Letters from Japan: “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”

Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered

By Hilary Keyes
May 15, 2020
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 editorial@gplusmedia.com with the subject "Ask Hilary."

Hi Hilary,

I’ve lived in Japan for almost four years, and have been dating my Japanese boyfriend for almost three years. We don’t live together, but we’re pretty serious. The problem is, I hate living in Japan. I can’t stand being here, I’m sick of being treated differently because I’m foreign, and I feel like people are always talking about me. I don’t speak Japanese, so I don’t know if they are, but people say things about English around me a lot. My boyfriend lived in America and speaks English and he tells me all the time to stop being so paranoid. 

I’m thinking about moving back to the US. I’ve been talking to my old friends online, and one of my best guy friends is really encouraging me to move home. He sends me photos of things in my hometown and tells me how much fun we’ll have when I get home. I really like talking to him, and I feel like he understands what I’m going through since he taught in South Korea for a year. We talk almost every day online, and I feel like he’s more supportive of my life goals than my boyfriend is. My boyfriend is still going to work and doesn’t want to see me “just in case”, whatever that means. What do you think? – Crossroads

Dear Crossroads,

It sounds to me like you know exactly what you want to do, but you’re looking for someone to give you permission to do it. I’m not going to. The best I can offer is advice, which you sound like you need a lot of at the moment, so we’ll go through this step by step.

Let’s start with your boyfriend’s behavior—he’s most likely avoiding seeing you in order to keep you from catching Covid-19 on the off chance that he’s infected but asymptomatic. In other words, he doesn’t want to risk making you sick, which is a decent thing to do during these times. Being stuck inside alone—even during a soft lockdown—is still stressful and can put even the best relationships under pressure. You shouldn’t make any rash decisions regarding your relationship or life when you’re stressed out.

Have you tried talking to your boyfriend about how you’re feeling? You say that your relationship is pretty serious, but you’re talking about your hopes and dreams with some other man online. Not only that, but those goals don’t sound like they include your current partner.

Being stuck inside alone—even during a soft lockdown—is still stressful and can put even the best relationships under pressure

Perhaps the bigger question here is: do you genuinely want to be with your Japanese boyfriend, knowing that it potentially means staying in Japan? If the idea bothers you that much, then you need to address this with your boyfriend first. That could mean the end of your relationship, or it might mean him moving to the US with you.

Now to address your other, not insubstantial problem: your emotional affair partner. 

Yes, that is what he is if you two are discussing a potential future together. It sounds, in fact, like he is trying to woo you back to your hometown with the intention of pursuing a relationship with you. 

I suggest examining what you realistically expect to happen in the event that you do return to the US. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people feel trapped and frustrated by the current circumstances in the world. A change of country may or may not fix this for you, and a change of relationship may not be the cure-all that you want it to be either. 

A change of country may or may not fix this for you, and a change of relationship may not be the cure-all that you want it to be either

Ask yourself where these feelings of unhappiness are coming from and whether or not they stem from a wistfulness for a time when things were simpler. Maybe you would rather move back to the US and be with this other man, but it might not be prudent to assume that will magically make everything better.

If he’s single and wants to date you—you’ve told him that you have a boyfriend, right? If you haven’t, then you’re not being honest with him, and that’s not a good place to start a relationship from. If you have told him and he’s still pursuing you, then he doesn’t respect your boundaries, and that’s a red flag.

Ask yourself, too, what sort of sacrifices Hometown Guy will be required to make in order to be with you. He won’t have to move, take a flight, or go into quarantine under the current circumstances. Presumably, he doesn’t have to give up a relationship he’s invested three years in as you have, either. 

Furthermore, while Hometown Guy may be able to relate to the circumstances of being an American abroad, South Korea and Japan are two different countries, and men and women have vastly different experiences. You’ve stayed in Japan for four years compared to his one—there has to have been something that’s kept you here other than your boyfriend, right? What is that? Is there something you used to do but can’t now? Is there a way you can do that thing online? Rediscovering a lost hobby or interest could help you get through this lockdown, and might give you a better perspective on your life goals.

Basically, you’re stuck in a stressful, isolating situation with your Japanese boyfriend and coping with that by having an emotional affair with Hometown Guy. While an understandable and common coping mechanism, it’s not a healthy one. 

Now is not the time to be making any sudden, drastic changes to your life

If there is one point I can stress, it’s this: Now is not the time to be making any sudden, drastic changes to your life. This is the time to think carefully and logically about what your next steps should be and to plan accordingly for your future, whatever that may be.

Oh, and as a final note, when you mentioned people speaking about English things: it happens to all of us. Nine times out of ten, it’s a comment on something foreign they saw or read that seeing a foreigner reminded them of. For example, there were two people behind me in line in the tax office a while back, and one said to the other “oh right, I wondered why they had English signs.” That was all there was to it. Naturally, there are some rude people out there that make snide comments, thinking people can’t understand them, but you have two options: you can either ignore them, or you can learn Japanese and discover what it is they’re actually saying.

If you are feeling isolated and out of your element during this unprecedented time, try connecting with expats in Japan online. I guarantee many of them will have experienced the same sort of things you’re going through now, and they may be able to help provide you with a less biased perspective on whether or not the grass really is greener on the other side.

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