The Globe and Mail

The response to this one was very interesting. It resonated with people who had lived abroad, and although it was printed in Canada, it was seen by a surprising number of people in Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all 100 comments from my remarkably literate critics. This piece inspired a friend to write an excellent article of her own, which was published on the same page two months later.

The Globe and Mail, Feb. 17, 2009

Japan, my Neverland

I came here seven years ago to escape responsibility. As my 30th birthday approaches, I feel like a Lost Boy


Straight out of university, I came to Japan.


It was an easy decision to make: The dot-com bubble had just burst, and everything even tangentially related to technology had gone into apoplectic shock.


Despite the ever-brighter future that had been promised to engineering graduates during the dawning days of Net liquidity, even my most capable colleagues suddenly found themselves floundering for work.


I'd anticipated my overseas adventure would be an interesting way to weather the storm, and I would be paddling home in a year or two.


That was in 2001.


I spent seven complacent years in Shizuoka Prefecture - home of Mount Fuji, lovely beaches and delectable mandarin oranges.


I moved here and there, following a job or a girl or both, convinced that something would work out some time, somehow, seldom stopping to fret about the days falling off the calendar.


There was never a plan. The reason I had come to the Land of the Rising Sun in the first place was to escape any responsibility for formulating a plan. Japan was my Neverland.


But Peter Pan just looked in the mirror and realized he's about to turn 30.


Having hit the snooze button again and again, and then again once more, I find myself groggily awakening in Tokyo, a city unknown and unfamiliar, the girl gone and the job drained of vitality.


My future is staring me down like Hook's great crocodile lying across my chest, with the unforgiving tick-tock of time grinding away in its belly.


I'd never meant to end up here. I had goals, dreams, a thousand great things to which I aspired.


I had placated my ambition with modest steps up what little ladder there is to climb in Japan's English-teaching industry, certain that the real leaps would come soon, when I was just a little older, a little more secure, a little more adult. This was all just a gestation period.


"It's time to come home," my mother said on the phone the other day.


Is it?


Perhaps it is. In spite of my efforts to master the language, I remain a functional illiterate in a country of 99-per-cent literacy. What real opportunities are there for me here?


Every year, more of my friends go back home, gradually leaving me last of the Lost Boys, the juvenile king of an empty castle.


New faces arrive every year. But it seems I have only to grow attached to someone before they're heading back to resume their real lives at home, while I remain here, unchanging.

Can I go home?


My engineering skills have evaporated. The only abilities I've honed pertain to a profession I had pursued as a diversion. And every time I go home I find that Canada is less and less like the country I left.


My parents tell me of drive-by shootings in Toronto and scavengers making the rounds at night to pick up anything with an ounce of recyclable material left on the curb.


Where I used to live in Shizuoka, five-year-olds still rode their bikes unsupervised on the street at dusk.


When I visit my parents, my stomach tightens as I try to navigate a world stripped of the robotic Japanese politeness I once derided.


Japanese cashiers will stand at the ready as if they were born only to serve, automatically greeting each customer without fail.


I feel like a forgotten Pacific island as I slink unnoticed into a men's wear store in Canada, staff half my age shooting the breeze while I browse the shirts undisturbed.


Where is home? Can I fully turn away from the country of my birth? Or do I go back, perhaps enroll in school, roll the dice and see where I end up? Why does going home seem the riskier path?


There comes a point where the side trip meanders so far that it's impossible to return to the journey.


Every year, there were castles and shrines to visit, mountains to hike up or ski down, little objectives to attain in life and at work - each one a fluttering hand beckoning me down yet another winding alley.


Now I have to decide whether to painstakingly retrace my steps to some starting point seven years lost, or make the best of the twisting, narrow and limited roads ahead.


But just as I think I might see a way back, another intriguing diversion entices me to push on and see if my fairy dust will hold out just a little longer.


Michael Kanert is a Canadian living in a suburb of Tokyo.