Should I Stay or Should I Go – What Motivates Foreigners to Stay in Japan Long-term?
This coming August will mark 11 years since I first visited Japan, and September will mark 10 years since I first moved to Tokyo. There’s certainly been no shortage of ups and downs in this past decade. Successes and failures, triumphs and despairs and yet, through it all, my love of this country and its great people has only strengthened.
Yet the same cannot be said of many of the non-Japanese friends I have met here in the last 10 years. Whilst a few of them remain here, the vast majority seem to have come and gone. No sooner were they extolling the virtues of Japanese lifestyle and culture than they had picked up sticks and returned from whence they came to get a “real job”.
Of course thanks to the modern marvels of Facebook and as such, I am still able to keep in regular contact with these friends and indeed I am both delighted and a little envious to see them continue to prosper whilst my own career in Japan stagnates in something of a rut.
It got me thinking though, why am I so intent on making a life here in Japan for myself whilst the majority of my foreign friends seem content to take the “easy option” and go home to resume the careers they originally intended to follow?
I think it’s fair to say that to cut it as a “long-termer” in Japan one needs to have a certain frame of mind and embrace a certain view of themselves and how they perceive the people around them.
From my own point of view, I believe that one of my own strongest attributes, both professionally and personally is my adaptability. In Japan, especially in the context of English teaching, one will frequently find their life in a state of flux. Working contracts are seldom more than one year, and regardless of how well you perform your duties, renewal is by no means guaranteed. Indeed some places have seemingly arbitrary limits of 3 or 5 years imposed on how long you can work for a company, meaning stable employment simply isn’t an option.
And this is, in many ways, a self-defeating prophecy. Lack of stable employment attracts a transient workforce, meaning that teachers are made to work in schools where they don’t really feel valued and companies and students lose out from having teachers who are not fully committed to their craft. After all, it is a primary rule of economics that you get what you pay for.
Likewise settling down in Japan has a number of complicating factors. Without permanent residency, which takes 10 years, or Japanese nationality, which takes at least 5 years, you can forget about getting a loan or securing a mortgage to buy a house. Having a Japanese spouse can go some way to smoothing the path in this regard, but let’s face it, “Will you marry me?” is romantic; “Will you enter into a legally binding contract in order to facilitate the purchase of a house and furthering of my credit rating?” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
What drives many people away from Japan ultimately isn’t these financial considerations or the instability of employment. After all, English teachers in Japan are a bit like high-priced lawyers in the US. No matter how bad the economy gets, there will always be widespread demand for the specific services they provide.
From my own observations, I think the primary reason why many choose to leave Japan after only a few years is the feeling of alienation, that cold, numb feeling that no matter how long we stay in Japan, we will never be truly accepted by Japanese society as a whole. We will always be perceived as foreign, different and an outsider, no matter how good our Japanese language ability is, or how hard we work to integrate ourselves into the culture.
How big an effect this has on you as a person, and how strongly it informs your decisions when it comes to settling down really depends less on Japan and more so on your own state of mind.
This feeling of alienation does, in most cases I think, stem from either a feeling of homesickness or some form of personal inadequacy, or simply the desire to attain a career or life goal that, for whatever reason cannot be realized in Japan.
So, what about those like me who choose to stay in Japan despite the seeming adversity? Why have we been here for so long and why will we continue here?
I guess the answer comes from another question: “What things in life are most important to you?”
I love Japan for a number of reasons. The people are courteous and polite, the streets and the inner cities are safe, day and night, the food is great, and the summers are long and warm, the winters refreshingly brief.
Most of all however, it is an intangible, a feeling, an instinctive sense of belonging that keeps me here. For a number of reasons, the connection, the commitment I feel to Japan and its people is far greater than anything I ever felt when I was in Scotland. To paraphrase something the great comedian Billy Connolly once said: “They may seem distant at first, but once you get to know these people, you almost have to have them surgically removed!”
Whilst Connolly was speaking of his affection for the people of The Northern Isles in that statement, I believe I hold similar feelings to the Japanese.
I don’t know where my career and my life will ultimately take me, but I don’t plan on leaving Japan any time soon, and come what may the deep connection and affection I feel for this country and its people is something that will never leave me.