Jan 10, 2014


This year's New Years resolution is not a goal for behavioral change, but a firm decision to a difficult question: whether or not to stay in Japan for a second contract (August 2014-July 2015).

Why I Came to Love Japan

I came to Japan because I love their storytelling. As an lonely teen, I devoured all the manga (Japanese graphic novels) I could get my hands on. I developed my identity through these stories of adventure, overcoming corruption, finding true love, striving for peace, fighting for what's right.

What did these stories have in common? They all came from Japan. That young teenager thought, "I don't fit in here. If I go to Japan, I'll find more people that are like me."

And that is what I've subconsciously carried with me - that I could just as well jump on a plane to this magical place where people were like the same heroes and characters that resonated with the Truths inside my own heart.

It wasn't for another ten years that I joined JET, and moved here to Japan's countryside. JET is a program to bring native English speakers in as assistant language teachers. Teaching in school has never been the career I desired; I looked upon it as a way to live in Japan long-term, so I could travel about and experience the culture, while also earning an income.

Working for the JET Program

The problem? Japan's work culture is more intense and unfulfilling than corporate America. For example, a teacher at my junior high school has burst into tears on multiple occasions because of the workload she shoulders and the other teachers's consensus that she isn't doing enough. When she voiced her dream of moving, she was told she wasn't permitted to leave the school until such time they released her. They are not trying to be mean; this is just "the way things are."

So if I could pinpoint what's pushing me away from Japan, it's the job. Unlike the regular teachers, I am not responsible for such a heavy workload. In fact, I'm not in charge of much at all. When I'm not teaching 2-4 classes per day, I end up sitting around in the teacher's room, bored. But I have to look busy so I won't invite the other teachers to become resentful of this. They are already envious I only work "part-time," which in Japan is 40 hours!

Even in class, the situation can be taxing. The textbooks often teach incorrect English grammar, without emphasis on speaking and listening, and the kids study obscure rather than practical vocabulary (they know "fair trade cacao beans" but not "weekend"). Also, it's mandatory every student learn English - it's the only foreign language available - so kids who aren't interested tend to act out in class.

Perception vs. Reality

My students are brilliant, wonderful kids, and I love them a lot. So much about Japan (life outside of work) is wondrous. I don't write about the stressful points of living in Japan too often, but who am I protecting really by not being totally honest? By hiding the downsides, am I not proliferating the false "perfect image" of Japan? Nobody, and therefore no country, is perfect.

I did research on this country online, took Japanese language and culture as my minor at university, and yet was still taken by how starkly different this country is to its pop culture perspective. My preconceived idea of Japan has affected how I interact within the culture now that it's a part of my reality.

I spent so long fixed on the one goal of coming to Japan, that I put intense pressure on myself to succeed here. I had to love everything. But I found I didn't like certain aspects of the Japanese "reality" - the conformity, passive aggressive behavior, lack of meaning in empty ceremony. I felt horrible guilt - how could I want to come here so bad and then see it wasn't "what I wanted?"

I became depressed, not because of the situation itself, but because I felt I wasn't allowed to feel bad about my situation, or have any kind of culture shock. I tried to stop myself from feeling it, and, of course, only made it worse.

I was afraid that if I left Japan, that meant I was "giving up." How could I go? I thought of staying two and a half years just to prove I meant what I said in America, that I loved Japanese culture. Prove it to who? I only have one life, and I've got to live it while I can. Why stay here when it doesn't have a more meaningful purpose? I fulfilled my goal. I am experiencing this culture. And, I will have to move on. That's the great thing about achieving your dreams, once you reach one, you can go after another.

"You get to go find a new dream."

Making a Decision

I have lived here for ten months, and have more than half a year to go. I am now at peace; it's okay to say I'm leaving. It has been a great, educational, difficult, and fantastic experience. And as for my search to "find people like me," I've made close friends and they're worth every bit of all those years I dreamed of coming here.

There is nothing "wrong" with Japan. The reality of it is not diminished by my preconceived vision of it, nor the gap between them. My desire to come to Japan was one thing, and my life here another. My determination to come here gave me the courage to jump into a new life across the globe. I've already begun my new dream: long-term world travel.

In August 2014, I will complete my time on the JET Program and take my savings to travel around the world (for a really big project I'm developing right now). Will the reality of round-the-world travel turn out different than the dream? Of course. And I'm glad, because, just like Japan, that means it has moments that will surpass anything you could have dreamed of on your own.


Happy 2014! Thank you for reading my blog again this year :)
I love and appreciate your comments. Feel free to write back about your reactions.


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