Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Loneliness in Japan

Lost in Hong Kong 
To me, the most challenging part of living in Japan was always the loneliness. I had never lived by myself before coming to Japan, let alone in a foreign land, and it took me ages to get over it- or get used to it.

Today I was listening to music on my way home, and a particular song triggered that horrible feeling I had when I lived in Marugame, sitting all by myself in that tiny apartment in the middle of nowhere. No matter how beautiful Shikoku was and how many amazing friends lived in my town, I was never able to shake off that feeling of loneliness. At times, I would get so bored and lonely that I couldn't sleep at all. I used to think I was losing my mind living in that grey, dreary town, with nothing to do and the sound of frogs in the rice fields for a soundtrack at night. I'd stay up all night, listening to music to drown the nothingness, and dreaming of the big city lights.

Then I moved to Osaka, and after the initial buzz of bright lights and bike rides through the neon signs and gaudy fixtures of Dotonbori, I sank back into emptiness and loneliness, wondering why I had moved to Osaka, not knowing anyone and agreeing to a job I truly despised. Even though I ended up meeting some pretty amazing people in the short time I lived in Osaka, most of my weekends were spent escaping to Kyoto to remind myself why I came to Japan in the first place, and riding my bike late at night all across Osaka to kill time, between Bentencho, Umeda and Tanimachi. Many late nights, many dark parks, many conbini runs.

When a promising job opportunity opened up in Tokyo, I moved in a heartbeat, comforted by the fact that I had a lot of friends already living in Tokyo. Even though most of my first year living here was a string of blurry nights and sunrise walks from Shibuya to Ikenoue after long nights out, that same familiar feeling of loneliness was still there. No matter how many events and dinners and parties were going on, inevitably I would walk back home alone, back to that isolated place that somehow felt normal to me. Maybe that was Japan, just a lonely place. Even a romantic relationship did not fix that, and it made me realize it wasn't so much about friends, or boys, or bright city lights.

Somehow, over time the loneliness just dissipated. I'm not sure what happened. Maybe I got used to it, or maybe I just became so busy that I forgot about it. I have a job I love, which plays a huge part in keeping my happiness level up, and a solid group of friends- people who have known me since my Shikoku days, people I have bonded with in Tokyo, and others that have practically adopted me into their lives. 

These days, any little bit of alone time I have I welcome with open arms, as it seems pretty rare that I'm home alone and bored. Well, I'm often home alone but rarely bored. Instead of feeling lonely when I'm alone, I now appreciate it and even long for it after a long day at work or following hours of social commitments. I think my life is more fulfilled now, with lots of meaningful work, quality friendships and relationships and a more balanced lifestyle overall. 

I'm not sure all my fellow foreigner friends living in Japan (or Japanese friends living abroad) have experienced loneliness on that level, but I think it's a recurring theme. Living abroad can be extremely lonely, and nothing could prepare me to it, but I'm glad I don't have this horrible feeling anymore. Maybe I'll feel lonely again someday, but at least I'll know how to deal with it next time.


Jasmine T. Blossom said...

I've been in Japan for 7 years now. I never really felt lonely or even bored. I've always lived in the countryside and my friends all live(d) far, far away in big cities, so I rarely got to meet them.

But I do travel a lot when I have time off and during the week I'm super busy anyways.

I think it really depends on your personality as well. I'm quite good at living alone. I rather suck at living together with people. ^^;

Also, I'm used to living alon. I moved out when I was 20 and came to Japan when I was 27. :)

Anonymous said...

Your experience sounds incredibly similar to mine. After I graduated from college, I moved to Niigata to teach English, and it was a profoundly lonely experience. I subsequently moved back to the US and then returned to Tokyo for a period of about three years, which was much better. I think the environment and the job made a big difference--I'm not really a country girl, so inaka was tough on me, whereas Tokyo is much more my style. (There were also practically zero people my age in Niigata.) I think part of it was just getting used to it, too. I'm back in Tokyo again now just for a few months, and it does always seem that there's a bit of a transition. Expat life is just a bit different, a bit more isolating--which is tough for people who like to be really engaged in their surroundings. I speak very good Japanese but that doesn't entirely seem to fix the problem of belonging.

Married...With Children...In Japan said...

I only lived in Tokyo, but even in this busy city I often found myself feeling very lonely being by myself at home/when I went out alone somewhere. Now my life changed so much that I rarely have time to be just by myself...It definitely solved my loneliness issues, but now I regret that I didn't enjoy being alone before lol

Unknown said...

This is such an interesting topic to me.

My family moved so often as a child, and I was a shy kid who took a long time to make friends. So I spent a lot of time alone, just reading. (I also was really into religion as a child.) But I think that this type of lonely childhood turned me into a person who doesn't get lonely. Because I've been here for almost seven years now and have yet to feel any loneliness. My parents have been out to visit me a few times each, and both of them told me they felt isolated and sad here in Japan. They both wonder how it is that I've never felt it.

Just like you, seeing Lost in Translation after high school really romanticized a certain deep, melancholy loneliness a lot of non-Japanese people feel in Japan. But for some reason, I haven't personally felt it. I wonder if feeling that lonely feeling would stimulate a lot of good ideas in me, and I wonder if it wouldn't be healthier to try to get in touch with these feelings. Maybe I'm intentionally making myself too busy to feel this kind of feeling. Maybe I'm too distracted. Maybe I intentionally distract myself with friends and lovers just to guard against the reflective solitude that might bring loneliness.

I have a lot to think about, I guess. Thanks for this post.
Love you.

philly said...

This is an achingly beautiful post, Vivian. Incredibly touching.

However, I wonder whether you might also have felt this loneliness if you had remained in Canada. Even there your friends would have parted to other places for study and work. They would have formed other relationships that might not permit them to include you as much.

Perhaps it only seems that your loneliness is core to the various trans-Pacific worlds and being "foreign."

It's an interesting situation. As Jasmine T. Blossom points out, personality may be part of it. Like her and Unknown, I seldom feel the loneliness you describe. But I think the three of us had constant practice being alone all our lives. It was just normal.

What I do miss when I am alone in Japan is the rapid-fire ease of communication and the meeting of minds. Because I cannot speak the language I am essentially lobotomized and deprived of any intellectual connection. Then I feel a deep kind of starvation that isn't unlike your loneliness. It's an ache, that's for sure.

Tanya Geddes said...

Yes, Jasmine T.Blossom's point about it depending on personality is true. I agree with amoderngirl who said expat life is different. In essence it's transplanting yourself into an unfamiliar environment. It's not the norm and isolation is part of that path. married_with_children_in japan reminds me that once your situation changes you'll look back to those lonely days with envy! unknown said she idealised the loneliness of Lost in Translation. I did this too! Thought Japan would be romantically alienating, until it was just alienating. philly makes a point saying loneliness is part of someone's personality. And the aching for intellectual connection is something I empathise with. That's why I made my own art exhibition focussing on this theme of loneliness. The show was called: 'hello/goodbye'.

Vivian, much of what you're feeling resonates with expats. Even those who go home to reverse culture shock. It can take a while to get used to everything, and missing what you've left behind. Finally, I've made my peace with London and enjoy it now. I look back to my experiences in Japan with fondness. I used to go home and eat ramen on the floor by myself to silence. Sound: crickets chirping. The only antidote is to keep busy and active. But sometimes I felt I was doing things to get away from this lonely feeling. The core of it was, I have a sensibility of loneliness which is bitter sweet. Only when I understood that it isn't what's going on outside of me, it's me, and I have to accept the sadness of all things. Life is bittersweet. Reading about Wabi-sabi helped. Moments are transitory. But understanding this mini-death of all things can bring us closer to a more vital life.

Tanya Geddes said...

If anyone wants to check my intstagram it's:

It features some Japanese photos influenced by wabi-sabi philosophy.

Love, XO

mina said...

I think anyone who leaves their hometown has to feel like this at some point. New friends aren't old friends and moving is always tough.

I felt like this in Montreal at times. I loved it so much at first, but, in the end, it wasn't for me. I admire you and anyone who is able to immerse yourself in a culture completely different from what you grew up with. It's a huge deal!

Isabel said...

I loved this post - it struck a chord with me so much. At times in Turtle Town, I experienced such profound loneliness, despite having you just down the road. I remember going on numerous bike rides around Marugame and never feeling so alone in all my life. Glad we had each other though. :) I'll write to you tomorrow - promise.


Des said...

An outstanding post. Any expat can relate, well, actually, anyone who has ever lived in a different city, far away from home, can relate. Loneliness is a strange and challenging emotion. Loneliness is like longing, repression, love, and nostalgia. They're complicated. So there are no easy answers or ways for coping with them.

Basia said...

There is a line in the current film "Tracks" where the central character says "I feel so lonely" and the other character replies "We all are" --
If you get a chance, see the Australian made film based on the true story of writer Robyn Davidson. It will inspire loneliness.

Basia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nikhil Gala said...

Aren't japanese lonely? I'm from India and have been living in japan since 3 months. In this time I have found japanese are lovely and they enjoy their loneliness or may be they escape from loneliness by engaging with their devices than people.just my opinion

Nikhil Gala said...

I mean lonely not lovely. Sorry for typo

The Eternal said...

Yes! Japan is very lonely and it's because the human relationships are not deep enough between japanese people and foreigners to bond and fill in that void. I mean, in my own country I have a lot of GOOD FRIENDS, those that you can count for good or bad times, friends from my school, from the bus stop, work, or just friends from the neighborhood, just a lot of tons of friends to spend the time off.

In Japan, you just know one neighbor in years living in the same place, and maybe some people from your work, but the conversations aren't deep and full of "humanity" it's just about trends, tv, or the work, nothing really personal. Now my girlfriend has gone to her own country and I feel that loneliness again, and when she was at home with me, there was not even a tiny chance to feel THE VOID!. Now I understand those guys that spend their time on a bar talking with random strangers, sometimes I'm one of them!, maybe it's time to return to HOME for good!... This adventure it's giving me money, but it's killing my heart!.

Rafael Salles said...

I'm feeling this right now, I just moved to an apartment alone and I still don't have any money to spend on even short trips, so nights here are pretty lonely for me. I was used to living with my family, it's being a shock since they are all on the other side of the world now. I even find myself crying sometimes because I can't shake this feeling of loneliness. But it comforts me to see a lot of people saying it will pass.

Chris Reed said...

I've been struggling with this for quite some time now. Unlike you, I have yet to meet any friends here in Osaka. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just my personality or maybe I don't try hard enough to make effort to find friends. Im not sure what to do and I worry that it's going to get the best of me one of these days

mywoe said...

I've just moved to Kanagawa with my spouse on assigment in Spring. I make a point to get myself cleaned, dressed up, hair curled but without a place to go.
It just get too lonely. No one in this apartment bldg ever bother to even start a conversation. To make matters worse, we have no kids & I wasn't even able to connect with the "other women" ... not even my expat family neighbour who look too arrogant.