When you live in Japan, people make an assumption about why you are here. More often than not, they fill the gap in their knowledge with their own motivation or ones that they are familiar with based on what others have said or they have read. Some people come here because they love aspects of Japanese culture, especially manga, anime, or pop culture. Others follow a dream of knowing this "exotic" culture better after falling love with it from afar. Yet others have a Japanese friend or romantic partner that sparked their interest in this country and they followed them here. Only a very few people know why I'm here, and I'm pretty sure none of my readers know. However, the fact that I approach life in Japan with a very different attitude than most people may be better understood if I explain how I got here.
I will start by saying that I had zero interest in Japan when I first came here. That's right. ZERO. In 1987, I had a penpal from California who I fell in love with. He and I exchanged cassette tapes with each of us talking to one another rather than writing letters. We started off speaking for about 45 minutes to an hour on 60-minutes tapes, and moved up to marathons which had us cramming several 90-minute tapes into packages. We talked a lot and knew each other better than most people know one another face-to-face. When all you have is talk, you explore every facet of conversation and information about each other.
My penpal's charm was so beguiling that I fell for him when I listened to the second tape that he sent me, but I was not going to risk putting my feelings out there. To make a long story (a very long one) short, about 6 months later, he admitted he felt the same way about me and we decided we wanted to be together in the flesh. Unfortunately, his admission (on July 18th) came after signing a contract to spend a year teaching in Japan starting in August. He had just graduated from university and the job looked appealing so he took it, and we were facing a forced year apart in different countries rather than simply on opposite coasts (I was in Pennsylvania) because he had to honor this commitment.
My penpal-boyfriend, who I'd never looked in the eye but was madly in love with, flew off to Japan and we burdened the postal service with package after package with tapes and care packages. I sent him food and reading material from home. He sent me amazing Japanese collectibles pertaining to my favorite rock group. And we both ached to actually be together.
Though I was quite poor and not making a lot of money at my first job at a halfway house for mentally ill people (taking advantage of my degree in psychology), I saved enough money to arrange to come to Japan and finally meet him in March 1988. The only reason I came here was to meet him. Japan was just the place he was living in and where I had to go to finally see him. I'm sure that many can imagine how many butterflies I had associated with this experience. What is more, people around me were constantly warning me about how dangerous what I was doing was going to be. I wasn't just coming to meet someone I'd never met face-to-face but had a relationship with, but I was going to be staying in the same tiny Japanese apartment with him for an entire month.
At this point, some of my readers might be anticipating a story of disastrous first meeting and painful disappointment. That wasn't what happened. It was the greatest month of my entire life, a honeymoon filled with joy and every expectation about what my boyfriend was like exceeded. He was brilliant. We got along wonderfully and had perfect chemistry emotionally and physically. It was a dream that was so incredible that I sometimes couldn't believe I'd actually lived it. And, yes, I later married that man and have been incredibly happy with him since that time.
Japan was incidental, not my great passion. When my future husband finished his contract and returned to his home in California, I joined him and we lived there for 10 months. We did not exactly flourish in that setting and based on how things went for him in Japan, we both decided to come back together for a five-year plan. The idea was to pay off our student loans and to save $50,000 in that time frame. Japan was an interesting place to be, but it was more a place to work. I had no idea at that time what living here was going to mean psychologically and only knew superficially about the culture, but I had that month of heaven to draw on as a lure to return. Also, my husband flew to Japan alone after our wedding and secured a job for himself so we were already halfway there.
The original plan of 5 years and $50,000 fell by the wayside as we both grew comfortable with the lifestyle and circumstances. We decided to stay as long as it felt "right" rather than place arbitrary limits on our time here. I cannot and will not go into the fluctuations in priorities, feelings, and situations which lead to us being here far longer than originally planned (about 23 years). I would need to write an entire book to talk about it all or to start a new blog that I'd have to work at for years to tell the entire tale, but suffice it to say that life is more complex than short talks of "reasons" can convey. We haven't just "lived in Japan" during all of this time, but we have also lived a full, rich life which has been satisfying on multiple levels. Being in Japan played a role in that, but it wasn't the end-all and be-all of it. If you think living in Japan is supposed to only be about Japan, then you're missing out on a fuller sense of what it means to exist and be a human being.
Japan is where I happen to live, but it's not necessarily why I live here. It's not that it isn't an interesting place to live in many, many ways, but I'm not "in love" with it as many people are. I ended up here because I was in love with someone who happened to be here and happened to think it was a good idea to come back. This means my perspective is not altered by a need to frame it in a particular manner (positively or negatively). Japan ended up being a place where I could experience a great deal of personal growth and a gold mine for someone who is interested in psychology. It has been the opportunity of a lifetime in that way, but there are fascinating opportunities to explore psychology everywhere.
Being in Japan for me has been like that fateful journey on the S.S. Minnow piloted by the Skipper and his first mate Gilligan. They bargained for a three-hour tour, but ended up on an island living a very different existence than they expected for a much longer time. I planned on staying here for 5 years, but it ended up being more than I expected and was harder to leave than one might anticipate. I like living here, and am very happy with my life, but I didn't come here out of abject adoration of Japan and it's not why I remain here. I stay here because it continues to offer unique personal learning and growth opportunities. I'll be going when I think I've tapped that potential, and that's what I'd be doing no matter where I was living.
I'm opening up comments on this post (only) because I want to allow people to share their reasons for coming to Japan if they would like. Please keep in mind, when commenting, why I generally don't allow comments, and please keep comments on this topic rather than comment on other posts.