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Maintaining Your Sanity in Japan

Manatee Insanity Dugong!

Manatee Insanity Dugong!

For the last 6 weeks, I’ve been covering the various ups and downs of getting a job in Japan, taking people through the resume, interview process and beyond, until finally covering some of the basics of maintaining your job for the long haul.

Beyond the job, Japan can be a taxing place for the mind. Nothing ever quite appears as it seems, and you’ll always find yourself wondering exactly what’s going on. Whenever you think you’ve connected point A to point B, you’ll find that you somehow ended up at point C, or perhaps even back at point A again. This can drive you insane.

I’ve had friends that tell me there’s a ‘five year rule” with Japan. If you manage to stay here for under five years, you may escape with your sanity intact. Should you eclipse that time, you will be rendered completely and irrevocably nuts.

I’ve yet to approach that milestone, but when I do, I’ll be sure to drop you a line, possibly as a stark, raving madman, tearing off my face and howling, like those people that got too close to hell in that Sam Neil/Larry Fishburn flick with spaceships.

But here’s how I’ve done it for the last three and a half years:

Find People that Like Living Here


When I first arrived, it would have been so easy to for me to connect with the giant horde of ‘one year wonders’ that come here, those realize everything is different and fucking weird, and then proceed to drink out their year sitting in a bar complaining about everything in Japan.

They’re everywhere and they’ll poison you.

They came to Japan all wide eyed and joyous, perhaps ready to jump into loads of vagina, or run around in a samurai costume and cosplay outfits all day, but then couldn’t figure out why girls (or guys) didn’t want to come by their place for a home dinner and a movie date and why Japanese people don’t constantly run around dressed as Final Fantasy characters 24/7. This has left them dejected and angry.

I was lucky. When I arrived in my little land of Takamatsu, I fell in with a group of folks that really ‘get it.’  Seeing how much they love the place, whenever I get a bit down on Japan, I try to think of things from their point of view.

It really helps me to keep a good outlook, no matter how bad a day I’ve had, and they’ve been instrumental in introducing me to a ‘below the surface Japan’ that’s often hard to crack into. This is because Japanese people can smell “one years wonders” too and run screaming in the other direction, cept Roppongi whores.

On that same note, I’ve recently found that the Japanese Twitterverse has an immense collection of folks that really enjoy Japan in their own odd ways. Connecting with them is a great way to ‘feel the love.’

Eventually, you’ll have made it long enough in Japan where you’ll see the newbs arrive on the shores, all fresh-faced and new, and you can help steer them towards the “light side” just as others did for you.

Find Some Folks to Bitch With


Ok, I said it was poison to hang with folks that bitch about Japan all the time, and it is. But everyone needs to bitch about Japan sometimes!  While I’ve avoided crews of angry drunken foreigners that bitch the night away, we all need to vent from time to time.

You’ll go completely insane if you just have to keep frustrations inside over why the convenience store guy follows you around the store, or why no one sits anywhere near you on countryside train trips.

You sometimes need to laugh with someone about that creepy guy who requisitioned your for a “Can I practise English on You” session.

(PS: For the record, I always follow that up with “Only if I can practice Judo on you…”)

It’s Ok to vent, and I highly recommend a session where you can kick back and bitch about you various woes with a friend over a few beers. Just don’t let it become your life.

For me, I have a train ride or two a week that I share with a coworker for about an hour on the way home. We get a tall can or two, rotate a seat around, kick off the shoes, kick up the feet, and share a week’s worth of confusion and insanity.

I find that the hour’s good enough, and it’s fun when all the Japanese leave the train car because they can’t stand foreigners talking loudly (even though a similar scene with drunken salarymen is always ok). It’s like your own little form of rebellion, on a really small scale where rebellion is more like “inconvenience.”

For intense bouts of bitching, I get together with my friend every five months or so for a more epic session of good-humored, hate-filled drinking.

The key is, if you find that these bitching sessions are becoming the majority of your life’s time in Japan, it may be time to reconsider what you’re doing or who you’re hanging out with.

Have a Really Cool Panic Room


Keep a lifeline to something you enjoy from your pre-Japan life. For me, I love America Football and during the season, I lock myself away at odd hours in my room, watching the rent’s TV back home over Slingbox. I catch the local games and even the cheesey local commercials. Helps me feel a bit more in tune with the land of my birth.

My SuperBowl parties may be intensely lonely (One lone man at the computer at 8 in the morning with a few cans of that Kagome real fruit booze and some chips), but I’m connected.

I keep in touch with my silly American culture, movies, music, and TV via the internet and Amazon, and my friends with the various social sites out there. It’s really important.

My room is somewhere that I can always go to connect with all my non-Japan loves. When I get a little sick of folks, don’t feel like walking outside and having everyone stare at me, I just retreat to my little bastion of Fantasy Football, Bands that no one here knows, and TV shows not not named Lost, Heroes, 24 or Prison Break.

Connect to Something Here


You’re not going to like everything here.

I think Tea Ceremony is the most boring thing on earth. I would actually rather go to a seppuku seminar that ended with us all killing ourselves. My girlfriend does it, and I’m ok with that,  but I politely decline most invitations to sit for hours on the floor waiting to drink a cup of tea while someone fawns over a thousand-year-old tapestry.

I’m not really going to change my opinion on that.

In Japan, you’re going to find (just like anywhere) that there are things you like and things you hate. Embrace your loves and maintain an open mind about the things you hate, but feel free to continue on hating them.

People sometimes come here and get sucked into all that is Japanese and feel they must do everything.

Perhaps it’s because Japan always keeps us in that little “gaijin” box and some people believe that if they drink enough tea and understand noh plays, that suddenly they’ll transcend the label.

Well, you won’t, so just do stuff you like and leave the rest to others.

I think tea ceremony is what hell would be like, I can’t really appreciate flower arranging, and I’m a little tired of undokai, but if you call me up and tell me there’s a taikodai that needs throwing in the air, I’m there.

I’m not big on the modern Japanese sex/gore cinema (RoboGeisha, Machine Girl), but if you toss on some 70s Chiba Era flicks  my eyes glaze over (Etsuko Shihomi, yay!).

I don’t actively pursue Japanese through lessons (instead speaking dirty Sanuki-ben like some kind of mongrel human), but I do enjoy studying Kanji symbols and writing them, although I’d never get into calligraphy because it just seems ungodly precise and just the art of copying some other master’s style as closely as possible.

Don’t feel you need to take in everything. You wouldn’t do that in your home country, so don’t stress out about it here.

Find something interesting and Japanese that you really dig, and go diving on into it. Leave the rest for someone else!

What do you all think?  What are some ways you manage to keep your insanity in this wacky land we call Japan?

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