I once saw a man staring at a handheld television set on a train, eyes swelling with tears, looking at what might have been video footage of a woman gazing back at him, her eyes wet with empathy and openness.
I wondered if Japan had a special market for DVDs of women sadly staring through the TV frame into the eyes of lonely salary men, distracting them from the complex horror of solitude.
It was just some sort of weird toothpaste commercial, the man, perhaps, had allergies.
This Room is Wrong
The trouble with being alone in Japan isn’t being alone in Japan – we are alone everywhere, born with nothing and lucky to have whatever we get. The trouble with being alone in Japan is that distracting myself requires more effort that I’d have to extend at home.
What I do, the central activity of my life in Japan, is spending time alone in a room.
You can identify the symptoms of being alone in a room for too long whenever you come across another expat, myself most certainly included. You know someone’s been alone in a room for a while if: There’s a struggle to keep up conversational monopolies, a tendency to over share, a willingness to indulge in bouts of emotional intensity while recoiling from the same display by others.
If my normal social life was a series of power lines connecting and delivering power in stable flows, my life in Japan is more like a series of sparking frayed wires jumping around a quiet road, desperate to electrocute passerby.
Curbing the intensity of that interaction means getting used to sitting alone in a room. This is Zen, which is great. Japan has a long history of sitting alone in rooms. But it’s not like I can go to a temple and find some guy to draft up a map of the gnarled forest in my skull. More realistically, I’m going to sit alone in a room.
Conversations about loneliness tend to draw pity.
This is a shame, because this blocks most constructive conversations about what it means to be alone. Time and place, and all that, but being alone isn’t a confession and it is not the exclusive conversational domain of depressed people. It’s a fact of life, particularly a life lived in a foreign country known for isolation and aloofness, a nation run by cats.
It would be better and more sane for us to talk about this rather than not talk about it. It’s a major part of the expat life.
Japan breeds a certain isolation already, with traditions of shyness, long work hours, and reliance on peace and quiet. As a foreigner used to gregarious back-slapping and arbitrary conversations with strangers, this starts to feel extreme.
So I will sit alone in a room and feel frustrated by it. Zen tells us that the frustration is a delusion – tell yourself that, and let it go. There’s a short moment of serenity when it starts to work, when I’m present, and then I start thinking about the Internet.
Dying on the Inside
The world in a photograph is saved for a while, but everything outside the photograph is over. You bring it back by thinking about it, a tempting bit of sorcery. It’s why we tell stories about the things that happen. We get to bring them back, think of some meanings, and pass them on to other people. This is the source of pain and the solace from it, the good-cop/bad-cop relationship we have with life.
That’s why sitting still in a room feels a lot like dying. I do a lot of it lately, more than I have at any other time in my life.
I’m living in the space just outside the photograph. No one’s seeing me. I’m not doing anything memorable. I’m not chasing novelty into a story to tell later. I’m sitting alone in a room, trying to be present, and dealing with the idea that I’m losing time.
When it’s time to stop thinking about sitting alone in a room, I’ll stop. I will want to talk to someone about it, but there won’t be anyone to talk to about it.
So perhaps I will run, or cook, or read, or watch TV.
I came to Japan precisely to face this kind of unhappiness, and take it on. I wanted to find the holes where my mental energy was leaking and paste them over with kaitenzushi and a caulk gun. I want to live apart from everything else, craving nothing, aloof and detached and in love with everything without expectations.
It’s been two years of sitting alone in a room in Japan, it’s been 17 years of meditation, and I have yet to find some furnace in my chest that takes up self-doubt and burns it into some perfect crystal vision.
I think it’s probably not gonna happen, and that’s a relief. I can’t be mindful all the time. Zen isn’t about becoming a Buddhist Superman, and that self-imposed struggle can only remind me that I’m falling short. Muho Noelke, a German-born abbot of the Antai-ji Zen temple, writes:
Don’t be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk. Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.
Novelty makes for a good story, an “interesting life,” but it’s not actually happening when you are sitting alone in a room, even if that room is in Japan, and that’s why it’s important to learn how to do it.
I start to lose that story of who I am, that person I’m so fond of, that person who is eventually going to disappear unremembered, all that wasted time spent unobserved and unobservant. I’m scared of being the person outside of that metaphorical photograph. I cling to it. It’s an ego thing. I don’t want to disappear, I spent a lot of time making me.
So I sit and think, and invent problems to react to and analyze and make into stories – squeeze it back into the picture frame – to make life compelling enough to talk about later.
But that’s a kind of failure. My real success, the real Zen achievement, is sitting down, shutting up, and letting nothing happen without turning it into a story.
Bring on the third year in this room in Japan.
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Thank you so much for this beautiful post…
Even as an introvert, this makes me slightly nervous. Is the ‘alone in a room’ syndrome something that will happen to most foreigners in Japan because of the language barrier in making friends, or is it more of a cultural thing? Or is it just not having a roommate? Now that you’ve said what the effects of ‘being alone in a room’ are, I’m curious what the causes are. I hope that isn’t an overly personal question!
Speaking purely from my own personal experience, it’s something does happen to most foreigners on occassion, and certainly can happen more easily than back home (wherever that is for you), but there’s no ‘will’ about it. It just takes more conscious effort to avoid, if avoiding it is what you want.
If you move to a new city in your home country, it takes a while to establish networks, if you’re of a mind to. Language and culture certainly play a part in Japan, but it’s basically the same ‘new city’ effect, just on steroids.
“I came to Japan precisely to face this kind of unhappiness, and take it on.”
As I said in the last link I shamlessly spammed your way, “You must endure the discomfort to get better at enduring the discomfort.” Still seems a little cart-before-the-horse to me, to be honest. Frankly I’m having trouble seeing the horse at all. But it appears to be working for you and this has to rank as the most artful JET Recontracting Angst post I’ve ever seen. Keep on keeping on, my friend.
I can say that if I spoke even a marginal amount of conversational Japanese, this situation would be completely different. The people I know who speak Japanese are always being approached and spoken to, because they’re interesting foreigners. I get a lot of that, too, but it usually ends with a kind of awkward nod when we hit the limits of the person’s English.
“a willingness to indulge in bouts of emotional intensity while recoiling from the same display by others”
hah, sounds familiar
It ought to, you’ve hung out with me. :)
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I used to go for long walks and take bus rides randomly – and sleep for many hours while my husband was at work because staying in a room alone (even with access to websites and films etc) felt strange. I don’t think I could do what a lot of the foreigners I met did: sit in their rooms, eat alone a lot, camp and sleep on the street when they traveled all over Japan.
I got to know a lot of people locally as they would see me out and about almost every weekday. People practiced their English with me, I learned a few words of Japanese everyday and tried them out on my husband, who speaks it fluently.
But I guess I was lucky – people invited me into their homes, taught me how to make ramen and soba and other random dishes I used to know the names of. I taught them how to make Indian food (which i was surprised to learn they love). This lady gave me scallions she was growing in her garden by the street i walked by (i used to wave and nod to her everyday) and i started helping her out with the gardening – and learned a lot about growing veg. I met the leader of the women’s business association in a festival and praised her (in broken Japanese) on encouraging women to have businesses and be independent. After that, she kept inviting me over to her house and to meetings and they all learned English from me (i didnt charge – it was all so random and fun) and taught me origami and flower arranging ( which i was rubbish at) and how to wear a kimono. When I left, some of them were emotional and presented me with flowers and a Kimono and origami papers.
I don’t know whether I would have gone mad waiting for my husband everyday or not – maybe I would have gotten used to it. Thankfully, I never had to find out.
Do you have a small community in Fukuoka that you are a part of now (like a mini family) or is it not something you consider having? I was in Ushiku for about a year.
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Eryk. This post. Jesus.
I love your blog! And thanks for putting up my comments.
I felt like replying to your early article on anxiety vis a vis sakura, but this also seems very much related.
I have pretty bad anxiety. I’ve always been a worrier. And after the March 11, 2011 earthquake, I had my first real panic attack. Scary stuff, and an aspect of my psyche that I still work with. Japan seems to be, as it is with most anything, a double-edged sword for my anxiety. I’ve had some of my most wonderful days there and some of my worst. The busy days of exhausting teaching and distracting tourism and language study were wonderful. The constant alone time was often difficult. If I wasn’t exhausted from work or distracting myself with beer and friends, it could get rough pretty quickly. The idea of truly facing that anxiety (and that anxious boredom) is a difficult but vital approach. And Japan forces that on you, as you said.