A topic such as impressions is perhaps even more personal than experiences encountered, so I’ve placed it at the very end, even beyond anecdotes, easily overlooked if the reader is so inclined. One of the most common questions I am asked about Japan is why I went there and stayed for so long, eight and a half years.
Of course there are many who have stayed much longer, for much of their adult life after completing university in their home country. For all of us, I believe there’s a turning point, or watershed time, after which a permanent return to the home country, prior to retirement at least, becomes almost an impossibility. I reached that point after about seven years, and with much planning, was able to effect a fairly smooth move for my family and I to Australia.
Settled back in Australia, and glad to be here, I cannot deny that I miss my former adopted country, and would be happy to have an opportunity to return any time (except perhaps in the middle of summer).
What I miss most is the friends I made through my English conversation school and other business contacts, plus certain aspects of the physical environment: the rural and coastal areas I used to cycle in, and some of the shopping and eating areas, as well as places to stay, especially onsens. Whilst no Japanese city could compare with the physical beauty of an Australian city, with their openness, greenery and ease of movement, as well as many European towns and cities, Japan’s countryside and its city retail and eating precincts are unique.
After residing in Japan for a few months, and the novelty of everything starts wearing off a bit, most foreigners start finding fault with their new home. As noted above, this is evidenced in the Letters to the Editor columns of English language newspapers, the topics of which never fail to allude to some kind of failing or shortcoming of Japanese society, a questioning of why things are done in the way they are, and a suggestion as to how things could be done better. Over the years, a degree of repetition sets in with these topics. I myself was not immune to the urge to embark upon such letter writing in the first year, and had a couple of missives published.
These letters and comments underline the fact that Japan is different from a Western country, that it has a substantially different history out of which has evolved a very different culture. Its habit since the 1860s of importing and adapting things from the west means there are many aspects of everyday life in Japan with which we can easily feel familiar. Yet, beside this is much that isn’t familiar, and therein often lies the cause of confusion or discomfort for longer term visitors: much appears the same as our home country, but scratch the surface and you soon find it isn’t.
This can equally apply to the Japanese themselves. Although some of the younger generation, especially females, do whatever they can with hair dye, cosmetics and sometimes cosmetic surgery to make themselves look Western, aided in the process by the effects on their bodily structure of an increasingly Western diet, most Japanese are undeniably Asian looking.
Yet there is a great deal about them, and the cities they live in, that makes them appear Western, and which can cause many visitors to be duped into expecting that their behaviour and thought patterns will also be Western. That this is not the case is one of the sometimes confusing, but always endearing things about Japan, which should always be kept in mind, no matter how western in manner and skilled in English a Japanese person might be. As a general approach in Japan, it can be useful to consider that nothing is as it appears and the expected needn’t necessarily occur.