Leaving Japan

Leaving Japan (Poem)Yes, I did the unthinkable – I left Japan. Took the wife and kid with me out to Oz, leaving only fond memories and my stippy mates behind (Well actually a pet rabbit too, but he never did much except jump around and shit everywhere anyways). After nine years in Japan, it certainly isn’t easy getting used to life “overseas”, and earlier this week as I busily pretended to be busy at my new desk in my new office, in my new city, my thoughts turned to what I’ve already started to miss in Japan:

My Favourite Things

Roppongi nightlife and loose social norms;
Miniskirts in winter and high school uniforms;
Harajuku girls suited up in costumes with wings;
These are a few of my favourite things.

Cold nama beer and fresh sashimi;
Towering mountains and the harsh Japan Sea;
Sakura trees towering over playground swings;
These are a few of my favourite things.

Toilet seat warmers and miniature mobiles
Sexy sports cars and highways for miles
Cooking nothing at home yet eating like kings;
These are a few of my favourite things.

When my ship sails,
When my plane flies home,
When leaving Japan makes me sad
I simply remember my favourite things,
And then I don’t feel so bad.

While I don’t think I’ll be winning any poetry prizes with my effort, it certainly helped me get through another “busy” morning, and until I can plan a trip back, my memories (and video Skype sessions ) are all that remain to connect me back to Japan. My wife (Japanese) has already booked her first trip back after being out here for little over a month, it’s yet to be seen how long I can last wthout a Japan fix.

I’m sure some of our readers have lived in Japan at some stage then moved away – what does every one miss the most?

80 thoughts on “Leaving Japan”

  1. Mr Tibett, they were not looking at you cause you are a negro, but because you have the gall to just speak to them in a foreign language. When Japanese (I am Japanese) meet people who come to Japan with no interest in learning any language, we shun them, and hope they go home. However, you don’t need to speak Japanese properly, just a few words is ok. We just like to hear someone making an effort to speak, and mostly we will accept English as communication, but only after you have broken down the barrier with a word or two in Japanese. Is it so bad? If I went to your country (USA I guess?) and just blurting at you and your family in Japanese, you would think I am a freak. So, yes, you are a freak.

  2. You never leave Japan dude. To me Japan is like a second home. I can always go back because I have family there. I think people get too hung up on Japan and get depressed when they have to take a break. I miss Japan sometimes, but Japanese culture is always a part of my life so I don’t feel disconnected. Do the same things you would do in Japan wherever you are. And visit as often as possible. You might even want to move back for a few years!

  3. I moved back to the Seattle area about a year ago with my wife and twin boys after 10 years of living and working in Japan. I spent most of my time teaching and freelance Japanese-English translating. I’m still going through a bit of reverse culture shock but I can find many things I like about Japan right here in Seattle (food mostly). The family connection will always be there so I’ll always be able move us back there if I choose, but I’m enjyoing living here for now. Fresh air, farm fresh veggies (cheap!) and we’re enjoying the wide open spaces. I am back in school now getting my teaching credentials to become a Japanese language teacher so I’m sure we’ll be back from time to time to visit.

    I met a lot of older gaijin during my time in Japan who were just real jaded about their lives and I didn’t want to be one of them. I turned 30 last year and decided that it was time to go. I want to stay in teaching for my entire career, and I just got tired of the one year contracts that can be cut without notice due to the sagging economy. After I complete my MA, I might move us back there for a 1-2 year stint in a university gig, but it seems that all the tenured positions (especially for foreigners) are fading away.

  4. tellem
    Allow me to disagree with you. I have been living in Tokyo for 3.5 years and I am about to leave, that is why I got into this website in the first place. When I came here I was in love with japanese culture and language. I made a huge effort to learn the language, but the more I knew the language, the more (many, not all)japanese didn’t like it. Many japanese who like to hang out with foreigners, the moment you seriously tried to start speaking japanese, you lost your ‘coolness’ to them by not speaking english or a foreign language. Furthermore, and that really pissed me off, in Tokyo, when I arrived to some stores the clerk immediately started to speak to me in English. I am not talking here about some tourist places or hotels, I am talking here about some out of the beaten track stores. It was very exclusive of them, and I keep feeling this ‘you will never speak our language or be one of us’ attitude from Japanese, big time. Also a free chance for many to practice their english, it pissed me off like hell because in Japan people speak japanese, and this ‘you are an outsider’ remainder out of the blue was far from funny. That is why I started to give up actually learning more of the language, after having enough fluency to communicate my stuff, and deciding I will not be permanently here. I think it is lack of respect to live in a country and not speak the local language at all, but I think it is even more disrespectful that many of the local people thinks that all foreigners are free walking english teachers, and to immediately assume that ALL foreigners speak english (my native language is spanish) and are willing to let them practice their language skills.

    By the way… after speaking a little bit of japanese, the 日本に何年いるんですか stuff pissed me off too… why is it so amazing that a foreigner can speak japanese? japanese is a language made by humans, so any human with enough time and effort can learn it, just like I believe that japanese are NOT dumb to learn english, just that japanese english education methods are highly inadequate.

  5. This is my first post here, I guess I am coming at this in reverse. I lived in Japan for a year before my wife and I were married and did the ELT thing with a really horrible company. The work and pay sucked but at the time I was 24 so it wasn’t much worse than what I left in the states. My wife and I are looking at moving back next year after 10 years and 2 kids in America. Weighing the pluses and minuses makes my head hurt so I try not to. Leaving America means chucking a senior sales position for me which means once out not coming back as I would have to re-build my account base. Also we have a nice home in the Milwaukee suburbs that while small compared to some of the people I work with is huge by Japanese standards. That said I have a job waiting for me at a private high school which interests me very much and a free house to live in in Japan thanks to my in-laws. The 2 things that concern me most are the education system in Japan and the general lack of parks and green space for the kids. I will be fine, I have been back to japan every year and have a pretty good understanding of the little cultural things that are both superior and inferior to America. Anyone with kids in elementary school please share your thoughts.

  6. John,

    I’m sure you have enough to worry about, but here’s my take on it:

    Jobs for foreigners are less stable than for Japanese, and I believe there’s a trend to short contract with no recourse if the school decides not to renew (for any reason or none at all). Maybe your situation is not like that.

    I’ve heard both good and bad about Japanese schools for North Americans. My son(his mother is Japanese; I’m Canadian) was only in Gr. 1 in Japan for 3 months, and while he had friends there, he enjoys Canadian school much more. One thing he really hated was the school lunch (compulsory, and eat everything!).

    When my kids are in Japan, they certainly notice the lack of greenspace. There’s nowhere for them to play soccer, because the parks don’t have grass. I remember showing them that it was okay to take their shoes and socks off and walk barefoot!

  7. Graham, thanks for your response I agree with you on the green space issue for sure. I imagine that in Canada as here in the states school is much less rigid than in Japan. I’m not too concerned about employment although they are only 1 year contracts. I have the good fortune of having enough connections that should I not be renewed finding work shouldn’t be too tough. I think a lot of whether we make Japan our permanent home or not will depend on my wife’s employment, she is a dietitition and if she manages to land a government job life will be pretty certain.

  8. John, don’t mean to be offensive (the state of American schools is out there), but any Japanese school would be better than an American *Skool* wouldn’t it?

  9. Leslie, I’m not so sure about that, American schools tend to foster more free thought and creativity. I definitely will not allow the juku thing as I think that’s way too much pressure for no reason. I’m with you in that at least in Japan I don’t have to worry about drugs and guns and all of the other wonderful fascets of American big city schools. Do you have kids in the Japanese system, and if so what’s your experience been?

  10. honestly, i haven’t even been to japan yet, although I’m really trying to go. I’ve heard that at 16, you can very well live on your own, and even have your own place. Is that true?

  11. Arion,

    Someone has been feeding you a line. Perhaps if you are a 16-year-old high fashion model you can live very well on your own (although I imagine that any agency would insist on chaperones/tutors). The scenario doesn’t sound very realistic, though. Someone is imagining that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence (ocean).

    Have your own place? Do a little research, and you will see that finding an apartment for rent, even if you are a long-term resident with a permanent job and fluent Japanese — and maybe even a Japanese spouse — is much harder than it should be.

  12. Comment for John if he’s still reading…..this perhaps would be better addressed as a new topic “returning to Japan” rather than “leaving Japan.

    I’m in a similar situation as yourself. Got married in Japan in the mid 90′s. We’ve lived in the US for the past decade and are contemplating a move back to Tokyo with our 2 kids aged 8 and 6. Setting aside the crappy exchange rate now, my biggest concern is schooling. Our kids go to “hoshuko” so they are fairly proficient in the language, but definitely not native speaking for their ages. We go back to Tokyo each summer and stick them in public school for the full immersion treatment which helps. I miss Japan much more than my wife does – she prefers the lifestyle here and there’s a reasonably large Japanese community where we live in the Bay Area . Intellectually I realize we’re better off here, but there’s something about Japan I can’t put my finger on which make it like Disneyland for adults. It’s the food, the sounds, the trains, the perfectly groomed young ladies, the plethora of non-soda drink choices – I could go on. My wife agreed to move back because she sees many older “hafu” kids here who gradually start responding to their Japanese mom in English and eventually lose their Japanese identity and language skills. My question is … at the ripe ages of 8 and 6, how do we ensure that the kids continue to develop their English while living in Japan? I am not concerned about preserving an American “identity”‘; I simply want to ensure they can read/write/express themselves in both languages when they become adults. I could try and find a job that pays for their American school education (can’t fathom paying $20K per kid annually out of my own pocket) but that has its downside; although we do feel most comfortable hanging with other “mixed” families, we’re not into the elitist private school scene.

    I am very fortunate – nice house, good job and friends, great climate – but I’m not one to put a protective wall around this and I think it’s good to shake things up from time to time. My biggest fear is that after moving the family to Japan I’ll find myself on a humid morning on a packed train in Tokyo, salarymen dripping sweat all over me and think back to my commute down beautiful highway 280 into Silicon Valley (I pass cows and rolling green hills while cranking music) and think “oh my God, what have I done???”

    If anyone has moved back to Japan with kids, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  13. I think that schools vary quite a lot. Most of them have uniforms, and there’s a lot of emphasis on conformity, especially in junior high and high school. If you are trying to get into university, “exam hell” is real. So are after-school cram schools for any “serious” students.

    As far as I know, students usually only join one club, and stick to that exclusively. Serious teams, like baseball, practice almost every day, including weekends and holidays.

    There’s not a lot of enthusiasm in many classes. Students sleep, text, or even chat, ignoring the teachers.

    I also had a friend who worked in a high school where one of his colleagues was stabbed by a student, so the threat of violence is also there.

  14. Graham,

    Well, thanks for giving the facts straight up. What town (province?) Would you say is a good place to stay if you are just getting started, and trying to learn Japanese, or at least the most common dialect?

  15. Arion,

    In my experience, the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it. If you live in Tokyo, there are enough chance to use English that Japanese acquisition would be much more difficult. For that reason, I would recommend a smaller town/city. I started off living in Wakayama, which most Japanese consider dreadfully old fashioned and provincial, but I loved the accessibility of nature, and the lack of pretension. Places like that have their own dialects, but everyone in Japan (the elderly aside) has learned “standard” (i.e. Tokyo) Japanese, so I don’t think that’s a barrier.

    If you are a high school student, there are many opportunities to go as an exchange student, usually living with a Japanese family. I knew several of them, and it was generally very positive. You can’t beat the opportunity to speak a language every day, in your everyday life.

    Living with a family is *always* known as a “homestay” (they use the same word in Japanese), so you might be able to find information if you search on that. In fact, a quick Google search brings up over 400,000 hits!

  16. Graham,

    Well that’s fantastic, then! So a smaller provincial area… would Okinawa do well? Also, around how much is the currency exchange rate, out of curiousity? I make around 10 dollars an hour where I work, so I would probably have at least enough to get started, right?

  17. Arion,

    $1 is close to Y100. I’m not sure what you’re asking me, though. Enough to get started *what*?

    You have to realize that Japan doesn’t want just anyone to come in — there are about a billion Chinese who would be very happy to go and live in Japan if they could. To go to Japan, just like any country, you need a visa. As a tourist, you usually get it upon arrival in Japan.

    To stay longer than a few months, you basically need either a work visa, a student visa, or a spouse visa. Those can easily take months, and for a work visa you need to have a job already lined up. With rare exceptions, for a work visa you need a degree, too.

    Okinawa is probably not the best place to go (unless climate is your priority). There are tens of thousands of American troops there, more than anywhere else in Japan, and the economy is rather skewed by it. The only other areas I would stay away from are Tokyo and Osaka, because they also have higher proportions of “gaijin”.

    My guess is (and maybe someone who has been in Japan more recently than I can chip in) you need about $7-800/month for rent. Depending upon the area, you may need $2-5,000 in “key money” (a deposit that you may or may not get back). Food is probably 1.5-2 x what you would pay at home, but if you don’t learn to eat Japanese food quickly, expect to pay more for “western” foods (prepared foods, lots of meat, exotic things like peanut butter, etc.). Basic foods and accommodation are generally cheaper in rural areas.

    I seem to recall paying $25-30/hour for a private Japanese teacher (there are plenty of people who would swap Japanese lessons for English ones, with no money changing hands, but this guy was preparing me for the JLPT).

    All in all, for living expenses you should probably budget about $1,500/month. I hope you’ve saved up a lot!

  18. Graham,

    Well, Maybe not as much as I would like, but as long as I keep saving up at the rate I am, I should have enough for around a 6-month stay in three years, comfortably.

    What’s the main mode of transportation?

  19. Arion,

    That sounds like a realistic approach. Give yourself time to learn what to expect (#1: the unexpected!). You can also start learning the language, too.

    Definitely the most common mode of transportation is train. You will not believe just how many people are moved around, how quickly and efficiently. And you’ll wonder why we can’t do it nearly as well on this side of the Pacific.

  20. Graham,

    I’ve been to New York a few times, and I got to admit, I wouldn’t be surprised if the tram system was a million times better. As for learning the language, what would you recommend? Aside from actually living in the country, i mean. What would be some ways to start learning standard Japanese?

  21. It depends how you learn best. Books on your own? Classes at a local school? There is a lot of software to help you learn Japanese. I can’t speak to the grammar and vocabulary parts, but some kind of flash card system would be good for learning the kana (phonetic character sets), and probably helpful for learning kanji (Chinese-based characters) too.

    That said, if you can find a Japanese person to practice with, that would be very, very useful, because speaking and listening is vastly different from just dealing with the written word.

    My brother found a Japanese teacher (in a small Canadian town of 15,000) for his daughter, who wanted to learn, so you should be able to find one too, wherever you are.

  22. Having lived in Japan for nearly twenty-five years, that’s right, twenty-five years, I might
    be the most Japanized expatriate to write a message. No, I don’t feel at ‘home’ in Japan, no gaijin can win acceptance in this culture. The longer a foreign resident lives in Japan, the more the natives seem to resent his presence. The Japanese prefer their “gaijin” to be
    youngish, cute, completely naive, and most importantly “just passing through” (foreigner beware – settle in Japan at your own risk). Japan is for the Japanese. Their attitude is insular, with varying degrees of xenophobia and their society has a long history of being tribal. The western concepts of “assimilation” and
    “acculturation” are alien to most Japanese. The oddest sort of gaijin is the one who breaks the racial and cultural taboos by actually applying for and being granted Japanese citizenship, which also means forsaking one’s past nationality. In Japan you cannot have
    dual citizenship. I suppose in the minds of most Japanese, how could any person claim to
    be both an ‘insider’ Japanese and an “outsider” gaijin? It is a contradiction or even an
    affront to the identity of all natives in Japan. Thus, holding two passports is unthinkable if you’re a Japanese citizen. Japanese wives? My wife is Japanese. She feels very awkward around most gaijin but thinks that she wants to live in America? Go figure. She’s fluent in English but terrified of
    socializing with foreigners, terrible inferiority complex. I don’t think she’ll ever be happy living anywhere but Japan. Hafu or mixed race kids? Not in Japan. The Japanese are still very much race conscious and love the idea of their glorious Yamato racial purity. The
    current PM of Japan, Taro ‘the’ Aso, said as much when he remarked a few years ago
    that “Japan is one culture, one civilization, one language and ONE RACE”. His ex-Minister of
    Trade and Transportation, Nariaki Nakayama, lost his job in late 2008 for saying this:
    “Japanese don’t like or desire foreigners (gaijin)”. Again, the fool was the minister for
    tourism!! No, I wouldn’t recommend that you live in Japan for twenty-five years. It will not
    bring any enlightenment. It will not bring satori. You’ll just be an older gaijin and thus, still an outsider. Though most Japanese will look upon you as an eccentric old gaijin, with a mixture of contempt and pity, “poor fool didn’t have sense enough to go home after a few years despite all the hints we dropped”. I do have permanent residence visa status in Japan and would have no difficulty living here into very old age.
    Living did I say, it is more like a lving death. The food is nice. The climate mild. Travel is pleasant. But no, you’ll not feel at home in Japan, not ever.

  23. Robert,

    Thanks for your very honest comments.

    I am currently pondering a move back to Japan and your comment moved me to thinking. The most I’ve spent in Japan is 2 years, and even then I felt a bit of what you talk about. The thing is I still have the desire to move back.

    I’m wondering what made you stay for 25 years when you were able to see so many negative aspects and realized that you would never be accepted?

    Also, I’m interested if there are any foreigners that have found a lifestyle that makes them happy in Japan, assuming that acceptance is not an option.

    For example, playing up your role as the foreigner and taking advantage of the benefits that come with that (i.e. Bobby Olgun as a gaijin talent on T.V. who fakes his inability in Japanese), or finding some group in Japan that can accept you for your skills and look beyond your ethnicity… I don’t know…

    Also I’m wondering if living in Tokyo vs. the countryside would exacerbate this effect.

    I hope to hear everyone’s comments on this issue. Thanks!

  24. I actually feel sorry for Mr. McKinney, 25 years of frustration. Did his wife force him into staying?? did he lead an isolated life? Did he not realise sooner he cant wage a psychological battle against the society of a whole country?
    Well its taken him 25 yrs to meet his own conclusion thru that frustration, so he did finally get the message.

    I wonder what his comments on life, and his own country will be after 25 years back home.

    Hopefully his approach to people has improved somewhat.

    please keep us posted!

  25. I have sat here and read such a diversity of opinions from each, both positive and negative. Is the question of moving back to Japan still valid after three years? Only you can make the choice, only you can decide how you will feel. I am fortunate I guess in that I have a Japanese wife who is a financial wiz which allows us to return to Japan at least once a year.

  26. Hello –
    I have lived in Japan for 15 years.

    I’ve decided to move back to the US because I have the same feelings as Robert McKinney above – the things that ‘distress’ me about living in Japan will only get worse as I grow older.

    I have a Japanese wife and three “half” kids. I’m 41 years old.
    I will be moving back to the US this year to Seattle.

    I was fortunate enough to work in a foreign company (well, foreign owned and foreign management style – there are only two ‘gaijin’ out of 170 employees) so I have had the freedom to be self driven and forge a pretty good career.

    I have a permanent residency visa. I speak Japanese fluently (JPLT level 1) and in addition to my day job work as a freelance J-E translator on the side.

    We live in a suburb north of the city, about an hour commute to my office. We used to own a house (about 115sqm in size, cost about 40 million yen) – pretty large by Japanese standards, but shoddy and small compared even the smallest and cheapest suburban houses in the US: insufficient storage space, no central heating, drafty windows and doors, poor insulation, tiny food preparation area in the kitchen, no enclosed garage, not a square inch of unpaved ground outside the house, no front yard, no back yard, 50cm distance between my window and the neighbor’s window, tiny street out front so narrow that a bicycle can barely pass a car coming the other direction….the list goes on. And this house was only FIFTEEN years old when we sold it. Fifteen year old houses in the US are _nice_. People complain that houses in places like Sydney or west coast US cities are more expensive than Japan – but look at all you are getting. If they sold Japanese-quality houses in the US, I could probably get one in a prime location for about $50,000.

    Over the years I have grown apathetic of permanently living in Japan. I like all the things about Japan that everyone has stated above – the food, the service, the polite people, general safety-ness, cleanliness, fun shopping, super fast home delivery service, everything is close by, etc…

    So after thinking about it for about 3 years and agonizing over the thought with my wife, I finally decided to make the move. She speaks English well and went to university in the US for a couple years, but that’s a completely different life from what we have now. She is practically giving herself a nervous breakdown being worried about whether she’ll like it and how she’ll do.

    I could stay here a while longer if I had to (the pay for my job in Japan is a lot better), but my wife says she’s getting old and wants to move before she gets too old and set in her ways.

    I’m also worried whether she’ll be able to adjust, but I just really believe that the US will accept a Japanese transplant far more receptively than Japan will accept an 80 year old foreigner…

    I didn’t always think like this. I don’t remember it now, but my wife says that I told her I wanted to retire in Japan when I was 28 years old or so!

    So if you are thinking about moving permanently to Japan, think far, far, ahead and really seriously contemplate.

    And — I would love to hear from any of you reading this who made the move to the US but ended up moving back again – what was it about the US (or Japan) that made you reach this decision? I’m really scared that I’m going to love being back in the US but have to consider moving back to Japan because my wife can’t stand it.

  27. I was robbed of my Japan life after only 9 months of the promised 3 years… I wont get into details of why.

    What I miss the most:

    EVERYTHING!!! I’ve been back ‘stateside’ for a year now and still have many days where all I can think about is how much I love Japan and how much I want to go back!

    I miss earthquakes and typhoons, rainstorms that last for days, pea gravel playgrounds, yen stores and my Ofuro. I miss walking and biking, hot muggy days and nights. I miss neighbors that visit with eachother, and people that actually sweep the streets in front of their own houses. I miss sorting my garbage into 8 catagories and tying to remember which one to take out each morning. I miss moth balls and emptying dehumidifiers twice a day. I miss festivals and history and tradition. I miss people taking ownership and responsibility. I miss bug spray and sunscreen used daily. I miss bamboo forests and concrete edged canals through town. I miss driving on the left on roads just barely wide enough for 2 cars, and I miss having Japanese to talk to as I try to learn Japanese. I know there are so many more things that I miss, I just can’t think of them all now.

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