New Year’s Day, 2017: Nick and Lizzy Miller have decided to move to Japan.
Lizzy fell in love with the country first, thanks to her friendship with Ayami Suzuki, the daughter of DENSO employees and a childhood classmate of Lizzy’s at Fairview Elementary in Blount County. As a couple, they traveled there twice, and upon returning to the United States the night Donald Trump was elected president, they were ready to get out permanently.
Only one obstacle stood in the way: everything.
“The first step, I think, was that we needed to know we could sell our house, and what we could do there for work,” Lizzy told me recently during a Facetime conversation over a 13-hour time difference. “We looked for what kind of jobs are out there for international people who can’t speak Japanese, and the only thing we could do was teach English.”
“If you have a bachelor’s degree and a pulse, you can come over here and teach English,” Nick added. “So that was the first step. But we still needed to sell our house.”
As luck would have it, their home sold within 24 hours of going on the market. For most of 2017, the two lived in an apartment and continued to wrap up their American lives. Nick and his brother, Adam, continued to film episodes of “Gas Station Garbage” — the YouTube series in which the intrepid culinary adventurers sample and rate various convenience store cuisine — while Nick worked tech support for Apple. Lizzy worked for Rally Health, a spin-off of United Healthcare. It wasn’t like, they said, planning a move to a different state.
“There are a lot of things you can’t wait until the last minute to do,” Lizzy said. “There was a timeline for applying for jobs, and you could not submit your application before or after a certain date, so we had to make sure we didn’t miss those windows. So there was a lot of red tape to navigate, and we were both working full time, and in the middle of that, I went to New York, trying to get an English teaching certification, and while I was doing that, we got hired.”
As assistant language teachers, the two are contract employees of a company that places educators throughout Japan. They were asked for their top three regional preferences and asked for Sendai, to be close to Ayami. Options for two ALTs, however, were limited, and so they wound up on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
“It’s home to Sapporo, which is the third-biggest city in Japan, but a lot of it is very, very rural, with villages of 3,000 to 5,000 people,” Nick said. “We were originally going to be placed in Kiyosato, which is on the far east side and is just dirt roads, but then they had an opening in Hakodate, which looked really awesome and is one of the seafood capitals of Japan.”
The job offers came on Dec. 26, 2017; they accepted the offers two days later and had less than three months to get there. On March 22, they landed in Sapporo for a week of training, then took the train to Hakodate. Needless to say, there’s been a bit of culture shock — probably not as much for the Millers as there is for first-time visitors to Japan, but living there and visiting are two very different things, they added.
“One of the big things is the lack of crime and the overall safety,” Nick said. “It’s hard to fathom how safe Japan is. Very early on in Japanese education, even at the elementary school level, moral education is a compulsory class. These kids are taught the golden rule at age 5 and 6 — how to be good citizens, don’t commit crimes, look out for each other. Japan is a very collectivistic society, and it’s ingrained in everyone to be considerate and mindful and to do everything for the greater good. Violence is very low; people don’t argue; no one litters or spits on the sidewalk, even.”
Of course, being gaijin has its disadvantages.
“I had a really bad cold once, and you just think, ‘Oh, I’ll go to the drugstore and get some Dayquil or Nyquil or whatever,’ but it took me 30 minutes in that section of the drugstore using Google Translate to figure out what to buy for my symptoms,” Lizzy said. “We both have a decent knowledge of the language, and Google Translate works OK, but reading is a daily frustration.”
Fortunately, they’ve been welcomed with open arms.
“Everybody’s been super nice and incredibly patient, which I think is part of the culture,” she added. “We’re in a smaller city, where there aren’t a lot of obvious foreigners, so we get a lot of stares, and people sometimes do a double take.”
“They don’t get white people a lot,” Nick added. “The first month, you could tell they were as nervous as we were. We’d go into a restaurant, and you could almost see the staff do Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who had to wait on the foreigners. Now that they’re used to us around the area where we live, they’re not as shocked.”
Their original plan was to stay for two years, but when their employment contract expires at the end of Year 1, they’re thinking seriously about returning stateside — mostly, Nick said, because they miss their cats. They have no regrets, however, and if anything, they’ve fulfilled a bucket list item most people only dream of and talk about but never carry through.
And while they’ll miss certain aspects of Japan, there will be certain aspects of America they look forward to upon their return.
“It’ll be nice to have Dr Pepper and Taco Bell,” Nick said.
“Or chocolate chips to make chocolate chip cookies!” Lizzy added.
And for the rest of their lives, they’ll have experiences unlike most of their East Tennessee peers. I asked them for a “transcendental moment” that sums up their Japanese adventure, and they wrote me the following:
“There have been so many transcendental moments, and the one that stands out is the Hakodate Port Festival where we danced the beloved Squid Dance. The port festival is the largest summer festival in Hakodate (our town). I think it’s four days long, and we participated in two days of the festival. The first night of the festival was the largest firework show we’ve ever seen, along with street food and beer. The second night was the parade and squid dance. It seemed as though the entire community was there — either participating in the parade, or watching and eating the delicious street food. Everyone was having a great time. At one point in the parade, anyone who wants to is invited to join the parade and do the squid dance through the city.
“We met up with some friends and jumped right in. We danced for over an hour. People of all ages (and blood alcohol content) jumped in and danced down the main street in the city. We were carefree, having a blast dancing and singing with everyone. It was an incredible feeling seeing the entire community come together to celebrate, dance and have a good time without things getting out of hand. It was nothing but good vibes, and we rode that happy high for several days. We’ve had several moments like this that remind us why we wanted to make all the sacrifices we made to leave America to live in Japan.
“We will never regret this decision, and we’re thankful for all the support we’ve received from family and friends. Not everyone understands why someone would want to leave America, and that’s fine. I encourage everyone to venture out to another country where you’re out of your element and forced into vulnerability. When that happens, you open yourself to others, to different cultures, beliefs, foods ... everything! Your perspective changes and you learn a lot about yourself. It’s a good thing. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves during our time here and we’ll always be glad that we took the risk and made change happen.”