Social Anxiety in Japan: A Vignette

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Art by Tetsuyayamatashi

I think people will just always make me nervous, no matter how old I get or how often I do public speaking or stage performing (I was a drama/theater kid in middle and high school), it’s just a fact of my life- that’s just how I’m wired. If I’m in a crowd and everyone’s talking, or, you know, existing, it doesn’t take long for the noise to become unbearable; it’s like this intense buzzing that just gets louder and louder, and suddenly my ears start ringing and my cheeks feel warm and my arms go limp and I want to disappear into a puddle of jelly on the floor just to escape. Part of me knows I’m being unreasonable, but another part of me, the anxiety-ridden agoraphobe, says, “No, this is a completely normal way to react to being out among peoples.” Full disclosure, I think this is the same part of me that says all cars are “speeding metal death-traps”; I suspect there is an 80 year-old, crotchety shut-in living inside my brain- I’m gonna call her “Irma”. But now I’m way off topic!

This week I had a branch training meeting on Tuesday afternoon, so, that morning, I had to make the nearly three hour trek from my home in Ozu-machi all the way out to Fukuoka; I took the train, naturally (re: all cars are “speeding, metal death-traps”). I didn’t have to be in Fukuoka until about 2:30, so I was able to take a mid-morning train, and didn’t have to deal with crowded commuter trains. Traveling to Fukuoka was a breeze; I changed trains in the right stations, was able to find a seat each time, and the scenery was lovely. I always feel like I lucked with my placement in Kyushu since I get to be out in the rural part of Japan with lots of mountains, woodsy locals, open fields, and picturesque farm lands; even in the winter things are pretty green and still growing- last week one of my JTEs said he and his wife when strawberry picking! All that to say, I was very much at ease during my journey.

Photo Cred: Utsunomiya Terunobu
Photo Cred: Utsunomiya Terunobu

For a bit of context, another advantage (at least in my experience) to living in the country, is that not many people speak English- admittedly, this is also sometimes a disadvantage since my Japanese is non-existent. That being said, as a foreigner, I almost never get approached by strangers when I’m out in public. I’ve heard and read about foreigners who live in bigger cities like Tokyo, who sometimes get bombarded by eager, younger, Japanese people wanting to practice their English on them (the foreigner), and, honestly, that sounds nerve-wrecking. Here in Ozu-machi and where I teach in Takamori-machi (which is very rural), I am mostly unbothered when I’m out and about. I say “mostly” because when I do light shopping in Takamori, I’ll occasionally run into one of my shougakkou (elementary school) students, but they’re usually happy with a quick, “Hello! How are you? Okay, goodbye! See you!” And that’s that: no awkward, drawn-out conversation in broken English/Japanese; no uncomfortable, stop-start, back-and-forth talking; it’s just cute, simple greetings in under 2 minutes, and then I get to go on about my shopping in peace and quiet. That, I like.

Okay, back to my Tuesday outing: once I got to Fukuoka, my stress levels spiked. The building in which our training was being held was right next to the station, so finding it wasn’t a problem,  but I had some time to kill before I needed to be in place, so I went into a nearby Starbucks (yeah, it’s everywhere, and the Japanese actually really love it). Stepping into that Starbucks was jarring; suddenly gaijin (foreigners, i.e. other ALTs from the company) were all around me, and I could hear English being spoken rapidly and fluently, and even though I had been back in the States only a couple weeks ago, it was still so discomfiting. I tried to not make eye contact and hold on to the last few moments of my solitude and anonymity, as I ordered a tall Chocolate Orange Frappuccino (do they have those in States? I hadn’t tried them before I left for winter vacation, so I didn’t think to check. Anyway, they’re delicious).

Once I was seated with drink (and iPhone- hello social buffer) in hand, I tried desperately to zone out the din, but by then my anxiety was already climbing. I remembered that the whole reason I was even in Fukuoka was to talk to these people, to “mingle” and “catch up”, to “brainstorm” and “share ideas”, and then I gave myself a headache thinking about it, well, I should say, I made my headache worse because, believe me, my head was already pounding from the noise and the people and the English. Oy. Even with all this anxiety though, I was able to go to the meeting and come out of it without a scratch. I guess the reason I say all this is to remind myself, and anyone else out there who also struggles with anxiety, that nothing is impossible. Don’t be afraid to do things at your own pace, but most importantly, don’t be afraid to do things period.


2 thoughts on “Social Anxiety in Japan: A Vignette

  1. Riding the train in Kawasaki and Tokyo has given me immense social anxiety because people always love to stare right into me. Perhaps living in the countryside is a plus? Less staring!

    But the Starbucks thing is totally true. I walked into a Starbucks in Nishishinjuku and I felt like I was back in Canada.

    1. I don’t always notice the staring, but it still does happen from time to time. But yes, I really enjoy living out in the country. I probably won’t enjoy it as much in the warmer months when all the creepy crawlies start coming out, but eh, we’ll see what happens. Best of luck with your life in Japan! Ganbatte!

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