Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I Stay Too Long in Japan

(Every now and again I have to do one of these “bitch about Japan” posts. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much from last time.)

More and more I am starting to regret my decision to stay for a 5th year in Japan. I’ll finish the year out anyway. I signed a contract and made a commitment. And besides, if I were to go home tomorrow I wouldn't know what to do with myself anyway. I still need to sort out what I want to do in the future, what kind of a job I want, where I want to live, and what I’m going to do about the Japanese girlfriend.

But I do definitely have the feeling of having stayed in Japan too long. The initial awe and wonder over everything that I had my first year has long ago worn out. There was also a feeling when I first arrived in Japan that any frustration I encountered would only get better with time. As I became more used to the culture, and language, I would have a more fulfilling experience in Japan.

But after 4 years, instead of adjusting to the culture, I’m finding that my patience is now gone for things I used to laugh off. And the more Japanese I learn, the more I become aware of the fact that I’ll never become fluent.

More than anything I have a feeling that I’m stuck treading water while everyone else is moving on with their lives. I've seen my students grow older and graduate, my friends in Japan get other jobs and move on with their lives, and my friends back home advancing through graduate school or employment.

By contrast I’m in a position now that has no future, and is by nature a temporary position. I have very little responsibilities and am not developing any skills that I will be able to use in the future. When I return to America next March I’ll be close to 28, and whatever course I embark on from there I’ll be just starting it. For instance if I decide to go to graduate school like a lot of my friends are doing, I’ll be just starting by the time they are finishing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I came to Japan. It was a great experience. But one or two years would probably have been plenty. 5 years is overkill.

Indeed the obvious question is: why did I stay so long? Well I was having fun the first couple years. Also I (like a lot of people who stay too long) got caught chasing the elusive phantom of fluent Japanese.

I thought if I would stay in Japan and learn Japanese, it would almost be equivalent to having another degree. And so in a sense I thought it was like being paid to go to school.

Even if I did manage to become fluent in Japanese, I’m not sure what career paths this would open for me. The two most obvious outlets for Japanese language are business or government, neither of which appeals to me. But I just thought, “I’ll learn Japanese, and then everything will fall into place.”

But Japanese is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Apparently the State Department ranks it among the most difficult languages to learn for Americans. And here I am, having no language skills what so ever, thinking I can master it in a few years.

Now I've largely given up on Japanese. Which makes the final year here largely purposeless. I have no goals or future in Japan, so I’m largely just waiting the clock out until it is time to go home. Worse, all the free time that I have at my job, which I used to think I was spending productively studying, is now beginning to weigh heavily on my hands. To keep sane, I’m using this word processor to channel a lot of my energy into blogging. (You may have noticed). Also, I find that it depresses me to even write about Japan a lot of the time, so I've been increasingly writing about other things or reminiscing about Calvin days instead. (Thanks for putting up with it).

Everyone has a different breaking point. I talk to some JETs who have only been in Japan in a year, and are sounding as bitter and tired out as I am now after 4 years. When I was here for my first year I was having the time of my life. I think some of that is because I had lived such a sheltered life before arriving in Japan that I spent the whole first year wide eyed and opened mouth. People who are more well traveled tend to get tired of Japan quicker. (Another irony that I realized a long time ago is that people who have studied Japanese before arriving in Japan tend to be the ones who burn out in Japan the quickest. Few of those people stay all 3 years on the JET Program. I think it is because they realize sooner than the rest of us the futility of staying in Japan to try and master the language.)

So, what am I going to do for the last year I am in Japan?
Well, study Japanese of course. (Might as well, as long as I’m here).
Keep up blogging.

(Actually I’m still debating if blogging is a healthy habit or not. I’d like to think all the practice writing is good for me, but sometimes I wonder if the fact that I just type stuff up and throw it on the internet is actually encouraging lazy habits in my writing. Perhaps focusing on a tighter article would be better than these wandering, rambling posts that never have to pass through any sort of editor before I post them on the net. Do any of you other bloggers wonder the same things?)

I’m actually not coming home this summer. Given my depressed status you would think I might be jumping at the chance to escape Japan for a month, but I've decided to stay in Japan because:
1). Lots of you have already indicated you’ll be gone for the summer anyway
2). I want to save money
3). I want to come home again for Christmas in December, so I want to make that my trip back instead
4). Since this is my last year in Japan, maybe take advantage of summer break to explore all the places I never got around to seeing yet. And
5). Spend time with the girl. Since I moved to Gifu I've been more or less away from her all year, so, aside from times like Spring Break, it’s been an entirely long distance relationship. And since this is the last year, it will be good to spend time with the girl before it is time to leave Japan, so I have a better idea of if I want to pursue this relationship across the sea, or cut it off when it is time to go back.

Also, I suppose it goes with out saying that if any of you have been thinking about coming out to visit me and see a bit of Japan, this would be the year to do it. Japan isn't going anywhere, but if you’re looking for free lodging at the hotel Swagman, this is the last year.


Anonymous said...


It looks like I'll be in seminary come September. Until then, I am going to hide-whip myself into learning programming languages and Greek, plus go out west for three weeks or so. If you want me to verbally discipline you into sticking with the Japanese, I'll do it as long as you whip me into staying with the programming and/or the Greek.


Phil said...


I stayed in Grand Rapids way too long after graduating, so I can relate to you on this. (I would reckon 2002 an entirely lost year were it not for several friendships that developed, one sucky-but-interesting romantic relationship, and one long-distance flirtation that indirectly led to my moving to Minnesota.)
I also feel like two years of Americorps is overdoing it, except that my first year I really did almost nothing at my job (to my lasting shame and consternation)--the growth came simply from leaving Michigan, making a new group of friends, getting involved at House of Mercy, etc. So I required another year to actually have something like "the full-time service experience" and to get used to this real-job thing, and to enjoy Minnesota all the more.
Add in the fact that I took a fifth year at Calvin, and you have a pretty slow learner. I imagine I'll go through the grad-school experience much like this too--"Wait, I only just figured out what I'm doing. I want to get another degree so I can really savor this."

Harrison said...


Its your son-of-a-bitch friend Harrison-san here, reminding you that you gotta keep your chin up and put your time here in Japan into perspective bro! I've also been going through anti-Japan sentiments of late, and have managed to rise above the quagmire ESL routine by keeping active - start researching other opportunities critically WHILE making sure to involve yourself in the culture dude! I've only been here short of two years, so my ability at understanding and enjoying Japan is far weeker than yours...You know, for me, Japan is a cool experience - when it gets me down, I have to remind myself that its just that - an experience. Don't know if that helps at all...oh, and I should say, its bloody ass muther @#$!%@^#$ hot this summer, which is reason enough for anyone in any country to bitch!! later skater - and nice work on the blog bro...always interesting to read!