L is for Loneliness

Yeah, I know.  So if you’re a follower of mine then you’ll know that I just got married.  Please rest assured, dear reader, that despite the title I am very happily married and my wife is absolutely awesome.

And yet…Japan is not my home country.  Not yet, anyway.  Oh, don’t get me wrong: I have regarded Japan as my home for a long time now.  It’s been a long time since I woke up here and felt as if I were in a foreign country.  Actually, when I visited the UK for our wedding ceremony, the disconcerting thing was just how alien it all felt, and how coming back to Japan felt like the return to normality.

But there is no denying that a part of me belongs in the UK.  I was born there, grew up there, and all of my family and old friends are there.  I also left all of my GameCube and N64 gear there.  That’s not the kind of thing you just walk away from.

So no matter how settled I become in Japan, a part of me will always feel a little lonely.  I think the reason for this is threefold: first, as we’ve talked about before, Japan is a very homogenous country, and one that generally holds foreigners at an arm’s length when it comes to integration into society.  The day a white person is seen as being Japanese without question will not happen in my lifetime, sadly.  Secondly and most importantly, Japan is naturally predisposed to be a lonely country.  Yes, believe it not, in this country of over 120 million people and some of the most crowded metropolises on Earth, it is possible for even native Japanese people to feel lonely.

Because it is so, so hard to make friends.  If you ever visit Japan, you may think I’m talking nonsense.  “But Japanese people are so polite!” you may say.  And you’d be absolutely right.  In general, Japanese people are very well-mannered and courteous.  But let’s not confuse politeness with friendliness here.  When I was back in the UK, I think I struck up small talk with about, ooh, a third of the staff who served me.  It’s so commonplace that it is basically the norm: if you aren’t up for a little chat when the opportunity is there, then you’ll be seen as a little cold and stiff.

Not so in Japan.  When I go to the shops here, I am bombarded with niceties.  I am given a bow at the beginning and end of the transaction, a mini-bow when they take my money, and the entire time in between is filled with honorific language from the cashier.  Even if I wanted to say something, I couldn’t find the space to say it.

For me this a microcosm of how Japan effectively alienates itself from one another.  Walls are thrown up between you and the other party, particularly if you are not of the same standing in the conversation (cashier to customer, new worker to superior etc).  Even parent-child relationships seem to lack that deep connection where a child feels they can truly share their feelings with their mother and father.  And I truly believe that because of this, many Japanese people sorely lack a healthy number of emotional connections with people.  This is one of the many factors that leads to the social phenomenon that is ‘Hikkikomori’ (引き籠もり), reclusives that have withdrawn from a society that seems cold and unforgiving to them.

To be fair, I speak in broad strokes.  These are classic and well-documented theories and ideas, and I’m sure that if you have lived in Japan yourself or at least been here long term then you can think of plenty of examples to the contrary.  Trust me, I have never been happier to be wrong in that regard.  But this brings me to my third and final reason for feeling lonely: I have a loving wife, a wonderful in-law family, great friends, a job I enjoy and even now I regard Japan as an incredible country.  For all that, I am truly grateful and I know how staggeringly lucky I am.  But as I said, my family and roots lie in the UK.  No matter how perfect things may be in Japan, that will always remain an unmovable fact.  And for that, a tiny spectre of loneliness will always haunt me while I am here.

And you know what?  Bring it on.  That little kernel of loneliness is nothing, nothing compared to everything that is great and good in my life in Japan right now.  On balance, I should learn when it’s time to shut up, put up and realise that things could be a hell of a lot worse.  At least I still live in a country I love almost as much as my new wife.

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