Serious reflections on 2 years in Japan

The 20th of January marked the 2 year point of my stay in Japan; I call it my “Japan Day.” I’m going to stroll down memory lane in this post and try to take another look, from this future vantage point, on the more interesting things that happened and draw an assumption from the things I’ve experienced.

99 yen shop food99 yen shop food
My early 2009 memories consist of trips to the 99 yen shop (QQ) to buy food for my lunches. I couldn’t speak a single phrase of Japanese correctly back then (I screwed up words as simple as arigatougozaimasu), so the only place I felt safe at was where the prices were all the same and the clerks didn’t talk to me. At the time, I really expected my move to Japan would be a flood of fun new experiences, and it was; however, I never really anticipated how the language barrier would hit hard emotionally so early.

That first time experience of being in a situation where necessary communication seemed impossible really bruised my ego. Looking back, it was a good thing it happened so early, but unfortunately I wasn’t sure how to begin to fight back… other than by rote memorization of hiragana and katakana and a few important sentences. So I did just that, and Ayako helped me practice some set phrases that could be used at fast food places:

fast food Japan
And, ordering at fast food should be easy, right? Well, not always. There are lots of subtle differences that make the first-time experience at Lotteria much different than an experience at a McDonald’s in Marietta, Georgia. For instance, people in the US look at the food menus that are up on the wall behind the cashier, but in Japan they expect you to order from the menu that is on the counter top next to the register (even though they have the menu up on the wall behind the cashier as well).


I still get a kick out of the picture in picture on television shows. Almost all Japanese shows rely on this feature, and I have my theory as to why… it makes it easy to train people how to react to certain surprises by priming them with a professional comedian’s reaction real-time. Also, I’m still very glad every time I watch television that Japanese shows put some really awesome captioning for all the important conversations (my wife said that even Japanese people need to read the captions to understand what is going on most of the time).

February to June of 2009 was a blur. I recall going to the embassy to get a notarized Single Affidavit for Marriage, and going to the city hall with Ayako to fill out marriage forms (and to make our own “koseki” = family registration). During that time we were also looking for a new apartment, and ended up moving from Sasazuka (5 min from Shinjuku) to Ichikawa, Chiba. In short, apartments are expensive, some don’t accept foreigners, marriage is a very simple process, and little kids in Japan speak their mind just like kids speak their minds everywhere.

carp streamers
Economically, Japan is very similar to the US (standard of living is similar, all the conveniences you’d expect to find in one you can find in the other… however, Japan does top the scales with the heated toilet seats), but culturally this place is quite different. There are tons of holidays with interesting backgrounds, and Christmas is celebrated by eating fried chicken from KFC. I’ve come to enjoy these holidays, as it seems Japan tries to balance the hectic work life by putting a holiday or two in almost every month. And the holidays here were special for me, because we got to travel with Ayako’s parents and brother to see some really cool

castles and mountain top temples, among other cool things. They helped me learn a little bit more about the language, and a LOT about Japanese history and culture (I personally love studying history). I’m glad we still have trips planned even for this year (going to Kyoto in May!).

The months from June to September of 2009 were incredibly busy. Not only was I working at least 50 hours a week, but we attended Ayako’s best friends’ wedding, I started writing a book during my lunch breaks, and planning my reception and wedding late in the evenings (emails and phone calls to the US all took place after midnight). I was quite exhausted when we finally made the trip to the States to exchange rings, but was more than happy to party at our wedding reception with some of our best friends:

And party we did! That was the happiest day of my life; a party with friends like that just doesn’t happen as often as it should :)

Returning to Japan was especially hard for me. There was a lot of emotional attachment to friends and places back home, and I still had that seemingly insurmountable problem of making friends in Japan.

I often wondered how I was going to learn Japanese when I never had an environment to actively use it. Sure, I could speak to my wife, but she doesn’t want to be my Japanese language teacher during all her off-work hours. Besides, no matter how happy we are together, there is already enough stress in an international newly weds’ life, adding the stress of hampered communication wouldn’t have been a wise move.

At work we spoke English (when we spoke at all… we mostly only communicated by Skype text chats), at home we spoke English, my senpai Sakuma-san spoke English when sharing advice about living in Japan, and the clerks at the 99 yen stores didn’t facilitate interesting conversations. But, I’m a very fortunate guy…

team hoshii girl
Because, in November, I met a small group of guys on a basketball court in Ichikawa city that were wanting to start a basketball team and asked me to join. Without a doubt, this was the single luckiest event for my social life here in Japan. Not only were all these guys the same age as me (so we can act casual and share the generational similarities), but they were interested in my favorite sport.

Since then, my blog has featured numerous posts about basketball, as it should because it’s still an important part of my life. In fact, if I were to make any one suggestion to others in Japan that want to make friends it would be as simple as this:

Do the things you love to do.

For me, learning Japanese became an extension of basketball. I made friendships that didn’t require Japanese language proficiency to have fun. In fact, my friends were eagerly willing to chit-chat about basketball, even when I didn’t understand completely. So, I learned by participating in a group activity (and by keeping my small study routine alive), and of course by branching out just a little (by reading comic books again):

2010 was a lot more stable for me, and my life was mostly well-balanced. I spent some time on the basketball court at least 2 days a week, and I had lots of chances to see temples, festivals, and castles

I also gave a speech in Japanese at a family dinner party, and was reminded that alcohol can bring out the worst in everyone on the Yamanote line.

basketball team in japanThe Two-Minute Challenge: How to Reach Goals and Finish What You Start
In July of 2010, my basketball team got a 2nd place tournament finish (up from a 9th place finish just 3 months prior), and I finished my book about self-actualization. Looking back, I think it is very fitting that my book was specifically about thinking positive and doing the things you love to do, when I see all the great things that happened in my life as a result of doing the things I was writing about.

In fact, the last half of 2010 wasn’t a let down at all, although it did have a few highs and lows tossed in (always focus on the trends!).

Jacob and PorschaTrans Breakers basketball team

A friend from the States visited me in Japan, and I played in another basketball tournament right before flying to the US to visit all my friends again. It was great seeing everyone from Tennessee and Florence, Chicago to New York, DC to Atlanta!! Although there never seems to be enough time, we made the best of it (who else is interested in another triple round of “Irish Car bombs”?) and it was worth it!

So, returning to Japan from the States in 2010 was not as hard as it was in 2009, but coming back to Japan did make me reflect on where I was from the year before. I realized then that my year-and-a-half in Japan had been wonderful, but there was still one thing in the back of my mind that was crying for attention.

Since I was serious about living in Japan, I needed to get serious about living in Japan

There were several things on my mind at that time. The most important was speeding up my Japanese language acquisition. To help push my daily habit, I registered for the JLPT. I needed the JLPT (and urge others to take it) to give me some feedback about my ability, because I had never had a structured class, tutor, or instructor in Japanese… in fact, I was only confident with conversations on the basketball court πŸ˜€

The second serious subject wasn’t anything I planned on addressing in 2010, but I knew I needed to make a career change. Not only did Ayako and I need to consolidate our incomes (I was being paid in $ and she in Yen), but we needed a different work / life balance, and I needed to get back into the type of engineering I love to do (Do what you love!), and to help prevent any strain on a few professional relationships with people I respected.

friendskorea, hyunwoo
But my stroke of luck continued late into 2010, when a golden opportunity, to work for a Japanese company that wants their engineers to work on the projects they love, literally landed in my email from this blog. So, shortly before Ayako and I enjoyed a weekend getaway to Korea, I said a professional ‘farewell but not goodbye’ to some coworkers and moved on to COOKPAD.

And, soon after, 2010 slipped off the calendars as families and friends everywhere toasted to past successes and new opportunities.

Looking back on these past 2 years was a good reminder to me that life is too short to not chase the things that make you happy. And, by chasing those things that make me happy, I’ve enjoyed a very fulfilling 2 years in Japan. Perhaps I hit some low points from time to time, and perhaps I’ll hit some lows in 2011, but whatever happens, I’ll keep doing the things I love and reflecting on the amazing things I see in the positive trends.

Simple. Positive. Active.

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