Struggling with my mental health in Japan

A lot of people tell me I’m strong. But I think that I’m just independent, organized and a dreamer. I’m always forward-looking, if optimistic. The way I get over the present (if it is not pleasant) is by focusing on the future. More accurately, futures. I visualize all kinds of futures. I dream up stories and conversations and adventures that I will have. Of course, the future rarely matches my dreams 100%, but so far it has turned out great.

I guess the hardest thing you could ever do is become a parent. When I got my son Jeremy 7 years ago, I was hardly 25. Oh, how happy was I to see his cute face for the very first time. I had been dreaming about meeting him for my entire pregnancy. I was going to become a mother, and married or not married, that was not going to affect my status as a mother. Of course, I couldn’t do it all on my own and had support from my parents.

When I was coming to Japan in October 2014 to pursue my PhD, it was only natural that I planned to bring Jeremy along. I envisioned a future in which I would study while he was at daycare, planned for it and that’s how it turned out. I completed my PhD in the stipulated time while singlehandedly raising him. Again, I had a lot of support from a lot of people. I learned to speak a 4th language: Japanese. I got a job at top-tier Japanese company.

However, underneath all my achievements, I think I have suffered from low grade depression throughout my entire time in Japan.

If only everything was this still and beautiful

Like everyone else, I of course have ups and downs. But I cannot say that I struggled with my mental before coming to Japan. Like many young adults who had just finished their undergraduate, I struggled with what to do next; with finding my purpose; with the pressure to find a well paying job that I was passionate about while also miraculously bringing about wonderful change in the world. I was disillusioned for a while, but in that post-campus period I managed to travel to Rwanda for 2 months, got a scholarship to do a master’s degree and found a part-time job. I partied a lot in that period, 2011-2012, until I got pregnant and then the reggae stopped, as Kenyans like to put it. Real life was here.

But I looked forward to the motherhood challenge. It gave my life new purpose and I started to dream of possible futures with my son, my baby, my Jeremy. When I got the scholarship to come to Japan, it felt like new horizons were opening. I was finally going to get into the AI field.

In Japan

I had no idea how lonely and isolating life in Japan could be. I come from a warm country, climate-wise and people-wise. Japan is so cold. In both respects. (Of course the summers are extra hot, but it never makes up for the cold). I am an extrovert. I like going out and being in the middle of it. I like talking to people and making a (few good friends and) tons of acquaintances. I feed off the energy of the crowd, if that makes sense. I speak my opinion. I (am)was loud. My friends used to say to me, since high school, “Harriet, modesty is a virtue”.

The very things that made me who I was are frowned upon in Japan. Suppression of emotions, both negative and positive, is probably the first lesson you learn as a child growing up in Japan. I have witnessed parents shushing a happy baby making bubbling noises in a train.

At first I resisted these changes, and tried to stay true to who I am. I tried to get into the middle of “it”, but there was literally nothing happening in my rural campus in the middle of nowhere-ville, Ishikawa. Don’t read me wrong, the people are nice and friendly, but the place has no heartbeat. No vibe, as my friend Savanna puts it. Sometimes I feel the feint murmurs of a heartbeat in a lively place like Shibuya or Shinjuku, but when I peer closely I see lonely individuals in crowds, their glassy eyes glued to their phones in packed trains. The daily grind takes the joy and the very life, the heartbeat, out of the living, who are being ferried endlessly in Tokyo’s thousands of trains.

Pedestrians at rush hour in Japan.

As I said, at first I tried to resist. But the culture in this country is very strong. You simply cannot swim against the current and still survive. You’ve got to float along with it, and try to stay afloat. That’s what I’ve been doing, surviving rather than living.

I’ve learned not to speak what’s on my mind but what I’m expected to speak. I have learned to keep my opinions to myself. I avoid all topics with strangers except food and the weather. In fact, it’s hard for me to start a conversation with a stranger. I long ago stopped asking why to nonsensical rules.

One day, I got into a Chuo Line train, and although the seats around me were empty, I found myself trying to be smaller, gathering my clothes and bags tightly around me, and trying to be as if I were invisible. On that day, I texted one of my best friends in Kenya and told her to please remind me to leave Japan someday.

I cannot blame Japan for what I’ve become: a stranger to myself. There are tons of foreigners who are thriving in this country, who knew who they were and what they wanted. Perhaps, Japan was their dream country. Coming to Japan for me was an act of serendipity, I had never planned to come but then I have stayed this long.

However, this year has been the hardest. First of all, I am separated from Jeremy, as I have blogged before. This will always tinge the brightest of my days a tad grey. Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened. The working from home, the isolation, the scrambling of my plans to reunite with Jeremy… Of course, being the dreamer that I am, I have adjusted my plans for an alternative future. But the pandemic is a grey horizon that is hard to see beyond.

This October has been so hard that I’ve decided I need a break. I got my leave approved and will be going to Kenya in November to spend some time with my family. I’ll be blogging about that process of traveling during covid19 later.

Usually, my ‘downs’ never really last for more than a couple of days. Previously, my mood was so stable (if constantly on the lower side since coming to Japan) that when I studied the ‘down period’, that couple of days when I didn’t feel like doing anything, it turned out to be post-ovulation blues. I was never really moody or anything, not even during my periods, but I’d be lazier and less creative than usual. I was more likely to binge watch TV and overeat during this time.

I recently binge-watched Criminal UK, France, Spain, Germany. These British actors were so brilliant. I cannot believe that’s Raj from the Big Bang Theory! He killed (pun intended) it with this character Sandeep. Kit Harrington was great as well.

But this month, my downs have refused to go away. It was a gradual decline from the beginning of the year, through covid19 and everything. The downs cannot be explained away by post-ovulation blues, since I am currently pregnant (and very excited about it. Reading this post, it might not sound so but I assure you I am. It’s my one bright candle in a sea of darkness. Another baby to the rescue. Is this a pattern?). I’m now in the second trimester by all calendars and ways of counting, so I should be getting my energy levels back and that pregnancy glow.

At Shibya recently. I do glow, sometimes.

These have been my signs:

  • Can’t eat – nah, I kid! Surprisingly, I’ve always maintained my appetite in good times and bad.
  • It’s extra hard to get out of bed in the morning. I guess in sleep, my mind is at rest and I can escape my reality for a bit. I have never been a morning person and it always took me a while to “get started” but it has been getting harder and harder every day, and some days I just never start. I hum and drum and push myself around to get things done, but I never really start, you know? To the point that I sometimes I have meetings in bed (shhhh please don’t tell my bosses this). I have always been someone who enjoys going out and spending all this time indoors has been too much. This past weekend, I literally did not step outside for 3 days, not even to take out the trash. This can’t go on.
  • I can’t do very simple tasks. Simple coding tasks at work that usually take an hour are taking an entire day now, even stretching to a couple of days as I join the ranks of procrastinating pros. I had a mountain of clean clothes I had laundered sit on the desk in my bedroom for an entire month! I usually enjoy folding and putting away clothes but I lacked the energy to do it.
  • Can’t exercise. Sure, blame it on the pregnancy but I couldn’t even go for simple, 20 minute walks. Yet exercise is one of the best ways to get out of the downs.
  • Did I shower today? Is a question I find myself asking.
  • I cannot write. I don’t mean serious writing. I mean just blogging. Since coming to Japan, my blogging frequency went down. I found it hard to be open about myself and my life, while I transformed myself to fit into the society. Yet I can never fit in, always the gaijin in the margins. I have never given up on the blog though, and I will continue to write. If you are wondering what happened today, I finally had a good day! I’ve been productive since morning, went for a 5KM walk, and I’m now blogging ‘creatively’ at 23:26. Hopefully, this is the start of a turnaround.
  • I cannot read. I enjoy reading all sorts of stories and books, except self-help. I hope I can revive this hobby that once filled my head with even more dreams.
  • Joy never ‘peaks’. I find that can no longer focus (hence cannot complete simple tasks including writing). My feelings are kind of even-toned, leveled, monochromatic, pastel at best. Never bold nor bright. I fear I am acquiring the emotional acuity of the people around me: recognizing feelings are coming and promptly shutting them down. Must not make decisions based on logic or emotion, must follow rules. Must not show emotions. Must put on my outside face. Tatemae.
  • Worst of all, I have stopped dreaming. I have no daydreams or fantastic tales living in my head. It is hard to envision the future – normally I live in like 3 different futures simultaneously. In September, I sat for the IELTS English language test, in order to prove my proficiency to the gods and gatekeepers of the “native” English kingdom.
    While preparing for the test, I read an essay about three types of people: past-focused, present-focused and future-focused. Within those groups are two types: the negative/positive types. For example, past-focused negative are always regretting the past, while past-positive live in nostalgia. Of course, we are don’t all fit 100% into one category. I would say that normally I do spend a lot of (my thinking) time living in a positive future. But these are not normal times, and I’m in danger losing the dreamer in me.

Read more about the three types of people here. Which one are you?

On to the future. These individuals are always doing something, going somewhere, and, in general, multi-tasking. They are natural managers and planners. They are responsible, capable, perceptive and excellent thinkers. Take a task or event and they will be the ones to break it down into manageable steps, look at it from many different perspectives and tell you what could go wrong or how it should be done for the best outcome.

I’d like to end this post on a more positive note. That I’ve written such long and beautiful prose is proof that things are getting better. I’m even thinking of starting a vlog (in a podcast format) so watch out for that soon. I will blog more. I will submit another story to another writing competition. I will start working on my first book. Eventually, I will dream of bright and colourful futures and one of them will come to pass. The Japanese say “kotodama‘.

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23 Responses to Struggling with my mental health in Japan

  1. wanjoro says:

    I agree with you this is such a beautiful post. You have truly written from the heart. Such honesty of self is not easy to put across and share. It takes a lot of courage to share the low periods you’ve gone through, adjusting to such a restricted place (for lack of a better word), finding happiness, having Jeremy there, the tough times…Kudos and Thank you for that. Congratulations on your pregnancy too.
    It’s also good to know you and your son will be reunited soon.
    The break will do you much good to be away from the stifling atmosphere and you definitely deserve a long relaxing break after working hard for so long.
    I wish you all the best.


  2. Rachel says:

    Very engaging content. Hope your depressive episodes reduce, or you find a way to navigate them. Welcome back home, Nairobi is still thriving and you will find your joy here once again. Wishing you a safe pregnancy.


  3. Juliet says:

    What a beautiful post this is! You have always wrapped me in your writing style. I’ve read every single post since you moved to Japan. And congratulations on your pregnancy! ♥️♥️♥️


  4. Carol says:

    As always, thanks for sharing and being so open about your ups and downs, that takes alot of courage! Indeed the fact that you wrote this beautiful article is a bright light. I hope that the time off and time with family brings more bright lights, and that you are able to find ways to manage the depressive episodes, especially in winter. Also hope that you will get to live in an environment where you don’t need to dim your light and can be with Jeremy! Sending nothing but good and positive vibes for the next steps and the rest of the pregnancy.


    • SK says:

      Thank you. I had no idea I was going to write this post until I sat down to do it. The lucky thing about winter in Tokyo is that it’s still sunny! It doesn’t snow. So the winters are never really dull and they don’t get depressive. I’m sure things are looking up from now on.


  5. Freda Keenan says:

    Clicked with you way back in Tsurugi and watched all your blogs since. Concerned you are having a Japanese baby but hope you keep him for yourself.
    Overcome your downs Harriet and enjoy Nairobi when you get there/stay there!!
    My kids are half English and half Irish but they don’t accept the English part!!!
    I am now looking for Irish citizenship after 50 odd years married to an Irish man!!
    Mind yourself and keep posting. X Freda


    • SK says:

      Oh that’s too bad with this Brexit mess. I hope you don’t need to jump through too many hoops to get the citizenship.

      Don’t worry about the baby, definitely keeping him/her to myself 🙂


  6. Nyabuti says:

    Hang in there Harriet. Glad you will be re-united with Jeremy soon. I look forward to your podcast but moreso your book.


  7. Carol says:

    Nice read, I can relate with the extrovert part,all I do is run around doing a few part time jobs in addition to studying,this way I get to revive my energy from the people I interact with.I wish you a good holiday back at hope and am so excited for you.I hope for a bright future ahead of you.


  8. Maureen Kidiga says:

    Don’t worry, am sure once you see that baby all the creativity all the energy and all the visions for the future will start flooding in. Been in Japan less than a month and I am already feeling the cold atmosphere and the loneliness. 😪 but am hopeful everything will be okay. You still remain my motivation 😚. Just take care of yourself


    • SK says:

      No, it’s too early for you to feel this way. Form a community with your fellow international students, go out and explore Kyoto. It’s beautiful in autumn. Craft your own Japanese experience. Wish you the best.


  9. Our Kid says:

    Always a pleasure to read about the adventures (and challenges) in your life. It is so beautiful how you are able to analyze the situations and life patterns – something which so many people are unable to do.

    Proud of you as always. I like to think you did it your way. Everyone has to figure life out. Glad you are still figuring it out and making new discoveries.

    Congratulations on the upcoming visitor 🙂 as we say in my community

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The Greatrnk says:

    A good read, as always.

    Anyone will tell you moving to a different country is difficult. The cultural differences do get on you, no matter how you resist. I hope, as you have said, this is the end of the low period and coming to Kenya will help in some way. Our sun is the best, you know this.

    The encouraging thing about this post, in its honesty and all, is the fact that a few years from now, you’ll reflect on this period and this post will remind you where you are coming from so as to celebrate the wins you will have achieved.

    God speed!


  11. Pingback: To Kenya and Back: Traveling in a Pandemic | Savvy Kenya in Japan

  12. Readwithme says:

    I hope you felt ok. Cold climates are the reason I can’t stand abroad. The worst. I believe you could be missing your son too. I’m glad you made plans to travel home. I’ve been severely depressed once in my life when I quit a job and was broke. Not fun. But all weather’s, if we hang in there, it passes and leaves us stronger. Hope you feel better.


    • SK says:

      Yes, feeling so much better now. I do think missing my son was part of it, and going to Kenya to see him really helped. I believe we’ll be reunited by this summer. By the way, winters in Tokyo are sunny so the weather is never too depressing.


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