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Why I lived in Japan for two years

20 May, 2020 - 6 min read

temple


For the amount of time I've spent thinking about this, it could certainly permit a book but that wouldn't embody the silent, minimalist qualities that make up Japanese culture. For one moment, I'm going to break stride with the conventional Japanese wisdom of "speech is silver, silence is golden" in an attempt to poorly articulate why I moved to Japan.

The shortest answer is:

yumei deshita

which loosely translates to It was a dream.

It's hard to say how that dream started, but it was clear after three college semesters of Japanese that Japan was somewhere I wanted to be for an extended period of time. I think part of the allure was the challenge of both the language and the culture. It's also common for Americans to only speak one language whereas many other parts of the world can converse in two or more, which I think is unfortunate because language has such a profound ability to shape how we view the world. Becoming good at a second language is in the bin of stuff that is good for your brain, and I really enjoy stuff that is good for my brain.

I think Sakuragi Hanamichi had a role in it, too. If you haven't ever watched Slam Dunk — drop what you're doing right now and go watch all 101 episodes.

Between 2015 - 2018 I visited Japan a few times and eventually decided that I would enjoy calling it home. While visiting, I wanted to make sure that I hadn't fallen into the trap of creating an idealized version of Japan through the media I consumed, so I kept an anti-tourist agenda on my last trip. This included working remotely, riding on crowded trains, and surveying the general day-to-day of life in Japan. On that last visit, I interviewed with a few different companies and received a couple of offers — yokatta ne!

Small aside: The Japanese language and culture have an earnestness to it that translates very poorly but is something that I wish English and Western culture had. yokatta has many different usages, but one of them is to convey relief and ne can be loosely asking for confirmation which, all together, translates to: what a relief, right?! I also frequently find myself saying, I'll do my best ( ganbarimasu ) in English without any sense of irony or shame.

inaka-field

I biked a lot in Japan. I had two extended bike trips where I traveled from Sendai to Fukuoka and from Tokyo to Kyoto. The first trip, from Sendai to Fukuoka, I picked a few places I wanted to visit and then packed my bike and put it on the shinkansen. The second trip was from Tokyo to Kyoto and only paused and stoppped due to the pandemic. The first trip was focused on seeing as much of Japan in as little time possible; however, the second trip I didn't use the shinkansen or train. The mountains of Japan can be very punishing, but they almost always have some reward for you at the top.

Like cycling, not everything in life was easy and I underestimated the weight that interpreting and functioning in a different language would have over time on me. When I first moved to Japan, I couldn't understand the foreigners who were not putting everything into learning Japanese but two years later I came to realize their disposition all too well. If you don't have a support system, i.e. classes, friends, and a routine, it's going to be hard to make progress in the language. Even though I'm what you would call an "intermediate Japanese learner," which people frequently identify by the JLPT test numbers N2/N3, daily aspects of life like bills, work contracts, and health related things made ever becoming fluent feel insurmountable. In the beginning it's fun, "Hey, look! My first Japanese bill," and then, "Hey, I can read 30 pacento [2] of this!," and finally, "Ugh, new bill. Does someone want money or have I already given them money?"

If it weren't for finding Lindy Hop during college and sticking with it over the years, I think the move to Tokyo would have felt a lot scarier. These days, cities all over the world have dance scenes and it's incredibly comforting to know that there are people across the planet that you can connect with just by showing up to dance.

I loved to meet people who couldn't converse in English well or at all. There's sort of an unspoken rule of using the language that a group is most comfortable in, so if you have Japanese friends who are great at English and your Japanese is bad — they'll switch to English. I don't know of any superpower that allows you to force people to deal with bad Japanese, but I will keep searching. While in Japan, I felt a certain comradery with other foreigners when speaking Japanese with them. There's something nice about knowing others share some of the same struggles that you do, like differentiating the word candy and rain.

Speaking of non-natives, there was a Nepalese restaurant in my neighborhood where I loved to occasionally eat. The lady who seated you and took your orders was probably one of the warmest, most cheerful human beings I've ever interacted with and you could hear that in her Japanese. If you had a favorite that you ordered more than twice, she had your number. In a culture where people can be sometimes be aloof, she stuck out in the best of ways.

I knew before I wrote this that this post that it would be inconclusive. Friends (new and old) and strangers would often ask, "Why did you move to Japan?" Truthfully, each day I woke up while living there, I felt that there was a different reason for being there, and my original ambitions for moving have been muddied by reality. I think as time moves on and the memories fade and congeal into an image of Japan, I will continue to not have a definitive answer but I will always have great stories.


Notes

* - Possibly coming soon is an image gallery of all of my favorite images of Japan. Message or tweet at me on Twitter if you'd like to see that come to life.

1 - Japanese characters are not used in this post because most readers will not have the fonts installed.

2 - "pacento" is a loan word written as パーセント ( pa—sento ) which means percent.

3 - This wants to be a bad joke, but the argument could be made that Japanese people are pitch-perfect within the context of their language.

Nick Olinger © 2020