Debating whether or not to leave Japan is never a comfortable place to be, mentally. And the longer you’ve been in Japan, the more difficult it can be to decide. Either way, it’s a decision that can be difficult to sort through.
The internal debate causes many types of emotions:
- Excitement about what’s waiting back home
- Uncertainty about what’s waiting back home
- Doubt about making the right decision or not
- Sadness for the thought of leaving life in Japan
- Fear of somehow getting stuck in Japan
- Depressed from feeling stuck and feeling as if you’re out of options
- Exhausted from running through every possible scenario in your head
This process can be very isolating, as well.
When we turn to friends we’re met with advice: reasons why we should stay in Japan from some friends; reasons why we should return home from other friends.
We turn to family and we’re met with even more advice. If they tell us to come home, we know it’s biased. If they tell us to stay in Japan, it feels like they’re not being truthful; as if they’re trying to protect us from feeling pressure to come home.
We quickly learn it’s really our decision, and our decision only.
This can lead us to feel even more confused and there can be a strong pull to isolate, procrastinate or distract ourselves from making a decision.
It can lead us to cope in ways that aren’t helpful (e.g., sex, drinking, porn, video games, overeating, sleeping too much, etc.).
Debating whether or not to leave Japan can be a very lonely and scary place to be.
This article isn’t going to tell you whether to stay or leave because there isn’t a one size fits all answer. Instead, my intention is to give you things to consider, which may make your decision a little easier.
Challenges to Consider in Your Decision (Unique to Japan)
First, I think it’s important to consider what’s uniquely challenging for foreigners living in Japan.
The Japanese Language
Though learning Japanese is not impossible, it takes a lot of time and commitment to reach a functional level.
And because learning Japanese is the key to accessing crucial things in your life in Japan such as creating relationships, health care, and your career, considering your current language abilities and gauging your motivational level to learn the language is probably a very important thing to do.
Important Questions to Consider:
- How much Japanese do you know?
- How motivated are you to learn Japanese?
- When imagining yourself living in Japan years from now with your current level of Japanese, what thoughts come up?
The larger the cultural gap between your home country and your host country, the more difficult it will be to integrate into the host country.
Our minds prefer the familiar and the known. So, the more we’re surrounded by unfamiliar things, the more stress it causes us. It works hard to change the unknown into the familiar and comfortable.
Our minds are also very efficient as they are built for streamlining our understanding of the world. It does this by processing previous experiences: “When I see someone do X, it means Y.”
This is a good thing when our minds are operating in the same environment it built its template of understanding from.
However, it’s a source of stress when it’s placed in a new environment with completely new rules (such as Japan). It sees X, and thinks it means Y, but it actually means something entirely different.
For example, back home someone complimenting your shoes at work is probably just someone expressing that they like your shoes.
In Japan, someone complimenting your shoes at work may actually mean, “You’re not supposed to wear shoes inside here. Only slippers.”
You can think of these as cultural misunderstandings and it can consume a large amount of our mental energy.
All of us have our own tolerance for cultural gaps. Some of us get more energy from large cultural gaps, others go into protection mode.
Some of us thrive long-term in large cultural gaps, and others of us get energy initially but long-term, we struggle.
Also, each of us progresses from cultural misunderstanding to understanding at different rates.
How tolerant you are for cultural gaps and how quickly you progress from cultural misunderstanding to understanding, they are not a measure of your worth.
These are simply personality characteristics or temperaments. And maybe now is a good time to get an idea of what your temperament is.
Important Questions to Consider:
- Is the gap between Japanese culture and your home culture in your zone of tolerance?
- Are you progressing from cultural misunderstanding to understanding at a rate that works for you?
- How motivated are you to narrow the cultural gap between your home culture and Japan
Clearly, learning the language and shortening the cultural gap is going to increase career opportunities here in Japan. Even still, the opportunities in Japan are probably more limited than they are back at home for you.
At the same time, just because there are limited opportunities here, doesn’t mean you can’t make it work. And there are quite a few foreigners who find unconventional ways to earn a living here outside of teaching English.
Important Questions to Consider:
- What opportunities are available to you in Japan?
- Are you happy with the opportunities that are available to you in Japan?
- If not, what will you need to do to expand your opportunities?
- Are you willing to do what’s necessary to expand your opportunities?
Social support doesn’t always come easy in Japan.
Social support is also very much influenced by your level of Japanse and the ability to shrink the cultural gap.
Sure, we can make friends with fellow foreigners exclusively, however, there’s a lot of turnover in the foreigner community here in Japan.
As a result, as foreigners in Japan, we’re susceptible to experience quite a bit of loss; making a good connection only to say goodbye soon after.
Important Questions to Consider:
- How is your social network in Japan?
- If it’s not where you want it to be, what do you need to do to be happy with it?
- How open are you to meeting new people?
- What’s it like to say goodbye to other foreigners often?
Challenges to Consider in Your Decision (Not Unique to Japan)
It’s also important to consider challenges that are common to foreigners regardless of where they live.
Separated from Family
This is one of the most challenging aspects of living overseas.
It’s very common for foreigners to report feelings of guilt, homesickness, feeling as if they’re failing to meet family obligations, and missing out on family events.
In general, foreigners often report feeling a level of disconnect from their families back home.
Unfortunately, there is no other way to fix the distance between you and your family, other than them moving to Japan or you moving back home.
There are however ways to address the strong emotions surrounding being separated from your family.
Important Questions to Consider:
- How do you stay connected to family back home?
- What has worked to cope with emotions connected to being away?
- What hasn’t worked to cope?
- If you returned home mostly due to feeling guilty, is resentment a possible emotion to follow?
Most of us are driven to experience a life overseas to better understand ourselves. We saw a big world out there and became curious about it.
Some of us left to find a better version of ourselves, and some of us just left to have an adventure. Regardless of our motive, the outcome is the same: our experience overseas changes us.
Before leaving our homes, we were less aware of the boundaries of our own culture. We are so close to it, that we can’t see it.
As we step into a foreign culture, now all of a sudden our own culture becomes more clear. We can see the benefits of our culture, as well as its limitations.
All of a sudden we have a large selection of values to pick and choose from.
For example, when I’m in Japan, I am more aware of my American identity. I feel more American when in Japan. However, when back in the U.S., I feel more close to my expatriate identity.
This is a great thing! And it’s also a very challenging thing as it can be confusing.
Identity is also shaped and influenced by others’ perceptions of us. When our definition of ourselves isn’t in line with how others view us, it causes stress and confusion.
For example, take an American leaving a finance job in the U.S. to come to Japan to teach English. People in Japan are going to view him differently than back home, not only because of his nationality but also because of his occupation. And of course, this will impact him.
- What values have stayed the same since moving to Japan?
- Have any of my values changed since living in Japan?
- What’s most important to me?
- What type of value do I want to offer the world?
- When did you feel the most fulfilled before Japan? What need or value was being fulfilled?
- When did you feel the most fulfilled while in Japan? What need or value was being fulfilled?
Important Things to Remember
Be Aware of Thought Distortions
It’s very common for our minds to bend reality and lie to us. In psychology, we call these thought distortions. During transitions or even when contemplating a transition, thought distortions can run wild:
Forecasting: This is when your brain is convinced it knows what’s going to happen in the future. For example, “If I go home, I won’t be able to find work.”
Black and White Thinking: Our brains love to put things into simple boxes: good and bad; pure and evil. For example, “Japanese culture is awful, American culture is amazing.” Life is rarely this simple; there’s a lot of grey.
Negative Filter: This is when our minds ignore any positive in a situation and hyper focuse on the negative: “There’s nothing good about Japan.”
Mind Reading: Sometimes our brains are convinced it knows what’s going on inside someone else’s head. For example, “My parents think I’m selfish for living in Japan.”
Catastrophizing: Our minds can be really good at convincing us the worst possible situation is going to happen: “If I don’t return home now, I’m going be stuck in Japan forever teaching English.”
Emotional Reasoning: Rarely are our emotions not distorting reality somehow. Just because we feel fear, doesn’t mean we’re in a threatening situation. For example, maybe you’re particularly stressed right now, so you abruptly quit your job here in Japan and move back home this week.
Should Statements: This happens when we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel stressed about living overseas. I’ve traveled extensively.”
Personalization: Our brains are great at convincing us that we are to blame for something we had nothing to do with. For example, “My parents didn’t sound like they’re doing so good on the phone. It’s probably because I’m living so far away.”
The Illusion of Escape
Sometimes we’re tempted to leave a place because we imagine leaving behind the parts of ourselves we don’t like. This is an illusion.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to better ourselves, as this is a great thing to take on. However, where we live often has very little to do with changing ourselves.
There’s a saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.”
When we’re simply motivated to leave by the thought of escaping an uncomfortable situation or parts of who we are, it usually doesn’t matter where we go, we end up in a different geographic location, but in a very similar place emotionally.
Of course, there are situations we ought to leave: an abusive relationship, our health is at risk, or our general well-being is at risk.
Most of the time, this isn’t the case.
The longer we do stay, the more we narrow the cultural gap. And as we narrow that gap, our brain becomes accustomed to the ways of life in Japan, and home starts to feel more foreign to us.
Foreigners can find themselves in an internal debate: do I become Japanese and abandon my own culture, or do I maintain my own culture and reject Japanese culture?
However, adjusting to Japan doesn’t need to be so black and white. It doesn’t need to be “As I adjust to Japan, I become less familiar with my own culture.”
Instead, to be successful in Japan, it’s probably wisest to try to maintain both cultures as equal as possible.
By simply sticking with other foreigners exclusively, you’re living inside an artificial bubble.
By denying your own culture and only mixing with Japanese, you’re denying a very important part of yourself that isn’t going to go away.
Trying to Make the “Right” Decision
It’s, of course, good to step back now and then to think about our lives and what we should do next. Imagine our lives if we never did that.
At the same time, sometimes we can be so fixated on making the “right” decision, that we freeze. Or we look for others’ opinions to make decisions for us.
There is a story known by many in Asia: A farmer, who owned a horse that was critical to his livelihood, one day found out the horse had run away. His neighbors, hearing the news, came by to express their sympathy, but the old farmer replied, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
A few days later, the farmer’s horse returned, but it wasn’t alone. The horse brought back with it a wild horse. Neighbors caught wind of this and came by to offer their congratulations, but the farmer brushed it off, replying “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
A few days later, the farmer’s son broke his leg when attempting to ride the wild horse. Neighbors came over to express their sympathy and again the farmer replied, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
A few days later, the military came to the farmer’s village to round up all fit men to help fight a war. However, due to his son’s broken leg, the military passed him by.
There’s a lot out of our control in this world. Instead of attempting to make the “right” or “perfect” choice, instead, just make the best decision you can, at this moment. There’s really nothing more you can do.
How to Decide to Stay or Leave Japan
So, what do you do with all of this? How do you decide?
I wish I had an easy answer, however, it should come as no surprise that such a complicated question doesn’t have an easy answer.
Here are some suggestions, however:
List Your Values
Make a list of what’s important to you. No need to make it organized, just start writing or typing away.
Think about relationships, career, family, tangible things, untangible things, education, personality traits.
After you have that list, start to organize it in order of priority. What’s most important to you?
List Your Current Behaviors and Routine
Next, make a list of what your life looks like now. Be honest, not idealistic and make sure you list contains specific, observable behaviors. For example, reading, watching T.V., Internet surfing, writing, drinking alcohol, sleeping in, etc.
Compare Your Values with Your Current Behaviors
We cause ourselves a lot of stress when our behaviors or our current way of living isn’t in line with our values (that is who we really are).
Compare your two lists.
- How closely do they match up?
- How hard do you work to keep these two lists in line with one another?
- What can you do to keep them more in line?
What Can You Change Now?
Before deciding to stay or leave Japan, look at what you can change now without booking a ticket back home or before clicking the buy button on a one-year Japanese language program.
If you value family but haven’t called them in 2 months, why not make it a routine to start checking in with them once a week or so?
If you value your health, but have been drinking more nights than not this month, maybe that’s a place to start.
Why concentrate on what you can change now while contemplating a longer-term decision? Because of the illusion of escape.
If you’re drinking every night in Japan and don’t want to be, you’re likely to fall into the same habit if you fly back home. And if you want to stop drinking every night, well then why not start working on that now?
Also, by focusing on what you can change now, you’re taking care of yourself. When we engage in self-care, our minds become clearer and our decisions become more in line with our values, putting us in a position we’re more satisfied with long-term.
There’s no quick fix for addressing where our behaviors aren’t in line with our values. And any honest person will tell you that it’s an ongoing process. But, with discipline and persistence, we can get those lists closer and closer.
Pros & Cons of Staying in Japan
As you start addressing the things above, slowly start compiling a list of the pros and cons of staying in Japan.
You don’t need to do this all in one sitting. Maybe over the course of a few days or a week. As you go through your week, you go through different moods, and you encounter different things, making the list of pros and cons more complete.
Pros & Cons of Leaving Japan
Do the same for leaving Japan. This is a harder list to compile because even if you’re returning home, where you lived the majority of your life, there’s still a lot of unknowns.
Often times when we thinking of returning home, we imagine everything will be the same as before. This is impossible.
Even if everyone around us is still doing the same thing, we’ve changed. Maybe friends we used to love to be around are now harder to relate to after living in Japan.
Maybe we imagine hanging out with our best friend again, but if that friend is now married, well, we might not be seeing him or her as much as we hope.
So it’s important that your list is as realistic as possible. Make sure it’s base on facts, not just how you imagine things will be. The more our decision is based on imagination and speculation, the more disappointed we’re going to be.
Summary / Deciding
When deciding, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how quickly this decision needs to make.
Often times, when people feel a need to make a decision soon, it’s because they are feeling pressure from family or from their current emotional state.
When we feel pressure from emotions or others in our lives, our decision isn’t usually based on our own values, and we regret them later on.
It’s important to take your time and not put unrealistic expectations on yourself to decide.
Even more important is taking care of yourself during this time. Here are some things to consider:
- Take a break from thinking about staying or leaving. Allocate some time each day to think about it. Outside of that time, try to occupy your time doing other things.
- Eat well
- Limit time talking to others who are giving too much advice or pressure to decide one way or the other
- Talk to a counselor
- Go for a walk
- Travel somewhere new for the weekend
- Go to bed early and get up early
If you’re going through a rough time or simply just looking for a sounding board, therapy might be worth considering. Feel free to reach out for online therapy in Japan and Okinawa Counseling and Therapy.