For the past few minutes I’ve been sitting frozen with my fingers on my keyboard trying to think of a way to start a post where I’m basically going to say that I hated my time in Japan. Whoops, spoiler, I guess now you guys don’t need to bother reading more (which might be a good thing, since this post is long).
My family moved to Japan for a year when I was six and I LOVED it. Considering the country’s obsession with all things cute – it’s a place where bank cards are covered in Moomin cartoons and grown women try to look like little girls – of course Japan would be a dream world for a six-year-old girl.
When I returned at 22, I quickly fell in love again. I had received maybe the coolest placement on the JET Program: I was living on Tanegashima, a tiny island south of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands.
Tanegashima is home to the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, and as most of the islanders have no interest in swimming, the only people I would ever see on them were the few surfers who had moved down to Tanegashima to chase what they told me were the best waves in the country.
But the best part? I was teaching at three high schools, and one of them wasn’t on Tanegashima. For a few days each month I would take a ferry to the neighboring island of Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to Princess Monoke and a 7,000-year-old cedar tree. There my school would put me up in a cozy mountain lodge and give me some extra money for the inconvenience. Because, you know, spending a few days a month at a monkey-inhabited mountain paradise was SUPER inconvenient.
But the other teachers I was working with didn’t agree. When I asked them if they enjoyed life on Tanegashima, they all responded by telling me how many years of “island duty” they had left. High school teachers in the prefecture had to change schools every few years, and at least once in their careers they would have to spend 3-5 years on one of Kagoshima’s islands.
It was a shame, because Tanegashima deserved to be loved. Of course that’s not to say life there was easy. Being the only blonde woman on the island and about a foot taller than most locals, I didn’t exactly fit in. People seemed to be constantly watching me (or I was constantly paranoid) and it became normal for me to meet someone for the first time and have them tell me that they had recently seen me in the supermarket. And then they would proceed to list everything that had been in my shopping basket, often commenting on my eating habits.
Tanegashima is also incredibly conservative compared to the rest of Japan. Very few of the teachers I worked with gave their students any room for creative thinking, always stressing the importance of social harmony above all else. It was great for those who fit in, but the students who didn’t really struggled. When gay comedians came on television, people would laugh and say that obviously it was all an act, and a Japanese friend on Yakushima told me that she had once asked her doctor for birth control and, very begrudgingly, he prescribed her one week’s worth of the pill (instead, abortions are very common).
When it came time to renew my contract in February I decided to stay, partly because the job paid well, but mostly because I felt like I needed more time to find my feet in Japan.
And then the tsunami hit.
Tanegashima was far south enough that we had several hours warning, and in the end the wave had lost its force by the time it arrived. In southern Japan, the tsunami wasn’t a big deal at all.
Except it was a huge deal.
This was when I finally felt the full brunt of being an outsider in Japan. No one wanted to talk about the tsunami with me, and whenever I brought it up they would once again ask me to tell everyone in America that I was fine and the nuclear problems were not as big of a deal as Western media was making them out to be. I did admire how instead of falling into hysterics and making the disaster all about them, my colleagues simply worked harder.
This wasn’t my first experience with a natural disaster in Japan. My family had been living outside of Kobe during the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995. I have vague memories of some of our neighbors stumbling out of their homes covered in blood and my father going to help dig out bodies, but most of my memories of the earthquake were actually really pleasant. Everyone kept giving me candy and my teacher called to tell me that all of my classmates had survived, and in the shelter people kept piling my family’s mats with extra blankets and snacks. Fun times!
But this time I could. Not. Stop. Crying. I kept having dreams about earthquakes, probably mixing childhood memories with fantasy, and a once beautiful drive along the ocean to one of my schools became hell.
I know, I’m such a baby.
Thinking about the tsunami somehow made me feel even more alone on the tiny island, and instead of feeling closer to the other people there I felt shut out.
My second year in Japan was better. I could communicate more easily in Japanese and made some real friends, particularly a new English teacher who was my age and also a dancer. Miyuki’s mother is from the Philippines, so she always managed to laugh at Japanese life on Tanegashima, and at the end of the year we performed a belly dance routine at a local festival that I’m sure scandalized half the island.
When people now ask me how I liked Japan, or if I would recommend teaching English there, I’m never sure what to say. Thankfully I didn’t quite see it at the time, but after moving to Thailand I realized how depressed and simply not myself I had been for a lot of my time in Japan. But I also have friends who taught in Japan and absolutely loved it!
I think part of the problem was living on Tanegashima and working with teachers who didn’t want to be there. I also tried too hard to fit in and act Japanese, which always left me frustrated when I failed. The foreigners I knew who most loved Japan either had studied Japanese for years and could communicate fluently – they usually came with the intent of staying in Japan forever – or they barely spoke any Japanese and were happy staying the fascinating foreigner, ignoring the locals’ pained expressions when they broke one of Japan’s endless rules of social etiquette.
I wish I had done the latter. I ended up understanding much more Japanese than I could speak, but many Japanese refuse to believe that foreigners can learn their language (even their English textbooks placed a huge emphasis on the uniqueness of Japanese culture), so people always seemed comfortable talking about me in front of me, assuming I couldn’t understand them (even when I would respond to what they were saying). It made for a lot of awkward situations, and continued confirmations that everyone thought I was basically a different species. It would have been much better if I hadn’t understood them.
Is anyone still reading this? Probably only my mother (thanks, Mamma, hope you have fun in Boston this weekend!).
I guess I could have summed up this entire post simply by saying “my feelings about Japan are complicated.” There’s so much I do love about Japanese people, the beautiful islands, language and intricate culture, and I always am super excited to meet Japanese people on my travels, but I also have so many negative emotions surrounding my time there and after teaching Japanese students I worry that many Japanese (at least in conservative areas) are too weighed down by the pressures of maintaining social harmony to have a real chance at finding happiness.
On the bright side, my two years in Japan gave me the means to travel for the past two and a half years. I left Japan with a lot of savings, and because my time earning that money was difficult, I’ve focused on only spending that money on things that will truly make me happy. If I hadn’t gone to Japan I would not be where I am today, living a life that I love immensely.