Scholars of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher best known for his controversial statement “God is dead,” have for years talked about a gaping hole in his works: Where are Nietzsche’s writings about teaching English to Japanese high schoolers? What has he got to say about the paranoia of being judged in a supermarket? Eryk Salvaggio is trying to mend that hole with his blog This Japanese Life. The 33-year-old left his job as an online editor for a newspaper in Maine two years ago to teach English on the JET program in Japan. He ended up in a small suburb of Fukuoka, and here he writes about his experiences and development as an expat. The Japan Times spent an hour with him talking about the anxiety that comes from being an outsider, the thoughts of an Norwegian terrorist and, of course, Nietzsche.
Who is your audience?
I’ve been asking myself that question from day one. I think the blog is a guide for beginners, which I am comfortable with — I have been living here for two years, so I am very aware that I’m a beginner myself. My target is mostly people beginning an expat life or sort of eying Japan from abroad. But honestly, I have no idea who is reading. The things I’m writing are sort of all over the place.
Are you ever afraid of repeating what other bloggers have already written about?
Oh, I’m sure I’m not tackling any new ground here. When people are blogging about Japan there will be a lot of replication because people find the same things interesting. I try to bring my own research into it, though. I feel like a lot of blogs will just comment upon something being strange or weird — I’m really interested in why these things are happening as opposed to just saying it’s happening and it’s weird. I think there is a natural progression for everybody moving to Japan, where all this strange stuff jumps out at you. After a while it gets hard to keep writing about weird stuff. So some writers stop and others get more in depth — I hope I’m the latter.
What has surprised you about the feedback you are getting?
I have certainly written some posts where the backlash has been unexpected. I wrote one about the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik because he had idolized Japan for being monolithic. I never would have guessed my blog would spark an angry debate about diversity in Europe, but that one did.
In general I’ve been surprised about how upset people get if something goes against their view of Japan. In a way, Japan becomes a private thing for expats. When you are isolated, you are forced to build up certain view of the world — if my view goes against that, people lash out. For instance, people who think it is hard to find English-language books get angry if I say the opposite. I find it psychologically interesting that people can be so quick to marry their convictions. If you do that as an expat, you are going to have a miserable time. A lot of what I am doing personally is trying to look at everything I come across and be neutral instead of making assumptions. I think being here has helped me to figure out when I’m making things up. It’s a skill you need to have to survive and I think that is what fuels most of my blog posts.
In your very first post, you say that “I am moving to Japan because I’m determined to lead a more interesting life.” Where were you in your life when you wrote that sentence?
At the time I had just finished university — way too late, I was about 30 years old. I was a bit frustrated and just wanted to change as much as possible. I felt this this was my last chance to uproot my entire life and move to another country.
Japan was . . . there. I’ve always been interested in Japan. I had a grandfather who lived in Sapporo so in the back of my mind Japan has always been a place I had a connection to. I thought about going to Europe, too, but it didn’t have the same lure to it. You can sort of wing it in Europe, I felt, it’s more diverse and people can handle different accents and habits. Japan can’t. It sounds masochistic, but I liked the idea of going somewhere completely different, so I would be forced to adapt. I knew living in Japan would be a particular type of challenge, a crazy lab experiment to see what it did to my personality.
Anxiety is a recurring subject on your blog and some of the posts reads like tools for personal development. Do you use it as such?
[Laughs]. I would just like to say that I’m not cowering in my room at the end of the day — my anxiety is a highly functioning one. But, yeah, anxiety is a part of the experience here. The expat community in the outskirts of Fukuoka where I live is very small and sometimes you feel pretty isolated, and I like to sort of indulge in that side of the life. The initial idea about the blog was that I wanted to feature Japan, but it sort of turned into this masochistic experiment about living in an anxiety-inducing environment. The nice thing about anxiety is that people can relate to it even if they are not where you are. I made a post about running and it got a lot of feedback from people not in Japan, because the post was really about dealing with stress and isolation. I am really happy if that resonates with people and it seems it did.
It seems you are looking at life in Japan and at yourself from the “outside” — is that an ability you gained in Japan or were you able to think like that back in America too?
I felt like an outsider in America, too, but there is a difference between being an outsider in America and being one in Japan. There has always been a sense in my life that I am on the outside looking in, but being an expat in Japan, instead of wondering whether or not I am an outsider, I get to be certain of it.
It’s funny, because back in America you are telling yourself that people are judging you constantly, but they are not. No one cares how you eat your salad or what is in your grocery cart. They are not holding you up against any standards. But in Japan, they are. I am very aware that I am being looked at and being judged — it’s not paranoia. The whole thing is sort of a Catch 22, because this situation is good practice. You can learn not to care.
The nice thing about being an expat is that you realize how consistently wrong you are about everything. You get to practice being wrong about your assumptions. In that sense it is a terrible place to be an anxious person, but it’s a great place to be a self-aware anxious person.
As you said before — actually, no, you didn’t say it, but now I say it — This Japanese Life is sort of a self-help guide to Japan. Living here, you are going to have self development along the way. And if I were to leave that part out of the blog, I wouldn’t be presenting an accurate image of the experience.
Does your background as a journalist and editor come through the blog?
The way I figure things out is through writing, so the idea of a blog was a natural fit. Whether I am writing about my home state Maine, about Japan or writing fiction, writing is how I straighten the world out for myself. And, you know, coming here was quite a culture shock, and it’s natural to cope with that by going back to something familiar. For me that was writing 800 words on a deadline.
You like to quote philosophers and writers like Schrodinger, Nabokov and Nietzsche. Why?
I am actually really interested in critical theory and I think these people have got interesting things to say. I feel like, since I left the U.S. and came to Japan, my entire life is just about “being in Japan,” and it would be easy just to keep on living like that. But I want to make some connections with the stuff I was working with before I came here.
What does the future look like for you?
This is my last year in Japan, I think. Things can change, but I feel like three years is enough time here. Actually two years is enough, but I’m sticking around for one more year to see what happens. I think after two years, Japan has become just another place. I’m staying three because I want to test that, I want to see if I can get deeper into it and deeper into the experience of being abroad — to kind of rely on myself to make myself interesting, rather than the novelty of where I happen to be. But certainly, the romance has worn off. I don’t think there’s anything keeping me here if I’m not learning from it.
I’m not sure I’m done being outside of America, but I think I’m moving on from Japan — which means I have to change my URL. Damn it.