The Japanese Cellophane Problem

I’m starting to feel a bit more optimistic about my freelancing just in the past few days. The elusive research article editing company sent me a big assignment last week and then immediately another even longer one after I handed that one in. And the LoveInnJapan people have been giving me consistent assignments every week.

Incidentally, something odd is happening in the cafe I’m in at the moment. In the area to my right of the pretty spacious floor there’s a bunch of people hovering around a rack of clothes, and hanging on the wall behind, there’s a TV with “Midnight in Paris” queued up to the DVD menu, the cursor at “Play” but no one taking any action to start it. So I can’t tell if it’s a pop-up clothing boutique, movie night, or some kind of odd party. The other cafe customers don’t seem at all perturbed by this, and they’re also not participating. I’ve been to this cafe so many times that I actually had a conversation with my waiter just now about how they changed their menu layout recently. Their coffee is a bit expensive (¥510/$5 for normal coffee) but it’s so incredibly good and they don’t bug me even if I’ve been working here for hours and ordering nothing more than 1 cup of coffee and a ¥400 plate of sliced baguette and fruit cheese spread.

Seven Colors Cafe (Shimokitazawa, Tokyo)

Back when I was mulling over this freelance transition, I spent a lot of time carefully imagining to myself what my daily reality as a freelancer would be, taking special care to highlight and embellish the most negative side-effects that I could think of. One thing I worried about was loneliness. I wondered if I could actually spend every day alone, in a cafe or at home, working silently inside my own head, and not go crazy from loneliness. But ironically I don’t think I’ve ever felt lonely as a freelancer. I see the students I tutor and my manager for that company pretty regularly, and there is a vague feeling of socialness that comes from just e-mailing with my other managers. And then I also feel like I see my friends more often than I ever used to. Maybe that’s because when I was in a regimented 8-6 schedule it was harder to motivate myself to make plans after work. So in this way I feel like this lifestyle actually suits me quite well.

One thing that I didn’t anticipate, though, was how disconnected I would feel from the Japanese world around me. It’s like there’s this thin, taut film stretching out in front of me, dimming and distorting the Japanese society that I used to move in. It’s a weird thing to say though because how enmeshed in Japanese society was I before really? When I spent hours sitting in a corner of the abandoned English office with Japanese sounds faintly drifting in from down the hallway I don’t think I felt like part of Japanese society. But somehow waking up early every day and joining the other commuters, knowing I had a very legitimate Japanese destination at the end of my route, did make me feel like I was part of that Japanese world in a way that I no longer am. I’ve signed up for Japanese classes every Friday morning because I can feel my Japanese ability slipping from disuse. My social life has always been disproportionately gaijin (foreigner)-centric, with nearly all of my closest friends gaijins. But when my work life was Japanese-centric this didn’t seem like much of a problem. Now my work life is nothing-centric. Or it’s egocentric. And sitting in a cafe or even a co-work office space and watching Japan happen around me isn’t the same as actually living inside it…

I feel like I should end with a more uplifting resolution here, but I don’t really have the answer to this issue yet. My Japanese classes are a start, but I need to find something else that pulls me back in…

Sometimes when I think over this problem it reminds me of the occasions when I try to get myself to eat a bit healthier. It’s always such a pain at first when I try to actively restrict myself from things like french fries, ice cream, curry, etc. My life seems to be missing something of its vibrancy without these delicious things available to me. But over time, with lack of imbibing, I gradually lose my taste for them anyway and don’t even notice when these things have vanished entirely from my daily diet. I wonder if the same thing could happen with Japan. I wonder if the less I consume Japan the more I could lose my taste for it. And if so, is it possible to still be in love with Tokyo when I no longer have any feelings for Japan?



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