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Blog // Adaptability
August 26, 2016

Starting My 4th Year Of Living In Japan

This week I’m celebrating the start of my fourth year living in Japan. This means I’ve been here longer than either of my stays in India or Singapore. And, while I haven’t yet been here as long as I was in the UK or Hong Kong, I have been in my Tokyo home for longer […]

This week I’m celebrating the start of my fourth year living in Japan. This means I’ve been here longer than either of my stays in India or Singapore. And, while I haven’t yet been here as long as I was in the UK or Hong Kong, I have been in my Tokyo home for longer than either of the two houses I called home in London. Relative to the way I’ve lived most of my adult life, you could almost say I’m settled here.

Expect, of course, I’m not. I’m an expat, a foreigner, or whatever label you care to give to someone who is in-between being a new comer and a new citizen. I still get the question, “how long do you think you’ll be here,” as if I had arrived three months ago rather than three years ago.

Japan On My Mind

I grew up with a fondness for Japanese culture, but it was never the kind of wild passion that animates some folks who come to live here. I’ve tried to learn the language since arriving, but I know I’ll never catch up those blessed souls who studied Japanese at school or university, or enjoyed intensive classes in the months and years before they moved here.

Living in Japan was something I’d thought about, in the way we often do when we visit an amazing place and then give ourselves permission to dream of building a life there, but it wasn’t something I’d ever planned to do.

It was only a few weeks after I had finished building my Singapore studio that my wife came home and said she had been offered a job in Tokyo. It was totally unexpected news. A couple of months later I was packing up that studio and starting to realise how much I didn’t know about life in Japan. By the time I landed in Tokyo and started unpacking the boxes, I’d had exactly one Japanese lesson and didn’t know how to say much beyond sorry and thank you.

Belonging And Being Yourself

I’m often asked if I fit-in or feel like I belong in Japan. It’s a hard one to answer, partly because living in a big global city isn’t the same as living in some other, less cosmopolitan part of the country. I loved my years in the UK largely because I lived in London. Living in Hong Kong is totally different to living in a second-tier city in mainland China.

In central Tokyo it’s often possible to find store signs and menus in English, as well as people who can speak other languages (my local florist speaks fluent Spanish). While my Japanese isn’t good enough for in-depth conversations, I do find people are curious and interested in where I come from and what I do. Strangers talk to me here in a way that seldom happened anywhere else I’ve lived.

I feel accepted and welcomed everywhere I go.

Kind of. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’ve often felt lonely here. Having a big social life has never been a priority, but I usually manage to build a circle of friends everywhere I’ve lived. I haven’t here. Partly, it’s the language gap, but there’s more to it than that.

Recently I was in a meeting and one of the people had lived here for 16 years, having recently moved to another part of Asia. It seemed odd to me that he made no effort to speak Japanese to the staff of the cafe where we were, nor did he care for or even respect the Japanese-ness of the way the cafe served us. In Japan please, thank you and you’re welcome are still a big deal and it feels uncomfortable to watch someone not even try to respect wait-staff when they go though the motions of local customer service.

His behaviour was pretty extreme, but it’s not uncommon to see expats who don’t even try to roll with the culture, seeming to go blank when a simple thank you or that’s OK would be normal.

At times, the expat “culture” in Tokyo just feels kind of odd. This isn’t helped by the somewhat snarky tone of some popular blogs, newspaper and magazine columns (especially in the English language Japan Times). There’s lots of talk of reverse racism, micro aggressions, cultural appropriation and other niche cultural ideas that can make you feel you’ve stumbled into a first year sociology class, rather than listening to a conversation amongst mature, well-travelled adults.

Then there’s the people who’ve been here a long time, ten years or more, who often don’t feel like they’re keen to make friends with people like me who are “fresh off the boat.” It’s understandable in a way, since they’ve built a life here (or married into one), and have their social and work networks well developed.

In this sense, I don’t really belong, since I’m not living out a dream I’ve planned to realise for a long time, nor am I an old hand deeply enmeshed in the culture, or a jaded expat whose forgotten how to respect the place they are in.

The Chemistry Of Life

What ultimately matters is whether I can be myself here. I left Australia because it was feeling increasingly hard to be myself. Moving to London was liberating. In India who I was changed, but eventually I found myself again in powerful and creative ways. But, in Hong Kong and even more so in Singapore, I felt like being myself was a challenge. I was always having to turn down the volume, so to speak, playing it safe to fit in. I was shrinking. The way I spoke, the way I dressed, the work I did, it all became safer and more predictable over the years I lived in those two places.

I don’t feel like that in Tokyo at all.

Living here is like going into a gym for the first time and seeing those tanned, beautiful, rippling bodies and wondering if you could ever look the same. There’s inspiration everywhere I turn, the universe seems to be calling me upward. The passion to make, create, design, master skills, constantly learn and do so with your own unique style is infectious. I see it all around me. Every day.

It took a while to loosen up enough to sense this. My first year here, I was like an animal that had been kept too long in a too small cage. I didn’t trust that I really had that much room to move. Maybe I still don’t. Being myself still feels new. But, I’m growing into it.

Paul 8 years ago

“What ultimately matters is whether I can be myself here. I left Australia because it was feeling increasingly hard to be myself.”

This paragraph really resonated with me. At the time of reading your post, I am just a week a way from moving myself (and my family) from Hong Kong to South Florida, where I was originally from. The sentence above in particular resonates with me, because I left South Florida for the very same reasons you left Australia. Hong Kong has allowed me to become more comfortable with myself, even though I don’t truly fit in 100%. Now being faced with a move back, I feel like I’ll lose this part of myself and revert back to something else.

Anyway, congrats on the 4 year anniversary. Seems like only yesterday you were writing about leaving Singapore, and Hong Kong just before that.

Daniel 8 years ago

Glad to hear your still pumped to be in Tokyo after four years; in my brief visits there I found it an energising place.

Having moved around myself to Canada then Sweden and now back to Canada one of the things I like the most about the ex-pat lifestyle is the ability to redefine yourself. It feels like as an ex-pat I can choose to escape my original social & cultural expectations if I want. To be what I want to be without having to feel pressure or guilt; it’s a liberating experience. I don’t think you necessarily need to be an ex-pat to do this but I do think the ex-pat lifestyle drives you to confront the option.

For me coming from a small city of 110k to a large international city of 2.4M is very energising creatively as there are more creative people and communities here.

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