How Japan Has Changed Me

By Alex Falconer

In July 2014 I was at my lowest ebb. My wife and son were living in another country and I was dangerously depressed. It all stemmed from a disastrous decision I made in 2011 to sleep with another woman. I was lucky that my wife didn’t abandon me altogether. Instead, she moved back to her home country of Japan with our son, and I visited from Perth every chance I could. We slowly reconciled, and my wife urged me to move to Japan. I told her that I would, but I told myself that I couldn’t survive there. I kept putting it off. That July I returned from a visit to Japan and learned from my wife that our son was sobbing and inconsolable after I left. It hurt me to know that my indecision was hurting him, and I knew it was time for me to make the move. I gave myself 100 days to leave Perth. By November 2014 I’d be in Japan for good, and in the four years since I arrived here my only regret is that I waited so long to do it. That said, this is not a gushing piece about how much better everything is in Japan. The truth is that in some respects it’s worse than Australia. All I wish to say is that there is one very important thing that I’ve learned here: respect. It stands out to me because it was something I had so little of when I left Perth.

 I’ve become less concerned about being right and more conscious of maintaining harmony. This hasn’t been an easy adjustment to make. I still experience the urge to be in the right, and to tell everyone about it (but I tend to limit those interactions to people whom I don’t and will probably never know). I have learned to bend more. It’s something that helps build trust and long-term success, I think. I’ve learned that to argue here, especially in public, is to damage a relationship. I’ve learned to put myself in the shoes of the other a lot more. As an Assistant Language Teacher, this means realizing that I’m seen as a junior partner and not necessarily as an equal, so I make an effort to display the humility and agreeability that’s expected. This change didn’t come easily. There were a lot of moments of friction and discomfort when I attempted to assert myself unskillfully.

From the outside, Japan’s punctuality can seem neurotic and slightly bizarre, but perhaps at the heart of this habit is a respect for the feelings of the other.

My attitude to time has also changed. Or perhaps what has really changed is my attitude towards myself and other people, reflected through my changed attitude to time. Before I moved to Japan I was often late. To everything. I just didn’t think punctuality was important. I had an inflated sense of self-worth: I believed that other people would think nothing of waiting for me to arrive at an engagement, because they were so happy just to be with me. Even when they looked visibly upset by my tardiness it didn’t sink in. I kept repeating it over and over again. However, when I moved to Japan nobody knew me. My job would have been on the line if I were regularly late, so I stopped being late. Then I got a taste of the medicine I had dispensed in Australia: a Japanese guy I met was habitually late to our meetings and it made me realise how aggravating and quietly aggressive tardiness is. That’s not to say that I’ve never been late since I came to Japan -- but I have been late here far less often than I was in Australia, and I’m not blasé about it anymore. Perhaps that’s what I meant when I said that my attitude towards myself and others has changed: I can actually feel the other’s pain and frustration now if I am going to be late to a meeting with them. It makes me sweat, my heart beats faster, and I can’t concentrate effectively on the tasks in front of me. It’s an awful feeling. From the outside, Japan’s punctuality can seem neurotic and slightly bizarre, but perhaps at the heart of this habit is a respect for the feelings of the other. Not wanting the other to feel anger, frustration, or pain, and oneself not wanting to feel shame as a result of triggering the other’s negative emotions.

For similar reasons, wearing one’s emotions on one’s sleeve is not thought of as a skillful way of behaving here. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn because I often let my face do the talking. But as I’ve adapted, I’ve noticed that wearing a neutral expression has a positive feedback effect: strong emotions are subdued by it. If I’m irritated by another person’s act I find my irritation dissipates quicker if I don’t let it show on my face.

Disciplining one’s emotions makes it easier to discipline one’s mind too. This self-discipline is something I’ve needed to learn Japanese. The thing is, it’s possible for anyone to survive here with only a basic ability to understand and converse, so it’s tempting not to bother to learn. But that’s a fool’s paradise to live in because your world becomes very small. You can end up feeling as though you are living on an island of English language surrounded by a sea of Japanese. It’s easy to get isolated this way. Fortunately, the antidote of learning is readily available, it just takes self-discipline to make it work.

I’ve been back to Perth once since I moved to Japan. In a shopping centre carpark in Armadale a driver stopped to allow me to walk in front of their car, and I bowed instead of waved. Later, in North Perth, I followed the Japanese custom of ignoring a shopkeeper’s greeting, and I was affronted when she let her disappointment become plain on her face. When I return to Perth again next year, I’ll try to learn from those mistakes.

But if you see someone bowing when a wave would suffice, or not returning a ‘good morning’ from a friendly shop assistant, it’s probably me. I’m still learning.

You can read more of Alex’s work at

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