Japan: Year One

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The dust has settled. I no longer have the urge to drink constantly and copiously, to escape to the movie theater every night, to feel anything other than what I was within the confines of my apartment. The latest nadir of my time as an expat is in the rearview mirror; the isolation, loneliness, and depression receded back into the dark contours of my mind. For the moment at least, I’m even able to suppress the thought of the next low that will inevitably greet me in the weeks to come, months if I’m so lucky.

As I wind down my first year in Tokyo, I’ve tried to step out of my shoes a bit, take advantage of this moment of clarity, acceptance, resignation, whatever you want to call it. I’m going to be around for two more years. I wasn’t expecting it; I had all but checked out mentally around April or May. But then I got offered a career opportunity that’s promising enough (and the alternatives lacking enough) that I couldn’t pass up. So like I said, I’m trying to think objectively about things, to mine for some small nugget of truth about my year – and my difficulties – here.

How different (or better) would my life be if I weren’t in Japan, really?

That’s the question that’s plagued me the past few weeks. I figure it’s the key to my happiness, progress, hope, everything. It’s too easy to blame Japan for all the wrongs in my life, to view a move back to the States as some sort of elixir that restores balance to my world, gives it sunshine, rainbows, lollipops and everything else. But it’d be a lie, and I know it. So I needed to weigh the question. I didn’t want to regret my decision to stay before the extension had even taken effect*, didn’t want to already need a way out.

*e.g. Ryan Howard’s contract

Thing of it is, in a host of ways, my life really wouldn’t be all that different. Being a researcher in Japan is no different than it would be in the States, in Europe, Australia, or anywhere else. I’m in an office staring at a computer, reading sporadically, writing on rare occasions. I access primary and secondary documents online. Once in a blue moon, I’ll go out and attend a conference, interview a few people, look through some archival documents or whatnot. But mostly, it’s the office, and I’m killing time with email and the internet and other inconsequential shit.

I’ve met like-minded individuals in the field before, but what united us has never been the field itself. On the contrary, it’s everything else: passions outside research, apathy about the career track, frustrations with the environment, disdain of peers. That I didn’t connect with people at work this year is symptomatic of the professional satisfaction that eludes me, and not necessarily the independent nature of this particular position. Maybe it would have been nice to have regular events, talks or whatever. But the right kind of colleague has always been hard to find.

The reality is that the social side of things hasn’t been all that jarring. I’ve written previously that I had just a few friends the years I spent in Boston. I knew more people in Irvine undoubtedly, but most were on a superficial level. The formula’s similar in Tokyo. I met someone who became a constant companion. I have a regular coffee date with another friend, a monthly dinner with a buddy who travels here for work; I know both from other places. Beyond that, there’s a smattering of ultra-casual acquaintances, enough friendly faces to suffice – seemingly.

In other ways, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been more active on the social front than I would be in the States. I’ve met up with girls I was introduced to via OkCupid or international parties or bar conversations. I’ve attended random Meetup events and talked to a ton of strangers. Maybe that’s slowed down these past few months, but I can still contend that Japan hasn’t been especially isolating: I’m more prolific in terms of e-mail and Skype, I saw a ton of relatives in Hong Kong at Christmas, and my mom came to visit during cherry blossom season.

There are obvious positives as well. I’ve gotten to immerse myself here, travel all over the country, eat and drink to my heart’s content (diets excepting). I see something new just about everyday, and have visited places and attended events and just experienced things I’ll take with me the rest of my life. The thousands of pictures I’ve taken, the dozens I share here, don’t do it justice. And for all the bullshit I post, for all my wallowing in self-pity, the opportunity to live here and be paid for it is not something I’ve ever taken for granted.

So why does my life seem that much different (or worse) in Japan?

I rewatched Lost in Translation a few weeks ago. It didn’t do much for me when I saw it a decade ago, but it was different this time around. It resonated with me start to finish. It resonated with me so fucking much. The thing the movie captures – the thing that answers these questions – is the psychological effect of living here. I chatted with a couple of Swiss guys at a bar last week: they were just visiting, briefly. But unprompted, they talked about feeling so isolated here despite being surrounded by people. And that’s what it is.

I’ve mentioned it time and again, and I’ll continue to belabor the obvious, but Japan is foreign in a way that other countries are not. The nature of society, the emphasis on tradition, the complexity of language, the importance of appearance, the repression of emotion. That it is fully integrated into the global economy has had little effect on its immigration policies; and thus its culture remains generally untransformed. The plusses and minuses of this can be debated endlessly, but the result for me is an environment that oftentimes feels impenetrably foreign.*

*For instance, I’m currently apartment hunting, and one bonus of having an agent is that he knows the places willing to rent to foreigners.

The fundamental things in my life might be largely unchanged, but the fact that my environment is not has mattered in ways I never considered. I can’t exchange small talk with my neighbors, my landlady, my roommates. I can’t eavesdrop on conversations, exchange pleasantries with service staff. I can’t begin to express how deflating it is to know that I won’t interact with another human being at all most days, beyond two or three rudimentary words. And having that feeling somehow makes trying and failing to connect even worse, as though it’s harder with people who should understand but they don’t, not really.

The surrealism of my surroundings, furthermore, exacerbates how transient my life seems here. I have this constant feeling that my time in Tokyo is a respite from everything else, a vacation of sorts – like I’m in fucking Hawaii or something. See, I’m not going to stay here permanently. I’m not building a career here, nor am I marrying some Japanese girl and making a family or anything. It’s as though I’m putting everything on hold, and I’m preparing to go back to my real life at some point. And it’s hard to reconcile that with the fact that this IS my real life.

Maybe it’s just about time and progress then. About the fact that I’m still struggling to find fulfilment on personal, professional, and creative levels. Maybe my life wouldn’t be all that different anywhere else, only with this isolation, this independence, this feeling of stagnation, I have more time to think about it here, to dwell on it. Maybe then the little things that bother me about Japan pale in comparison to the bigger things that bother me about my own life. I don’t know. Regardless, I’m here. And I’m here for two more years. Japan doesn’t make things any easier. I just hope it’s not making things worse.

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