As I prepare to move back home after 14 years in Japan, I've obviously been focused on the situation at hand and the future. However, I've also been thinking a great deal about what brought my wife and me here and the similar challenges we faced at that time. It's been a good chance to reflect on the past and decisions made.
In 2009, we lived in rural Michigan, USA. We lived on a dirt road. Deer were a common problem when driving. Flocks of wild turkeys would regularly walk across our yard. At night, you could hear the local coyote packs howling in the darkness. Raccoons and opossums regularly patrolled our secure chicken coop.
After my wife, Joan, finished graduate school in Illinois in 2002, we moved to Michigan to be near my father's family. My wife found a good, full-time job at a non-profit in a nearby town. After many years of teaching English as a second or foreign language (ESL/EFL) in the United States and Kazakhstan, I found myself without any students. I quickly filled my schedule as a house husband, freelance writer, chainsaw for hire, and volunteer firefighter. We ended up with a house with two woodstoves and two cats who enjoyed the warmth on our laps. Five free-range chickens roamed the yard. The apple and pear trees in the backyard bore fruit, and our big garden kept us all fat and sassy. It was a good, simple life. However, after some seasons passed, we began to feel a little complacent.
In 2008, I got an email from an old friend from my time as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in the Fiji Islands. After he left Fiji, we'd kept in touch as he bounced around the Pacific and Asia. Over the years, he'd always tried to get us to join him in his next adventure.
At the time, he was teaching EFL at a university in Western Tokyo, and there was a large turnover of teachers coming up. Basically, he had an inside connection to help me get a job, which had a decent salary, good benefits, and free housing.
I knew nothing of Japan, only the stereotypical basics: sushi, Godzilla, and samurai. I also had vague, childhood memories of watching Shōgun, a 1980 five-episode television series loosely based on an English navigator who traveled to Japan in 1600 and eventually served the nation's ruler. I distinctly remember thinking at the time, when the smelly foreigner was incapacitated with a shoulder chop and put into the onsen, “Ooh, a big hot bath - that sounds nice.”
After reading the email to Joan, I said, “What do you think?” She replied, “Sounds interesting. Go for it.”
Later that same year, I had an early morning Skype video interview, and at the end, they offered me the job. I told them I'd let them know as soon as possible and ended the call. I sat there on the screened-in back porch for a while as dawn broke, listening to all the sounds of the countryside waking up.
I went upstairs, woke up Joan, and told her the news. “What do you think,” I asked. She thought for a moment and said, “Let's do it.”
Making The Change
Next came the long process of shutting down our life in the US. As we were going to rent the house, we had to give away, recycle, trash, and find sympathetic family and friends to store our stuff. One cat went to Joan's mother, and one went to mine.
The chickens went to a friend who already had a bunch. I said, “Don't tell me if anything happens to them. If I ever ask, just say, ‘They're fine,’ even if it's a lie.” As far as I'm concerned, the chickens are living happily ever after even now.
With all of our affairs in order, passports in hand and two suitcases each, and basically no Japanese language ability at all, we boarded the airplane for Narita Airport in Tokyo.
14 Years In Japan
Bleary-eyed from jet lag and the long flight, we nervously rode the airport bus into Tokyo to start our new life. We had no real expectations, or, to be honest, no idea of what we were getting into. Yet, starting on the first day, we quickly fell in love with Japan: the culture, the food, the people, everything.
It would be almost impossible to summarize our time here in Japan, and I'm not going to try. However, let me say one thing: bullet trains. It's really hard to describe the Shinkansen train system. It feels like the future. It feels like the way the rest of the world could be, should be.
A quote commonly attributed to Gustavo Petro, the current Colombian president, sums up the feeling extremely well:
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation.”
Day By Day, Year By Year
Originally, we had only planned on one or two years. “Just a little adventure. We'll be back soon,” we told our parents and grandparents. Even now, I don't know if we believed that or not. I don't know if they did, either.
Regardless, one year led to two years. Two years led to three years. We settled into a groove and dove deep into Japan.
Joan started blogging about farmers markets and her work on an organic farm in Tokyo. Her writing led to articles in magazines and websites and eventually a regular role as a contributor to The Japan Times newspaper. In fact, all of her experiences led to her current job as copywriter and editor for a large agricultural non-profit back in the US. I'll be joining her soon to start our new adventure together.
So, when my five-year contract was coming to an end at my first university, we debated the pros and cons of finding another job. “Well, go ahead and apply, and let's see what happens,” Joan said.
The job search and application process was extremely long and painful. As high-tech as Japan may appear from the outside, it is, unfortunately, extremely old-fashioned and inefficient in other ways. Trying to fit your resume information into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet designed in and unchanged from the 1990s is enough to make you tear your hair out.
Luckily, I got a great offer from a university in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, and we moved down there to start all over again.
Looking Forward and Looking Back
Nine years after that last move, as I'm approaching the end of my last semester at that university, I'm thinking a lot about our 14 years in Japan. It makes me happy. It also makes me cry, usually multiple times a day. I don't have many regrets, but I have been thinking about the classic question: If you could write yourself a letter back then, before it all began, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself?
This is what I think I would write.
Letter To Myself
Congratulations on getting the teaching job in Tokyo and good luck with all the planning and preparation! First of all, stop worrying about the chickens. They'll be fine.
I'm not going to tell you how it all goes in Japan. It's your adventure to have, and I don't want to spoil any of it for you and Joan. However, trust me: you're going to have a great time.
I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about our 14 years here and what I could have done to make it better. There's one fundamental thing I keep coming back to, something I wish I had been better about.
Get out and stay out of the English-language bubble as early and as much as you can.
Of course, I know you know this just like I knew it from the beginning, but I didn't do it well enough. Intellectually, I know why I didn't, but I also realize how much better it would have made everything here. It's truly my one regret.
One hard truth about Japan is that it can be very hard to make new friends here, especially as an adult. There are a lot of cultural reasons for this that you will learn. It's also something that Japanese people struggle with, so don't feel like it's just you.
And not being able to speak the language easily and confidently makes it even harder.
Another hard truth is that it can be very hard to learn Japanese, especially in your context, where university English teachers are often coddled and not required to master Japanese. Even though I was extremely motivated and studied the Japanese language very seriously, much more than most of my peers, I spoke English at home with Joan, with fellow teachers and staff at work, with students in class, and because I couldn't speak Japanese at the beginning, I gravitated towards English-speaking Japanese people to make friends and went to English-friendly events and activities.
Honestly, that's what happened to me: I didn't try hard enough to get out of the English-language bubble, and I wish I had. I wish I had challenged myself to learn more of the language, which would have allowed me to embrace the culture even more and get to know the people even better.
I'd like to think this letter will help you have at least as much fun as I've had and even more. However, as I said, this is your adventure to have.
Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.