Now Reports

Time to Say Goodbye

I am going to write some words I never thought I’d write: Of all the places I’ve ever left, Fukuoka is by far the most recent.

After 16 years in Fukuoka, 19 in Japan, and 20 in Asia, I decided to call it quits and move back to what some might call my home country. I certainly wasn’t the first to gaijin to leave and I know I won’t be the last, but after a certain number of years here one becomes known as a “lifer”. I crossed that barrier long ago, yet I left anyway. Many were shocked I decided to leave – including myself.

What made me leave? There are days I don’t know how to answer that, because it is so easy to remember why I stayed: I never lost the sheer joy of participating in another culture. Japan is so different from any other place I have ever known, and yet despite the difference it is surprisingly easy to live here.

I have friends who stayed here one or two or three years, and they promptly departed after having ticked the mental box “overseas experience”. Many years later they still regretted having left before tiring of living in Japan. I never did that; realizing early on what a precious opportunity I had, I swore I’d never leave until I had drunk my fill of being here.

I am happy to say that, for me, the glass of wonder in Japan is still topped to the brim. But I could never escape the feeling that closing time would nevertheless soon be upon me. As a teacher, I was very aware of the demographic time bomb that is darkening Japan’s future. Every year the number of students decreases compared to the year before. The result is that I have seen several schools close, including not a few that I used to work for. Even the ones I worked for that survived seemed pressed. Each year’s group of students usually seemed a tad less capable than the previous year’s, because the pool of students that each school was drawing from was constantly growing smaller.

With precious little job security and limited employment opportunities beyond my chosen profession, I worried a little more each year. Would declining enrollments push me out of the job market against my will?

I also had my children to think about. The rationale for my employment was that English was a critical need, so much so that Japan employed large numbers of native speakers. If English were truly so crucial, how could I deny my own children a chance to live full-time in an English-speaking environment?

I know English teachers in Japan whose children cannot speak English well. I did not want my children to fall into the same trap. Though my daughter spoke reasonably well, her reading ability was low. After one year in U.S. fifth grade, however, she quickly progressed from a reading level of nearly zero all the way to National Honor Society. And I watch her, and my two sons, with satisfaction, knowing they are making their own adventures.

Don’t think for a moment that I don’t miss Japan. I have an absolute laundry list of things I miss and can’t be replicated where I live: tops among them would be hot springs, the mountains of Kyushu, and that thrill of stumbling across a unique gem of a restaurant or inn tucked into a little valley. Most of all, I miss the friends I made during my time in Japan. Finding a small number of like-minded friends who could help me out when I didn’t know what to do, or commiserate with me when things were going badly, was one of the greatest joys of living in Japan. Life abroad is an intense experience; when you share that experience with your best friends, you’ve got friends forever.

But now in my middle age (and yes, I have to face that too!) I have decided that I want another adventure. This one is to reintroduce myself to a country and a people I don’t fully understand after so long away. I want to test myself in a new way, to see if I can still reach deep inside and find the wherewithal to succeed in an entirely new place. With the world economy being what it is, it’s a heckuva time to be testing this theory, but the same restlessness that drove me to Japan is pushing me in an entirely new direction. And I am powerless to resist it. I will always be back to visit whenever I can, and everyone and everything from my time in Japan lives in my heart still. With fond remembrance I raise my glass to you – and with the time difference, you’d better start early. Kanpai!

by P. Sean Bramble
Author, CultureShock! Japan / USA

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn167, Nov. 2012)

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Published: Oct 30, 2012 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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