I celebrated a decade in Japan on July 23. I faced the anniversary pretty much indifferent, but thought it worth writing some notes down on what I suppose is quite an important landmark.

I arrived in the country at the age of 21, pretty much still a kid. Through the last decade, the country has probably shaped me more than I would like to admit.

Ten years in, I wonder where the time went, what happened, and why I never left. I have few grudges with the country, though I am not afraid to criticize aspects of Japanese society. Japan functions quite well, even if from time to time there are events that can stun (I’m looking at you TEPCO).

Unlike some foreigners that live here, I have an indifference to anime, the domestic movie industry, gaming, the music scene, and just about every other aspect of the “Cool Japan” project. In other words, I’m a pretty normal foreign Japan resident.

There are few “real Japan” things that thrill me. Beyond the highlights, the traditional architecture does not particularly move me. The history of the place before the Meiji Era is not something I am particularly interested in. The religious traditions – Shinto and Buddhism – have no more appeal to me than Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism or any other archaic practices. I can find philosophy I like – and dislike – in the old traditions. But the country does not have a religious hold on me.

So why am I here? Why do I stay? And more importantly, why do I want to continue living here?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to those questions.

I have good friends in the country and I would miss them if I left. But I could always come back to visit. And I miss my friends that live elsewhere in the world.

I’m happily married, but my wife would happily leave. I have a healthy social life, but I always have had a healthy social life.

Is it work? In a way, perhaps yes. Over my time in the country, I’ve managed to build a career that certainly feels like it is on an upward trajectory: My pay continues to improve, and my responsibilities too.

This underlines a conundrum about the country, or at least my perception of it. My Japan is a place that does not conform to the things said about it. That might be where its appeal lies.

Data shows us Japan is declining, but my experiences don’t. Perhaps it is because I live in the capital, Tokyo, but my experiences in the job market are also those of my friends. We all have better working conditions now than we did earlier in life. The financial crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake brought some pain to our wallets, but in general the economic and professional lives of those that surround me seem to have improved.

In a way, looking for an answer to this questions brought about by this prosperity in the face of decline keeps me in the country. If the country is declining, why do I find few signs of it? Yes, there are dilapidated hotels, abandoned villages and numerous other signs of economic change, but do they constitute decline? Perhaps I see things the wrong way, but they don’t for me. Nothing I see seems unique to Japan, it’s the same sort of decline I see in other countries.

And there are reasons I am happy here. Many aspects of the culture attract me.

Before arriving in Japan, I had worked supporting challenging adults with learning difficulties. My job, at an NPO, was to devise schedules, teaching strategies and communication patterns for clients with extreme cases of conditions such as autism and epilepsy. I left having learned a lot. At the age of 21 decided I would try to write a book (forgive my immaturity on this next bit) that tackled learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a Dostoevskian manner. A couple of months into my time in Japan, I borrowed “A Personal Matter” by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe from the library. The book tackles learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a modern manner.

I was hooked. Over the course of the next few years I tackled the works of the great (or simply popular) modern Japanese authors – people such as Junichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami and Kobo Abe. The authors suggested a different Japan, one that I had never imagined existed. I asked friends from the country whether they liked the authors I was reading and got a wide array of answers. Beyond the surface, I found a level of political and cultural awareness among friends and acquaintances that made the “Japan is passive” mantra seem wrong.

Of course, today, we all see the mask of passivity eroding. While many have tried to pin the protests in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on leftist elements, a lack of understanding of the nation’s needs or simple idiocy, it is clear there is something at work in Japan that we rarely see. People are angry, and not just the professional protesters and leftist old guard. Salarymen, old ladies, young families and prominent celebrities of a conservative creed are beginning to voice their concerns. Japan’s passivity does not withstand simple probing.

Before arriving in the country, the only literary figure I had ever heard of was Yukio Mishima, the man who chopped his head off to protest something or other. How, I wondered as I read the books I borrowed from the library, had Mishima achieved popular recognition, while many of his peers were largely ignored? I have come to believe, through my experiences here, that it is because of the enduring image of Japan as a wacky country.

As many in the foreign community will know, one of the most popular gripes with Western media in this country is that Japan is presented as wacky. There is a truth to that perception, but the wackiness has to be sought out. Living here, the country feels no more or less wacky than anywhere else. I grew up near Barnsley in South Yorkshire, and I’m sure there are more odd stories per capita in that town than there are in Tokyo.

When I see Tokyo wacky though, and the easiest place to find it is Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on the weekend, it makes me smile. It makes me want to stay here. But it isn’t really Japan, when all is said and done.

What I believe really defines the country really I do not know. The relationships I have, the drinks I enjoy, the travelling and the constant learning are all rewarding, and at least in part shape my idea of Japan. But none of these things add up to the whole.

I still do not understand large swathes of the country’s cultural, political and economic landscape. I may be getting there though.

I know that I do not see this country through the rose-tinted glasses that some do. But equally, I do not buy many of the argument’s about the nation’s decline. And I’d hope I have not fallen into the trap of bitterness about life here.

But I still see the country with some form of bias. I’d like understand what my bias is better.

I suppose that’s why I stay here.

Advertisements