Leaving Japan: An ALT’s Sayonara

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A blackboard in a Japanese school filled with farewell messages.

After two years of working in Hokkaido as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET Program, I’m in my final days of preparing to leave Japan. The farewell speeches have been given, thank you cards written, leaving omiyage handed out. My flight home is booked, and long nights of drinking have been enjoyed/endured. All my worldly possessions are packed, if packed means “scattered across the house looking like an episode of Hoarders” (apologies if that’s incorrect, sometimes I can’t remember how to English anymore).

A snowy scene from a school in Hokkaido.

I’ll miss these students, but maybe not trudging through Hokkaido’s snow.

Leaving my life in Japan has been accompanied by an unprecedented outpouring of affection, frequently out of left field. Coworkers who have rarely spoken to me shake my hand and say they’ll miss me. A student from one of my least engaged classes burst into tears while repeatedly thanking me. A teacher who spent the first part of our working relationship vocally missing my predecessor, sang my praises at my farewell enkai.

It’s hard to know how much of that is sincere, and how much is a tactful show of goodwill. It’s even harder to know how much comes from the differences between showing feelings in Japan versus my own culture, and how much from the universal weakness of taking things for granted until they’re gone.

Leaving my life in Japan has been accompanied by an unprecedented outpouring of affection, frequently out of left field.

I mean, I’m definitely the same. Japan’s metropolises popularize an image of nonstop frenzy, a dazzling machine of people and events and sights and sounds – but life in a more rural part of Japan is actually really slow.

You go to work and go home, and there aren’t a whole lot of options in between. You spend hours watching kids practice sports, their chants echoing around the gym. Everyone passes comments on how hot or cold it is. Finish the English textbook and then start it over again the next school year. Say you’ll have a productive evening and then fall asleep under the kotatsu.

In this way, my time in Japan passed pleasantly, without me realizing that, from when I first arrived and everything was new and dazzling and imperceptible, I had slowly grown to know this as my life.

Leaving gifts for an ALT leaving Japan.

I was surprised to receive so many gifts and letters from my schools.

It’s hard to extricate yourself from normal life when you know you won’t ever be back, not to that exact junction of time and place. The leaving process has unveiled a life that I built without noticing.

Of course I anticipated that it would be difficult to say goodbye, to the students in particular, and it was. I teared up giving farewell speeches in the auditorium. I lingered when I knew it would be the last time I saw someone, wanting to say more but not knowing what. Reading letters from students revealed an impact that I hadn’t realized I’d made while going through the motions of daily life.

The little goodbyes were what really made me see the community I’d slowly become part of, despite often feeling like an outsider: my regular taxi driver, shop owners and workers, friendly faces at the BOE. The friends and other JETs who were there for all the good and bad times, and who are scattering now to every corner of the world.

The leaving process has unveiled a life that I built without noticing.

This is where I discovered I could communicate in another language, got comfortable with traveling alone, started to share more writing, and worked my first real full-time job. This is where I became an adult, while still having the kind of fun and making the close friendships that typically belong to the territory of youth.

I’ll miss sinking into the onsen after a long day, the infectious energy of matsuri, the quiet movement of trains through the snow. No more choruses of “otsukaresama deshita”, laughter ringing through the hallways, feelings of defeat when students were talking over me or pride when they understood something for the first time.

Once I start thinking about it, the number of goodbyes seems overwhelming and surreal. It suddenly hits how fleeting everything in life is and I’m struck by mono no aware, an understanding of the transience of all things.

As I feared, it’s too busy when you’re leaving to actually think about leaving. Probably in a month from now I’ll be walking around Vancouver’s streets and finally realize that I’m not in Japan anymore. I hope when the time comes I remember what Japan taught me: that impermanence is exactly what makes it all worthwhile.

Empty Japanese school classroom.

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Writer, photographer, and chaser of the wondrous.
  • Bryan Wong says:

    This was beautifully written. Absolutely amazing.

  • Brandon Santa Maria says:

    What a beautiful story! 🙂 I was an exchange student in Hokkaido 2 years ago, and even to this day it still feels surreal not being there anymore haha

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