What You Need to Know Before Moving to Japan
Sunday, October 7, 2018
For the Curious, the Ambitious and the Eccentric
Yes, Japan is as awesome as you think it is
From the perspective of a “one lump of sugar in my tea thank you very much” Brit, the mention of Japan conjures up images of exotic beauty – fragrant cherry blossoms framing a view of Mt Fuji; futuristic multi-store buildings with countless rooms devoted to anime and karaoke; picturesque old-style streets and traditional clothing. And who hasn’t heard of how the cities are clean, the trains are on time, the people are humble and civil? It almost sounds too good to be true. I’m happy to say it is true; Japan every bit artistic, efficient, soulful and wacky. However, the actual experience of every day life as a foreign resident cannot be summed up so simply. I would like to prepare you with the knowledge of how Japan shapes those of us who became besotted and ended up living there.
You don’t need to be a pro at Japanese language
Wait, let me finish! You DO need to learn Japanese to get the most out of life in Japan. Japan just happens to be the best place to do that. As long as you don’t sit around like a Snorlax and actually handle your own affairs, you will quickly improve. Japan is a very hospitable country and even non-speakers are able to live quite comfortably, so don’t let any reservations hold you back.
If you specialize in a certain skill, you may be able to find employment with minimal Japanese
knowledge, provided you are willing to practise and improve your language abilities. You don’t learn to swim by staying in the shallow end.
You need to be like a Japanese skyscraper
Foreigners stick out in Japan and I’m not just talking about orange hair and big noses. While we are quite capable of proving we can be every bit as polite and hard-working as the Japanese themselves, sometimes we unwittingly clash with expectations of Japanese society. Japanese people tend to prioritize the interests of the group and preserving harmony. It’s unusual for people to openly express distaste or an unwillingness to corporate, though such frankness may seem natural in other cultures. To navigate Japanese society effectively, you must be like a Japanese skyscraper. Japanese skyscrapers are designed to sway back and forth during an earthquake, as a tree might in a forceful wind. This allows the potential chaos of the earthquake to dissipate harmlessly into the atmosphere. Maybe at dinner, your Japanese acquaintance compliments you on your chopstick skills, even though they are aware you have lived in Japan for over a decade. You are made to feel all your effort and patience in integrating was for nothing. But it wasn’t for nothing… because you smile and respond with: “It is tricky compared to using a knife and fork, but I’ve had plenty of practise now!” in true Japanese fashion.
You are what you eat
Japanese cuisine is famous and for good reason: it’s freakin’ delicious. Have you ever eaten shrimp coated in golden crispy batter (Tempura)? Or savoured freshly-sliced tuna atop soft white rice with adab of soy sauce (maguro-zushi)? If you live in Japan you can eat this food every day, but before you raise your chopsticks and shout “itadakimasu!” you might want to consider these points:
Japanese food is a big change for westerners, though I have friends from other parts of South-EastAsia who report their bellies fill up faster than the Yamanote line on a Monday morning; after a fewweeks in Japan they are sufficiently porky enough to enroll as Sumo wrestlers. Equally, there are people who lose weight in Japan; it all depends on your body and appetite.
I suspect the Japanese assess our assimilation into their culture not based on linguistic proficiency, but what we are willing to eat. Do try everything, even if it moves. Even if it looks back at you with “please don’t eat me” eyes. You’ll be eating rice on most days and options typically involve either fish, noodles or popular dishes like Japanese curry. Fortunately it all tastes sensational but try not to settle for your favourite meal too much or it will become monotonous.
Allergic to seafood? Don’t worry; our editor in chief has survived two decades in Japan so you should be able to get by. If you avoid certain foods for ethical reasons however, life becomes a little more complicated. Make sure you have access to a well-equipped supermarket and learn the necessary Japanese for when you need to ask the waiter.
The importance of being proactive
Let’s say I’m introducing myself to a Japanese person called Takuya.
After revealing my origin Takuya will probably ask whether I drink afternoon tea and which football team I support. I happen to not give a damn about tea or football, but Takuya might not either – it’s just an ice-breaker. And ice-breakers come in handy for the cold-hard truth: It’s hard to relate to people with whom you don’t share the same cultural background.
When someone shows interest in you it is natural to expect them to carry the conversation forward. But I don’t need to burden my new Japanese friend who is doing his to pretend to be interested in who I am and where the hell I came from. It’s on ME to improvise and find out what makes THEM tick. You may be pleasantly surprised; while the Japanese form a homogeneous society, their views and perceptions of the world are remarkably varied. If you don’t believe me ask the very first Englishman to visit Japan, William Adams. “The people be very superstitious in their religion and are of diverse opinions”. (Circa 1610)
The more Japanese you know, the more you’ll have to work with. In the long run, however, non umber of JLPT certificates or being a walking kanji dictionary will give you the edge in socializing over a chatty, inquisitive person who naturally picks up on what Japanese people relate to, gaining more friendships as a result. Take initiative. If you don’t have roots in Japan it’s vital to put yourself out there, meet wonderful people and join engaging communities, otherwise there is a risk you will become isolated. Don’t be isolated; make friends with Takuya.
Japan is a home for everyone
“Can I live my life in a country where I will always be perceived as an outsider?” The road can be bumpy and like anything worth having, you have to want it. But we are not outsiders so much as we are guests, guests with the opportunity to define their own worth and stature.
Foreigners are treated differently to Japanese people and I often see complaints of prejudice floating about the internet. But what they don’t tell you is that Japan is like a second home for most of us. Help will come to anyone who asks for it. Communities and workplaces can become like family. Foreigners sharing the same experiences form meaningful bonds. The question is, are you ready to begin the adventure?
Feel free to open an account in Izanau if you want to look for jobs in Japan!
About the Author
I have worked alongside game translators and developers as localization manager for Playism in Japan. Now I'm back in the UK with all this Brexit confusion, hunting for cool games and practising Bach fugues.