A lot of people dream of living abroad, imagining a life of freedom, wanton abandon and the indulgence of wanderlust.
Yet, in time, even the rowdy all-night drinking sessions become sobering reminders that things have changed. I go out sometimes with the crew I met at the beginning of my stay in Japan and realize there’s just a few of us left. There’s an unsettling feeling in the air, as if everyone is aware to some extent of their self-deception yet is afraid to bring it to the surface.
The scene sometimes reminds me of the Noah Baumbauch movie “Kicking and Screaming,” about a bunch of university graduates who choose to stay on campus and continue the student lifestyle, minus the studying. Conversations about the future always end with “Well, I’ll figure it out later” or words to that effect.
It becomes hard to tell if it’s the world that’s changed or the viewfinder through which I see it. I go back to the same bars in Shibuya that I went to years ago and see all the same faces. The wild and wacky bartender now seems like a faded actor as he keeps up the same shtick night after night. I see a younger version of myself in the fresh-faced young travelers and feel a sense of guilt over what exactly I’m doing here. Tokyo, a city once so full of endless possibilities and connections, seems so isolating and restrictive after a few years.
Weeks and years pass and it becomes easy to lie to myself even when there’s a clear sense that something fundamental is missing. My younger brother visiting put a lot of this into perspective. He was unafraid to call me up on my self-deception and was the first non-expat non-Japanese person I had spent a prolonged period of time with in about five years. He accused me of going sideways rather than forward with my life. I was taken aback.
“I am going forward,” I retorted. “And anyway, I’m still in my early 20s.”
“No you’re not — you’re in your mid-20s,” he said. I thought about it for a moment. He was right on both counts.
It seems that staying in Tokyo is a means of delaying something for a lot of people — a career decision, the end of a relationship, or even just having to decide on a sense of direction and purpose in life. The overall effect of the daily grind in Tokyo is a numbing one: Emotions gray or become exhausted by the daily intensity of the masses of humanity oozing around the capital. People hang on to the dream that living abroad is a kind of adventure, even though if you were to record footage of the lives of many of the expats in Tokyo, there would be less scenes of beatnik-inspired adventure and more standing around in British pubs nursing beers.
The common expat trajectory I’ve witnessed is that after a period of culture shock, excitement and attempts to study Japanese and ingratiate themselves, these trends taper off, a process that ends in isolation — either through entrenchment with a Japanese wife or girlfriend or regression into the same habits and behavior indulged in prior to life in Japan, oddly including solitary study of Japanese.
Regardless of the day-to-day realities of my life here, I maintain a sense that I’m living a dream on paper. My friends sometimes express envy and family members encourage me to stay out here because it’s an “exciting” life. Even when I call the student loans company or bank about financial problems, the gravity of the issue is alleviated by exclamations of jealousy from the operator. I get a temporary buzz from the imaginary version of my life in the eyes of others.
I had a bizarre experience reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time three years into living in Japan, becoming consumed by the same desire to escape that my own life seems to inspire in others. I’m aware enough of Kerouac’s biography to know where his lifestyle left him — a drunk living with his mother, which, worryingly, could be exactly where I end up if I ever call time on my fake version of a romantic adventure.
If throughout life we are all living our own version of Homer’s “Odyssey,” then life in Japan seems symbolic of one of the big distractions Odysseus faced on his journey. He spent seven years on an island with Calypso, where he wept each day, and another year with a woman named Circe who plied him with food and turned all his men into pigs.
I suppose Japan is closer to the second of these diversions, but at least it’s the fun one. Thankfully, I still have a few years to go before the seven-year point — with its uncomfortable analogy of a weeping adventurer — rolls around.
William Bradbury is a freelance writer and musician in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org