When is “too long” in Japan?


“Been here long?”, or words to that effect, I must have been asked hundreds of times since I moved to Japan. My answer varies. I usually say I’ve been here for about ten years, then have to correct myself when I remember it’s now been 15 years since I arrived in Tokyo. If I’m in a morose mood, I might say, “too long”. Mostly in jest. Whichever, it’s been long enough to no longer consider wearing pajamas in public a sign of mental illness, but not so long that I’ve started bowing when I talk on the phone.

Recently, I’ve been wondering if it actually will ever become too long. Every few months it seems that another long-termer I know leaves Japan for good; or at least what they plan will be for good. Some of them I imagined were nailed down “lifers”, who suddenly (from my perspective) upped and moved for a change of lifestyle, a new job or, in some cases, because they had got to the point with Japan that a move to Mogadishu might have sounded promising. I’m still here, wife, son, dog and all.

I think I fall into the “don’t care” category. I am the middle ground. By no stretch of the imagination am I a Japanophile. I have no desire to master any particular part of Japanese culture and definitely no interest in naturalizing. I’m certainly not in the “see no, speak no, hear no” camp of long-term foreign residents who are very defensive of all things Japanese. I won’t be reminding other foreigners that we “are guests” with no right to voice concerns. We aren’t. We do. If you don’t like something about Japan, you don’t have to choose between grateful silence and “going home”.

I like Japan and its people. There have been moments I’ve been more negative than positive about the place, but since leaving behind a teaching job that I didn’t enjoy almost ten years ago, I like Japan. Like, mind you, not love. My family, a mix of Japanese and British if such labels are important, is involved to a nice degree in our community in Koto-ku, but also in my son’s school community, which itself is a good blend of nationalities. I like my job, too. Actually, I love it and the self-employed lifestyle.

Living in Tokyo is comfortable. Yes, it’s crowded in places, but I can take the dog for his evening walk and barely see a soul. Likewise if I go for a run along the Arakawa. Tokyo is also safe in many respects, although the prospect of a major earthquake is very real. Living where I do means I’m only minutes away from all the basics: doctor, dentist, library, supermarkets, parks, riverbank, gym, pool, station, and so on. High marks for convenience.

Yet I still don’t love Japan. Japan’s soul and mine aren’t a natural match. We attract in many ways, but isn’t that what opposites are meant to do at times? I’m much more suited to the English countryside or a European city. I may now prefer my fish raw, not deep-fried, but it will always be warm ale not warm sake for me.

So why do I stay? Well, it’s easy to. It’s also hard to leave. At least, that’s how it looks to someone like me who has never tried. My work wouldn’t be affected much by moving back to England (in fact, I might even benefit from it), but my wife would have to give up her job and that would mean a halving of our income. She’d have to settle into a new(ish) culture and go from having a career she likes to what might feel like (or actually might be) very limited work opportunities. I don’t picture her teaching Japanese or doing Japanese cooking classes. And if you knew her, you’d know those cooking classes would be very, very limited in content!

My son would have to say goodbye to friends and a school he loves. He has spent quite a bit of time in the UK and he’s about as bilingual as an 8-year-old can be, but he’d still have a lot of adjustments to make. We would probably have to sell the flat here. And so on it goes. The logistics of so many things would be difficult, especially without an employer doing most of the hard work for us. Can I make any more excuses? Yes, plenty, but I’ll spare you them here and share my conclusion instead. I realize that I stay in Japan because I like it, yes, but equally because I am too idle to make the effort to move on, even though half of me would like to. I doubt I’m the only one like that.