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  • Kristina Elyse Butke

Farewell, Japan


View of sunset outside airplane window. Farewell, Japan
Photo by Leonardo Yip via Unsplash

Tomorrow I'm going to be catching the plane from Kumamoto prefecture back to the USA. I am overcome with many, many feelings: of great happiness, some regret, and some fear. But overall I have a deep joy and gratitude for the six years I was able to call Japan my home.


I remember back in 2016 I was leaving an America in turmoil, and two jobs that paid poverty-level wages. I was under a lot of stress and was very unhappy. And I knew I was getting older, and that it would be harder and harder to just pick up and leave your life behind. I didn't have kids or a partner. I didn't have any sort of attachment to the place I lived. I just had dreams of getting out, and diving deeper into the world around me.


I chose Japan because I had seriously started getting into anime and manga while I was attending conventions in the USA (I did panels as a writer). I got introduced to Japan via its pop culture, and I knew I wasn't getting the whole picture. I had heard about the JET program from a fellow Seton Hill alumni and although I was an older candidate, I went ahead and applied, hoping my experience teaching college would be a boon for my candidacy. Luckily I was accepted, and then the summer of 2016 rolled around, and I was terrified of starting a new life in a country where I didn't know the language. I was certainly excited, too, but there were some moments where I just wasn't sure I could handle such an enormous life change.


It turned out Japan and I got along swimmingly. I threw myself into a job I highly enjoyed, teaching at a total of seven different schools during my tenure here. I volunteered for English camps and KumAJET's charity book sales and emceed and spoke at conferences...I loved the work I was doing. And I loved my coworkers and the students quite a bit. Six years is the longest I've ever worked at a single job, and if it wasn't for JET's contract limits, I'd continue teaching at my schools in Japan.


While working as an Assistant Language Teacher, I also immersed myself in Japanese culture. Sure, I'd participated in tea ceremonies, ikebana, and wearing kimono...but my big hobby here was visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples all over western Japan, collecting goshuin, participating in festivals, and visiting places from Japanese myth. At Shinto shrines I felt a sense of peace, especially if they were unmanned and in places that were isolated in nature. At Buddhist temples I felt a strange, strong energy that I don't know how to describe, as if holiness became a living, tangible thing. While Japan does not call itself a religious country, you can see spirituality everywhere.


I do have some regrets. I did not travel anywhere near as much as I'd hoped, largely due to the coronavirus. I had been saving my "big destinations" (Kyoto, Hokkaido, Osaka, Okinawa) for my last couple years in Japan, and the epidemic ruined it. Even though things in Japan loosened up over time, I still felt it was dangerous to leave the prefecture, and I needed to concentrate my funds on preparing to leave (because moving back to the United States is super expensive!). There's still a lot of Japan I haven't seen...including parts of Kyushu, even though I lived there!


Another regret I have is that I didn't work harder on learning the language. Honestly, I'd continue to live in Japan and just get another job teaching, but my language skills are terrible and insufficient for job hunting and daily living. I feel like I've taken far too much advantage of people's kindness while I've been here, so there's some guilt that I didn't try harder. Japanese is insanely difficult for me. I just can't wrap my head around reading and writing, and even now I can't get all of the hiragana straight, let alone katakana. I can't string together sentences properly, so I usually just say random words in a mash-up and gesture to get my point across. It's the bare minimum of survival Japanese, and although I've learned a lot when my starting point with the language was zero, it's nowhere near where it should be after six years here.


My last regret is my inability to handle money properly. I certainly didn't save money while I was here, instead spending it on experiences (which I don't regret) but also collecting all sorts of things that in hindsight maybe wasn't the most practical thing to do. In America, I collected art from Artist Alleys at conventions, but I avoided anime merchandise like figurines, chibi stuff, keychains, etc. I didn't see the appeal of it. But then when I came to Japan, I was surrounded by all sorts of anime goods, and I thought, "I'll never be here again, and this stuff isn't in America, so I'll buy it!" It brought me happiness, but then I had to get rid of some of it just so I could move back. I really lost my mind with shopping here, that's for sure!


But even though I have regrets, I accomplished so much. I already mentioned the great things I did in Japan, but in terms of my authorial accomplishments, I wrote a freaking book! I wrote Son of the Siren while I was here! And I published poetry, and appeared as a panelist at a writing convention while here. These are no small things. I was worried that I'd be so distracted by the wonderfulness that is Japan, that I'd let my work towards becoming an author fall by the wayside, but I achieved what I wanted to deep in my heart, and then some. I didn't finish revising Son of the Siren while in Japan--I basically had to take July off to prepare for going home--but plan to finish by September. I already have an agent who voiced interest in seeing the manuscript, too! So I expect good things to happen once I'm back in the States in that arena.


My love of anime and manga really blossomed while I was here, too. I was able to go to Anime Japan, see the inspirations for many anime, and I purchased a ton of collectibles. I also was able to really dive into manga while here, since it was so readily available everywhere. I finally met my people and fully celebrated my love of BL/yaoi manga and that was primarily what I bought while here. In America, right before leaving, I had only just discovered BL and kept quite mum about it, feeling a little ashamed for liking it (due to how explicit it can sometimes get). But here, where it's everywhere, out in the open, and not even blinked at, I felt so much more comfortable diving into it and talking to people about my love for it. I no longer worry about what people think about me reading and liking it. And I have a decent collection of books I sent home that I will treasure.


I feel like I've grown as a person as well while I've been here. I'm still a bit uptight or get panicky when under stress, but overall, teaching in Japan has taught me to improvise a whole lot more and to be able to make changes and quick decisions at the last minute. Things change in Japan all the time and once I'd finally get comfortable with something, it would go away or become something else, and I'd have to readjust and relearn things all over again. It definitely keeps you on your toes.


I hope that I've become a kinder, gentler, more tolerant person as well, just by meeting so many new people of different backgrounds and being thrown into all sorts of situations. I feel like I'm learning all the time, but I've learned a lot in Japan especially...and even though I'm pretty much middle-aged at this point, I think I've matured even more as a person just through the experiences I've had here. By going to another part of the world, I think I've expanded my worldview, and I think that's very important.


Overall, I think I've spent some of the best years of my life here in Japan. So many incredible things have happened while I've been here, and I'm going to walk away with countless memories and people whom I treasure. Japan has been a country filled with warm hospitality, beautiful nature, and kind people. I'm glad I got to expand my perspective of the country, and that I am ending my time here with many positive experiences.


I'm leaving Japan full of love for the country and its people. I hope someday I can come back.