Letter from an Existentialist in Japan #6


“It’s not the experience that happens to you. It’s what you do with the experience that happens to you.” – Bertrand Russell

Dear Bob,

I’ve arrived at the halfway point and a distinct part II of the experience, because now I’m having it with someone else. We met shortly before my departure (serendipitously delayed 3 months) and fell in love, as one does when one is funemployed and set to depart. So rather unaccording to plan, I’ve gone from doing this whole thing alone to living, teaching, and being alone together with someone I frankly don’t know that well. I will certainly come to, at least in relation to me (and vice versa…I pity the fool).

Of course it’s enriching and just more fun to share. But I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed at being alone. I didn’t accomplish what I meant to with my freedom and solitude other than revel in it and now I feel like I’ve missed my chance. And it’s all because of what a terribly undisciplined person I am; a “slave to my [base] desires” (according to Ms. Matriarch).

Maybe that’s all I am. I prefer to think of myself as who I would be if I could, and I just need to put myself in the right circumstances to flourish, but here was my chance yet again, and it seems I have failed to prove my higher desires as more than merely a wanting to want. My fear that I am just an empty vessel after all and that any joy de vivre I experience is actually only from the expectations I set up about the future that inevitably fail by my own lack of followthrough, which is to say, lack of actual desire…seems closer to true than ever.

My language acquisition is going pretty poorly too. I’m just not a studier, never was. I will only learn if it’s incidental to fun or necessity. Like I’ve grown attached to the unusually existential children’s show character Anpanman  (pan = bread = his face, which he feeds to starving children), whose great theme song senpai translated for me literally to teach vocabulary and grammar. And I learn the things I wanna say in class, like “gutaitekini” which is “be more specific”. I love when there’s just one word for a thing.

Teaching is going ok I think. Again, how am I to know. I just know that my classes are way better than when I first started and what I thought were great ideas at the time I’ll never do again. But for some reason I am so much less satisfied. It can only be failed expectations. Also, this assembly line format, having so many different classes each day only once a week, makes it really hard to really grok each student. I need the relationship or else I just feel kinda useless and expendable. I know that’s a lot to ask wherever I teach, but’s already hard enough with the language barrier. Anyway, I have enough longer classes with some real gems that I won’t get depressed over it or anything.


The freedom of it all (teaching & living) really does come at a psychological price for me. On one hand, it’s what allows me to be the teacher and person I will naturally become/what is most suited to me/meant to be(?). But then who’s to say that this person is the most effective to achieving the outcomes that you really want? Maybe I/we all would be better off with some steering, or limits. At least when there is constraint then you can shoulder the blame to the circumstances and not feel so responsible. With freedom, the degree to which you can be satisfied is virtually limitless, and what is satisfaction but a feeling that you have done everything in your power?

Ugh, enough of this! I could think myself senseless if I let myself. I need better control of my thoughts, then I’ll have a chance with my actions. I’m dabbling in meditation now. Well, I’m on day 8 of the app I’ve had for 2 months. Just 10 minutes a day. I’ve been told by too many people I respect over the years how necessary it is, but I’ve always been skeptical. Then I realized that so many intellectual skeptics swear by it too – including my number one, Sam Harris, so I really ought to give it a real go. I’m kind of desperate here. Maybe desperate enough to delude myself into a clear mind if I try hard enough.


Sorry I’m not writing more about life in Japan. It’s just life now (one I am so grateful to live seriously it’s the outer life of my dreams) and I’m back to being a neurotic, dissatisfied, self-loathing person of unknown intent. Wow, happiness isn’t dependent on external circumstances? What a revelation!

I just wanna write. Whatever comes out when I manage to sit myself down and open up a Word document and place my fingers on the keyboard is the only kind I can really do unprompted. I just hate forcing things, always have. I’m not bragging, it just sounds better than “I hate trying”. But it doesn’t feel good to be so excessively self-indulgent like this. I have so much else I want to talk about. I’ll try and write something more anthropological about Japan next month*. And I’ll try to be a good partner.

Thank you for reading anyway, and ’til then,

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  • Jess

  • If there is anything in particular you or y’all would like to know about my experience so far as it has to do with Japan or teaching, please ask in the comments and if there’s enough I can do a little Q&A

SS: Letter from Japan #4


Dear Bob,

I really love my small town. Paul expressed beautifully what I can’t quite yet; maybe never will here. I just like living in the atmosphere where it’s possible. My small-town love is really about the potential for interconnectedness and the vested interest the people have in getting along (since we’re all we’ve got). Feels like we’re on the same team. Against what? Meaninglessness, I suppose. I’m sure there are miserable, dysfunctional small towns just as there are people, but this pocket of Sasayama feels so cozy and safe to me. Don’t talk to me about dark underbellies right now.

As a teacher I’m evolving. My standards are higher. Which means it’s harder work than I initially thought. The sheer variety of classes and the sole responsibility. The not really knowing if I’m doing well, so I just keep trying and erring.  At least I have control. There’s just one class I have completely lost control over though – my littlest kids. That I know is a certain hell because I stop breathing and float above my body for the duration. They’re so far gone. But at least they’re contained. And at least they serve the purpose of keeping me from getting too comfortable. Ah, I long for the day when I am both comfortable and not a shit teacher. And don’t have to control. Possible?


Anyway, I got my first earned break since I arrived, which I made an excellent time of just driving around with a vague sense of direction (the edges), sleeping in my car and following the attraction signs (which were all in English!). Basically how I live my life. No plan = no expectation = surprise!


Surprise! I rode a camel?!



Surprise!  I got locked in a weird amusement park because no staff would talk to me to tell me they were closing?!



Surprise! To the old man whose house I thought was a coffeeshop. He still made me coffee (spy it)




I seriously love Japan. I made careful not to say it until I was sure, but I felt it from the start and it has only been confirmed. It’s surprising how normal everything feels even though each day brings some new sight or situation that is so absurd if I think of it from Canada. It makes me reconsider what normal even is. That which doesn’t provoke a big reaction from the surroundings? So then my presence here is normal. It does indeed seem that way. Besides the amusement park diffusion of responsibility, people don’t avoid engaging with me if they can’t speak English (which is funny), nor do they come up to me to practice (like in Korea…which was funny too).  It’s nice! Until I remember the Japanese tendency to hide their true feelings for the other person’s sake. Well, that’s nice too I guess. For now.

Language learning is slow but sure. It’s interesting to discover two distinct concepts in English that are the same in Japanese. Like “clean” and “beautiful” (kirei) and “early” and “fast” (haiai), “good night” and “break” (oyasumi). And common words that mean opposite things depending on the context.  Like chotto, one of the first ones you pick up on from hearing it all the time and learning chotto matte (“wait a moment”). In most contexts it means “a little” or “a bit” or “slightly”, but in others it means the exact opposite; “fairly” or “very”. It also can mean “indeed” or “inconvenient”. Also very common is betsu ni. The word itself means “in particular”, but it’s used to mean the exact opposite. “Nothing in particular” or “nothing special”, or just “nothing”  The whole reason it’s negative is because it’s abbreviated from betsu ni nani mo – “nani mo” being part that actually means “nothing”. Augh. And there’s yabei which is an exclamation to mean “Super cool” or “crazy/insane”, but in one case my student said it to me while saying an emotional goodbye on her last class, and when I asked why she just said “big feeling”

But it’s it interesting that once you learn the contexts, you get it. Like, I get kirei; something that can be classified as both clean and pretty. Never thought of it before. Never had to! These are not new concepts a foreigner can’t possibly grasp. It’s not that they don’t exist without the language, either. We just don’t think of it. The potential is there and we could understand it if we were shown how.  It’s so interesting! I want to learn faster/earlier!

By the way, the word for “foreigner” was originally gaijin, which means “outside person” but Japanese thought it sounded rude so they changed it to gaikokojin, meaning “outside country person”.  That’s nice!

I’m still working on being alone. Without intimacy, I mean. It’s not that it’s lonely, it’s just kind of neutral. Actual joy is only ever experienced when other people are closely involved (so too along the other end of the continuum – that’s the deal). I often feel like the kid from Into the Wild, except not so stubborn that I have to be dying to come to the conclusion that happiness is only real when shared.

When I left Canada, it was in the midst of some of the best relationships I have ever had. I made sure they connected before I left, and so it was just becoming a network. I was so happy. But here I am so happy in a different way that I’m not sure I can get back there. Best of both worlds, kudesai!