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One year later: Thoughts on leaving Japan   Leave a comment

On March 3, 2011, my thoughts were all about evolution and moving forward. It was a clear, bright Friday, and I had taken it upon myself to get my work Visa renewed. In the mid-morning, I met a friend of mine for Coffee. Unlike me, he spoke fluent Japanese, and had very interesting credentials in media and non-profit work.” Mike,” I said to him. “Do you realize that if I had your skills, particularly with language, I’d make something happen? The main barrier for me in one sense is language and then belief that I can make something here.”

Mike, who was knibbling a McDonald’s breakfast meal, sort of nodded his head in agreement. To me, Mike had the main tool that most long term residents in Japan had, an acute appreciation of all things Japanese (good or bad) plus a stellar command of the language.

We chatted about normal things, past relationships, and the future. I had met up with him to pay for a camera he gave me a while back. As I went to the train station to head to the Shinagawa ward office to renew my work Visa, I felt a calm settle over me. This calm was not common—living in Tokyo with no health insurance and low income not withstanding—so I relished it. I felt that I’d spent the better part of two years battling to make it in a foreign country mentally and socially and that I’d essentially try and turn over a new leaf, do new things.

I moved to Tokyo in early 2010 with my savings and after five months of hustle and bustle went back to teaching English at three Japanese Junior high schools to survive. For the next six months, I often dreamed of a day when I could do something else. I label myself a “creative”, and sometimes shouting at Japanese teens and sitting alone at my desk in a staffroom where I rarely interacted with teachers was a bit underwhelming. On some days, if the sky was bright in the sky, I’d look to the horizon and think that in some future, I’d be doing something different. This was the mood on Friday, March third, 2011. I felt that getting my Visa renewed was a step towards something different.

The mood in my apartment building was mum. A body or two floated silently through the hallways, it was quiet, and the slightest hint of cigarette smoke hung in the air by a huge ashtray in the lobby. I popped into my room, flipped open my laptop and proceeded to load an episode of  Dexter. Then, the ground started shaking and I, sipping on a Suntory strong, didn’t take note (because Tokyo had frequent, albeit small earthquakes). Then, as the tremors continued, it dawned on me that “this might be the big one.”

For a split second, I had a flashback to a bar I frequented in Shizuoka, in the city of Hamamatsu where I first lived. Marty, the patron, in his heavy Aussie accent said to me “Yeah man, the big one’s gonna come of these days. They said it was supposed to be like 2004 or 2005, but its definitely gonna hit.”

The ground kept shaking and my mind ran through a series of exercises I remember learning in school.  Stand in a doorway, don’t run outside, get under a desk.

I walked to the open doorway. My roommate, a guy from Korea gave me a frightened look and went outside into the lobby. My next move was illogical—I went to my bed and grabbed my camera—and I started shooting video as I followed him into the lobby. The place was really shaking now, and amazingly I didn’t feel frightened, just clueless. A few people in the lobby sprinted outside. I ended up hanging in there, watching the 55 inch plasma screen threaten to drop on its face, and pictures of Jeremy Irons go clack clack clack clack on the wall. Then it stopped.

Then the second quake hit, and everything started.

Everything as in all the e-mails, CNN reports, people watching Al-Jazeer to through internet streams to get info in English, loss of cell phone calls, , rampant fears of impending doom and worse. I made sure to shoot my parents a calm one line e-mail telling  them I was okay. As time progressed and twitter became a soap box for a million new nuclear radiation experts, the apartment completely changed. Everyone hung out in the lobby, and pretty much everyone was drinking. The reality of the situation, people trying to figure out what safe milivert levels were and all that jazz lead everyone down beer alley. I was mostly fine (the alcohol helped that) but then I remembered I had a friend who lived in Fukushima. In fact, I always joked with her if ever we spoke on the phone, calling it “Fukukukukushima!” to which she’d laugh. Naturally, as I saw the tsunami sweeping away houses and massive tankers in its wake, I got worried. E-mails were taking long to go through and no phones worked.

I stared at the TV screen. That huge, behemoth of an LCD and wondered if I had witnessed the death of a friend on live TV. This was the atmosphere that shifted from a day thinking about the future, to being jet-pilot focused in the present. A few people said they were leaving Tokyo a few hours after the quake. One of them showed me an e-mail from the French embassy talking about flight compensations and the need for safety. Then a few other foreigners in my house talked about stuff their embassies were saying. I almost laughed in this situation, because I was sure that the Jamaican embassy had no idea who I was, nor would they spirit me away with their own money.

After sending like twenty SMS messages to my friend (her name was Mayumi) I realized it was futile and I’d have to wait it out. Day turned into night and people threw back the beers, played party games and tried every trick to chill out. “They say another big quake might hit on Wednesday,” Ed, another roommate said. I nodded as he said that, while eating a plate of Turkish food that a guy upstairs suddenly decided was a top priority to make… for everyone on in the building.

At this point I didn’t know what to think. The earthquake itself for me wasn’t so bad, but pretty much every thirty minutes since the quake happened, there were aftershocks. One day into this, I lost a basic sense of balance and I kept thinking the ground was moving when it wasn’t. Two days in I hadn’t slept much and everyone was on edge. One the third day, I heard from Mayumi. She sounded tired, but okay.

“Thanks for calling,” she said. “My family and I are going to go to Yokohama for a while.”

We chatted for a few more minutes, and in that exact moment, I realized that something else could happen, and I might never see her again. When I said goodbye, I felt very circumspect. My family was rallying heavily for me to come home, and in the midst of a sleepless cascade of beer, mixed news reports about heavy radiation and constant aftershocks, I was on my way home.

The morning before I was supposed to leave, several loud booms sounded somewhere far away, with heavy aftershocks rippling through Tokyo as a result. These didn’t sound or feel like anything earthquake related, and this was the first time fear struck my chest. My friend felt it too, and we left the house. During this time, I also had a very heart-wrenching goodbye conversation with a girl who had my heart, my femme fatale, nestled safely in a city far away.

Broken relationships, drinking, insomnia, loss of property and life, all a few days.

I had left the small city of Hamamatsu with two suitcases and hopes for the future, and now I was leaving Tokyo with one suitcase and a cloud of uncertainty as my carry-on.



I spent five weeks in the states before going back to Jamaica, mostly trying to get used to the idea of returning home and all the trappings that ensue with island life. Back home, I felt blank for several months. The bustling day to day life in a metropolis of thirty six million people is a far cry from the more laid back Kingston life. I struggled constantly with the desire to go back to Japan, particularly because of my femme fatale, but also because I had fought for my time there. I’d fought to overcome culture shock, a massive language barrier and adopt new social norms.

I’d gotten used to running to the Conbini at night to grab snacks or drinks. I’d gotten integrated, even doing photography for Fashion shows, video work at Upscale clubs and a little branding with some Tokyo-based companies. I appreciated the way I could meet new groups of people frequently, and it was hard (and still is) difficult to deal with how people in Kingston “mainly hang with friends from high school” as a pervasive social rule. I went from the city to a huge country club, with a dated membership.

In Japan, I created a web series entitled “Jamaican in Japan”, where you could follow me on adventures to reggae parties, different cities ,the top of Mt. Fuji, you name it.  Jamaican in Japan was to be a portal for anyone who’d never seen Japan to experience it the way I did, in a whirlwind of parties and exotic locations. My initial time in Japan was brutally frustrating, because I, the outgoing, chatty socialite suddenly couldn’t speak the main language, and had less places to go.

When I started the series, I kept myself inspired with the idea that maybe one day I’d be able to create content for TV in Jamaica. Maybe residents could see what I did and be inspired to do more. That would be fun, I thought. At the time I had no idea that what I was producing would eventually be on Jamaican TV. I spoke about this in mid-2011 on the island’s largest morning television show, Smile Jamaica. It was a gargantuan catch-22. There I was, chatting about my experiences about Japan, made possible by a rapid exit from said country.

As time passed, I made contacts with a few local media people, and I even tried to emulate my Jamaican in Japan webisodes, but it didn’t feel the same.  Eventually, After months of debate, I decided to try and get my footage on television, and the first episode of a TV show that compiles my travel videos, No Ticket Needed, aired on January 17th, 2012 on a local station, Flow TV.

As I sat with my family and watched myself on TV partying and gallivanting in Japan, I felt somewhat elated and also a little awkward. I’d always wanted to get my videos on TV, but I didn’t realize it would happen this way. This might sound like massive progress, ( and in  a way it is ) but I feel a dissonance exists between this feeling of achievement relative of how I feel about my day to day life. The mental divide between the party-hard world traveler and the laid back island boy is still a large barrier.

My friends in Japan often ask me when I’m coming back, and I often wonder if I’m going back. The dialogue since my return with people who know me has never been “What are you doing now? “ but it remains “When are you leaving?”

This is the question of my life right now. When am I leaving?

A massive earthquake and threat of radiation made me leave Japan, and like a lot of people, another massive earthquake and the threat of more radiation makes going back feel a bit iffy. But what is life without a little spice? After a year, I think I know what that means all too well.

My TVJ interview   4 comments

I was extremely pleased to be able to chat about my life and times in Japan, on Smile Jamaica, one of the island’s biggest morning shows! Click on the picture to watch the video!