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Friday, March 4, 2016

Why I Left Japan

Why do people leave Japan - even though they swear it has been the best time of their life?

It's a tough question to answer - and everyone's answer depends on that person's mood at the time of the asking. I would bet answers would change depending on who is asking, and when it was being asked.

So... some 23 years after leaving Japan, here is my answer:

I lived in Japan between 1990 and 1993 as an assistant English Teacher in the early part of the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme.

I had it easy.

Regular readers will assume correctly that I had it easier than most of my then-contemporaries.

Everything I touched turned to gold (you would think that platinum would be more valuable than gold, but it's not - buy platinum).

I had a great bunch of bosses at the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) office in Tochigi-ken. I had a fantastic three-bedroom apartment with two balconies and a large living room-dining room-kitchen and a western bathroom area and a queen-sized bed. I had women falling over themselves to get to know me better for the evening. I had people clamoring to sit and talk with me at bars. I had money for all the nice things I wanted to collect (and I collected a lot of things). I had money to travel and did. I had a great working-environment with mostly fantastic kids who liked me and even some who listened to me. I was immersed in the community doing night classes of English for extra cash (you aren't supposed to do that on JET, but my bosses didn't mind). I had air-conditioning and excellent non-kerosene heating. I could come and go as I please and had few cares in the world. My apartment was even mostly paid for by the OBOE.

I left Japan after the then-three year maximum on the JET Programme because the contract was up.

Why didn't I stay longer if things were so great?

I could give you all the following reasons: homesick; missed the first Toronto Blue Jays World Series title; missed watching the Toronto Maple Leafs play good hockey in the play-offs; I missed my friends; it was time to get my career underway; I missed eating steak and lobster; I missed driving my own car rather than riding a bicycle everywhere; I missed sleeping with western women.

But all of that would be a lie.

Yeah, my mother was sick during my last year in Japan. Yeah, my grandfather and cat had died during my first year in Japan. Yeah, I missed my local sports teams and friends… but after being forced/encouraged to go to Japan on a one-year contract and re-upping two more times because it was fun, I discovered that I had become an adult while in Japan.

I was just a dumb kid who had lived at home, never held a full-time job, barely eked out a university degree in political science, but did well enough with his journalism at college…

But I grew up in Japan. I gained a modicum of independence mostly living alone—I had girlfriends and "girlfriends" and friends.

While other foreigners left Japan with the thought that if they were to stay in Japan, they would never completely fit in, it wasn't ever an excuse for me.

All one has to do is read the racists comments sometimes presented in this blog and in some of the others I write and used to write. As long as they don't swear, I'll publish it. None, despite the conviction of their attitudes will ever sign their real name, because they know deep down inside that such attitudes are abhorrent in society, and that it would bring scorn and trouble upon them if such feelings of hatred were seen by the world under its true face. It's gutless.

I can and have traced IP addresses, however. Of the troublemakers.

I don't mind any of you anonymous readers and commentators who present fair arguments. I still like knowing who I am talking to you, but I also understand that for most, anonymity isn't because of cowardice, but rather privacy.

As you can tell, I leave a lot of myself here for public flogging in this blog. I don't hide. I am visible. Guts? Stupidity? Same thing probably in this case.

I am a visible minority in Canada. I have never attempted to use it to my advantage, though I accept that there may have been times when others may have used me in such a manner to meet a 'quota'. I speak English and write and read it better than most people in North America, and "despite" having parents born in India (I've never been there), I was born in England, was educated in Canada and grew up in Japan beginning at the age of 25. I identify myself as: "Andrew. I'm a writer."

In Japan, there is the real concept that when you aren't Japanese, you can never become Japanese no matter how much Japanese-language or culture you can absorb.

There's always going to be people who look at you and exclaim "Gaijin".

The term "gaijin" means "foreigner", but in its strictest sense, it really means "outsider".

Not being a White Canadian, there are many in Canada who look at me and believe me to be an outsider as well.

Hell, if I was to go and live in India right now, people there would look upon me as an outsider because I don't speak any of their languages, don't care for their foods and know nothing of their history or social customs.

Even though I know more about Canadian history, sports, foods, and culture than most people (not all, to be sure!) in Canada, because of the way I look, I am not considered by some (not all, and not even close to the majority of people) to be Canadian, let alone Canadian-enough. You know... because only White people can be Canadians... which must be so terrible for the Inuit and Natives, not to mention all the rest of us free-loading bastards.

I really did recently receive a letter of comment on another blog that expressed those emotions. I could have commented on that person's poor spelling and illogical grammar, but I don't believe that speaking English in a 'swell' manner defines a person other than the fact that they aren't that good in English.

So… being an outsider in Japan? Screw that... I have been used to being considered an outsider by some people. Again... not even close to the majority of people I have met or dealt with. There's always a few nuts in a fruitcake.

When I was applying to the JET Programme back in early 1990, I was told and asked: "The Japanese tend to be a bit xenophobic - even racist - in their treatment and attitude of foreigners. How would you handle that?"

I pretty much answered with: "The same way I handle life in Canada now."

I explained that as a visible minority, there are always a few racist bigots out there. If I can explain to them calmly and effectively why their attitude is hurtful, great. Otherwise, you just deal with it and move on and realize that not everyone thinks that way.

As such… despite the peculiarities of Japan versus other countries (every country is peculiar in its own way), to me there wasn't a huge difference in how I would be affected by Japanese racism.

Let's not kid ourselves… when the Japanese use the term 'gaijin', it is, regardless of its intent, a racist term.

I can recall a gentleman talking to my boss about the "gaijin no sensei" (outsider teacher - and yes, I know he meant foreigner teacher, because his tone sounded non-threatening), but... my Ohtawara Board of Education boss and friend Hanazaki-san interrupted him and explained that I wasn't a gaijin', that I was "An-do-ryu sensei (Andrew teacher)".

I'll never forget that moment. It was beautiful.

I know there were other JET participants who would get upset when as they walked by a Japanese person, they were pointed at and beseeched with a "Hora! Gaijin-da! (Look! A foreigner/outsider)".

They didn't like being singled out as a foreigner, when all they wanted was to fit in.

Some 27 years later, that sort of stuff still happens. Pick a country. Any country.

Granted where I lived in Japan, there had not been a whole lot of foreigners living within their community prior to my arrival… but really, that doesn't excuse the vocal screech.

But that's what we were there for in Japan… it wasn't to teach English. Gods… it was never about that - at least it wasn't back then.

It was to internationalize the locals… to get them used to the strange and wonderful ways of foreigners, and yes, if possible, help the youth learn a bit of English conversation - and to make them enjoy learning it.

As mentioned, being called a gajin didn't bother me as much as it bothered others. Again, not every foreigner took the 'gaijin' call to heart either, chalking it up to ignorance, not a lack of intelligence.

By the time Matthew and I left Japan, few people in our city of Ohtawara could really think of us as 'outsiders'. We were from elsewhere, but we were Ohtawarians first. We had become part of the community. But, yes, you could still hear the odd 'gaijin' comment or shout directed at one of us or both.

I would expect it to have bothered Matthew a bit more towards the end of three years (he stayed longer than that even) only because he was engaged to a beautiful Japanese chick named Takako, whose sarcastic humor at me has long been amusing because I know she doesn't have a mean bone in her body. Plus she's being sarcastic in a second language! That takes intelligence!

No… I left Japan only because I was afraid that I was going to be alone there after my then-fiance Noboko could not/would not leave the familiarity of her father's demands in order to be with the man she loved - me. 

I hated that decision, but I can respect it. It was hers to make, and she made it. End of story. I wrote about it in this blog, and if you seek out "Noboko And Andrew" you'll see a grown man crumble. I hated writing every single stinking word of it, as I could picture every instance and every conversation as though it had happened seconds earlier. I'm weird that way.

Without Noboko by my side and with my JET contract up (back then we could only do a maximum of three years on the programme), and with no plans in place to work as a teacher in a private Japanese school (I am less a conventional teacher than I am a teaching conversationalist), I really had no reason to stay.

That was why I left. Not because of what Toronto, Canada could offer me, but rather because of the fact that I no longer had anything to keep me in Japan.

Love of country, and customs, and food… sure… but I had all that in Canada. I didn't have a job waiting for me in Toronto. I didn't even know what the hell I could do for a living. The economy sucked. I only had $10,000 saved (done in the last three months of my 36-month stay). My old white Mazda 323 car was still sitting in the driveway back in Toronto. But without a job, how could I afford a place to live? $1,000 a month in rent? What if I didn't have a job after 10 months? Money gone way before then, as there would be electrical, heating, TV, telephone, internet… food… entertainment?

Then, as before Japan, women in Toronto did not look at me. Period. Unless I was flashing a $20 bill at them to keep dancing.

So… back in Toronto…. unemployed. Single. Living in my parent's house. The unholy trifecta.

Better than Japan? No way in hell. I lost my independence. I lost that spark of individuality that made me a commodity in Ohtawara. I lost Noboko.

No… I was heartbroken for Noboko. That's why I left Japan.

It might also be why it took an additional 16 years before I felt ready to talk about Japan again via this blog - beginning in 2009.

I want to go on the record, by the way, that for over five straight years now, I have posted a blog here. Not just a three-word blog and/or a photo, but a real blog entry - some entirely too long like this 2,400-word monstrosity.

My heartbreak over Japan is apparently done with, and now I can deal with the other heartbreaks life has thrown at me. Of course, it's not not all bad. It never is, when you stop and think about things.

Here's what I wrote to my friend Vinnie, who wanted to know in the first place, what I thought about 'leaving or staying' in Japan:

"Being a visible gaijin in Canada, there really wasn't that much of a difference for me to have stayed in Japan as a gaijin.

I could have done it, and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it - if I was with the right person.

I guess it really depends on your frame of mind before you go to Japan for the first time.

If you believe you have lots going on back 'home' then of course your stay COULD be a short one in Japan.

If you are like me and had no plans at all for the future... and roll with whatever life throws at you... then Japan is as good a place as any in this Great Big Blue Marble to put down roots.

Others like the adventure of not putting down roots - more power to you - and see the world and continue to try new things until they finally find what it is they are looking for.

Some people settle. Some continue to search.

There is no right and there is no wrong. There just is."

Okay - enough.

By the way… did any of you watch the 2016 Westminster Kennel Club Dog show recently? The judge who named the Best In Show dog breed was from "Ontario, Canada" according to the words under his name on the television. "Ontario, Canada?" That's like saying someone is from Texas, United States of America… except Ontario is larger. How about giving the damn city or town he was from, along with the province and country? I bring this up just to show that even Canada's neighbors in central North America often (not even close to always) have no clue about respect for their snowback cousins to the north.

Finally... remember that ESID - every situation is different (in Japan, and in life).

Me? Japan—It's A Wonderful Rife.

Andrew Joseph


  1. In and out of synchronicity.

    1. Ha. Did you know I can't answer these things from my home computer for some stupid reason?

    2. Completely selfish on my part. I missed the repartee (yeah who speaks like that these days ... me and a few other old bookwoms.) Here's the full explanation (getting back at you for all the baseball posts which I did read) ... Click it ... You'll see what I mean -

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Just wanted to comment and say that your post was beautiful.

    I'm an Indian living in Montreal, Canada; a permanent-resident-soon-to-be-citizen. I am writing this from Takayama, Japan. I'm on a 21-day visit as a tourist to the country I've always thought I'd want to end up living in. I even brushed up my university Japanese for this trip.

    Sadly, I've come to some realisations that, while great in making me realize how much I value my lifestyle in Canada, have otherwise destroyed any innocence I held on the matter of moving to Japan for a longer stay.

    I found you while searching for others who might have had a falling out with Japan for whatever reason. Of course, I know that your's was for different reasons. Still, from the post I just read you seem to have interesting things to say.

    So, I'll be checking out your other posts. Just wanted to thank you for this one, nonetheless. And of course, found it cool that some random Indian from Toronto could end up in Japan during the early 90s and have a great time and get laid a lot. That's always a plus.

    1. Hi Ash - how's it going?
      So - how come you think you lost your innocence re: living in Japan? It wasn't something I said, I hope. Or what anyone else said.
      Everyone's situation is different... and whether you are living in Canada, Japan or India, one takes out what one puts in.
      Montreal IS a beautiful city and I'd move there if I had a job. Takayama, too. Home is wherever you are. Enjoy your home.
      Thanks for the kind words about stuff. I try to keep things fairly non-judgemental and offer some info about stuff people might not usually think off. Half the time (or more), I right about stuff I would never have thought of while I was in Japan. I was always trying to fit in the best I could, so looking for differences wasn't always a good thing. I looked for similarities.