August 2016

People are leaving. It’s sad, in case you didn’t know. It’s sad because you might not see people ever again and, even if you do, they might be changed beyond recognition. Or you might be. It might turn out your friendship was ephemeral and ethereal and it crumbles when you don’t live in the same town anymore. It might turn out that you don’t like Japan as much without your friend there. It might even turn out that all of reality is a Matrix style lie and they never existed, or they did but now they’re bald and you only liked them because of their hair.


But leaving-season can also be sad even if you’re staying because it reminds you of what you’re missing. I imagine many JETs are heading home for a brief trip this summer before returning to Japan and this can be even worse: to have a taste of what you want and then have to go back. Luckily, I have a balm for the pain; it’s music, and it’s time to soothe the savage beast.


The song I suggest for your saudade needs is called Letter from America and it’s by a Scottish band called ‘The Proclaimers’. Firstly, I should point out for any Proclaimers fans  that I am aware of the political nature of this song: it speaks of Scotland’s industrial history and the mass immigration out of the country. I love that this song has a political bent- it’s just that, for me, it also has a personal bent.


I am now going to piss off the Proclaimers fans even more by saying that my preferred version of this song comes from Sunshine on Leith- not the album, the movie.

Yes, they made a Proclaimers juke box musical, and then they turned that into a film and in that film, where they sing this ballad and the context is transformed from a trenchant dissection of Scotland’s socioeconomic history into a family singing about how their daughter is moving abroad soon.


And that is one of the reasons why I find this song so unique and perfectly attuned to the position of a JET. There are other songs about leaving: people in music have left on jet planes; in big yellow taxis; on the midnight train to Georgia; hell, on a midnight train going anywhere. But there aren’t that many songs about someone about to be left. Especially in a context where you know you should be happy for the person going, but you’re not because you’re a human being and you’re selfish.


There is a line in the song where the mother, played by Jane Horrocks, sings ‘We should have held you/We should have told you’ and then the father, Peter Mullan, adjoins ‘But you know our sense of timing/We always wait too long’. It’s heartbraking and it’s poignant but at the same time, you think that even had they been more overt with their affections, she still would have ended up going. They know this, and I think they also know deep down that it’s a good thing that she’s exploring the world, but they still want her beside them because they’re going to miss her.


Another lyric, ‘Do we have to roam the world/To prove how much it hurts?’, speaks to the sense of confusion felt by those left behind. I got asked by a lot of my friends and family why I was going to Japan, and a lot of them felt unappeased by my answers: ultimately, I think that sense of wanderlust or fernweh is something you either have or you don’t. And if you don’t, maybe you wonder to yourself if traipsing around the globe is really necessary to feel something.


I like to imagine that, while I’m gone, all the people I left behind are singing this song to themselves (much the way they do in the film) and I make myself believe that I am missed. I have no idea if this is the case.


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