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The Challenges of Returning to Japan

By 5 min read

Recently, I passed the milestone of 3 years since I returned to Japan for the second time. My 4 years in Chiba and Okayama was followed by an almost 3 year sojourn to Hong Kong before finally finding my way to my current home of Osaka.

After some recent upheaval I am pleased to report that with a new job going well, and improvements in my circumstances I fully intend to stay in Osaka for many years to come.

However when recently contemplating my next step I considered a number of possibilities. I considered moving to another part of Japan, at one point I was offered a job in China, I even, for the most fleeting of moments, contemplated moving back to Scotland, but thankfully I came to my senses quickly, and dismissed that notion!

It got me thinking though, how does one readjust to living in their country of birth after a long spell away. I love living in Japan, but what is it like for Japanese who have lived abroad for a long time and then come back. How do they reintegrate, re-assimilate and fit back in with contemporary Japanese society. I imagine it can’t be easy.

So, believing the idea warranted further study, I spoke with some Japanese friends of mine about this experience. As is always the case each individual tends to respond to the situation in different ways. However, there were also several overarching themes and recurring issues that these friends all reported encountering to differing degrees.

Chief amongst these is what my friend described as “learning how to be Japanese again.”

This particular friend was returning after 2 years of studying and working in the US.

They remarked that when she first arrived in the US, the biggest hurdle to overcome was social anxiety and a general reluctance to speak up or to ask any questions. She also found interacting with Americans on both a personal and professional level to be difficult at first.

“The people I met in America tended to speak far more directly than I was used to in Japan. I realise now of course that they had no intention of being rude or disrespectful, but I did at first find it hard to talk to them. Ironically, some of my American and European friends who now live in Japan have remarked that they have the opposite issue here.

“They tell me that in their efforts to avoid being seen as loud or foreign they often feel they are treading on eggshells.”
However, as in the case of foreigners who choose to stay in Japan for the long term, my friend soon learned to overcome her worries and acclimatized successfully to life in the States.

“The problem now though,” she continued “is that I have to go back and ‘unlearn’ all that stuff. I need to retreat back into my shell and become fully Japanese again.”

Whilst socially, maintaining a network of non-Japanese friends certainly helps to ease the trauma of acclimatization, my friend remarked that her biggest challenges were in the workplace.

“Sometimes I want to tell my bosses my opinion. Sometimes I disagree with what they are doing. But in Japan, it isn’t my place to do that. It’s really frustrating sometimes, but thankfully I work for a good company so there aren’t that many problems.”

“Also, the hours are longer for sure, but it is a trade-off. I know that in return for my long hours working every day I will have this job for as long as I want it.”

So, work and friends have their challenges for sure, but what about other areas. I asked another friend who has just recently come back from an extended period in England, working towards their masters’ degree.

“Food is a bit of an issue. Though it may be unhealthy, I had really come to enjoy some of the ‘take-away’ foods my English friends introduced to me like Fish and Chips and Turkish Donner Kebabs. You can get versions of them in Japan too, but somehow it just isn’t the same.”

As a lover of a good donner, I have to say I agree with him on that!

However, there are plenty of good points to coming back to Japan as another friend was keen to point out.

“I was doing charity work in Southern Africa and while I really enjoyed the experience, I certainly feel a lot safer back in Japan. I really believe that Japan is one of the few countries left in the world where you can go out on your own at night and feel completely safe.

“Likewise, I like the closeness and teamwork that comes from being part of a company in Japan. When I go to work, it is like I am in a big family, rather than a company. We work together, we drink together, we party together and any problems are shared by everyone.”

However, for all their varied experiences there are a few points in which all three of my friends are in complete agreement.
“Being close to your family and your old friends again is wonderful.”

“And when you are tired and have a hard day at work, nothing is better than coming home to my mother’s home cooking!” This last sentence is a point I can fully relate to.

For all I love Japan, I do have to admit no-one has ever quite topped my dad’s biriyani or my mum’s chilli!

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