It’s close to two years since I arrived in Japan. Like many JETs, I’m now in preparation for the big kikoku. Of course, there are plenty of things to think about, to organise, and to clean! But between all of the practical considerations, there’s an equally important set of frankly quite distracting feelings regarding the end of this chapter… and the start of a new one.
“I won’t miss the shishamo, trying to eat sweet corn with chopsticks or my half-hearted, cold-water washing machine…”
It’s not an easy emotion to categorise. I’ll miss the politeness, the ability to sleep on trains without being considered a total weirdo/being mugged, and those little ledges by the public urinals to put your bag on whilst relieving yourself. I won’t miss the shishamo, trying to eat sweet corn with chopsticks or my half-hearted, cold-water washing machine. Evidently, there are positives and negatives.
But those are the sort of things you might feel after a two-week-holiday. Naturally, after two years living somewhere, the emotions are somewhat more complex and, so I have found, remarkably difficult to analyse.
It’s not just a question of what you will and won’t miss. It’s a real question of reflecting on a distinct two-year period of your life, and thinking about what you’ve achieved and whether you are “ready” to leave.
As part of my degree, I lived in Austria for six months. I specifically remember looking back and being able to say that it was simply a full-blown success. I improved my German, gained independence and confidence, made Austrian friends and integrated with the way of life. Tick, tick, tick.
“It makes it an exciting and unique experience…”
I spent a lot of time wondering when that sense of accomplishment would come in Japan, confirming that I was ready to leave. But the truth is I don’t think it ever could. I never had a clear objective; I was walking into the complete unknown. I couldn’t make any realistic targets or have any genuine impression of what I would encounter. This doesn’t make it a failure, or a waste of time, it makes it an exciting and unique experience.
That doesn’t mean I had no thoughts whatsoever about what I wanted to do in Japan. Just the other day, my BoE presented me with a copy of my application statement. Looking at the range of hopes I had written, I can safely say that some I have achieved, some I have not, and some were just lies to get me accepted.
The feeling hit me overwhelmingly that somewhere along the line, this experience has changed from a giant, thrilling adventure, to normal, everyday life; literally and metaphorically from a dream to reality. The day-to-day simply takes over. This is not a bad thing. It’s a necessary process in a two-year period.
“Dream of travel and adventure have been defeated by the small pleasures of the day-to-day…”
I don’t think I could say that I had fully experienced Japan without having the dream and the reality. That’s why you come to live in a country, as opposed to simply visiting. One ambition was to visit Beijing, but I’ve thought long and hard about how I want to spend my last couple of weeks after my contract is up. It’s nowhere else but in Japan, walking the streets, saying goodbyes, bowing uncontrollably and struggling with shoes at doorways. Dream of travel and adventure have been defeated by the small pleasures of the day-to-day.
One thing I can say is that I have learnt a lot. I think anyone spending a decent length of time in a foreign country, especially one so vastly different, would say the same. Most ALTs not only learn about Japan, about education and about umeboshi, but also discover a vast amount about their own country and its culture and values – both good and bad.
I’ve come to question things I always believed about the whole purpose of life and society. I’ve realised how much is ingrained in you by your surroundings. Holidaying in a country can’t bring that out, so we are incredibly lucky to have access to this different viewpoint.
“I miss being naked outside in naked baths with naked strangers…”
Indeed, there are certain areas where I now fully support Japan’s way of doing things. It’s a big concern to think about relating that to my friends. How can I explain to a Brit who has always lived in the UK that it’s better we don’t really make a decision if we don’t really have to, just to save the confrontation. Or that I miss being naked outside in naked baths with naked strangers.
Other than maturity and the confidence that I can now cope with doing, seeing or eating pretty much anything, I wouldn’t say that my two years here have changed me greatly as a person. I can’t think of anything specific that I would have done differently (I have always been practically perfect in every way). But it has allowed me to re-evaluate what’s important, what’s necessary and what’s normal. It’s changed my thought process and my moral compass, as opposed to my personality.
It’s hard to remember a time when I couldn’t slip ‘ganbatte‘ into a conversation, I didn’t know what a bento was, or when I didn’t ask people if they had the flu after one sneeze. How I will feel in six months time really is anybody’s guess.
“Some things will smell of okonomiyaki, and some of natto…”
I suppose it’s simply about knowing when your time is up. I realised over a year ago that I could never stay in Japan for my whole life. For a holiday, it’s easy, but for a long-term life choice, it’s simply impossible. Some things will go well and some will go badly. Some things will smell of okonomiyaki, and some of natto.
Your objectives will change and develop with time, so leaving is a very difficult thing to do. You’re leaving your new life behind. It truly is too much of a complex emotion to put into words, but I hope you’ve managed to make some sense of my confusion!
If anybody is reading this and thinking that I’m talking complete and utter rubbish, I imagine it’s because you aren’t leaving Japan yet… just you wait! At the very least, this has been great therapy for me! Consider reading it your kind deed for the day. Sayonara!
Check out Mark’s blog, Sushiless in Ita-where?