Leaving Japan: The Break-Up


Five months before turning thirty, I have decided to instigate one of the biggest break-ups of my life. It’s not me, it’s you, Japan. Not to say we haven’t had great times together, but these four years have provided me with both a great love affair, and the personal growth to know that I should move on.

I have had a great lifestyle in Yamagata, my adopted home in north east Japan. Endless hiking, hot springs, and snowboarding in the winter; I loved this living fantasy enough to prioritise it above all else, but now I can see that it comes at too high a price. In Japan I am, among other things, single, female, and foreign. All the scenery in this lush, mountainous archipelago is not worth the dearth of career prospects, the lack of any status in civil society, the culturally-ingrained sexism, and the improbability of starting a family, not to mention the simply inescapable otherness of being.


In striving further and further to settle into life here - be it language study or adjusting to workplace and social norms - my efforts seem to highlight rather than negate difficulties. All too often, establishing even the most casual conversation means first navigating a series of incredulous enquiries or comments about one’s Japanese speaking ability, residency history, marital status, and profession. This mostly leaves me feeling invasively interviewed, and rarely results in any sense of connection. If a new acquaintance interrogates me on how “other” I am, I can’t help but feel that they are not even considering what commonalities I’m hoping might provide the basis for a conversation - say, living in the same town or shared hobbies.


Experience is the mother of inspiration; it’s how we piece together what we love and confirm what we don’t. My time in Japan has given me many gifts including my love of the outdoors, my third language, the chance to work on a global cruise, and a clutch of fierce, fast friendships. It has also taught me that doing a job I can do, rather than an occupation I’m passionate about, is not enough for me. As a native English speaker in Japan, language teaching is an almost ubiquitous rite of passage. Indeed, especially outside major cities, it is assumed to be one’s occupation until explained otherwise. What this tells me, is that my foreign-ness is the only aspect of my personhood which is valued in this society, regardless of other skills, language efforts, and my real grá for the place. From a legal perspective, it is notoriously difficult to secure a working visa for many situations other than a company proving, in detail, that they require your particular brand of foreign in their business model.

On the cusp of turning thirty, I feel the need for financial security, but moreover the urge to do good work, fulfil my potential, and contribute to the society in which I live. Living as the eternal outsider in Japan, with no role or representation in civil society, would leave me always tethered to employment or potentially (laughably?) marriage, for what little security of status or income I could eke out.

It is hard to shake a sense of injustice with doing skilled labour forty hours per week yet being unable to afford a very basic lifestyle. My rent is comically cheap compared to Dublin rates, but still takes a quarter of my monthly earnings. I haven’t gone out for drinks with friends in months. I have no Netflix, no Spotify, even home internet is outside of my budget. Japan maintains a very paper-based society, and being paid in cash gives one a very visceral experience of when the money runs out. The scant savings in my bank account dwindle as I can’t afford to make deposits to cover such bills as are paid by direct debit. My leisure time is spent in nature, the main expense of which is just the petrol to chase down the next scenic spot.


Leaving, however, has not been an easy decision. As many things as I miss from Ireland, I know I will miss from Japan. My thoughts have wandered long paths, burdened by the many reasons to stay, tentatively exploring notions of leaving. When I read up on the latest rugby news or stay up till all hours to follow coverage of a Six Nations game, I sigh and think how nice it would be to go down the pub with my dad to watch it, or to someday have a Leinster season ticket. Equally, when I melt into a bath of piping hot, mineral-rich water at one of the many hot springs in my rural town, I sigh and shudder to think of a life without the ritual of hot spring bathing. However, more than any environmental factor, the people who populate these paths - friends in Japan, mo mhuintir in Ireland, and those I love who have moved to many corners of the world - tug at my heartstrings the most. Perhaps it is here at the centre of all their pulling forces that I can find balance for myself, wherever I find myself geographically.


I see myself less as a traveller, more a collector of geography. While living and working here, my journeys throughout eastern and central Japan have given me a wealth of local knowledge and invaluable appreciation for the playground that is our environment. More than anything, I look forward to bringing this acquired sense of personal geography onwards with me, and to mapping out Ireland anew. I look forward to finding my feet, building my own path, and participating in the Ireland which I have proudly watched from afar as we voted for marriage equality, abortion rights, and stand up for ourselves in the crisis of Brexit.

Living in Japan, I have learned a lot about myself, and I believe that I am a better, more confident, multi-dimensional person than ever before. Whether that is specifically Japan’s fault or generally the effect of moving overseas, is hard to prove. What I have learned particularly about Japan is that it will never provide me with the opportunities to build the kind of independent, entrepreneurial, and socially-involved future I want for myself. However, I also know that my future will forever be connected to Japan, to my friends in Yamagata and Tokyo, and to all the mountains I know by name.


Four-and-a-bit years, three jobs, two apartments, and one round-the-world-cruise later, I’m leaving Japan. To say going back implies return, a backwards step perhaps, but because I have changed, everything has changed. I won’t let the familiarity of “going home” catch me out, when I imagine it will feel something more like starting all over again. I will embrace the notion of being a tourist in my own land to find new experiences, new places, and new ways of being.