Emilie Hagen was sitting in the teachers’ staffroom when the news came in: Trump had pulled ahead. That wasn’t supposed to happen. It couldn’t. It shouldn’t. Yet there he was, leading by close to 40 points.
“I broke down and cried as silently as I could.” The young English teacher, currently living in Japan’s Shizuoka City, recalls. “Nobody said anything to me about it, but I’m sure everyone noticed.”
A few hours later, as she was preparing to head home, the news wasn’t any better. In fact, it was nightmarish. Donald Trump, The Donald, He Who Has Fans in the Klan, was now president-elect of the United States. And Emilie, like countless other expats living throughout the islands of Japan, could only watch from the other side of the world in a deafening stunned silence. “I’m glad they left me alone,” she says, “because if they had come to comfort me and ask me how I was doing, I would not have been able to hold myself together.”
Damn Japan’s time difference. By that time in the homeland, Election Day had given way to the wee morning hours of The Day After, and voters of every persuasion had it to them to party or sleep or riot or retch as they wished – but at 5PM on a Wednesday, all Emilie and the other expats could do was swallow their shock and get about their day, pushing down the knowledge that something unbelievable was occurring in their own country – while they weren’t there.
And not for the first time, either.
It’s something that could be said for all of 2016. Shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando. Cliven Bundy’s weird backwoods insurgency. The summer’s epidemic of murders – occasionally of, but mostly by, police – and the ascendant rage of groups like Black Lives Matter that rose up in their protest. And amidst it, perhaps behind it all, the most divisive campaign season between the two most disliked candidates in recent memory. It was a year of good old-fashioned American Madness with a Trump victory as the Mescaline Cherry on top, and to those Americans here in Japan, (and undoubtedly those living in countless other nations), it was only happening on a screen.
For some, it might as well have been a particularly twisted reality TV show. For others, it’s been like watching your family’s home burn down through a telescope through a keyhole in a locked door. It’s maddening. And for the young and liberal – of which there are many – it’s heartbreaking.
“It’s a strange mix of homesickness and emotional betrayal.” said recent Japan arrival Chris Hoffman. “I don’t think I understood patriotism until I studied abroad here… and now realize just how overwhelming it can be.”
“I have studied abroad before and I’ve been living [in Japan] for over a year now.” continues Georgian Aislinn Garner, currently living in Hiroshima. “But this is the first and only time in my life I’ve felt that distance between me and home. Thinking about family and friends potentially being harmed by all this – what I consider to be – hateful rhetoric is sickening and sad. I’m also embarrassed. My coworkers… all expressed condolences and shock. I actually cried when I realized Trump had locked in the election.”
Even beyond liberal grief, though, many in Japan’s young American immigrant community – including the Republicans – have found themselves confounded and isolated by the events of the past year. “This election made me feel alone.” says Michigander Aaron Ozment, a rare red dot in the sea of expat blue. “I was horrified by the discourse on both sides, and I was horrified by the blatant, self-serving hypocrisy… My attempts to engage with anybody were rudely rebuffed, and when I asked questions, I tended to get insulted… For the first time in five years abroad, I really felt like I wasn’t a part of my country.”
Of course, the potency of these raw emotions so many Americans have expressed on the street, at parties, or in the realm of social media, is matched only by the utter impotency of such expression. Like it or not, they are an ocean away from all that is occurring, with no way to channel reactions into rallies or riots, parades or protests. To many Japanese, this is still not so much to worry about. Just the business of a blowhard foreign xenophobe in a blowhard foreign nation. Which means some some foreigners are ready to go home.
“At first I panicked and thought, ‘F this I’m staying in Japan til they kick me out,’” said Diana Zamora-Reyes, originally of El Paso, “but as a minority (Mexican-born, first-generation college grad), I feel like, now I really want to go home and fight back… I don’t know about y’all,” she continued, “but I’m ready to go back and fight the good fight for those that don’t have a voice. For all those people that are afraid of being who they are because of their skin color, religion, or sexual preference. For Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, LGBT community, all the “Others”, I will go back next August. I hope you do the same when you feel ready.”
But others don’t share Diana’s combativeness, or her eagerness to return. A Trump presidency, for or against, is uncharted territory, and judging from the bigotry and violence that’s followed him or spewed from him everywhere he’s gone, the view from abroad is that he doesn’t plan to plot a gentle course. So some are glad to stay here, across the Pacific, where that wide, deep blue barrier stands between them and a Trump’s America now dyed blood red. They’re glad that America’s troubles, and those troubles yet to come, are firmly on the other side of it. And many, like Adrea Graun, are simply glad to be safe.
“I have been joking since I left the US, that I’d probably spend 2 years in Japan, unless Trumps gets elected. [Now] I might stay four.” she explains. “I definitely feel distanced, but I almost feel safer in this situation. But I feel bad for all my LGBTQ friends, and honestly all women and foreigners in America right now… I’ll enjoy Japan’s wonderful united society, where you can leave your car running at 7-11 and feel safe everywhere you go, and pray there will be an America to return to when I am done with [my work program].”
It’s been more than a week since Emilie and everyone got the news. More than a week since 2016’s strange and terrible journey through Populism came to its unfathomable conclusion. And finally, catharsis is starting to set in. The expats know what they want to do, and know how distance has made their hearts grow fonder for home, or eager for return, or brimmed with fear and loathing and contempt. For many, the older expats especially, it was a bitter and bittersweet sign that their decision to separate themselves from the land of their birth was justified – a familiarly American way of looking at world events – and have no plans of going home. Many of the young, though, college grads with eyes still bright and tails still bushy, are seeing it as a call to action. A few rare Trump voters among the throng know that their time has come. Time to proudly wave the Trump flag or retreat further into the conservative closet, who knows? – But their time all the same.
And all know that whatever weirdness is occurring in America, seeing it through Japan’s eyes only makes it seem weirder, which only makes whatever they feel about their country, more, well, felt. Perhaps it’s a blessing then, that many, like Californian-turned-Fukushiman Corinne Morier, still keep the faith.
“Even with all its faults, I love America.” she says. “It’s the country where I was born and it’s the country where I grew up. My friends and family all live there, and I take great pride in being an American citizen… I love living in Japan, but no matter how long I might live abroad, America has and will always be my home. Mr. Trump… I would like to have a country to return to when I eventually return home. ”
Dave Byrnes is a 2nd year ALT in Kagoshima City