On August 1st, 2007, I first set foot in my apartment in Kawanishi, Hyogo, having just endured two days of useless orientation in Tokyo. August 1st was the day I signed my contract of employment and my lease. August 1st was my first day of living in Japan as an adult.
You can’t know what’s in store for you when you move to a foreign country. It doesn’t matter that I came to Japan twice before: once as a tourist, once as a student. When you come here to work, you’re on your own. No university liason, no dormitory full of peers, no safety net. And while I was older than the typical JET (30 going on 31) and had a loving fiancee eager to help me, it didn’t take long before I felt overwhelmed by my unfamiliar surroundings.
Looking back on that summer now, it occurs to me that having Mako in my life was both a fantastic aid and a difficult burden to live with. Fantastic, of course, because we love each other and she (and her family, who have been wonderfully supportive since I met them) did everything in her power to ease me into my new environment.
The difficult part was that by having Mako help me so thoroughly, it became very easy for me to settle into life in my apartment away from everyone else. I didn’t have any JET coworkers or neighbors, I only encountered them in passing on the trains occasionally. My incentive to reach out and make friends was neutralized by my relationship.
It’s not that I regret spending so much time with Mako in that first year, it’s just that once I started pushing myself to go out and meet people in public I found it changed me for the better. Life on JET is pretty solitary. Unless you miraculously break through and befriend (as in, see socially outside of work) your Japanese coworkers, you’re stuck pining for friends and family back “home” who you never see.
On that note, I cannot stress how magical the era of Facebook has been to me as an expat. None of the people close to me in the US fully embraced social networking as I have, but even the occasional message or “like” has reminded me of all the good times we had. And it’s fun to see glimpses of their new lives - couples getting married, children born, new jobs, even everyday stuff like lunch in a familiar place makes me smile.
The truth is no one ever tells you a friendship is over, unless you’re a huge dick who insults people and even then I think they just stop calling you back. It’s not that I don’t have friends “back home” anymore, it’s that “home” has moved. Five years into my new life, Japan is home now.
I still miss my friends from the US but the reality is they’ve moved on. Our frames of reference have drifted apart. We can still connect over memories and maybe the next time I’m in the States, we’ll have a party and that will be fun. But my closest friends, the ones I talk to about anything and everything, they’re the ones I’ve met in these past five years.
Here’s where things get complicated: this is the season of transition for JETs. I said goodbye to many wonderful people in the last few weeks, people with whom I had this shared Japanese experience for years, people who are now going “home” to someplace far away. I wasn’t close to all of them but it hurts to see so many of them leave.
I’ve been down this road before. Friends met in elementary school, friends met in high school, friends met over summer vacation, friends met at the movies, friends met at the post office (there were a couple!), friends met in college…all of them came and went.
After five years on JET, it’s only now that I’m really aware that my new friends I’ve met in Japan are going away too. Some will stay, of course, but most will not.
What do I do now? I suppose the only thing to do is keep pushing myself to make new friends. Keep going out to parties, keep writing, keep forcing myself to never settle for the ridiculous idea that one can have “enough” friends.
After 1827 days of living in Japan, I look forward to whatever may happen today or tomorrow, because I have no idea what’s next. I cant wait to see it.