How to love living in Japan and not let the small things ruin a great experience!
That is the goal, isn’t it? To be happy! We love Japan but even we have our gripes! Coming from western countries like America and the UK has ingrained a lot of cultural preferences that are hard to change when you move somewhere else. So we’ve been thinking a lot about the different attitudes we have from our friends who left after a year saying “I can’t take this anymore!” and how we can enjoy the best parts of Japan without letting the little (or less little) things bother us.
Japan is an incredible place, but some of the people reading this would inevitably have a rough time if they lived here. Here are some of the reasons why:
Some Japanese People Only Speak to You to Practice Their English!
Ask any Gaijin (foreigner) in Japan, and they all have frequent experiences of people talking to them just to practice English, and actually have no intention of being friends. This is something that most of my foreign friends talk about and complain about. Even I have been known to complain about this too but in the last few years I have had a change of attitude about it. I instead focus on trying to make real friends and breaking through those communication barriers by being authentic and honest. This scares most people away (my British sense of humour doesn’t go far here) but those that hang around might actually be my friends. For some people is can be pretty tough to make real friends here in Japan, but there are a bunch of strategies you can try to make friends and not just acquaintances.
How to deal with it:
Well for one thing you can get our “Tokyo Friends Guide” by signing up to our newsletter below. Most of these are applicable to making real friend anywhere in Japan! This way you’ll avoid the false friends who just want a free English tutor and get some real buddies to hang out with!
Another thing you can remember is that a lot of people here want to speak English but have no idea where to do that after leaving school. It may come across as culturally insensitive, but if someone wants to talk to you, try to see the positive side of that. Someone wants to talk to you! Praise be!
But seriously though.
A friend of mine was talking to a stranger once while we were at a dinner event, and after merely introducing himself and saying はじめまして (literally: a first time, used similarly to “nice to meet you” in Japanese) they said to him:
“Wow, your Japanese is very good.”
To which he replied:
“(あなたの)英語上手ですね！” – Subject implied (Your) English is very good.
The guy was happy to hear it and, upon realising that my friend spoke some Japanese decided to change back to speaking in Japanese. It was a nice moment, and is a much better response than getting upset when someone gives you an, albeit slightly disingenuous, compliment.
Dating in Japan.
Dating in Japan seems pretty great in my experience. Japanese women are beautiful, but you do get the occasional problem with gaijin hunters (a term for women who are interested in foreign men just because they are foreign). You might find a few things that are different, as it seems that girls here are happy to give their phone number out but might not ever respond, which for some of us guys might seem like a mixed message. When you realise that the culture here is to avoid confrontation you’ll figure out that they just didn’t want to tell you that they weren’t interested and thought it would be easier to not reply to your messages on Line app (the ubiquitous messaging app in Japan) until you get the hint.
For women wanting to live in Japan, you might find that Japanese guys are very different from the men you might be used to. I have been told by women in Japan that they often refer to men here as 草食男子 (herbivores) to mean that they don’t take initiative, don’t make decisions and don’t really have any interest in relationships.
The kind of chivalry that women might be used to in the West is also uncommon – men rarely, if ever, help women with lifting heavy suitcases up the stairs in the subway, open doors for them or offer their seat on a train, even to pregnant women! Actually in Tokyo women have taken to wearing a badge that says they are pregnant, and the train companies have put messages on priority seating in trains to try and help with this situation. Bear in mind that this isn’t only men, women and men alike rarely give up their seats for pregnant ladies or the elderly.
There is a lot more to be said about dating in Japan, but it is a whole different game than dating back home in the West. In my experience here, people sometimes act uninterested in dating and intimacy, whether they are or not. It is part of the 建前 culture that we will talk about more later in this post.
How to deal with it:
Don’t worry too much about dating. Think how much you can learn and experience in this culture, and let relationships happen when they may. Focus on your skills and talents, and people will recognise this and you’ll find yourself able to pick and choose who you date.
Japanese people are not as sexless as they might be described in foreign media. I remember in the UK seeing a documentary that seemed to imply that all Japanese people don’t want to have relationships and that the men are only interested in anime girls or idols instead of real people. This is categorically not true, and the vast majority of people I have met here are perfectly normal and just a little more uncomfortable talking about sex than the average person.
If you are a nice person and treat others with respect you will always be able to find a girlfriend or boyfriend. Japan isn’t so radically different that you have to go back to square one.
Something to note is that very few Japanese people will ever kiss in public. Personally I find this a relief from the frequent public displays of affection in the UK, but it also means that if you want to kiss someone you need to find somewhere private. In fact one of my friends went to a private karaoke room with a girl he liked just to make out! I’m not sure if they sang any songs…
Racism and the Lack of Awareness of Racism in Japan
A lot of Japanese people believe that racism is a purely a western problem. Watch this video by Medama Sensei:
About 45 seconds in he talks about finding that only 5% of all of his classes (and I have found a similar thing to be true) actually think that there is any racism in Japan at all!
The vast majority of ways that this pronounces itself are harmless, or nearly harmless, but I think some would class them as micro-aggressions that can wear you down after years of being complimented on your Japanese just for saying こんにちは or for your ability with chopsticks.
“Yes, I have lived here for four years and I have learned how to feed myself!”
For example, when ordering food in a restaurant, the waiter or waitress will often turn to a Japanese friend I am with and ask them what I ordered, even though I ordered in Japanese. There is a disconnect between foreign looks and language ability for a lot of people here, and even half Japanese or foreign looking people born in Japan will have to deal with people saying “Wow, your Japanese is so great for a foreigner.”
A friend of mine has a son who is half Japanese, and half American. At the passport office the child was told repeatedly that he wasn’t Japanese by the staff, despite him shouting, in native Japanese:
Due to Japanese people being used to a monoculture, the last forty years of foreigners having children here hasn’t seemed to have been noticed by the vast majority of foreigners. The following video made by some native Japanese “ハーフ” (literally “half” – to mean half Japanese) really shows this kind of problem.
How to deal with it:
Realise that ignorance is not a crime – you can do a lot of good for the image of foreigners by being friendly and understanding. Especially in the countryside, some Japanese people have only seen foreigners on TV. It is natural to be afraid or to stereotype things that you have rarely seen or only seen in limited contexts. By being kind and forgiving to those kind of people you can show them that your people are not as one-dimensional as they might be in Japanese media.
I always try to help people realise it by themselves instead of getting upset. When they ask her, my girlfriend always tells the staff to ask me again for my order if they didn’t hear what I said. Sometimes we play a game where she pretends to not speak any Japanese and I order for her. When they turn to her she just acts like she doesn’t understand and asks me to tell them in Japanese. It really freaks them out and makes it a bit more fun for me!
Japanese Work Culture
Japan is known for being a by-the-book kind of place (all the paperwork has to be filed properly), but when it comes to labour laws there is a general ignorance of them by the vast majority of employees, and companies take full advantage of this by breaking them all the time!
The cultures at work of being 一所懸命 (doing your absolute best) and 我武者羅に頑張る (working tirelessly without care for yourself) often translate into working 14 hour days, 6 days a week, without a proper break, with unpaid overtime and without being able to take personal holiday. In fact a lot of Japanese people I know have told me that there is no way they could take holiday on a work day for any reason. Some of them are even proud of the fact! When I was trying to take holiday on a weekend work day I was told by the office manager that she “had no idea where the forms for paid holiday are because [she] had never taken personal leave!” She looked so happy about it… Yeah, good luck with that lady, I’m taking my legally entitled holiday!
Wanna take the morning off work to go to the doctor for your crippling back pain? Be ready to have serious consequences at work! I’ve heard of people losing their bonus for taking holiday in line with what was in their contract, even if that holiday was to go to the doctor. Bonuses are often worded in contracts as “based on performance” which can mean that if you take any of your allotted holiday the company will feel like you aren’t part of the team and you don’t deserve the 100,000¥ or more bonus that was agreed upon in your contract. Unfortunately, Japanese law complaints procedure is very difficult to understand, a fact that many employers will take advantage of with regards to foreign staff. I’ve had friends be threatened with physical violence for wanting to quit their job, which is completely uncalled for.
One of the Japanese English teachers at the Junior High School I worked at was pregnant, and had to take the morning off to see a doctor about a complication in her pregnancy. When she came back she had to apologize to the entire staff for covering for her! I was pretty shocked; if someone needs to take some time off work to make sure that they are healthy, I think this would be a benefit to any company you work for. Do you want your employees being sick for weeks because they can’t see a doctor?
All of this despite the fact that the labour laws in Japan expressly prohibit these crazy long working hours and unpaid overtime, many companies and even co-workers expect this kind of work ethic. This affects foreigners a little less, but I still found myself working 9am-7pm or 8am-7pm instead of 9-5 without any extra pay.
How to deal with it:
There are tons of coping methods but one is to not box yourself in to a company or role. Unlike most Japanese people, foreigners are not expected to devote their lives to a company and are free to move about as they please. I’ve had five different jobs and lived in three cities since coming to Japan nearly four years ago. I’ve seen a lot of Japan and had more time to travel and enjoy myself than most of my Japanese friends. Ah, the benefits of being a foreigner!
Avoid what are known here as ブラック企業 “Black Companies” that are known for not paying their employees properly and breaking labour laws. There is actually a list published every year of companies that behave in this completely reprehensible way, denying staff basic human rights. Some examples include:
Another step is to not overwork yourself voluntarily. Someone at a company I worked for sued the company for サービス残業 or “forced overtime” but they never asked her to, she just felt like (and was probably pressured to) stay and finish all of her work. If the company never expressly tells you to continue working without pay then legally speaking it’s your own choice, even if there is a very real threat of being fired or having problems at work if you don’t.
I’ve found that as a foreigner you can happily get away with leaving shortly after your finishing time. I did this at most of the schools I have worked at and never had any problems.
That said, if you work at a Junior High or High school, as many foreign teachers here do, you might want to consider staying behind at clubs and investing a bit of time into your students. I used to go to the basketball and volleyball team games and practices in my free time, and never complained about it because I got such a great return on investment from the students. They felt like I cared about them cos I didn’t just clock out and forget about them, I wanted to see them succeed and cheer for them at the games they were passionate about. Those kids enjoyed and were engaged in my classes and wrote me some of the nicest letters when I left the school; it was totally worth a few hours of my time in the end.
しょうがない It Cannot be Helped
Change comes slowly in Japan, and one of the key reasons is that people don’t feel like they can change anything. The go-to response when something happens that could be avoided in future is shouganai: it cannot be helped. Even for something very small and insignificant this is the kind of response.
To highlight with an example, I worked at an 英会話 (English Conversation School) and we had monthly meetings. At the meetings they would read out all of the company announcements including sales, student numbers, office rules and lots of pointless stuff. It generally took about an hour and affected none of the English teaching staff. I asked if we could just be given the announcements in an email or on paper to go through at our leisure instead of wasting time, but was met with “shouganai… we have to do this pointless thing because the company says so, and there is no way to change it.”
How to deal with it:
Don’t give up, just reframe how you communicate your ideas and try to understand the other person’s position.
I used to get so frustrated teaching at Junior High school that no matter what I prepared very few students were willing to engage with it or do something that would be fun for them if they just tried. Always the same one or two students would answer questions, some kids slept and when I asked the Japanese teacher what to do about it they invariably replied “Just leave them, let them sleep.”
What a Culture shock!
But when you look into the education culture of Japan you see that they are taught with the lecture style from Elementary school and are never really taught to engage with what they are learning – just recite by rote to pass tests. You can use that to change your methods.
I used to put kids into groups for question time, and nominate one person from each table to be the speaker for their group. When we had question time every speaker had to give an answer that their table had come up with, and I’d give them a minute or so to do that. If they wanted to they could write down their answer and read it aloud so they didn’t have to feel like they were on the spot so much. Some say this sounds pretty ridiculous and that the students should learn how to ask questions, but it really isn’t that easy. I taught Junior High in Nagoya and their schools change the AET every year – so with only one year to impart as much knowledge and culture of English to these kids, I had to get creative with my methods.
Another part of shoganai culture is politics – Japanese people never talk about politics! Coming from the UK this is crazy, where everyone is complaining all the time about what this and that politician has done! In Japan they are alarmingly silent about it. The main forms of politics you see are people shouting through megaphones about their party and ideas, and the dreaded 街宣車 or “propoganda trucks” that spew racist hyperbole about how Japan is being diluted by Korean, Chinese and western influences and that they should all be expelled from Japan. Yikes! The 右翼団体 (far right wing) here are very vocal.
All of those things are less tolerated, more ignored by most Japanese people. Actually my Japanese friends are the ones who fight that stuff the most and get frustrated with the ignorance of some of their countrymen. You can ignore them too, free speech means putting up with ignorant people.
The Cost of Living in Japan
More specifically the cost of moving house. As a general rule, expect to pay 4 times the cost of your monthly rent to move house in Japan.
If you have to move for work as many times as I have you learn a few things about how to get a good deal. Even then you might run into another issue, landlords not wanting to rent to foreigners. In other countries it is illegal to deny a rental property to someone based on their race. In Japan it is perfectly normal, even common, to deny rent to a foreigner based on nothing more than the colour of their skin, even foreigners who speak perfect Japanese!
How to deal with it:
There are some tricks to getting around this and getting a better deal on your rental agreements in Japan, but as a general rule, renting in Japan takes a lot of money. You can shop around for better prices but most landlords don’t want to miss out on their free money, so they all do the same thing.
You can also go for UR apartments, which do not require 礼金 (key money) and generally cost much less to move into. I lived in a UR place for a year and got my entire deposit back when I left the place, and it was totally above board, good service and assistance and at a reasonable price. UR stands for アーバンラフレ or Urban Reform and generally they are very large apartment buildings owned by the government. They are usually a bit further from the station and a little older, but much cheaper to move into and they will never deny you an apartment based on your race. There are better deals out there if you have at least a passable amount of Japanese or have a Japanese friend to negotiate on your behalf, but UR can be very cheap and liveable if you want to save time.
You would think that this would be a positive. After all, who doesn’t like being around polite people? Unfortunately the kind of politeness here is very different, and it might drive some people crazy.
This is because of Japanese 建前 (Tatemae), a kind of social mask or facade where people hide their true feelings 本音 (Honne) in order to maintain peace and harmony. It sounds nice, but it gives rise to a situation where you can never be sure if a Japanese person means what they say, or says what they mean.
The fifth time that day when someone tells you that your Japanese is great when all you have said was こんにちは.
When you meet someone at a group gathering and they talk to you, give you their contact details and say “let’s hang out really soon” only to never contact you or reply to messages again.
You invite someone to an event and they actually say yes, but then on the day tell you that some emergency came up, a definite statistical anomaly.
How to deal with it:
Remember that you are the different one, and that there are lots of ways to deal with what you might see as micro-aggressions but are actually just a different kind of politeness than you may be used to. Sometimes it is hard not to get frustrated, and I have my days where I get angry about how someone has spoken to me, but the rules here are different and by reacting this way to them I am just showing myself up, and people from my country as well. Being an ambassador of your home nation is a responsibility and so being culturally aware and tempering your reactions can go a long way to making people here feel more comfortable with foreigners.
One of my favourite words in Japanese that we do not have in English is おせっかい, which roughly translates as:
“When someone meddles in your life trying to help you, but actually does you harm or makes life harder for you. Unfortunately you still have to thank them because they had good intentions.”
This is a perfect example of Japanese Tatemae, the public face. You talk to others with politeness and respect. It’s tough but actually you learn a lot about yourself and others when you talk to people kindly. After reading “Non-violent Communication” by Marshal Rosenburg I really came to understand that a lot of my behaviours in Japan were aggressive and unhelpful for getting the results I wanted. I changed my communication style and since then I have had much more success in Japan by communicating kindly and thinking about how other people receive what I say.
And that’s it… for now. Some people might struggle to deal with all of these things that seem like really big problems, but it is all about your attitude. If you go to a place expecting it to be a disaster then it will be! Go figure…
But if you go in with a positive attitude and try to be understanding then you will find that you have a much better time. You can look past all of the bad stuff and just enjoy the great stuff and Japan has a lot of positive to outweigh the little negatives!