Letters from Japan: ‘Am I Missing Out?’

Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered

By Hilary Keyes
September 29, 2021
Ask Hilary

Savvy Tokyo's resident "Love in Japan" columnist, Hilary Keyes, answers anonymous questions from readers on everything from dating in Japan to women’s health issues. Got a question you’d like to ask Hilary? Email it to askhilary@savvytokyo.com.

Dear Hilary,

I’ve lived in Japan for seven years, ever since I graduated college. I’m single (since the pandemic started), child-free, live in my own apartment, have hobbies and friends I love, and otherwise am healthy. However, it’s my birthday soon and I’m starting to feel like I’m missing out on a lot. I’ve been talking to friends back home and they all have proper careers, some have homes and kids, some are getting married. I’m starting to feel like I’m missing out on having a real life. That the longer I stay in Japan, the less likely I am to get married, have kids, buy a house and so on. I liked my life before the pandemic, but now I feel deeply uncertain about my choice. What am I doing?

– Lost in Thought

Dear Lost in Thought, 

Happy birthday! That is a very familiar feeling, one that a lot of people who have stayed long term in Japan experience. The pandemic is probably not helping those feelings and could even be exasperating them.

If you’ve been spending more time on social media than you normally would and are taking your cues from what your friends are posting there, then I recommend you take a break. Nine times out of 10, what is being posted on social media is a filtered, enhanced and otherwise fictional version of reality. It’s been proven repeatedly that people only post their idealized selves online, after all. Remember, anyone can post anything online and claim it as fact. If all you see of someone’s life is how constantly amazing everything is, then you’re not getting the whole picture.

…what is being posted on social media is a filtered, enhanced and otherwise fictional version of reality.

A good question to ask yourself is this: are you jealous of their life or of the control that they appear to have over their life? Knowing that will help you to understand your feelings and may make that unhappiness you feel at your life in Japan disappear.

Generally speaking, I don’t recommend making any major life decisions during a pandemic or when you’re experiencing emotional turmoil. Sometimes, that turmoil can cause irrational but seemingly rational reactions and lead to different issues later on. Uncertainty breeds uncertainty, and while I won’t even attempt to predict when life will be “normal” again, I will say that rushing to make decisions now can backfire on you.

Think about what you liked about your life in Japan prior to the pandemic. I assume from your email that you dated, went out regularly, saw your friends and engaged in hobbies. If the pandemic is the only thing that is holding you back from enjoying life in Japan, then there’s a good chance that no matter where you are in the world you’ll still feel the same level of dissatisfaction.

…turmoil can cause irrational but seemingly rational reactions and lead to different issues later on.

The world has changed and the so-called “new normal” is something to which everyone needs to adapt. The mental health of people the world over has taken sharp turns both up and down in terms of depression, anxiety and overall stress. It’s not unusual to want to make a dramatic change when things are really getting to you, but keep yourself as grounded in reality as possible.

Turning to your own hobbies—if you can do them in a socially distanced fashion—or perhaps taking up a safe, new hobby might be a good way of refocusing your mind. For example, an urban explorer I know decided to start researching urban legends to make a bucket list of places to see in the future and is now writing a book on the subject.

If, after refocusing yourself and taking a break from social media, you still aren’t satisfied with the direction your life is taking, then it may be time to be honest with yourself and consider what it is that you want out of life. You can either do this on your own, or with a close friend or family member if you can trust them to be neutral and they’re available to be a part of this discussion.

…perhaps taking up a safe, new hobby might be a good way of refocusing your mind.

Just going off of what you mentioned in your message, starting with work might be easiest. What does a proper career mean to you? If you mean one in a 9-to-5 office setting with a set retirement age, paid time off and so on, then those are available in Japan as well as overseas if you have the necessary skills. You could polish your resume and see what sorts of jobs are available.

Or, if it means something else, it’s time to explore your options. One friend went from being an office worker to a librarian and children’s book author, and she absolutely loves her life now compared to what it was when she had a so-called “proper career.” What work would feel most fulfilling to you? Try looking online for any training or certifications you might need for that career or industry and see if you can audit classes or even do online courses that will help you to move in that direction.

You could polish your resume and see what sorts of jobs are available.

You mentioned being single since the pandemic started. What was your dating life like prior to that? Did you date anyone seriously while in Japan? If you were mainly in casual relationships, then perhaps you should focus more on finding someone for a more serious relationship, either by dating apps, match-making sites or introductions from friends. If they were serious relationships, then perhaps you should consider what is necessary for a move towards marriage.

If your goal is marriage itself rather than a relationship that may lead to marriage, then a match-making service might be your best option. However, if you aren’t looking for someone Japanese, then it will be a lot more difficult to do so for the foreseeable future.

Presuming that you are child-free and would be child-free no matter what, then that’s at least one topic to cross off your list. However, if you want children eventually, then you need to consider whether you intend to have a child on your own (as a single mother) or to co-parent with a partner (either through marriage or not).

Buying a house is a major financial investment no matter where you come from, but if you’re not certain about staying long-term in Japan, then it becomes even more daunting. If you were to buy a home here, would it be for the rest of your life, until retirement or…when? And if you are considering moving overseas, what are housing prices like in your destination? Is home ownership something that is reasonable or plausible given your financial situation? Would a change in career mean making owning a home more or less likely?

Buying a house is a major financial investment no matter where you come from…

That is a lot to think about, isn’t it? It’s also easy to let these topics bog you down or get under your skin. They aren’t meant to trigger depression or anxiety, but rather are meant to show you that these are important questions to ask yourself—eventually.

It’s hard to take stock of your life and think about it objectively, especially during a time of global upheaval. There are too many uncertainties to deal with and that is scary for everyone. I doubt there are many people who are happy with their lives right now, but the important thing to remember is that this won’t last forever.

Again, I don’t recommend making any major life decisions until things become more stable on a global level, but if you are rethinking your life in Japan, you need to frame it in a way that focuses on yourself and positive changes or decisions you can make in spite of the circumstances. You know, whether consciously or not, what you would like your life to be like, and I’m sure there are steps you can safely take towards that even during a pandemic.

..frame it in a way that focuses on yourself and positive changes or decisions you can make in spite of the circumstances.

Keeping an eye on your goals in life is important for many, while others prefer to “go with the flow” or “see where life takes them.” If you aren’t that type of person or haven’t been since the pandemic, then having an honest conversation with yourself is a good way to move your life in the direction you want it to go. Just remember to think positively and focus on improving what you can without disrupting your life more than the pandemic already has.

I would also like to recommend you check out the bookConvenience Store Woman,” by Sayaka Murata. You might find this novel gives you some perspective as well. Best of luck.