On Dealing With A Million Tiny Uncertainties In Japan


Run too many programs on a laptop and it runs slower. There’s only so much a single chip can process. In the old days you could push your processor past a limit – “overclocking the processor,” a phrase that has seeped into my general understanding of anxiety.

My first months in Japan, I was overclocking the language processor, etiquette processor, and the work-responsibility processor; I was running English programs based on an incomplete Japanese processor. My brain was constantly scanning the onslaught of Japanese language for the 10 percent it understood.

Unfamiliar environments breed tiny stresses – first-world problems that turn into energy sinks: Daily meetings I can’t understand but am required to attend; filling out paperwork in Kanji, which I can’t write; going to a store and forgetting the word for the thing I need to buy; explaining the haircut I want; when I need something and can’t even imagine the store it might be found in, never knowing if someone said “3:15” or “3:50” but having to be on time. It is the constant presence of tiny uncertainties that make it feel like certainty about anything is close to impossible.

For a year I left work and went directly to my bathtub, soaking out the anxiety. My supervisor never understood how I could go home four hours before her and not be fluent in Japanese. What else could I possibly be doing? I tried, but I was mentally drained from processing ten times as much data as she did. She’d learned how to filter out useless information from the environment, she knew how to decide what was certain and what wasn’t. All I knew is that routine tasks took three times as much time and effort as they used to, like I was walking to the grocery store with a bag of rocks.

If I set an alarm for breakfast before that first day on the job it’s easier to do it for the span of a career. I have about three months to set up habits, after that, change takes a real effort.

I arrived in Japan with as much control over my life as a toilet-trained infant, so establishing good habits was hard. Even feeding myself was a challenge. I couldn’t read menus or communicate, or communicate that I couldn’t read the menus.

Eventually I worked up the nerve – and enough money for an iPhone – to take photographs of the plastic food replicas in the windows.

“Kore desu,” I’d say. “It’s this.”

Even ugly, stupid babies learn not to shit themselves, and expats in Japan are often just as capable. Things were easier by the end of a year, but it was too late – my habits were set.

Doing things alone – traveling, trying a new restaurant, or exploring a new neighborhood – just never crossed my mind. If I didn’t have a partner, I didn’t have a reason. In hindsight I see it as a clever engineering solution deployed in the design of computers: If one processor can’t handle all that data, add another processor to share the workload.

Rather than adapting to my environment, I’d adapted to my helplessness. I think that is the pernicious nature of the microstressor. Tracking their gradual disappearance is as difficult as recognizing their effect in the first place. By the time you know how to handle them, you’ve learned never to be certain about anything. You’ve learned that heightened anxiety has benefits.

Eventually, the frenzied static of microscopic uncertainties assembled into a clearer image. It just took time to see it. When I did, it took a while longer to realize that this ever-present anxiety had lost its purpose.

The Locusts
Psychologists like to talk about the internal and external locus of control. An external locus leads to passive reactions to life events, because you don’t feel you have any control over what happens. Fate is external, coming at you from outside.

The internal locus is the active faith in effort. You are the actor that makes things happen. Fate is the interaction between your will and your environment.

An external locus is “that test was too hard, so I failed,” an internal locus is, “I didn’t study enough, so I failed.”

Typically, the internal locus of control makes people happier, stressed-out overachievers. The external locus, however, sees failure as fate: You’re lucky or unlucky, but either way, we’re not in charge of changing it, excepting major acts of stupidity.

We all know people whose only success is successive failure, for whom effort doesn’t seem to matter. These unlucky external-types typically find themselves clinically depressed. After all, if it all comes down to innate ability and luck, and not perseverance and skill, why bother applying yourself?

Richard Wiseman researches the concept of luck. To Wiseman, luck is actually a skill. Lucky people pick up subtle cues in the environment, perhaps even unconsciously. Meanwhile, inwardly drawn neurotics are too busy gazing at their navels to notice details in the outside world.

This can lead to “unlucky” accidents. Imagine some sad-sack Joe shuffling his foot straight into a curb while thinking about some girl, or ramming into a car because he was daydreaming through a stop sign.

The Lucky Ones
Consider the lucky people: The guys who always seem to have a girlfriend, are always meeting interesting people or finding amazing career opportunities. Are they “lucky?” Has some divine fox bestowed them with a brighter fate? Wiseman would say it’s got nothing to do with foxes. The lucky ones are just more open to catching flirtations, suggestions and conversational doorways that lead to “lucky accidents,” that is, opportunities.

If luck really is, as Wiseman says, being tuned in to the world, expats in Japan are doomed. You can’t communicate, so you can’t get things going. You can’t read signs or understand your environment without a lot of extra internal processing. More fluent expats may not be unlucky on account of language, but may not see more subtle social cues: The way someone stands, or looks at you, the way you carry yourself in terms of appearing receptive to ideas, secrets, and opportunities.

It’s not always lack of attention, though. I’d argue that even when I am alert to my surroundings, trying to filter out irrelevant information and maximize certainties, I’m processing at such a higher capacity that I end up blind to my relationship to those things: figuring out the katakana on a building, I walk into oncoming traffic. Unlucky me.

I think a lot about Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto: How the hundreds of gates, at first, are overwhelming and beautiful; how after a half an hour of walking they become routine and you start paying more attention to your feet on the ground or the people you are with. Then something happens – a particular curve of the road or approach of the sunlight, and you notice the world again, you remember to pay attention and feel awed by the world. And then… you forget again.


This is kind of the attention cycle for everything.

I surrendered an enormous amount of control – and luck – as an illiterate expatriate in a foreign culture. At the worst points in my stay, I was depressed and anxious. I began to focus on survival, and not thinking about how to thrive. It was all I could do to keep up my sanity, rather than trying to find happiness.

It gets clearer when I leave and come back. Traveling is the search for a newness that, in Japan, has started getting old for me: Taking the wrong train to a random neighborhood is a crazy travel experience when I’m in Thailand, but feels like a devastating affirmation of my helplessness in Japan. Reframing my “daily life” as “traveling in slow motion” is one way to consciously address my thinking. I just had to change the story, and do it without sweeping the hassles away under a rug lumpy with denial.

When I embrace that train ride and remember that my daily life will eventually be a crazy story when I go home, I remember to take in everything. Because it’s all fleeting – not just life in Japan, but every aspect of my life. It comes and it goes, so I’d better pay attention to the details.

Fushimi-Inari is, after all, a shrine for good luck.

If you aren’t convinced that observation and effort is enough, you can like This Japanese Life on Facebook for good luck, too.

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14 Responses to On Dealing With A Million Tiny Uncertainties In Japan

  1. Catspaw says:

    “If one processor can’t handle all that data, add another processor to share the workload.”

    Exceptionally well written. It is so satisfying to read how overwhelmed you were.

    Japan is total madness without language. A brilliant illustration of actual mental disabilities perhaps. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘What did he say?’ ‘Where is this train going?’ On and on.

    Add another processor.

    You have touched on the exact demands of a completely foreign culture and the solution with a very nice psychological fulcrum, locus. Just an excellent piece.

  2. As someone who worships Japan from afar (somewhat ignorantly, it seems…) I truly enjoy reading your blog, even when it shatters my mental images of blissful living in Japan. My question to you is this: Do you think that Japanese (or other folks) expats in America have many of the same feelings that you have in Japan? Or does Japanese culture “set up” the expat for these types of stresses?

    • Catspaw says:

      Is there a prejudice of exclusion present in Japanese culture that may make these experiences more exquisite? What is the inherent ‘exclusivity’ of Japanese culture that may make these experiences more palpable?

    • expatseek says:

      Most likely. Though the difference would be in terms of severity. Japan, Korea are well-known ethnically pure societies (as are the Scandinavian countries)… the US is the opposite of an ethnically pure society. So… I suspect the culture in Japan is homogenous and there is a strength of culture in a society in which all members have the same culture.

    • owwls says:

      I think expats everywhere will feel a bit of this; illiteracy is probably the better indicator. However, As Catspaw said, Japan is a really homogeneous culture – not only are they protective and insular, they don’t often encounter other cultures, having no need to enter into mainland Asia. The culture has been insular since it was created, and the diversity of cultures here is ridiculous – 1 percent or so, and English speakers are the minority of that 1 percent, after Koreans and Chinese. I feel like America has some experience trying to understand people from all over the place, we can get what you’re saying if you have a slight accent, we don’t snicker because someone is dressed in a sarong or has a beard. Japan isn’t used to that kind of thing – they’re used to being Japanese.

  3. spartan2600 says:

    “In the old days you could push your processor past a limit – “overclocking the processor,””

    You still can, and in fact, its easier to do so nowadays.

  4. zoomingjapan says:

    Well written as always.
    How long have you been in Japan now?

    I remember that I felt helpless in the first few months when I still needed help from my Japanese co-workers. I sat down and studied Japanese as much as possible.
    I’m going into my 6th year in Japan now. I’ve travelled to all 47 Japanese prefectures (95% I was traveling alon). I have absolutely no problem to communicate in Japanese.
    I rarely ever need help – probably just as much as I’d need back home as well.

    • owwls says:

      Three years. Even with the language I’ve picked up, there are still situations where I have no idea what the person wants, just because of the cultural differences.

  5. adrenalineJunkie says:

    “daily life” as “traveling in slow motion”

    You definitely hit the nail on the head with your concluding paragraph, Eryk. I think that’s why I love extreme sports/adventures such as skydiving, riding on top of a speedboat down the Amazon River next to a boxed-up corpse that is being sent back to family members in Peru, accidentally illegally entering Bolivia, etc. It’s in those moments when I feel most alive. A dose of adrenaline, if you will. I, too, have to remind myself that this Japan experience is indeed an adventure. As is with all things in life. That is, if I so choose to perceive it as such.

    The velocity at which things occur majorly affects how we perceive things.

    I guess that’s why an adrenaline rush is an adrenaline rush, right? It’s quick and not consistently occurring. In other words, it’s not routine (though I guess you could argue that you could make it a routine, but, our minds adapt and eventually a once-perceived “adrenaline rush” would become a monotonous routine again – kind of like living in Japan for several years. See: culture shock, honeymoon period, etc.)

    I think the key here is that our “overloaded processors” need the “refresh” button hit now and then. For you, for me, for many people I’m assuming, that “refresh” button can come in the form of travel.

    On the note of refreshing, I think that’s what everyone needs, everywhere. Especially when we look at governments and societal structures. For example, I see Japanese bureaucratic institutions as an “overloaded processor” aka one big cluster**** (but I’d say that about any large government organization). People get caught up trying to stay within the rules, follow orders instead of critically thinking for themselves, reading the katakana on the side of the building, being controlled by social pressures. This takes a lot of energy from the people, and they lose focus (regardless if they’re an external or internal locus). They lose the big picture and then BAM! get hit by oncoming traffic, like a recession.

    If only there were a way we could hit the “refresh button” for these institutions …

    I DID hear though, that Japan might take a week vaca to China for Golden Week. (Or was that the other way around? Oh, was it the Ishihara Resorts now? Can’t keep track of the latest news, too many inaugurations of Prime Ministers filling up the feed).

  6. a says:

    i apologise for the rather simple words i offer to express a far larger gratitude……thank you as always…..for this deep resonance and truly excellent expression of what many of us who read your words feel…

    PS: adrenaline junkie – get a blog :)

  7. evanhayden says:

    Hello. I jut wanted to say thank you for this post. I started reading your blog in late 2011 when I was applying for JET, as part of my “psyche yourself up for Japan” blog binge, and it stuck with me over the others due to the depth of subject matter and good writing. As last August came and went, I figured I was not picked for JET, and sort of avoided any Japan-related reading for a while, trying to stay positive as I readjusted my short-term plans.

    To my surprise, in late November, a little over a month after moving across the country, back to Los Angeles (“Plan B”), I got a call from JET, asking me to come to Nagasaki city in January 2013 to fill in for an ALT who broke contract. I accepted, of course, and scrambled my way back to Michigan to get my affairs in order.

    I’ve been reading your blog again regularily since coming to Japan, and it’s really helped to keep me grounded this past month. I’ve come to be an ALT at a strange time in my life, given that I studied Japanese for ten years, but that was ten years ago (I’m 32 now). My once-pretty-good Japanese has faltered and over those ten years pursuing a photography career. I forgot over half of my Japanese spoken language, 95% of my kanji, and even a few hiragana and katakana characters here and there. It’s slowly coming back, punctuated by the occasional plateau of uncertainty. That said, there are many times where I feel like my own language processor is overclocked and on the verge of burning out the proverbial power supply. Every one of your posts on this blog has interested me in one way or another, but this one really resonated with where I’m at right now, and I thank you for that. Keep up the good work! :-)

  8. Pingback: On Staying Sane as an Expat in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  9. Pingback: On Finding God in a Gourd in Naoshima (In Japan) | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  10. Lucius says:

    I absolutely hit this sort of wall in Japan at around the 2 year mark. I had passed the JLPT N2 and considered myself conversationally fluent, as well as capable of reading most text and writing fairly lengthy documents using a computer (my handwriting was and still remains abysmal).

    Somewhere in between angering a yakuza-esque hairdresser because of my inability to understand his Japanese and realizing I wasn’t going to get the apartment I wanted because of gaijin-exclusion policies and always being two steps behind during conversations at izakaya and with co-workers, I threw my hands up. I’ll be back to Japan in some capacity (perhaps after law school), but the life of a lower-rung English teacher or editor or translator in that country finally became too much for me.

    Gives me a ton of respect for immigrants in all countries, though. Including the USA. You have to WANT it.

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