They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. You don’t know you’re riding a high until you come crashing down.
I always knew my JET (Japan Exchange Teaching) Program experience would be temporary. I had decided in winter of 2019 not to renew my contract and return home in August 2020. It created a bittersweetness that was ever-present during even the happiest of times here. I knew the life I built here would come to an end, and I would someday mourn the loss of a beautiful chapter. I knew saying goodbye to my found family and community would hurt, and that I would feel lost without the people I’ve grown to love and depend on. I knew that the adventures would eventually turn from plans into memories.
But no one could have ever predicted it would end like this. Life as we all knew it, all around the world, is over.
I’ve spent the past few weeks saying tearful, too soon goodbyes to friends who have decided to break their contracts and leave Japan prematurely to return to their home countries. I’ve sat in an empty school every single day for over a month because schools across the country have been closed, but teachers still have to go to work. I feel like a sitting duck needlessly putting myself and others at risk. The lack of purpose and protection has been crushing.
Gone are the days when I looked forward to what every weekend would bring. No more wine and paint nights, day trips, hiking excursions, happy hours, road trips, or matsuri. The big dinners, the birthdays, the holiday gatherings, and beach parties exist only in the past now. I’ve watched as all of the grand plans my friends and I had for our last year in Japan got canceled. Trips to Bali and Thailand have evaporated. Plans to reunite with old friends have gone up in smoke. Normalcy has come to a screeching halt, and by the time life begins again our time in Japan will have ended.
Everything I thought I had to look forward to in my final year here has been taken away, bit by bit. As hard as I try to remain positive and find ways to smile through the chaos, it’s difficult to find the bright side in watching the last stretch of a finite chapter fade into dust. One day I blinked and it was already over.
Just a few months ago I felt invincible. It never even crossed my mind that something would stop me from doing everything I had planned. I feel as if I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, like nature is reminding me just how fallible I actually am by slamming me into the ground. Now I’m completely dazed and sleepwalking through the shadows of my former life, directionless and exhausted.
I’ve come to realize this exhaustion is grief. I’m grieving the life I once had here that was taken away so suddenly. A life that will never return.
Don’t get me wrong, I know I still have a lot to be thankful for. I still have my health, and so far my friends and family remain healthy as well. I’m lucky to live in a region of Japan that has comparatively fewer cases than the rest of the world. I know that someday I’ll be able to travel again, and I’ll see the wonderful people I met here again. It’s just difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that this entire chapter of my life is effectively over. Every other major ending in my life was foreseeable. The end date was clearly marked, and it arrived when it was supposed to. I’ve never had the rug pulled out from under me this way before.
I’ll still be in Japan for the remainder of my contract — I still have a duty to my students and fellow teachers that I intend to honor despite the chaotic state of the world. But deep down I know that the best of this experience is over. I just wish I knew that the last time I’d feel as happy and hopeful as I once did here would be the last time. I would have held onto that joy for just a little bit longer.
Mika Osaki is a Yonsei and a recent college graduate. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up deeply involved in San Francisco’s Japantown community. She is currently living in Tottori City, Japan as an English teacher with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.