When you can’t say goodbye

Carole Hallett MobbsCarole's blog, Challenges & difficulties, Personal stories2 Comments

Pink cherry blossoms sakura against a blue sky in Tokyo. Saying goodbye

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So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye… and sayonara

Saying a proper goodbye when you relocate is important for closure. Psychologically, it helps you move on.

I’m normally pretty stoic about goodbyes. Leaving jobs and companies I’d worked for in the past was a breeze, and I didn’t get upset when we left the UK; in fact I was thrilled to be leaving.

But when it came to leaving Japan it was a different matter altogether.

Apart from not wanting to leave that beautiful, charming and incredible country, I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye. Our postings last for around four years so we know there is a set end to our stay anywhere. In Tokyo, we’d managed to extend that by six months; therefore our departure had been planned for over a year. I’d planned a lot of trips and events for the final few weeks; shopping trips to favourite places, a leaving party for my daughter and a combined birthday and sayonara party for myself.

But a month before our leaving date the Tohoku 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan putting all life into turmoil.

The school closed; most other expats left the country and for the rest of us normal life was put on hold while we all desperately tried to do what we could to help those further north of Japan.

During those traumatic weeks I kept a personal blog called Japanory, which is somewhat harrowing to look back on. From there I take the following words about saying goodbye:

Saturday, April 09, 2011


Today it finally hit me that we are leaving Japan for good on Monday morning.

Why the realisation should poleaxe me today, I don’t know.

Well, actually I do know – today the pets went to a boarding hotel before their early flight on Monday. While walking the dog this morning it suddenly occurred to me that this would be the last ever walk I would take with her along the beautiful sakura-lined walk next to Shinjuku-gyoen. My eyes started leaking and I couldn’t blame the blustery wind.

Everything is already on the boat en route to Germany and the house seems so empty without the furry whirlwinds. All the adrenaline from the previous four weeks seems to drop out of me.

Last night was my husband’s sayonara ‘do’ where we had a nice time with his work colleagues.

But it left me without a sense of closure. My planned parties had to be cancelled. Life in Japan changed in a few, very long minutes on 11th March 2011 and all my friends had departed the country shortly after. A missed party seems insignificant, yet somehow important.

[In retrospect, this had a massive bearing on how my daughter and I have found it difficult to settle here in Berlin: we keep looking back, unable to properly move on as we couldn’t say our goodbyes. But there was no other option. It seems so churlish to even mention this, but I’m trying to emphasise the importance of goodbyes in a ‘normal’ relocation.]

While I’m looking forward to our new adventure, I feel like a huge part of my heart will be left behind in Japan. And with the earthquake and everything else that’s happened, and is still happening, I would rather be here to help out.

Monday 11th April 2011

Leaving Japan

I thought leaving Japan would be hard and I was right.

However, the experience of being in the Tohoku 9.0 magnitude earthquake  with all its subsequent upheaval – geological as well as psychological – made it a little easier. Perhaps at the back of my mind was the thought that the Fukushima nuclear situation was more serious than we were told. But on the other hand, Tokyo is very far from the crisis zone and I trusted the independent information we were given. Further forward in my brain was the real worry that Tokyo would have The Big One  (earthquake) with all the tectonic movement and pressure building elsewhere.

Moving home is a harrowing experience in any case. But add to that the fact we were moving to almost the other side of the world (again) into a house we haven’t chosen or even seen (again) and to a country I haven’t been to before (again) and you may understand a little of the anxiety I was suffering.

I worried about how my daughter would cope with the move; she’s spent half her life in Japan. Luckily, her reluctance and anxiety about moving was alleviated a little by the fact that her friends had left Japan after the quake. However, she was very upset at not being able to say a proper goodbye to those friends.

We went out for our last meal in Japan on Sunday and left home at 7.30am on Monday 11th April for the first leg of our trip with 8 suitcases.

On the drive to Narita airport I drank in my last views of sunny Tokyo.

The sakura (cherry blossoms) were in full, glorious bloom and looked stunning against the bright blue sky. Souped-up scooters whizzed along ridden in style by people with little regard to safe helmets; the billboards, the noodle-like road scheme with tunnels and flyovers competing with the standard roads on the sat-nav.

The top of Tokyo Tower with its spike bent after the earthquake of March 11 2011Craning my neck I saw Tokyo Tower with its newly bent spire (again, earthquake related).

We drove over Rainbow Bridge for the last time and then sped along the highway to the easy and calm Narita airport.

As we piled our cases onto the check in machine and the girl at the counter quipped, “Is that all?”

Yes, that’s all.

That’s everything we have left to take out of Japan forever. But I feel we’ve all left something behind.

With a lump in my throat the plane took off. I didn’t have a window seat so couldn’t see Fuji-san for the last time. Perhaps that was for the best.

I fought back tears and ordered some therapeutic champagne.

Here’s to the next adventure.

I kept repeating that to myself, but with a heavy heart.

Where we love is home,
Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Homesick in Heaven


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2 Comments on “When you can’t say goodbye”

  1. Thank you for this post. I was in a similar situation, more then once. But I also experienced friends leaving on very short notice, not having time to say a proper good bye. Sometimes they were simply overwhelmed about what was happening to them and they didn’t want to say good bye… With some friends we just celebrate reunions and enjoy the little time we get to spend together. – It’s been a while now, that you did leave. How does it feel now?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry you’ve experienced this too and have been able to get together with your friends since.
      How do I feel now? That’s a tough question! I still miss my life in Japan very much and can only keep in touch with the friends I made there via the internet. But one has to move on somehow.
      It doesn’t help that life here in Berlin is so far removed from my previous expat experience that I can’t help but compare the two. I’m very aware that this is not a Good Thing to do!

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