Diary of a Repatriate
Japan has been
compared to a mirror. In Japan, you can see yourself reflected in the culture and, if you
don't like what you see, you can reinvent yourself accordingly. But there comes a time for
most foreigners to leave this empowering country, and saying sayonara can be a curiously
disturbing experience. Janet Pocorobba, long-time Tokyo Classified contributor and our own
Bridget Jones, documented the difficulties she experienced in stepping back from the
Japanese mirror after four involving years here.
February 5th, TCAT
I chose a good day to leave Japan. Chinese New Year. For me, 48 hours of good luck and
good cheer. A new year; a new start. The dragon chapter begins...
When my friend D left Japan, she compared it to taking off a kimono. When the
kimono is put on, your movement is instantly restricted and you must adjust accordingly.
But the moment it's taken off, there is a feeling of freedom and expansion.
For me, living in Japan has been more like tying an obi. You knot and pull and
sometimes, right at the last twist, you realize that the proportion is all wrong and you
have to start over. This is how I often felt about Japan: cinching, twisting, I assembled
a life, but often came up short, dissatisfied, but resolved to try again.
I'm leaving because I need to sort things out. There have been lots of successes in Japan,
and more than a few failures. I came as a teacher and ended up an apprentice musician,
deep in old Japan, dependent on my teacher and the world she provided. Time flowed,
open-ended, and soon my focus and purpose blurred. I need time. SPACE. I need fireplaces,
wooded walks, lentil stews and my partner, W, in person, not through email or fiber
optics. It's time to stop the world and just chill. But can I do that?
And the moment is here, on United 853 to Milwaukee, 7:51pm, on this day of good luck and
good cheer: TERROR. I push against the window as we lift off, my heart pushing at my
ribcage. The sight of the city below wrenches me more than anything leading to this
moment. This last glimpse of Japan, this blast off, this breach, this removal of myself
from the landscape below, where the houses are tiny and storybook-like. I picture my
teacher in one of those golden windows. Tokyo recedes before my eyes, and I fear that
Japan will recede in my heart and mind, like a dream or fable. How can I keep it real?
Who are these people with their hands in my bags? The security officers are picking apart
"What's this?" they ask, unwrapping a piece of the disassembled neck. What do
they think it is, a magnum? Jesus! Be careful! This thing is worth over $5000!
I explain what it is, and they look at me, blank. "You mean you play this
"It's kind of like a banjo."
They leave the instrument laying like a broken corpse and go on to another person's bag. I
repack my old friend and it looks strange to me now in the US. These people wanted to know
its purpose, its function. I've been asking myself the same question for a long time: what
is its meaning - or Japan's for that matter - in my life?
Reunited with W! A miracle! Glorious. Emotional. Tears of joy and release. We have all the
time in the world now. Our first time together without holidays, family stress, future
plans, depressions. We can just BE. The watch is stopped. Time is plentiful.
Night: I can't bloody sleep. I'm screwed without melatonin tablets. W is snoring away. How
dare he? I just want this hellish day to be over.
February 7th, Milwaukee
sleep 2, cigarettes 29, movies 3, mels 8
Today I feel catatonic, my sense of place and time shattered along with my sense of
purpose. I fumble with my bags, unpacking, repacking. Miso bowls, fans, kimono - do I need
this stuff? It seems useless now. I have no teacher, no routine, no job. I feel isolated.
No one cares about Japan. Except W. He knows, thank god. But how can he just stand there
and bake cookies? He encourages me to let myself go, to "drop out" for a few
days-get into my jammies and sleep and cry and smoke. It sounds great. But can I do that?
I must remind myself of the perks of American life. Um...
I wonder if Japan has spoiled me forever. W compares it to losing your virginity. You
can't go back to how you were before. We're both AJ, then: After Japan. I have a feeling
that if I could accept the transition, I'd be a lot better off. For now, it's hopeless
sleep 6, cigarettes 19, movies 4, mels 5
I finally slept. Waking is painful, like I've been lifting weights in my sleep. My neck is
seized up. I'm in traction. My dreams lately are of arrangements, luggage, walking,
different homes I have lived in, old friends, new friends. I took W's advice and spent the
day at the piano in my pajamas.
Casey the dog chewed up one of my geta from Kyoto. I found it, gnawed down to a narrow
stump, shards of wood spewed all over the bedroom. Looks like how I feel.
While smoking in the basement with the cat, I resolve to get through this.
Don't turn to cream cheese! Gambatte! I'll get through this with grace! My sensei
would be proud of me! I'll do it for her!
sleep 2, cigarettes 35, movies 5, mels 4
MY LAPTOP CRASHED! I panic. Call IBM. LCD displays. $800. Hard drive. Argh!!!! To
compensate I put on a new kimono. It temporarily erases my misery.
Japan continues to poke its head into this reality and I find myself wondering which is a
dream, here or Japan? I straddle both. A girl in the store in a long skirt looks at first
glance like she's in a kimono. A circular window in a house looks like it has bamboo
screens. My mind has clearly not caught up to the change.
Tonight's flicks were Bergman, Hitchcock, and some Japanese flicks. Subtitled! I can feel
my sagging egg brain firming up by the minute.
sleep 3 1/2, cigarettes 21, movies 2, mels 3
Little tendrils of sanity are reaching out and plugging into me somewhere. Played sax all
day in my pajamas. I realized that I wouldn't be trying to pick up sax now if it hadn't
been for studying music in Japan, where my teacher taught it for pure pleasure. The
process is what's important, the journey of learning by doing. Playing music before
Japan-piano lessons, band concerts - always had me thinking, "Why am I doing
this?" Now I know. It feeds my soul. Period.
sleep 4, cigarettes 12, movies 1, mels 3
Fed up with the fascist computer monopoly. May have to do home surgery instead.
Going to bed with echinacea tea (another bennie!), the phone rings. It's my shamisen
teacher from Japan. I sit rabid and tight while W talks to her. I crave word from the
Other Side. But now the news is old, filtered, weak. I used to be on top of it all. I feel
retired. This call is my connection now and I feel buzzed from it, drunk. Revived, jolted,
shocked, relieved. I sit for a long time afterwards holding the receiver in the dark,
soaking in the call, letting the vibration of her voice and Tokyo sink into my heart and
wrap around it, holding it there. I turn over images and sounds in my mind, savoring them
until, like a lozenge, they recede, smaller and smaller, and disappear.
sleep 2, cigarettes 15, movies 0, mels 2
Went to a jazz concert downtown. I wore a kimono with high-heeled boots. (Sensei would
kill me!) I think more people turned their heads at me wearing one of these in Japan than
Milwaukee. During the show, a guy from the balcony started yelling down at the stage, like
the kabuki kakegoe guys. Except it was annoying.
sleep 2, cigarettes 25, movies 0, mels 5
The New York Times in bed (another point). A wicked snowstorm. We shoveled. The physical
chore was good. Things seem different, W seems different. Is he? Or is it me? I don't
trust my perceptions.
After dinner, watched a game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I realize that I cannot
answer any questions about current events from four years ago to date. Where have I been?
sleep 5, cigarettes 10, movies 0, mels 2
Valentine's Day presents! (Big points!) Home surgery worked. Screw Bill Gates!
sleep 6, cigarettes 8, movies 3, mels 0!
Didn't get dressed today until 11pm, when we went out in our jammies for cigarettes.
Watched Ozu's Tokyo Story and felt ferociously natsukashii for all the foods and rooms and
sounds and sights. Wept continuously for the last fifteen minutes of the movie at the
utter beauty conveyed.
I'm finally off sleeping meds.
On Cape Cod now. Setting up house is fun!
Unpacking, I couldn't find a furoshiki my drum teacher had given me when I last saw her. W
told me it's in Milwaukee, he didn't pack it. How could he BE so thoughtless?! I am
stunned and far more upset than is reasonable. It is jarring and triggers this feeling of
loss. It was a gift from back there, a memory of the last day, I feel like something's
missing, left behind, all over again. The feeling of temporary dislocation is back. I am
so sad and I just go with it, exhausted...
My shamisen teacher faxes me a program of her upcoming concert. I watch silently as it
creeps out of the machine, the kanji exotic yet familiar. Like Japan. It is her first
concert without me in years. It stings and burns. I want to cry again but instead just pin
it up on the fridge with the rest of the Faxes From Beyond.
Today is my one month anniversary. Excruciating. I think my body is literally going
through withdrawal. In previous years, this would be the time I'd be heading back to
Japan. Instead I'm here, not going anywhere. My body screams in protest. I want to be
running free in Ginza, Shinjuku, Shibuya. I take back all the criticisms of life in Tokyo
and crave to be back in that mix. It couldn't have been as bad as I thought! I am wildly
jealous of anyone who is there now. Get me there! Now! A friend's words about making it
through the first few months haunt me. I think constantly of a visit, a return, just a
little one, just a taste, can't hurt anything. Let me out! Argh!!!
sleep 0, cigarettes 40
W looks me square in the face at breakfast and asks me if I would consider going to Japan
to play in the concert. Is he crazy? I can't do that. I'm here. Japan is behind. Past. I
need to look forward! To my future!
But I want to go.
I've been going about this all wrong. In leaving Japan, I have imagined that there had to
be a clean break, some moment of utter finality. This added considerably to the
heartbreak. When I first came back, I knew that I was ending one long-distance love affair
but starting another with Japan. This seemed bleak at first, but suddenly seems hopeful.
Long-distance doesn't mean dead. I can go to Japan any time I want. It'll be there. And I
might just go for that concert! It's enough to know that I can. Woo hoo! See you in Ginza!