LEAVING AMERICA and Finding the Real World in Japan

As part of our series Leaving America, guest author Peter Thoene shares his post-college experience living in Japan.

During the calm spring afternoon of March 11th, 2011 a 9.0 Mm earthquake rattled the East Coast of Japan. The fifth largest quake in recorded history lasted well over 2 minutes and moved the Japanese coastline about 4 meters East. The massive quake caused a major tsunami as high as 38.9 meters (128 ft.) in some places. This tsunami then triggered the failure of several nuclear power plants and the subsequent leakage of nuclear radiation. The tragic results of this catastrophe included 15,833 dead, 6,135 injured, and 2,671 missing.

During these bone jarring two minutes, I was sitting in a library, a couple hundred miles away from the undersea epicenter. Those two minutes were only two of the mere 4,000 minutes I had already been in Japan. In other words, only three days after I arrived in Japan I experienced what then Prime Minister Kato called, "…the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan…in the 65 years after the end of World War II.”

Welcome to Japan Peter.

I had arrived only three days before the quake on March 8th. I had emigrated to Japan in order to delay what college seniors like to call entering “the real world.” I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and my flimsy Media Studies degree, so, through a series of interviews and lucky breaks, I ended up landing a job as an English instructor at a private language school in Yokohama, Japan. My attempt to elude this real world put me smack in the middle of the realest situation I could ever imagine. Three weeks after the quake I was in the classroom, teaching English to Japanese people aged 3 to 63. I couldn’t even order coffee in Japanese, let alone extend my heartfelt condolences to these students and their families during a time of profound hardship.

Reality check #1: National tragedy

Honestly, I had believed Japan would just be an extension of my partying in college. I could eat, drink, and be merry, with no real responsibilities. However, there is nothing more sobering than a nation united in grief. All across Japan the summer of 2011, fireworks shows and festivals were canceled. Normally vibrant city streets were darkened in order to conserve electricity due to a lack of power from the failed power plants. Everywhere people were struggling to pick up the pieces. I decided to use this struggle as fuel for my fire. I was determined to learn the language, make friends, and become a Yokohama native. This optimistic goal proved to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.

Since language and culture are woven together, I thought the best way to integrate myself into Japanese culture would be to learn Japanese. After signing up for classes though the local ward office, and discovering that the Japanese language has three different alphabets, dejection set in. Three alphabets! Two of which have roughly 48 characters and one of which contains thousands of characters. Each character has multiple ways to be read, depending on where the character is located in a sentence.

Reality check #2: A new and completely different language

My goal of escaping the real world, post colligate career, was proving much harder than I had anticipated. I arrived in Japan and quickly had to deal with a series of terrible disasters, and then the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of the Japanese language. The third reality check would come slowly and subtly through interactions with the Japanese population itself.

I consider myself an extrovert. I never had problems making friends growing up. I actually find myself more relaxed in a group of people than I am while alone. I moved houses and schools 6 times before the age of 14 and attended a boarding school during my four years of high school. I knew how to move. I knew how to make friends. I was not worried about starting a new life, and meeting people in Japan.  

The key to making friends is twofold. Number one: do the things you love to do. Number two: don’t be shy, say, “Hi.” With this easy to follow, two step plan, I set out to make some lifelong buddies. I skated through the streets, I surfed at the beaches, I explored neighborhoods, I ate at funky restaurants, I attended festivals, I went to concerts, I climbed mountains, I cheered at baseball games, I rode trains, and I stayed up all night dancing. All the while I tried to talk to everyone I met along the way. After all these excursions, after all my unrestrained geniality, and after about 6 months, my closest friends were all the non-Japanese people that I had met along the way. The friendship of these American, Australian, and English folks was valuable and precious to me, but this friendship wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I set out to integrate myself into the Japanese population.

Reality check #3: Making local friends isn’t so easy

I’m not going to speculate very deeply into why making locals friends has proven so difficult, because I do not have the answer. Here is one guess. A handful of my Japanese students have admitted to me that they like living in Japan because everyone is Japanese. Everyone, being Japanese, was raised with a similar set of morals, values, and ethics. When communicating with each other, many words, feelings, and ideas can be left unsaid. Everyone who is Japanese, I was told, is united in the same and mentality, and therefore communication is smooth. I am not Japanese, and therefore I do not possess that same cultural capital. Communication with me would be more difficult on many levels. Would I myself be willing to struggle that much in making new friends back in the states? Probably not. Looking back on my life in the U.S., I admit, I never went out of my way to make friends from overseas. I, more or less, stayed in my own urban tribe where it was comfortable, where the language was the same, where the jokes were understood, and where communication was easy.

I had come to Japan to escape real life, and in less than 6 months I had three major real life lessons.  An unprecedented disaster opened my eyes to the struggle many families face in their lifetimes. It opened my eyes to death and morning, loss and new beginnings. A new language, arguably one of the most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers, showed me that I would need persistence, patience, and drive if I wanted to master it. I couldn’t absorb it through osmosis, nor could I live a fulfilled life without it. Becoming proficient would take classic hard work and elbow grease. Finally out of college, out of my urban tribe, and out on my own, making friends wouldn’t be a snap like it had always been. Outside of the university setting, everybody is a different age, at different stage of life, and has different goals. Making friends would take persistence. It would take a certain amount of discomfort, and lot of awkward silences.

I had planned to stay in Japan for one year. When March 2012 rolled around, I wasn't even close to integrating myself into Japanese culture, being proficient at the language, or making a bunch of friends. I renewed my teaching contract and stayed on for another year. Here I am now, it’s July 2013 and I’m still here. I can’t say that I will stay here as long as it takes to learn the language and make a satisfactory amount of lifelong connections, but I am happy that I stuck it out as long as I have. I’m happy that I have more realistic ideas of what it takes to achieve my goals. I chip away a little bit everyday at learning Japanese. I smile and say hello to people as much as possible. I am even happy that in my retreat from the real world I have met it head on and learned how to deal with it. Even if I leave Japan tomorrow, I can be happy that I now posses a skill set necessary to survive in this real world. 

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