After Years Of Dreading My Life in Japan, I Finally Left. But Now I Wonder If I Made The Right Choice

You can take the foreigner out of Japan, but … Lessons learned from leaving

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I was never supposed to stay in Japan for eight years, and now that I’ve left, it’s hard to avoid wondering if I’ve made the right choice. After an enormously drawn out exit, accompanied and fueled by existential dread, I have finally left Japan and moved to Canada. But while Japan was often blamed as the source of all my problems in life, leaving has proven to be a version of life problems whack-a-mole.

Towards the end of my time in Tokyo, my dislike for my life there had become extreme. I kept making allusions to movies to distract myself. On some particularly lonely evenings, it felt like I was Wall-e in a modern wasteland, sat in my room watching the history of art and entertainment but totally detached. When I met younger, enthusiastic new arrivals to Japan, I saw myself as the stock character in a horror movie who meets the youngsters before they enter the woods but chooses not to let them know of the horrors awaiting them there. And then I saw myself in a prison drama and dreamed the moment I left Japan would be like the end of The Shawshank Redemption while thinking my choice to stay would be like living out the ending of The Wicker Man.

No, I didn’t think I’d be burned alive exactly, but even after eight years, I did feel like there was something cult-like about the Japanese. I felt convinced that all my friends and acquaintances were selective about what they chose to reveal to me about their lives in a way that always felt mysterious and sometimes even creepy — like, what are they hiding? And why? I mean, it can’t be because I can’t speak the language and am stubbornly refusing to adhere to any of their customs, so what the hell is up with these people? It was certainly frustrating. Yet there were only so many times I could sing Limp Bizkit, Slipknot and Nirvana songs with completely earnest angst in Karaoke before I realized that, maybe, I needed to make some changes in my life.

“I’d been so used to being the all-knowing foreigner

Leaving Tokyo ends the daydream and starts the nightmare of reality. All of a sudden, conversations with people are not met with the beaming smiles and “ehh’s” of amazement at simple statements of fact that aren’t even opinions or observations or witty or well, anything. Saying, “I drink tea with two sugars in the morning” could be a show-stopping moment in some of my English lessons in Japan, and the astonishment of interest I received after briefly describing the plot of The Truman Show, you’d think I’d written, directed and produced the entire film myself. Outside of Japan, you have to deal with the painful realization that your observations aren’t actually fascinating or funny or of much interest at all.

I don’t get “ehh’s” here in Canada, I get the dreaded “I know what you mean.” A phrase I’m convinced means you don’t know what I mean at all. Hell, I even have to deal with the indignities of being disagreed with from time to time. This utterly shocked me when I first experienced it. I’d been so used to being the all-knowing foreigner with mystifying words of wisdom on everything from what I thought about Japan to what I thought about my home country and well, really, what I thought about everything. My thoughts were inherently interesting. Or so Japanese people kept telling me.

And then I’ve had to deal with other things I’d been avoiding, like my finances. Before, when I read stuff about saving and future planning, I couldn’t really understand what any of it meant. I wasn’t poor. I was making a mill a year. Sure, it was a million yen, but I played a little trick on myself and never bothered to calculate that most would look at my job as low paying dead-end work.

For all my complaints about Japan being detached and disengaged and disconnected, I find myself struggling to adjust out of that mindset. All the extreme solitude I experienced in Japan became normalized. As Brian Moore once said, “If you don’t move, you are conditioned” in a foreign country. And it’s been challenging to de-condition myself. You can still find me alone in restaurants or McDonald’s or slaving away writing by myself and avoiding social events.

Interactions with strangers here in Canada take me out of the discomfort of my head draw me to the alarming conclusion that this is preferable to the frustrations of dealing with other people in the real world. 

In the last few months, I’ve had strangers coming up to me saying, “Smile — it doesn’t take much.” I’ve also been chastised by a total stranger for ignoring someone who was asking for money. I had a mini conversation with the man in my head after that. “Listen,” I began to explain. “I just left Japan after eight years, ignoring people is what we do out there.” It gives me an urge to go back, but then I have to remind myself of why I left to begin with.

“Outside of Japan, you have to deal with the realization that your observations aren’t fascinating or funny or of much interest at all.”

When I thought of leaving Japan, I was often pretentiously reminded of what Serpico said upon asking why he didn’t just go along with the corruption in the force. “….if I had just walked away, then who would I be when I listened to Beethoven?” I often thought about that quote when I was in my cushy Tokyo apartment babied by everyone around me, and accommodated rather than accepted into the country. Who am I supposed to be when I listen to Beethoven? The only music that felt appropriate was the saccharine yet utterly emotionless muzak, which could be heard in the country’s convenience stores.  

Now I can listen to classical music, alright. It’s pretty much a necessity when I’m willing to try almost anything for stress relief. I have no vacation time and am scared to get sick for fear I’ll be unable to pay the incredibly overpriced rent for a shabby room in a Toronto shared house. Classical music would make an apt soundtrack to my life now, alright, even if the scene would be less a driving off into the sunset and more a retreat into a snowed-in basement.

Yet despite all this, I’m just glad I’m not living in the fantasy of escape and that I finally acted, even if that at times appears to have been a poor choice. It also felt like it would be a mistake to stay. For a pessimist like me, there are no right life decisions, only the wrong ones you decide to live with.

What would you advise the writer to do to deal with the reverse culture shock? For those of you who have left Japan after living here for some time, have you ever regretted your decision to leave? Or was it the opposite? Share your thoughts with us. 


This is an opinion article that reflects on the writer’s personal experience. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of Tokyo Weekender.

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