The natives are kind. That’s not the issue. Sure, it helps that I’ve been willing to initiate. And that they see me as a curiosity of sorts, someone who – as a non-Japanese Asian-American – looks like them but isn’t one of them. Whatever the rationale, I’ve been able to strike up countless conversations with strangers at bars, at restaurants, at parties. I’ve gone out with them for lunch, accompanied them sightseeing in the city, and in one instance even attended their chorus group performance. But they remain distant. We don’t hang out. We’ll exchange sporadic emails, or there might be a meet once every couple of months. We’re acquaintances, relatively poor ones at that. Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, the communication barriers impose a fundamental limit to our relationship anyway. My greatest value to them is as an English speaker.
The expats are around. That’s not the problem. In fact, I’ve put myself out there as much as I have at any point in my life. Through Meetup, I’ve drank with craft beer enthusiasts, chatted with people at a comedy show, even gone out for karaoke with strangers. I’ve hung out with plenty of people via OkCupid as well, for exploration, coffee, dates, whatever. But these too are fleeting. See, they’re 22-year-old English teachers, or they’re Westerners with a particular zest for Japanese culture, or they’ve been here forever and will be here forever. We spend our time almost exclusively talking about Japan: its nuances, its eccentricities, its flaws. After all, when it comes down to it, the fact that we’re both here is the only thing we have in common. My greatest value to them is as someone to commiserate with.
I’m generally a solitary person. But this past year has been a challenge even for me. I imagine some of my emotions are common among individuals living in any foreign land. It’s hard to prepare for the frustration that stems from the inability to communicate and understand and interact in any sort of natural fashion. It’s hard to anticipate the helplessness that accompanies feeling detached from the world in which you inhabit. Yet Japan is exceptionally difficult even by those measures. The size of Tokyo’s population exacerbates your lack of import. The uniqueness of its culture accentuates your foreignness. The worker ant nature of its society supports and legitimizes your loneliness. The result is an aggressive, hostile, ever-present isolation.
I’ve made one friend in Tokyo. The numbers have always been small; as I said, I’m a solitary person. I made four friends in two years living in Boston: two a year, neatly assigned, an outcome of the instability that characterizes academic life. It was tough to part ways then. But the impending departure of my friend here next month has hit me in a uniquely visceral way. It’s elicited intense – and unprecedented – feelings of fear and despair and panic and utter devastation: I’m an emo mess. Certainly, a lot of this has to do with the friendship itself, with my feelings for the individual. But it is not lost on me that our bond meant that much more precisely BECAUSE it was made here, in a place that has been so difficult, so seemingly bereft of human connection.
I’m here for two more years. On the good days, I will be able to see my time in Japan as an adventure that most people will never be fortunate enough to experience. On the good days, I will see the next job as a means with which I can propel my career, and perhaps finally find some semblance of professional fulfillment. On the good days, I will invest in studying the language, in learning more about the culture and the society. I will attend more social events, seek to expand my circles, become more active as a neighbor and resident. On the good days, I will take control of my time here, and try hard to reduce that detachment I feel from my surroundings. And I’ll persevere, because there is no alternative.
But right now, I can’t see those good days, and don’t know when or if they’ll come. Instead, I see myself in a city surrounded by well-meaning natives that I cannot communicate with, and friendly-enough expats that I cannot relate to. I’m in a place where everyone assumes I’m Japanese until I open my mouth (…and sometimes not even then), where I can’t even look as isolated as I feel. I’ve reached a stage in life where the obstacles to connecting with people – really fucking connecting – are immeasurable even without the simple reality that the pool of candidates here is smaller, thinner, and more dispersed. And now, worst of all, I’m about to lose my closest friend in the loneliest city in the world. I can’t remember when I’ve felt lower.