Not everyone who moves to Japan is lonely when they arrive, but most are by the time they leave. One can’t reasonably complain about it, of course: We do it to ourselves. But we can try to understand how loneliness works – and we have plenty of opportunity to study that question in Japan.
Most people do not move to a foreign country where they don’t speak a word of the language, but most people are not conditioned toward loneliness. Lonely people are basically social telecommuters: It doesn’t matter where we are, because we’ll feel lonely anyway. May as well get some decent matcha while we’re at it.
Some people are born lonely. As a lonely person, articulating this difference can be difficult. Lonely people seem depressed to non-lonely people, and sometimes we are. We are perfectionists, striving for an impossible level of connection and disregarding anything that falls short. We are wary of new people, who require a lot of energy. It’s tiring for lonely people to extend themselves into non-loneliness, too hard to finesse anything less than a perfect click of personalities.
Lonely people, I’ve found, are more likely to make music or read poems or get lost in fiction. Art pitches itself to a niche audience of lonely people. We can’t articulate to a specific person, so we articulate to the world at large. No one tells us what we want to hear, so we ask dead poets. We cultivate interior landscapes and wonder why we are, so frequently, trapped in our own weeds.
Maps (They Don’t Love You Like I Love You)
The layman’s idea of loneliness is tied to rejection: You’re undesirable. But that’s secondary. Instead, we feel wasted. We’ve explored an inner wilderness but nobody cares to see the map. We have erected libraries in there, with books and quotes and short films of symbolic significance. All this stuff that goes into the construction of our self, the symbols that seeped in and took root. It inspires empathy, because we know that every person has the same thing, but it also inspires frustration, because we don’t know how to explore it with anyone else.
I imagined I’d find a manageable kind of loneliness in Japan. My isolation was largely self-imposed. I’d make the map and it would be OK, I’d carve out some new landscapes. I’d do it deliberately, so rejection would have nothing to do with it. But as one grows accustomed to life abroad, this sense of self-imposed ostracism loses its protective charm. One meets people who seem open to trading cartography advice, but it never happens, or it happens superficially. Cartography conversations seem ever important and ever unsatisfying.
Art, like a mountain, was once the great common reference of internal mapmaking. You meet someone and they show you this album or movie or book or song or poem or whatever, and then the two of you agree that yes, you both have seen it, and without realizing it, you can look at the trails that got you there.
It’s exciting but soon wears out. Art is ever so localized.
“Yeah, they’re pretty good.” Art, at least when giving directions to our inner life, is a distressingly poor landmark.
The Science of Solitude
Loneliness, according to its earliest researchers, was defined as the unfulfilled desire for intimacy. So, we are drawn to the kind of social events that might loosen the barriers: get drunk, hook up, stop being alone by being in someone’s arms, even if they’re kind of a terrible person.
Science knows some things about loneliness.
Science knows that, in the absence of social stimulation, we seek mental stimulation anywhere we can, whenever we can. Psychologists agree that lonely people smoke, overeat, drink too much and engage in “indiscriminate sex” more often than those with satisfying social connections.
Science knows that loneliness, borne of stress, inspires stress. Loneliness increases already high levels of stress hormones. It makes us more susceptible to disease. Lonely people feel daily stress more deeply, and unexpected problems experienced in isolation can be surprisingly debilitating. Welcome to Japan.
Science knows that loneliness is self-fulfilling. If we feel lonely at work, which seems to be inevitable, we carry it home. I carried it into the bathtub, until I read enough to stimulate the social connection part of my brain.
Science knows that we crave intimacy more just as we imagine that no one is interested in what we have to say. Indeed, in an act of biological irony, the most difficult time to trust people is when we need to trust people the most. Vulnerability breeds defensiveness; rejection stings more. But also, it turns out, lonely people are worse at reading faces. We pick up on negative social cues more than positive ones. I found Japan’s vague sense of communication (and facial expressions) a constant assurance that I was a nuisance and a burden to everybody who had to talk to me.
From 1 to 4
In 1978, researchers at UCLA devised a simple questionnaire to measure loneliness. Twenty statements, rated on a scale of intensity. The statements read almost like a check list for living in Japan.
On a scale of 1-4, evaluate: I have nobody to talk to. I lack companionship. I feel that nobody understands me. I find myself wanting people to call or write. My ideas are not shared by anyone around me. I feel left out. I am unable to communicate with those around me. My social relationships are superficial. No one knows me well. It is difficult to make friends. I feel excluded. People are around me, but rarely with me.
These statements are objectively true. OK, OK, I know: Boo-hoo.
But the Japanese expat life is an inherently lonely one, and once you start to see it in people, you start to get sad. Native-language social interactions are extremely rare compared to home. When I interacted with other people in Japan – particularly, but not exclusively, other expats – they were lonely too. We’d get together, feel needy and inspire a mutual, secret panic.
I wanted intimacy, but was terrified of scaring people away. I started over-thinking social strategies. I feigned aloofness, then pushed boundaries of intimacy, then panicked when people reciprocated. I’d pull away, my feigned aloofness becoming real, and then panic, then wonder whether I was crazy or someone else was.
We both were.
Lonely people, according to research, crave intimacy but actually loathe self-disclosure. We want to be accepted, which makes the stakes of rejection all the more terrifying. We get anxious and defensive, isolate ourselves from people we want to talk to.
We won’t talk. We need to talk, in fact, we want to cram a week’s worth of social warmth into a single blaze of one-sided conversation. And we inevitably will. After a few pints, I would tear down social barriers to intimacy at an unsettling pace. It’s easy to force it, to demand it out of the people closest to me, even if it’s just not there. The minute I started talking, I started to feel like I was terrifying everybody.
For a while I went to work every day assuming I was disliked by my co-workers. I didn’t trust that they were being honest with their kindness, I assumed they were being nice. Nice wouldn’t have cut it anyway. I craved intimacy, and my limited Japanese made it impossible.
People told me, “If you learn Japanese, you can make more friends,” but you can only talk about food for so long before you start getting hungry for something else. Studying wouldn’t have helped. I wouldn’t be having the conversations I wanted to be having, because I wanted to have impossible conversations.
There is no conversation that would have fixed it, and there is no connection that could be reached over a pint or a night in bed with anybody. There is nothing anyone can say to make lonely people feel like other people are sharing themselves, because there is nothing we will hear through our own pulsing desire to disclose something ourselves. I would sense, if you told me a secret, that you immediately regretted telling me, because that’s how I’d feel.
Research says: Acts of social sharing that should be deeply fulfilling leave lonely people feeling less satisfied than the non-lonelies.
The Lonely Scientist’s Guide to Life
I spent a lot of time trying to graduate from loneliness to post-loneliness, and I’ve come to find a certain peace in it, these days. Research points to some solutions for short-term loneliness, and some of them have helped me here:
- Have a “something night” every week. Waiting for people to call you is less satisfying than regular, expected contact. This is true even if the person calls consistently, and spends the same amount of time with you. Personal control over a relationship (even the “control” of expectation) can make you feel better about it, and consistency can make you less nervous that you’re screwing it up. Plan a movie night, dinner night, or soccer night.
- Invite, rather than wait for invitations. I am pretty sure that every friendship I have has been the result of inviting them to do something. Nobody ever asks anybody to do anything.
- Change expectations of social contact. Coming to Japan out of university was shocking, because I went from seeing dozens of friends every day to seeing practically nobody for weeks. I’ve had to change expectations – recognize that distance and money mean seeing people on weekends, not weekdays. As that was still too long, I made regular local dinner plans in the midst of the week, as advised by point 1.
- Do things alone. Waiting for other people to do stuff with you will make you feel worse if they don’t. See movies alone, go to restaurants alone, travel alone, rather than letting loneliness make you feel like you’re missing out on life.
A Drinking Problem
There’s that old Zen story about a student who seeks enlightenment from a monk. The student sits down with a hot cup of tea and talks, at length, about the things he has studied, the many masters he has met, the experiences he has had, the threats he has survived. He talks and talks, until his tea turns cold. “Why, then, can I not find enlightenment?”
The Zen master nods, and begins to pour fresh tea into his cup. The monk keeps pouring as hot green tea rises over the brim, into the saucer, to the table and down onto the floor.
“The cup is you,” says the monk.
We have this metaphor that loneliness is emptiness. That we are an empty bottle that needs to be filled. But my loneliness was never the result of being empty. I had way too much stale tea in my cup: Old fears, old insecurities, imaginary threats. I assumed I needed to pour my heart out to someone, and maybe I did, but I couldn’t trust anyone to listen.
Loneliness was a paradox because it meant keeping an inner life that was so full that it was unwieldy and esoteric. I’d have a hard time connecting to other people because of all the clutter. I wanted them to speak not just English but also the language of the books I’d read, the ideas I considered fundamental. The reason people were exhausting is because I had no room to hold their tea. And when people spoke to me – if they were really looking – they would see my eyes glaze over as every word they said spilled immediately out of my cup and onto the table.
So rather than seeing people as vessels to pour myself into, I started looking at all the cold tea I needed to swallow or spit out. I was alone because I was keeping people away.
When people say “you have to let people in,” it has that patronizing feel of country song wisdom, like we’re all tragic teenagers who, if only we “let people love us,” would be transformed into people who gazed lovingly at hand-made scrapbooks.
I really was full of myself, the end result of living immersed in a world I’d made in isolation. I wanted to talk for hours to someone else just to prove that I was here, just to have some witness to my existence. To verify that I was real, by relating to them, so I could be remembered and understood.
We lonely people have spent our lives out in the world gathering sticks and roots, berries and books and cinema and snippets of poems and boys or girls we crushed on and the memories of how we nursed away that rejection. We’ve collected moments of symbolism, snapshots in our head of pleasant and meaningful memories, and added them to a pestle, ground them up into a powder, and stirred them into hot water with a bit of milk.
We’ve tried to offer that cup of tea to everyone we meet. It’s fresh and hot at first, when we’re young and able to offer it up to anyone who asks.
We get older and fewer people ask. We still want to spill that cold tea into someone else’s cup – not for the joy of sharing, but so that they can carry it with them, so they can remember that we were capable of brewing such fine tea – and we hope that they will taste the complex richness that we know must be there.
But when we’re lonely, we refuse to let go of our attachment to ourselves. We lose the drive of our curiosity. I wanted share myself so badly that I left no room to be shared with, then panicked that nobody ever told me anything.
All this bitter tea – cold and stale, undrinkable, unwanted but carried around because we grew the leaves and brewed them on our own. Drink it or pour it down a drain, but somehow, we’ve got to empty that cup before we can expect anyone else to serve us another, before we can begin collecting another bunch of ideas and berries and brew them into something that we actually want to drink.
And then, when that cup is quite warm, we can offer it, freely, to someone else, and take in some of theirs.
And if you threw a party, and invited everyone you knew, you would see the biggest gift would be from me and the card attached would say, “Thank you for liking This Japanese Life on Facebook.”