Returning to Japan During a Pandemic: A Mental Health Marathon
To see this article published on the Tokyo Weekender website click here.
It’s easiest to start this with an ending. Back in 2019 my time as an assistant English teacher in Kanagawa was over and I was heading home with a plan for my future in mind. With two years of teaching under my belt and considerably more savings than when I arrived, I decided to go back to the UK to set my plans of auditioning for a drama school course in motion. Leaving Japan was not easy. I’d gained confidence and was comfortable with my life here. I had also grown so much as a person. All in all, the experience had been a tremendously positive one, one I was sad to relinquish.
I left in August. With my audition set for February 2020, I’d decided to spend six months in Malta, where I have family. I initially flew back to the UK. Upon waking up my first morning back I experienced a minor panic attack. I sat in my living room sobbing and shaking, unable to breathe properly as I wondered if I had made the right decision to come back. I’d been so independent, decently paid and had been gradually accumulating an excellent network of friends and potential future collaborators. I had left them all behind, for what? Merely a shot at a notoriously treacherous career path?
Despite managing to pull myself together, these thoughts continued to niggle away at my confidence. After moving to Malta, I struggled even more. Though I have spent various lengths of time in my father’s home country, the reverse culture shock and new culture shock combined were overwhelming. Malta was just so different from Japan in so many ways. By December I was struggling with my mental health and ready to leave the rocky island earlier than intended. My parents convinced me to stay, though, until my audition had taken place.
In February of 2020, I attended said audition and was accepted onto their summer program on the spot. Finally, it felt like my plan was starting to work out. My leaving Japan was not in vain, I thought. It’s all coming together.
No Time for Goodbyes
Then, only one month later, Covid hit Europe hard. In less than a week, countries had started closing down their borders and people were rushing to the airports. Having no fixed income in Malta, I also decided to head home, booking a ticket one day and flying out the next. No time for goodbyes, no time to really comprehend what on earth was happening.
The first few months of the UK lockdown were actually fairly pleasantly spent with my parents in their rather nice apartment in the Yorkshire countryside. However, the somber evening news always brought us back to the crux of the matter, with death tolls read nightly by stone-faced broadcasters. We all thought the lockdown would be over in three months. Even the drama school was optimistic they would go ahead that summer. Until they weren’t.
As the lockdown marched monotonously on, the course was canceled. I was told that I could put my name down for 2021, a whole year away. I should have stayed in Japan, I thought, as I watched my friends there go on with their somewhat normal lives on social media, with Japan refusing to lockdown, a decision many of my friends were struggling with themselves. Though I questioned Japan’s handling of the pandemic, I couldn’t help but feel resentful for having left. I would have been in a secure job, made more money and had more freedom.
A Ray of Hope
As I scrolled through my Instagram feed, a window to the outside world, I came across a short fashion film created by a production company in Japan. It was beautifully done and visually arresting. It set something off inside of me. I had a degree in fashion photography, I had worked on a handful of indie films in Tokyo – I could go back and do that again. I could go back and be a creator. A new plan started forming in my head, one that would get me back to Japan.
I immediately started searching for avenues to go back. It became all-consuming. I read the news from Japan every day, reading into every comment and every article, to find any ray of hope that I could return. I’d moved to London in September and opted to work part-time in a Japanese café to pay rent. I saw online that Japan had tentatively started opening to working holiday visas. That was my preferred option, but I needed a company to sign an all-important declaration form.
I emailed numerous companies, even interviewed for a teaching job via Zoom, anyone who could bring me back. I was so optimistic that I would be there by the start of 2021 I was looking at accommodation options. But when the Kent variation was released into the world and London was placed back into the strictest lockdown, thoughts of heading back to Japan in the near future were beaten down. I moved out of the city to save money, staying in Dorset instead for a few months, this time with the belief that I would be in Japan by March.
The Pendulum Swings Again
A few months later, with the help of an ex-JET, I had found a company to sign the form. I even booked an appointment at the embassy as borders looked set to open. I was ready now, I was so ready. But the pendulum swung once again and my hopes and plans were dashed anew as the deadly Delta variant was announced and borders clamped shut once more. I was starting to feel drained. The toll of the pandemic and having my efforts repeatedly shot down were getting to me.
I joined online groups where others were in similar, and oftentimes more desperate situations. I felt guilty that it was affecting me so much when others had been separated from their families, businesses and homes for so long. Despite my desire to return, I started to feel bitter toward the Japanese government’s handling of foreigners during this time, counting us less worthy than Japanese nationals.
I moved to Hereford, where my parents were building a new home. It was then back to London when work opened up once more. Finally, after a full year had passed, I headed to Bristol, where I attended the drama course I’d been so desperate to join before.
Though the course was amazing, the teachers phenomenal and the classes inspiring, events conspired to trip me up. I caught Covid in my first week there. It left me weary and frustrated. I was then diagnosed with severe anemia and was having tests run for kidney problems. My credit card was then stolen from my bag. I began to feel like I was waiting for the next bad thing to happen. I was beginning to mistrust the future.
Focusing on the Present
With Japan still locked down at the end of the course, I moved back into my parents’ rental. I worked part-time assisting the JET Program with its 2022 applications. I read over 300 essays on why people wanted to go to Japan, my own desires dampened by repeated failed attempts. After working on location for a film in January 2022, I moved back to London for a third time. I decided that, though I would keep an eye on news from Japan, I should focus my attention on the present. I couldn’t afford to waste more time hoping.
As I looked back on the last two years, all I could think was what if? What if I’d done a master’s degree? I could have studied Japanese and art. I could have applied for a full-time job and actually progressed in something properly instead of allowing my resume to wilt under part-time jobs and the occasional freelance gig. All of the could haves and the should-haves were weighing me down. Despite knowing they weren’t healthy I couldn’t shake them off.
Just when I started to think about settling into life in the UK, the forums and news sites exploded. They were all reporting the same thing: Japan was starting to allow certain visas in, including working holiday visas. I immediately got back in touch with the company, booked my appointment at the embassy and handed in my application form.
I had to wait one week to see if I’d been successful. A year ago, I would have been hopping around in anticipation. Now I just felt apprehension. Did I still want this? Was it the right choice? Did I have it in me to move yet again? I had spent two years hyping up what I wanted to do. Now it loomed like a huge wall in front of me.
A week later the application was approved. The relief I felt decided it.
Thanks to Corona restrictions, I had what felt like hundreds of hurdles to jump through, booking pre-flight covid tests, filling out forms and downloading apps alongside all the usual packing. I also had to say goodbye once again to friends and family. I flew out on May 9, terrified of my Covid test results both before and after landing. Fortunately, I sailed through.
After almost three years, in which I had moved 12 times, I was back. I was finally back.
As I write this, I’ve been in Japan for three weeks. I’ve already packed in so much and have to remind myself that I have a whole year to unleash my plan. The pressure of those last few years, however, still weighs on me.
I try to remind myself to breathe, but with the pandemic having halted my life in many ways, I feel I have to make up for it. The effects of the pandemic on our mental health are not going to disappear anytime soon. We all felt stuck at certain points. Now, with things almost back to normal, the desire to make moves is strong. I can only hope I allow myself the space to process all that has happened, to enjoy my hard-fought time here and to make it count.