not like the movies, and never was. Japan’s a real place with some good and some bad. Wishing it were different won’t make it so.
Wow. Tell me you have mental issues without telling me you have mental issues. Yikes.
“California is all but gone and is a communist state.”
Stopped reading here. Also noticed all the caps lock at the end …
” California is all but gone and is a communist state.”
Hate to break it to you but the state that has a larger GDP than most countries and pays more in federal taxes than it gets in return isn’t anywhere near being “communist”.
The “communist” states that live off everyone else’s taxes are mostly in the south.
“Japan requires an ever-larger rug to keep sweeping all its exceptions under” really hits the nail on the head, if you’ll pardon the clash of metaphors .
But still… I mean, I share the eternal lament of the Western Japanophile who will never get over the fact that we were born too late to arrive on one of the black ships to see the pure Edo unsullied by our crass selves. But as someone who only gets to visit as opposed to living there, and maybe can see the contrast a little better, Japan still seems very Japan. Yes there are Starbucks, 7-Eleven etc, but one of the cliche culture shock amazements of the first time visitor is how different 7-Eleven is. How Japan localizes what it borrows is as interesting as anything else about the country – sometimes more interesting to me than samurai/geisha/blah blah blah.
But ok, I will admit that my reasoning may be warped by how much I despair that I can’t walk into a convenience store at home and buy an onigiri 🙂
I agree with you about how Japan localizes everything and that’s also what I like about it. I’m hoping to spend 5-6 weeks there next year in March. I was last there for a couple of weeks right before COVID.
I agree the localization is interesting. I mean, who doesn’t love matcha-flavored Kit Kat?
However, it’s not “Japan” that’s doing the localizing. It’s large, multinational corporations, like Nestle, 7-Eleven, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, Coca-Cola, etc. And the reason they do it is to sell the maximum number of products within a given market. I’m happy to benefit from it, but at the end of the day, it’s just marketing.
Best post in a while. Thanks Ken
Thanks for noticing. I worked on it for a really long time, and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
Ah yes, never heard someone trying to disparage Baseball as just Rounders before, even though the rules, equipment, and overall interest are different. Softball probably has more in common with Baseball than Rounders, but then again plenty of British talk about how they hate the use of the term “Soccer” even though the term originated in the UK.
Well, much like Soccer, Baseball has its roots in the UK but is now executed and appreciated at a higher level elsewhere…
Thanks for this post Ken. It’s one of the more general ones and as it’s really good I think you spent quite some time on it.
You say “Japan painted itself into a corner” and that has been my feeling as well when I lived there (2007-2012). It will also be true of someone that lived there 1980-1991 I think. And during the 70’s maybe as well?
I think it does not matter but staying there as long as you do might help to finally understand Japanese culture and society as a whole – which I personally think is impossible for a Western dude and as such we can enjoy a long time your insightful blog posts dealing with it, hah!
My plan is to move back from Europe to Japan when I retire and I’ll move to Ogasawara as there I can still say I’m in Tokyo and then die from my western habits of tabacco or alcohol or from a bad quake or just live longer due to the cuisine and snorkelling activity there. About time to blog then as well!
Thanks for the props.
You know, I think it’s quite possible for Western people to understand Japanese culture and society. If anything, it may be easier, since they have something to compare it with. That being said, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, regardless of whether one is born in Japan or not:
1. Don’t buy in to simple myths, like “Japan’s safe” or “Japanese people are polite.” That leads to confirmation bias. People say a lot of things about Japan, and most of it’s bullshit
2. Recognize that Japan’s a big place. Culture and behaviors vary depending on region, city/countryside, age, gender, level of education, and about a thousand other things
Of course, that doesn’t mean I have everything figured out. I mean, I lived in the U.S. for most of my life, and I can’t begin to understand what’s happening in that country. But the goal isn’t to have perfect understanding, but rather a general framework to make sense of why people do what they do.
It was a good (and sad) read, and I’ve noticed that too in my short time here. Fortunately, living in a farmland in Chiba-ken, I feel a lot of “traditional culture” energy most mornings on my 45-min walks to school, looking at the farm fields, the slow-moving elderly, and the occasional dilapidated shrine. It helps me stay balanced after the prior weekends of exploring the bright lights and conbinis of the big cities. 🙂
Ken, it’s only my 2nd comment, but I’ve been reading and enjoying everything you spew out! The only other time I commented was back in spring 2019 (the “Getting Japanese Permanent Residency” article, I think) when I told you I was moving to Japan to be an ALT, and you encouraged me to give occasional updates on how I like it. Uh…sorry about not getting back to you on that! D’oh! But you can take comfort in knowing that I’ve been enjoying my stay here in Chiba-ken so much!
After working in investment banking for 11.5 years, and now in my upper-30s, being a lowly…no…mighty ALT is the most fun I’ve ever had in life. I won’t be here in my 40s (so I say NOW), but until I leave Japan, I’m living the bright-eyed visitor’s dream.
I promise to comment more often. Thanks for your blogs, Ken!
Glad to hear from you again, and happy to hear it’s working out, despite the recent twist this world’s gotten its panties into. Like you, I came to Japan after a career in banking that included a private office, exceptionally good coffee, and hours of moving a mouse from left to right, then back again. And now I teach little kids how to march in a circle. Being an ALT: Great job or greatest job ever?
I think as long as you think of yourself a “visitor” you’ll enjoy Japan. Once you make it real and consider you might be doing this job for the rest of your life, things take on a little darker shade. I’m still trying to figure out if this is better than having a “real” job in the States. There are a lot of factors. To that point, what makes you determined to move back? I’d love to get your take on it.
I would also like your take on it, David. 🙂
Ken, so sorry for taking so long to reply! I’ll try to make my answer to your question worth the wait. If you even remember you asked me a question, that is.
The short answer is that I want to return to my parents someday. They are getting up there in years, so I want to be there for them when they need me. That, and also I simply had a pretty nice life in America. My apartment was pretty righteous, too. I would love to come back to it all again someday. I came here in 2019 with the intention of staying just a few years.
A more long-winded answer… (but honestly, you can just skip ahead to the last two paragraphs).
After my first visit to Japan (two weeks in 2015), I came away with the dream of wanting to live & work there (here) for the rest of my life. I had lovely experiences on that trip that deluded me into thinking that living in Japan would be just like that 2-week vacation. That’s something you’ve warned about many times, yes? It didn’t even matter to me what kind of work I’d do here. I figured I’d be happy with anything, just as long as it’s IN JAPAN! I told everybody and anybody about my new dream, and everyone outside of my family was happy for me.
Then I found your blog. You and the experienced commenters scared me with the harsh depiction of reality here. Living here would not be like that vacation I loved so much. I read every post, and though I was greatly entertained, I was depressed cuz that dream was no longer my dream anymore. Now what do I do? I did, however, recognize the good you were doing in that you weren’t telling people NOT to move over here, but just to be prepared for what we’re getting ourselves into. You and others suggested just coming here for a few years, then get out before things get stale. Right?
I figured that’s what I’d do…IF I even wanted to come anymore cuz that’s about when my life in the US started getting more fun (cuz I changed jobs that allowed me more free time). Your blog was primarily responsible for me delaying my move here by a couple years. Way to impact my life, Ken. I didn’t know whether to stay or go. I was indecisive for a couple years until I finally decided to apply to one more ALT job, then see what happens. I got the job, and I told everyone that as if it were bad news. They said, “You got the job? Great! Then why are you so sad?!”
I’ve rambled on too much, I realize now, but I’ve come this far, I might as well keep going. Ugh…
I had almost a year between accepting the job and moving to Japan. I could’ve just stayed in the US, but I knew I’d always wonder “What if?” if I didn’t make the move. And despite having almost a year to prepare, I didn’t start clearing out my US apartment until the weekend before I flew away. I didn’t have time to sleep that weekend, I procrastinated so badly.
But I planned to come for TWO years. ONE year seemed too short for all the sacrifices I made to get here. Then when I got here, I was miserable cuz I couldn’t mentally let go of the life I had in the US. And the small things like scary, confusing mail invading my mail slot every day, not knowing whether anything is an important bill, an advance notice of what will BECOME a bill, or an advertisement…all that didn’t help me settle in here either. I didn’t think I’d even last a year here.
Then I started taking walks, exploring my town, finding the conbinis, dollar stores, etc. And also the students, cheerfully welcoming me to school each morning. I started having fun! After a rough two months, I was enjoying life here. I said, “Ok, I can do two years.” Then Covid came. “Ok, give me a THIRD year here cuz 2020 sucked. Oh, but 2021 sucks too! I need a FOURTH! For the love of God, just let restaurants stay open past 8pm, and I’ll stop complaining!” Even if 2022 is still restricted, I’m going to live the hell out of it, traveling to the prefectures I hoped to during 2020-21. I sacrificed a lot to come here, only to live here in a pandemic. A selfish outlook, yes, but we’re all entitled to be a little bitter. At least I had a nice 2019.
In summary, I enjoy living in Japan and the ALT gig so much. Playing games with children and getting paid to do it, what a nice life. If it was necessary, I’d go back in time and tell my indecisive self, “Hey, life can be fun in Japan, too! Don’t let Ken scare you! GO!” There have been sad moments that come with living here, but nothing that bothered me much. Maybe cuz your prior warnings helped me not to be surprised by them. And I’m also too distracted by my many hobbies (toy collecting, studying kanji, exploring) that Japan allows me to enjoy. I think I could easily stay here several more years and be happy here, but I’ve always planned for this to be temporary. It’s as simple as that. I think that ‘short-term stay’ mindset is helpful in allowing me to enjoy living here more.
My god, the length of my comment…what have I done? And my eyes hurt. Hopefully I even answered your question cuz I forgot what it was. This might as well be a ‘guest post’ at this point. Call me “Chiba Dave” or something. In all seriousness, I’m always happy to discuss my limited experiences in Japan more. Hopefully, I learn how to reply sooner and type less.
Nice write-up, Chiba Dave. Sounds like the pandemic gave you a case of Japanus Interruptus. Hopefully, another year here will cure that.
I think a lot of people who move here feel the way you do. Japan’s a great place, as long as you regard yourself as a foreigner. Everybody else does, so there’s no mental conflict. It’s when you start wanting to be viewed and treated as an equal that things go off the rails. (Debito Arudou’s a shining example of this.) For me, the lack of social connection has become the major barrier to staying here long-term. It probably wouldn’t matter if I thought this was just a “short-term stay.” Not to mention worrying about retirement on an ALT salary…
Hey, keep the comments coming if you’ve got more to add—we’re about halfway there to a full-on guest post.
Oh man, all this is quality and would love an article from Chiba Dave, but yeah once I let go of the notion that I would ever be accepted as non-foreigner…Japan became a much more enjoyable place for the long term. You can absolutely find great friends and maybe family that will like you, love you, enjoy your company as you would back home…I mean it’s not like I feel super welcome in all parts of the US either, heh.
Great stuff as always. Found a small typo: “national identify”.
Greetings from Norway!
Heh, brilliant! I invented a new phrase! Now I’m gonna start using “national identify” every chance I get.
Thanks for pointing that out; I made the correction. Clearly, reading teeny-tiny kanji all day isn’t doing much for my eyesight.
Good luck with your reindeer.