June 2017 marks ten, yes, TEN years that I’ve been living in Japan. Ironically, I am celebrating this very important life milestone from my home state of South Carolina!
Then again, it’s perhaps fitting that I come full circle by bringing my baby to my home state.
I left South Carolina straight out of college with a dream of a life in Japan. Now, I’ve returned as a mom having had achieved that dream and many, many, many more.
I celebrate this milestone with a FAQ-style blog post about why and I came to Japan.
To begin, I was one of those “OMG I love anime/manga/J-Pop/J-Rock. It’s ~so~ much better than what we have in America!” type kids in high school. I guess it could be embarrassing, but I’m not embarrassed about it. How many of those kids can say that their hobby turned into something so awesome?
So, how did you end up in Japan?
To begin, I didn’t formally start studying Japanese until my first year of college. Before that, I studied on and off independently by casually looking through a dictionary and looking at subs of anime and translated J-Pop lyrics.
I had even taken up the task of studying Japanese independently so that I would be able to read manga, Japanese comic books, and watch and my favorite animated series without relying on translations.
I didn’t know it then, but it was very naive approach as 15 years later, with 10 years residency in Japan, I still find myself adding new words to my vocabulary nearly every day.
Believe it or not, I actually studied entered college as a Spanish major and graduated with a dual degree Spanish Language and Literature and East Asian Studies!
What’s it like studying in Tokyo?
I arrived in Tokyo in August 2004, and it was my first time on an airplane and my first time in a foreign country. My place of study was International Christian University, located in Mitaka, a city in western Tokyo.
To be perfectly honest, it was difficult for me to keep up my classes because was so distracted by life outside my campus. Students rarely strayed outside of Mitaka or Kichijouji, but I loved the scene in the center of Tokyo, in Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Living in Tokyo, the public transportation is cheap, efficient and amazing – you really don’t need a car, so I was free to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted to.
On top of that, I placed into the intermediate level Japanese classes, but had absolutely no speaking skills, so in class, I was always behind. Combined with my late nights out exploring, I was always sleepy and lost. I quickly made new friends and began to ditch school and textbook Japanese in favor of real life, practical Japanese language classes.
How did you make Japanese friends?
My friends were gyaru, young women wearing super high, chunky heels, flashy clothes and mini-skirts, deeply tanned skin, bleached hair, and tons of contouring and highlighting.
The place to be was Shibuya 109, a shopping mall where only the most fashionable ladies worked and did retail therapy.
My days and nights in Tokyo were filled with fun and color. For school holidays, I spent spring in Kyoto and winter traveling up north to yukiguni, the snowy region that bordered the Sea of Japan.
My love affair with Tokyo was so intense that after my year abroad ended, I returned for winter break in December 2005 and December 2006.
I worked part-time at a local supermarket, saved enough for a ticket, a month-long stay in a guesthouse, and of course, for shopping. The highlight of these trips was shopping for fukubukuro, lucky bags that contained tens of thousands of yen of clothing for only 5,000 yen or 10,000 yen.
I knew that I wanted to live in Japan after graduation and relocated to Japan permanently in June 2007. At first I thought I should teach English; after all, I was a native speaker of English.
However, I decided that if I taught English, there would be no makeup and blonde hair and mini-skirts in my future. My backup plan was to become a grad student, and I was accepted to Sophia University’s graduate program in Global Studies.
How did you find a job when you went back to Tokyo?
When I returned to Tokyo in June 2007, a shopping trip at Shibuya 109 changed my life. What if, instead of being a grad student…What if I worked here? I thought. I could always be a graduate student, but working in Shibuya 109, that’s something I can only do now.
As a gaijin, a foreigner, with a basic command of Japanese, I knew finding a job would be a challenge, a challenge that I happily accepted. I bought a few fashion magazines, new makeup, and got to work studying Japanese honorifics.
Soon, I started working at a shop in Shibuya 109, in July 2007. This arubaito, or part-time job, was my best chance to truly learn Japanese and experience Japanese culture.
Is Tokyo really that expensive?
With the bit of cash that I brought with me, I rented a room in a guesthouse, the same guesthouse that I used when I visited during winter vacations in college.
Within three months of working, I managed to save enough money (around 155,000 yen consisting of first month’s rent, key money, and deposit) so that I could rent my very own apartment with my company as my guarantor.
I scoured Craigslist for free furniture and kitchenware and bought a futon set and pair of hot pink curtains purchased from Nissen, my favorite mail order company that I still use ten years later.
INowadays, we have Lawson 100 yen shops, but ten years ago, those shops were 99 yen store.
I befriended a store clerk, a cute, young guy who was a student at nearby Asia University. He always made sure to secretly stick discount stickers on my salmon onigiri (rice balls), yogurt, and vegetable juice whenever I checked out.
I don’t smoke, but I enjoyed hanging out with him behind his shop on his cigarette breaks. We loved to talk about working in customer service and just life in general.
What’s it like working fashion retail in Japan?
Within one year my Japanese and sales skills improved so much that my responsibilities went from folding clothes, dusting, and taking out the trash to writing daily sales reports (which were handwritten at the end of every night), conducting stock inventory, and closing the register at night.
I also had a few side jobs modeling in gyaru magazines and appearing in tv shows and movies as a gaijin talent. At first, it was an amazing experience, but it began to take a toll on me.
In a way, it was all for the best as the aftermath of the Lehman Shock meant that no one was spending money on clothes like they used to. Gyaru were falling out fashion for more relaxed styles.
Customers were tight with their money and fast fashion took over Japan. Pricey, domestic Japanese brands were now competing with inexpensive pieces from international powerhouses like H&M and Forever 21. Uniqlo used to be the clothing for the unfashionable, now they’ve taken over Japan and the world as well.
The domestic brands that didn’t go bankrupt merged together or ditched in-house designers for clothing made in China. My own store, in particular, was losing its individuality, and I had come to realize that my journey was coming to an end.
What did you do after leaving the fashion industry?
With that in mind, I decided to take a break from fashion, and became a graduate student at Sophia University in September 2010.
Working part-time in fashion retail, teaching at an eikaiwa (English school) for little kids and doing research for my Master’s was incredibly tough. I cried. A lot. Especially when meeting with my advisor.
Still, somehow, despite all the stress and pressure I put on myself, I managed to graduate in March 2012, a whole semester early- yay! From then to the end of 2013, the pace of things picked up. I spent those years ~finding myself~ and fulfilling my ~wanderlust~
While that was going on in my personal life, professionally I was going on a career change. After I graduated, I thought I would want to work with older kids since my research focused on adolescents and how they picked up languages.
But, from my experience working with kids at my conversational English classes, I found them easier to teach than older kids. That’s how I started my career in early childhood education and bilingual education, by teaching kindergarten at international schools.
At the end of 2013, I met my now-husband, and we got married in 2014. Everything after that is kind of boring, honestly, truly. That is, with the exception of struggling to get pregnant and successfully giving birth earlier this year. While on maternity and childcare leave, I started Baby Kaiju and dabbled in freelance writing before taking the plunge to become a content creator.
Is it really so easy to live in Japan?
Naturally, not everything has been pleasant in these ten years. It was hard to find my identity in the first years of living in Japan when it was literally my job to wear the latest fashions and to look good.
I haven’t mentioned the exes and the heartbreak, nor the friends that I’ve lost. And there was that night that makes the movie “The Hangover” look like a tea party. Did I mention I nearly died scuba diving?
It’s been a crazy journey and I’m not sure of my destination, but I am enjoying the ride. I’d love to make a toast to the next ten years, but you know, breastfeeding. I’d love to make some non-alcoholic frozen margaritas, but the baby is sleeping, so I guess that toast isn’t happening any time soon!
10 Years in Japan – From Gaijin Gyaru to Mama