I've been moving back and forth between Japan and the US for years. The quality of life in Japan is much better.

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I've been moving back and forth between Japan and the US for years. The quality of life in Japan is much better.
Emery Bowles and his family in Iwakuni.Courtesy of Emery Bowles
  • Emery Bowles quit his job in the US and moved to Japan to teach English in 2008.
  • Bowles found life in Japan safe and beautiful, despite language barriers and cultural differences.
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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Emery Bowles, a 52-year-old who lives between Japan and the US. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

In 2008, I got divorced and decided to change my entire life.

I didn’t love my IT job. My father, an airline pilot, always told me that if I ever had the chance to live overseas, I should take it. I decided to listen to his advice.

I quit and started searching for opportunities to teach English in Asia or Europe. I applied to many places before getting an offer at a school in Wakayama, Japan.

I had visited Japan the year before on vacation, and when I got the offer letter, I couldn’t wait to move there.

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I was excited about my fresh start

The job came with a monthly salary of 250,000 yen, or around $1,700, and a company car. I didn’t care about the pay cut because the cost of living was lower.

I spent a few years teaching before becoming a franchise owner of a school that teaches English to Japanese students.

I met my wife at a restaurant in Osaka. We got married and had a son.

We move back and forth between Japan and America

In 2018, I decided to go back to the military. I got a job as an IT specialist in Georgia, and my family and I moved back to the US. My wife was wary at first about leaving Japan, but the job paid better than teaching, so she got on board.

We spent about two years in Georgia before I transferred to Iwakuni, a base in Japan. Three years later, we moved back to Georgia.

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While I love both places, the quality of life is better in Japan.

Japan is beautiful and safe

Japan is clean, safe, and beautiful. Since it’s an island nation, the coast is never far away. Japan is mostly mountainous, and many places have sweeping views of the countryside and seaside.

Many people live in densely populated cities like Tokyo and Osaka. There’s an emphasis on cleanliness and civility. There are no public trash cans in Japanese cities. People are expected to clean up after themselves and proactively prevent littering, and they do.

I rarely feel unsafe in Japan and never worry about my wife or child’s safety. You can walk the streets at any time without worrying about the same type of crime you might see in America. The crime they do have is pickpocketing, but that’s never happened to me.

The culture inspires modesty

When I first moved, I noticed that people would stare at me. It’s quite rare for an American to live in parts of Japan that aren’t touristy, like where I’ve lived. The stares never bothered me, and I was able to make friends.

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Because of the modesty of the culture, you don’t often see many people flaunting their wealth in Japan. You rarely see mega-mansions or fancy cars driving. This was interesting to me since income disparities are visible in the US.

Life is easier if you're a fluent Japanese speaker, and I’m not

One of the things I constantly struggled with was not being a fully fluent Japanese speaker. Before moving, I studied the language and passed a Japanese language proficiency test.

I still never felt fluent enough to have long conversations with people or understand the labels on food at the grocery store. This made life more complicated but not impossible. I relied on translation apps, like Google Translate, though my skills have improved over time.

There are things about the US that I get excited to come back to

I never thought I’d appreciate central air conditioning, but after living in Japan for so long, I was excited to have that again in Georgia. Most places in Japan don’t have it because electricity is expensive. I had to get used to sweating — a lot.

Gas is expensive, and there are tolls on many of the roads. It’s not practical to take road trips even though there's so much to see. When I had to return the company car, I started using the Japanese public transport system of trains, buses, and taxis.

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I love Japanese food, but one thing I couldn’t find was good pizza. Pizza in Japan comes with toppings like squid ink and corn or mayonnaise and octopus. I just wanted a pizza slice with pepperoni, which felt impossible to find.

We plan to continue to move back and forth

We want to expose our son to both of his cultures. He’s only 8 years old, so for the next decade or so, we plan to continue to move back and forth. It might not seem practical, but we think it’s the best way for our son to grow up.

He’ll turn 18 when I retire, so where we end up will depend on what he wants to do with his life.

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