Jul 1, 2017

After life in Japan: The prospect of leaving and what lies in wait

Not that we are encouraging expats to leave Japan or anything but to anyone considering moving to Japan or who is still existing in the heady mist of their Japan honeymoon period is it worth considering for a moment what might happen after life in Japan? “Yes.”, might be the most appropriate answer although if we’re caught up in the throes of excitement about the prospect of a move to Japan what happens on our return after finally leaving the country is probably the last thing we want to think about. It's a bit like planning for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics right now - everyone has it figured out up to the closing ceremony, few have a clue about what to do once the circus leaves town.

Why worry about life after Japan?

Good question. Indeed, why worry about life at all? In fact for those people who like to take life as it comes, there's probably little need to read on. For those that like to keep one eye on the future however, maybe this expat can recount some personal expat-in-Japan experience and that of others - those who've left, who've left and come back to Japan, who want to leave but somehow can't, and those who emphatically don't want to leave.

Will I still be relevant?

This is really at the heart of our concerns about what happens after life in Japan. Without wanting to generalise we're writing under the assumption that most people reading this have careers to think about, now or at some stage in the future. Life moves brutally fast with every year churning out graduates and young professionals, bright as buttons and hungry for someone's job. With this in mind, many people contemplating a move to Japan might legitimately worry about how a year or two in Japan looks on the CV or resume.

Let's be honest here, a year or two, in most cases is more like a lunch break in real terms, especially when you're in your twenties. Does a year or two in Japan look good in a job application? Yea, sure. But then so would China, or Brazil, Mexico, Spain and any other country in the world. And personally, if you're doing this solely to flesh out the job prospects then you're missing the point. Spending a bit of time outside of your comfort zone, seeing how the world works and coming to the realization that there are other ways to approach life makes us more rounded people and someone who is less likely to annoy those in close proximity. Unless you keep banging on about, "Well, when I was in Japan .... ". No, if Japan is just a year or two for you, let loose, enjoy yourself, experience the nights out, make some new friends, try on a kimono ... life will still be waiting for you when you leave.

Warning! The longer you stay in Japan, the harder it is to leave ...

... or the harder it might be to get back to that career you were planning on having back home.

There's surely no well defined number of years that one can be away from the 'rat race' that will result in disqualification. And as much as we mentioned earlier about how competitive the job market might be these days, it's equally true that career changes and full-time study are no longer the exclusive right of people in their twenties. However, in terms of having 'lived in Japan', for the prospective employer back home a year or two probably qualifies as enough. Beyond that, the questioning will likely turn to, "Well, what were you doing for all that time?". Here we come to a harsh truth - if what an expat will having been doing in Japan is working for some prestigious, blue-chip, Fortune 500 with branches and connections around the world, and will have been doing it well, then a transition to life (in terms of getting things set up) and work after Japan looks likely to be smooth. However, for a lot of expats in Japan, the longer they stay here, the harder seems the prospect of getting back into the swing of things back home. Of course, this all depends on what one wants to do after leaving Japan, but if you've been working in an English conversation school for a few years and have little interest in teaching, how are you going to dress that up to look like something else?

But just living in Japan is enough, isn't it?

It's easy to fall into the mode of thinking that one's development of skills sets in Japan is limited to a speciality in having adjusted to life in a foreign country. While this is, indeed, a considerable achievement there comes a point where you can legitimately consider yourself 'adjusted'. So then it's time, if you do have an eye on doing something else somewhere else, to move on and develop new skills. While options for doing this might be limited in Japan compared to back home, there are still chances out there. This could be something like a short course at somewhere like a Temple University, full-time study at one of Japan’s higher seats of learning, development of your Japanese skills by getting some certificate to prove them, or the myriad of distance learning / online higher education options. The point being that it's easy to use being in Japan and all the challenges and distractions that come with that as an excuse not to engage in further education or skill building.

But I can leave Japan fluent in Japanese and walk into a job

This is usually the answer I get when I tell colleagues that I'm worried about what kind of job I can get back home. Maybe in the 1980s being even half fluent in Japanese was a great fast track into a cushy office in the Nakatomi Plaza. (Note to past self - be sure to leave the Christmas party early.) These days though you'd probably be better getting to grips with Chinese. If fluency in Japanese is the goal, starting from zero and expecting to get there in a couple of years while holding down a full-time job in Japan is probably unrealistic or it would take a Herculean effort. That said, chances are you'll be more fluent than most back home, although whether or not this will be enough for gainful employment is another matter. When this expat has researched jobs back home based on an ability to speak Japanese, top on the search list tends to be travel agencies dealing with Japanese tour groups or specialising in holidays in Japan.

A tale of two English teachers

This expat had a friend who came to Japan to be with a partner who was teaching English over here. There was an ill-judged marriage proposal, she said, "No." and left Japan and he was left in Japan to start a new life he wasn't expecting. Anyway, he went on to become fantastic at his job and fell in love with teaching. When he eventually left Japan (in his 30s) he knuckled down and got qualified as a teacher (a real one) back home and went on to be fantastic at his job there. Just sayin’.

Another friend came to Japan to teach English having already qualified (and practised) as a teacher (a real one) back home. After years dealing with the pathetic attempts at misbehaviour of Japanese students (i.e. they were very well behaved) it dawned on my friend that he would never be able to teach kids back home who wouldn't think twice about calling a teacher by their first name as they tell them to, "F**k off!". He did leave Japan to continue teaching (as a real teacher) in a hot country where impressive salaries seep through the ground in the form of oil. He wants to leave but after years in that country is now faced with the challenge of being relevant enough to come back to Japan (the partner is Japanese) at the kind of level he wants to work at let alone being relevant enough to return to work in his native country (where teaching licenses expire). Again, just sayin’.

A dramatic change in manners

The latter friend’s experiences teaching in well-behaved Japan raises a broader point about lifestyle - Japan is very convenient, almost totally non confrontational, and for the most part runs like clockwork. Those who haven't experienced it might think that moving all the way to Japan is such a challenge, and it is, initially. Stay here long enough though and in a sense the expat in Japan gets spoiled. The banalities of daily life here are so comparatively user friendly and reliable, that moving back home might be the equivalent of having your plasma screen, smart TV and remote replaced with an old black and white that threatens to explode and requires of you to get up off of the sofa every time you want to change the channel. The point being that in Japan you run the risk of losing some of that sharpness and those street smarts.

I’m an alumni of the school of Japan

That life after Japan presents a challenge might be confirmed by the existence of so many regional JET alumni groups and associations. The Internet is awash with them. Now, the term 'alumni' is typically associated with the cloaked traditions that furnish seats of higher learning rather than having "graduated" from a fun few years teaching English in Japan. Ostensibly though, these groups appear really as more of a support network in two senses - 1) for alumni to not feel so blue about having left Japan by providing a forum for them to engage with Japanese matters and reminisce about the good old days, as it were, 2) to convey a sense of that time spent in Japan being worth something to the wider world, beyond just an alumni’s personal experience.

Torn between leaving and staying - limbo

I don’t want this to sound like navel gazing but there’s the chance that life after Japan might not happen at all and that at the same time life in Japan might never really take off. This is me speaking now, all over. Despite years ‘in country’ I can’t bring myself to call Japan “home”. The prospect of really putting down roots here, buying property, investing in something .. things of this nature remain beyond me. I still live year by year putting plans and ambitions on hold because I don’t know where I’ll be in a year’s time. This mode of thinking affects everything - job, relationships, people waiting for your return, finances, and more. At some point though a decision needs to be made - Japan or somewhere else? Stronger wills than mine seem able to make the choice.

Never come back .. Oh, go on then!

I think a lot of people when they decide to leave Japan do so only when they’ve convinced themselves that they’ll return. It’s an instinctive and understandable defence mechanism to ease the pain of separation. “I’ll be back in a couple of years, I just need to get my Masters.” Yea, whatever! Of those that do return it would be interesting to know how many of them come to regret it. There’s that thing of never going back to somewhere you were so fond of for fear of it not being the same, which it invariably isn’t, right? Well, one can’t be definitive here but an important part of life after Japan is surely being able to handle the prospect of never returning. Although, undoubtedly, there are people who are more than happy about this.

And that last point leads into an opportunity to put things into context. However one gets on upon leaving Japan - maybe life back home works out great, maybe it’s a struggle - in the meantime, Japan isn’t going anywhere, it will always be here and you can take comfort in the knowledge that you know how to live and work here.

Do you often contemplate the prospect of life after Japan? Have you experienced leaving Japan and then coming back for more? Let us know in the comments.

Further reading about life in Japan ... 

11 things you need to do after arriving in Japan

What the city office in Japan can do for you (rather than the other way round)

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Twitter: @City_Cost_Japan

Facebook: @citycostjapan




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  • Ben

    on Jul 12

    I'm on the other end of this situation. Early 2000 I lived in Tokyo for six year working as an IT manager in a large American entertainment company, moved back to the States for my children's education, and now that they are out of school my Japanese wife an I are looking to move back. Age is my problem, as I will be 55 years old at that time. Not sure how much my experience and Japanese fluency is going to attract a possible employer.

  • City-Cost

    on Jul 18

    @Ben That's an interesting one, although having the spouse visa (if that's the visa you intend to come back on) together with the experience and Japanese ability will surely be a massive plus.

  • Ben

    on Jul 19

    Definitely returning via a spouse visa. Hoping all goes well.