Students head abroad for adventure, escape

Lee Miller observes how traveling is more than a temporary vacation from home. TOKYO – Soon after I arrived in Japan, I heard an interesting quote from an expatriate. I’m paraphrasing, but he said many

Lee Miller observes how traveling is more than a temporary vacation from home.

TOKYO – Soon after I arrived in Japan, I heard an interesting quote from an expatriate. I’m paraphrasing, but he said many people who come to Japan – especially to study – come to run away from something. Lee Miller/Scene and Heard in Tokyo

My observation is that these travelers are running from themselves, something easier said than done: people setting up, trying to live under assumed personalities and forgetting their names.

A friend I met during my first stay in Japan was indeed running –  from suicide attempts, past relationships and complicated feelings toward her family. We became close friends and, entirely through coincidence, were able to meet up during my first month here.

Asked whether some visitors to Japan seem to be running from themselves, my friend responded, in part, with: “I like to get a three month headstart on myself.”

What better place to lose yourself than in the largest metropolis on earth? A place where, even if people hate you, most of them will tolerate you, as per Japanese custom.

I mentioned the visual parties in the last installment of my column. Many of the people in attendance at these parties resemble characters in a massively multiplayer online game.

Not to say they necessarily look like video game characters, although some certainly do, but almost all of them would be impossible to recognize on the street without layers of makeup and costumes. Many have assumed names.

Of course, for many this is reading far too deep. A party is just a party, and a costume is just a costume. But for some people, this avatar lifestyle is part of their routine.

I’m not implying every foreigner here has personal issues and came to Japan to sort through them. Some are here simply because they want adventure, and others have career opportunities here.

Some come from small towns, longing to live in the biggest of cities and to learn a new culture. Others are here because the Japan Exchange and Teaching program – a program that brings foreigners to Japan to teach language – can be a good way to pay back student loans for those not in high-demand fields.

The first time I came to Japan, I really wanted to study in Galway, Ireland. But because the U.S. dollar at the time was worthless compared to the euro, I came here.

I come from the stereotypical Irish-American background: My great-grandmother’s family came over during a famine, and my great-grandfather wanted to stick it to the British by not serving in World War I.

To go to Ireland meant I was going home. But wait, the euro was valued at 150 percent of the dollar, and the yen was only about 70 percent.

That’s reversing now, but I fell in love with Japan. There are people running from something, or somewhere, all over the world.  Most people have some sort of conflict.

Maybe you are a far-left political activist from the South or a far-right political activist from the North. Perhaps you fight depression every day. Maybe you’re gay but haven’t found a way to tell your friends and family. Perhaps you’re afraid your major is worthless.

Maybe you’re sick of your family or American politics. Maybe you’re a Yankees fan from Philly – clearly some problems are more serious than others.

It’d be nice to run away from difficult situations, wouldn’t it? So in theory, it’s not easy to look down on people too much for trying.

However, even for those who run away to another continent and never return, they are still going to have to deal with their problems at some point.

Running away to Japan, for most people and their worries, isn’t a viable solution. Instead, they’ll have their problems, along with a whole new set of troubles that come from adjusting to a new culture.

Lee Miller can be reached at

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