Sometimes, when I’m running along the lake at sunset, I long for the town in which I live. I view it through the eyes of someone who has left, and will never return, and feel a deep yearning. This tells me that, despite the challenges that living in rural Japan can bring, I am in the right place. I also see it through the eyes of the past. I’ve been here for 21 years. Most of them have been good years. But I’ve seen friends come and go, and now, there is only me left. Perhaps I’m also yearning for those carefree times with good friends, drinking, singing karaoke, staying out till sunrise… Even when I’m here, I long to be here. Of course, sometimes I think seriously of leaving, but when I’m running, and the sun is setting in the deep red sky, that thought is unbearable. I long to be here. And here I stay.
Being self-employed, I do most things in my business myself. I am terrible with numbers, but today, I battled through and completed my tax return. The paperwork is all in Japanese, but that is not the problem – the numbers are the problem. I eventually finished it, but it took me the best part of the day. Tired, I absent-mindedly opened Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and landed on the following passage. It made me smile! On today of all days!
“To need to dominate others is to need others. The commander is dependent.
Enlarge your personality without including anything from the outside – asking nothing from others and imposing nothing on others, but being others when you need them.
Reduce your necessities to a minimum, so as not to depend on anyone for anything.
It’s true that such a life is impossible in the absolute. But it’s not impossible relatively.
Let’s consider a man who owns and runs an office. He should be able to do without his employees; he should be able to type, to balance the books, to sweep the office. He should depend on others because it saves him time, not because he’s incompetent. Let him tell the office boy to put a letter in the post because he doesn’t want to lose time going to the post office, not because he doesn’t know where the post office is. Let him tell a clerk to take care of a certain matter because he doesn’t want to waste time on it, not because he doesn’t know how to take care of it.”
It was 18 degrees on Sunday. I thought winter was over and spring was on its way. The gentle scent of plum blossoms carried on the warm breeze, and the lake in the centre of the city was calm and deep blue. It was the perfect day to go running, which I did early in the morning.
Fast forward to today, and I am digging my car out from under the snow in -3 degrees. I had to go out this morning, and the roads were icy and slushy. I heard some cars got stuck in the snow, and caused long traffic jams. I got home safely and have spent the day working next to my heater.
Winters here have been odd for the past few years. Last year we had hardly any snow. It was the same the year before that. Three years ago, we had the worst snowfall in 35 years. I remember New Year’s Eve about 11 years ago. The snow was that bad, the power was out most of the night in the city. Not a great way to welcome in the new year.
I live on the Sea of Japan coast. It is the cold side of Japan, especially farther north from where I am. They have harsh winters. I guess I don’t have much to complain about compared to the people who live up there.
People tell me stories of when they were young – the area where I live was a “snow country”. They spent most of the winter digging out their houses and cars. It is a very rural area, and I can imagine what it was like 30 or 40 years ago, blanketed by snow for most of the winter. When it snows, the landscape is monochrome. Time seems to stop. There is a stillness and calm about the mountains, forests and rice fields. If the roads weren’t so bad, I’d make the short journey out of the city centre to the farming communities and take pictures.
Anyway, the weather forecast says it is going to be 18 degrees again on Sunday. Maybe this is our last flurry of snow for the winter. I hope so.
My family and friends back home often ask me how I’m coping in lockdown. They keep forgetting that, in the area where I live, there is no lockdown. I live in one of the least populated prefectures in Japan. My home is in the main city, which has about 200,000 people. That sounds like a lot, but the city is made up of villages that merged about 15 years ago, so it is spread out and very rural. You only have to drive for about ten minutes or so out of the city centre and you are in rice fields. A little further, and you are in the mountains, or by the sea, in one of the fishing villages.
We have had about 200 COVID cases in total. I think there are about two active cases. There are no restrictions on our movements, although we are told not to go to other prefectures, and to refrain from going out unnecessarily. Most people abide by the recommendations, so restaurants and bars are suffering. So are hotels. The city is popular with tourists, and they have mostly stayed away.
I don’t go out with my friends at night, but apart from that, my life is going on as normal. I can move around freely. I wear a mask, as does everyone (and I mean everyone!) and disinfect my hands at the entrance to shops when I enter and when I leave, but that is about it. Maybe if the number of cases rises, the situation will change, but at the moment, everything seems normal, especially compared to what I hear about back home and see on the news. Living in rural Japan can have its challenges, like isolation and loneliness, but at times like these, I’m glad to be living in this small corner of the world.
I’ve spent almost half my life in rural Japan. When I arrived over 20 years ago, I declared that I was never going to leave. Something about it made me feel like I was home. I don’t know what that “something” was, but I never felt it in my hometown in the UK.
I blinked, and the years passed. Life kept me busy, I worked – taught English, translated, wrote, published, I studied, I paid my taxes, health and pension premiums, saw my friends every now and then, practiced and taught karate, went running, joined gyms. I got on with the business of leading a life.
Now, as I find myself approaching the “half a life” milestone, I have started to think…what if….what if I packed up and left? What if I just walked out of my life, and into a new one? I could start one anywhere – my hometown, London, Paris, Seoul, Moscow, Hong Kong…. I could go anywhere. What’s stopping me?
Apart from feeling a Sartrean anxiety because of the freedom I have, I feel like, well, I feel like this is where I’m meant to be. I go running along the lake in the middle of the city at sunset and can’t bear the thought of the sun setting and me not being there. Of life in the city going on without me. And what about my friends? They would get on with life as normal. I would probably see them on Facebook, and the odd occasion when I visited. I would miss so much in this beautiful place that I have called home for so long.
Another reason is that I have permanent residency here. It took a long time to get that. I had to put in the years. Could I possibly hand the card over and walk out of the country, without an ounce of regret? No, definitely not. I also have built my financial life here. My pension is here, my investments are here, my businesses are here. I have a lot to lose financially. Sure, I could start again, but I have the feeling that I have left it too late.
Friends who have left after a long period in the country have all gone through adjustment periods which last 1-2 years. Can I afford to do that? Do I want to do that? Which raises the question – what on earth would I do if I left? I got on the plane at Heathrow 21 years ago as a monolingual. I’d be boarding the plane out of Japan as a bilingual. So I guess I’d do something Japanese-related. But what?
I think I’ve reached the age and the time spent here when people start to question what they are doing with their lives. I have the feeling that it is now or never. That I have to make a decision one way or the other. I am free to choose. How lucky am I, that I get to choose what to do with my life? I think, deep down, I have already made the decision. But still, I think….what if…..?