If you’ve spent any amount of time living in Japan, then you’ve probably come across this person; in fact, you might be this person. Everyone has their own reasons for coming to this beautiful country and learning about its distinct language and culture. And yet, we wonder why foreign residents give up on life and stop trying to become members of society. Somewhere between their starry-eyed days and their current lull in life, their drive to better themselves has evaporated. So what happened, and why is this occurrence so frequent among long-term foreign residents in Japan?
As we spend our days living in the moment, it’s easy to lose track of time. What may have started out as a year abroad, quickly became three years. Then five years, ten years, and before you know it, you’re living this life that you may or may not have intended to live; and yet, here you are. You’re still you, only things have changed. You’re now living life behind the curtain, sans the mystery; only you’ve come this far, but the fire within you is long gone. Let’s take a moment to reevaluate the ashes of the past, and see if we can rekindle that future.
Dwelling on Excuses
When it comes to why do foreign residents give up on life, both on learning the language and adhering to social norms, we tend to hear the same excuses over and over.
Here’s the most common one:
What they say: I don’t have enough time.
What they mean: It’s just not important to me.
Here’s another common variation:
What they say: I’ve been meaning to get around to it.
What they mean: It’s just not a priority.
There are an endless amount of excuses, but it always comes down to the same reason. Making an effort to improve their Japanese and follow the rules of society are just too much of a hassle for them, and not worth the payoff. So that leaves us wondering… Why? Why is it such a hassle, and what exactly is the payoff that they perceive to be of so little value?
Generally, it always comes down to priorities and what is important to you. Do you want to spend your free time indulging in fun activities, or would you rather spend that time studying or minding your coworker’s business? It should be of little surprise that a number of people would rather opt to do what pleases them instead of what is more responsible and/or culturally appropriate. The irony is that studying as well as communicating and coordinating with your coworkers can be a fun and rewarding experience. It’s only as good or bad as you make it, so why not own up to it?
Perceived Lack of Value
To attain some greater incite on why foreign residents give up on life, let’s examine why some foreign residents don’t find the payoff of studying and adhering to cultural norms as valuable.
For starters, let’s get something straight. Being able to effortlessly take in any form of information and express intricate thoughts and opinions is a vital skill in any country. So is knowing how to act appropriately in any given situation. These are vital skills for being a member of any society. Japan is no different, and it’s important that you can pull your own weight.
In the west, there seems to be this mentality of “being an adult means doing whatever I want and not caring about what others think.” In Japan, this is called “being childish and extremely selfish.” Knowing how to behave and understanding what is and is not socially appropriate is vital for all adults and functioning members of society.
As a foreigner, you might choose to ignore certain social cues, feign ignorance, or just flat out not care, but know that this will only lead to a poor perception of you. And remember, everything you do is not just a reflection of you, but also your home country, and all foreigners in Japan.
Don’t Hole Yourself Up
Even if your spouse happens to be Japanese, they can’t be there for you all the time. While you may have enough Japanese to just “get by,” you are doing yourself and everyone you know a disservice by not striving to better yourself.
If you have a western spouse and your family only communicates in English, constantly consuming English-only media, and only using minimal Japanese when dining out or shopping, then it might be time to reevaluate your lifestyle. By breaking out of your bubble, you’ll see this amazing country has a lot more to offer you and by bettering yourself, you’ll find you also have a lot more to offer in return.
Let’s take a look at which parts of your life you could improve simply by studying more Japanese and taking greater care at how you conduct yourself socially.
Broader Range of Fluency for Quality of Life
By simply putting in the time a day, your increased vocabulary will eventually lead you to understand what you once may have thought to be an impossible task. Going to the doctor alone and understanding a medical opinion. Reading the newspaper and discussing the details with your colleagues. Understanding politics and debating with your friends. Even if you don’t enjoy politics, what happens in Japan will affect you and those around you. Don’t be ignorant; do your part to stay informed.
Increased Respect and Deeper Relationships
If you find yourself lonely, unappreciated, or feeling distant from your coworkers, then perhaps it’s time to take another look at how you interact with them. Part of this tends to be universal and is simple as making an effort to learn more about them. Another part is understanding the working dynamic in Japan. Unlike the west where people maintain shallow relationships, which tend to evaporate when exiting a position, jobs in Japan are far less transient. When someone gets hired for their career, it tends to be for life. So, if you foresee your future here, then it’s best make an effort at maintaining and developing those relationships.
And as far as relationships go, here’s a big skill you need have: In Japan, it’s very important to be able to read the atmosphere. Anticipating the needs of others and knowing what is expected of you without having to be told are both extremely important qualities to possess, especially in Japan. Even if you believe a certain process to be tedious or unnecessary, respecting social norms instead of feigning ignorance will earn you the respect and admiration of both your friends and coworkers. Also, no one will ever look down on your for being extra courteous, so there’s never any need to feel awkward for being polite.
John Lennon once said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” A lot of why foreign residents give up on life just comes down to their life choices. If you came to Japan on a brief stint to teach English abroad, and then you suddenly find yourself in a serious relationship, it wouldn’t be strange for you to question whether or not you will extend your stay. As the years fly by, you may (to your dissatisfaction) find yourself holding an “ALT career,” and if you’re engaged or married with kids, your life choices may seem a lot less clear-cut than they were a few years ago.
This is why so many foreign residents in Japan don’t return to their home country. They feel trapped here with their families. If your spouse works and if your kids are halfway through the school-system, then it won’t be so easy to just uproot them from their social lives. Especially if you are mid-career in a role like ALT, a job which doesn’t exist in your home country. Even if you were to go home and try to become a teacher, it would require a license and the funds for tuition, not to mention you may already have some existing student loans.
Stunted in Life
Perhaps why foreign residents give up on life is simply that they just can’t get past their day-to-day. It’s understandable that sometimes we have ideas of where life is going to take us, but then things get out of control and before you know it, you’re stuck in an unfulfilled rut. But it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be this way, and everyday is another chance to turn your life around and improve it for the better.
Before You Judge
So if you know someone in such a position, consider that going home may not be an option for them, and that Japan is their new home. If you see them struggling, maybe you can help by showing them all they have to gain with just a little extra effort. Show them that integrating their hobbies into studying Japanese can make it a very fun and engaging experience, and that putting in the time for others will always gain them gratitude instead of ire.
Remember, change has to come from within, and there can always be something deeper going on than mere apathy. External factors, such as death of a loved one, divorce, or sudden unemployment, could all lead one down a path of uncertainty. The best thing you can do in this situation is to be there for them and encourage them to talk to their friends. If you find yourself in a lost or hopeless situation, you can always reach out to the TELL, an organization created to address the mental needs of foreign residents in Japan.
Be the Change You Want to See
Keeping in mind all these reasons why foreign residents give up on life, you can hopefully remember that there are just as many reasons why it’s important to give it your all. Improving your quality of life in Japan can be as simple as giving yourself a little push. Continue to study Japanese (a life-long experience), always strive to maintain the wa (peace) in each aspect of your life (relationships, environments, etc.), and sincerely care about yourself and the people around you. If you can handle that much, then you’ll certainly feel the difference as each day grows brighter.