It’s not always easy to adjust to living in a different country. There are new rules, customs, social cues, gestures, languages, work ethics, relationships, and more to try and learn in a short amount of time. Here’s just a few things I’ve noticed and tried to adjust to during my time living in Japan.
Biggest Differences I’ve Noticed
Though some of the things I’ve noticed seem small and/or insignificant, others were truly eye-opening and shocking to me. In the end, living in a different country has made me more of aware of both subtle and drastic differences I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.
Alright, this one might seem small, but it really tripped me up at first. I’m pretty certain that the majority of people I work with have been around foreigners enough to know that we have different ways of using hand signals (like touching your chest when you ask ‘me?’ instead of touching your nose), but some foreigners can get in trouble for using an impolite gesture.
In Japan, when you’re calling someone over to you or beckoning them to come closer, you don’t extend your hand palm up and curl your fingers inwards. Instead, you extend your hand palm down and move your wrist so your entire hand moves up and down, almost like you’re trying to awkwardly fan that person. The first gesture I mentioned, which I grew up using, is apparently considered very rude (much like using just one finger curling inward to call a person over to you).
Though there are many subtle and drastic differences in types of gestures used, most Japanese people are usually understanding of these subtle nuances and will generally try and help foreigners to understand if something is rude or a taboo.
Demeanor and Appearance in Public
I’ll be honest – back home I used to just throw on some sweatpants and a T-shirt to go out somewhere if I was only going to be gone a little while. A quick trip to the bank, picking up a couple things from the store I needed or forgot to get before, or some other small trip. The point is, I didn’t care what I looked like since I was only going to be in public a short while.
This is actually, to my initial surprise, very uncommon in Japan. I’ve seen mothers in the store dressed like they have a fancy dinner party to attend to, yet I know for a fact that’s the only time they left the house that day. I have Japanese friends who comment on my ‘boldness’ of just wearing jeans and a T-shirt when we go out to eat. In Japan, most people take pride in their sense of appearance, and as such they don’t often look frumpy or disheveled in public.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Masks are a common feature in Japan that are used to either keep a sick person from spreading their germs, or protect someone from catching those germs. Many women in Japan, however, will also use masks if they’ve skipped out on applying makeup for the day. Even if they skip their daily makeup routine, you can be sure that their clothing will still be public appropriate.
Along with clothing, Japanese people in general are very quite in public settings. After being in the country for almost two years, my older brother decided to come visit me. I had to tell him to lower his volume countless times, and he said himself he thought everywhere we went was just ‘too quiet’. Unless you’re in an arcade or area designated for small children, expect some relaxing peace and quiet while in public.
Making and Maintaining Foreigner Friends
Back home, I didn’t really know many foreigners. There was the odd exchange student in college, but that was about it. My friends were all from the same country, and we all spoke the same language. Since moving to Japan, I’ve found that foreigners tend to create their own communities and groups together. While I’m always cordial with my foreigner coworkers, I haven’t found many that I enjoy hanging out with on the regular. I think this is in part due to my need to be self-sufficient.
I, like many others, came to Japan not knowing the language. Due to this barrier, there have been times where I struggled to do basic things, like decipher a water bill or contact my landlord. I feel that many expats join together, whether online or in their own community, to get guidance and reassurance from fellow foreigners in regards to such matters.
I didn’t have such a community in my home country, and I’m sure it’s in part due to the fact that I wasn’t a foreigner in my home country. Had I been, I likely would have known about foreigner communities and might have even participated in them.
For personal reasons, I’ve started to shy away from the Japan expat community as I’ve learned to be self-sufficient. It’s still a nice change of pace to engage with others in my native tongue, but only in small doses. After a string of ‘friends’ who only wanted my friendship so that they could get through the rigors of adult life in a foreign country, or making strong friendships that had an end-date, I began to move away from engaging with incoming foreigners trying to make friends with fellow foreigners in Japan.
I won’t go into much detail here (might make another post about it now that I’m thinking about it), but due to toxic, one-sided friendships with many foreigners in Japan, I’ve started to be a bit more selective about who I hang out with in my free time.
With all that said, I love the expat community I’ve found in Japan. I use Reddit often (and have a professional account as well as a personal account) to talk with other expats I have good relations with, but that’s about it. Rather than feeling like my lack of expat friends isolates me, it motivates me to make more Japanese friends in the process.
Making and Maintaining Japanese Friends
As said above, I slowly transitioned from the expect community to trying to engage with the community of people I live around and work with. Coworkers, neighbors, strangers who have stopped to chat in broken English with my sub-par Japanese; there’s quite a few Japanese people I talk with on a daily basis.
My favorite story of meeting my first Japanese friend happened when I was about six months into living in Japan. I was in a second hand shop with another foreigner (she needed someone to drive her and her purchases and I was one of the few expats in the area with a car), when I loudly exclaimed, “Look at that table! That is a gorgeous table!” I still wasn’t used to the quiet public etiquette I spoke about above. As I was leaving the shop, a Japanese woman approached me and asked where I was from. We got on well enough, exchanged our LINE information, and three years later the friendship is still going strong!
One thing I’ve learned about many of my friendships with Japanese people is that constant contact isn’t necessary. The friend I mentioned above? We probably text each other a few times a month, if that. Right now she’s doing a study program in Australia, and we check in with each other about once a month, yet we still consider each other friends. We’ve traveled to Europe together, theme parks around Japan, and have many more planned trips and adventures in the works. Regardless, our lack of daily communication by no means conveys a lack of friendship.
Due to the standard work schedule of most Japanese people (which I’ll get to below), it’s not always easy to meet up with friends daily, or even weekly in some cases. That doesn’t mean you don’t consider each other close friends. This type of ‘low-contact friendship’ is perfect for me, and I found myself feeling less anxious about having to reply immediately to every single message as we had an understanding in place.
This one was absolutely wild for me at first. I didn’t know the first thing about how to date in Japan, much less how foreigners went about finding people to date. I didn’t go to Japan thinking, “I want to find a Japanese guy to date!”, but instead thought that it would be nice to meet potential partners regardless of nationality.
Dating other foreigners was simple and straightforward. Dating Japanese men, however, was a bit of a learning curve. To be honest, I never even made it past the screening process of most Japanese men’s expectations for perfect partners. I’m loud, brash, forward, physical, stubborn, love working full time, and don’t usually dress up for anything less than special occasions.
In short, I didn’t quite fit the bill. Though I love hanging out with my Japanese friends of the male variety, it’s always in a ‘bro’ sense. Even though Japan has a very interesting view of most foreign women, such as thinking that they all have ample body proportions, light hair, blue eyes, etc., the majority of them still want a docile, sweet partner to start a family with. Not my cup of tea, but that’s just me.
While working in Japan, there were three things I thought I would never do: work overtime without pay, sleep at my desk and get praised for it, and go out drinking with my boss. I’ve now done two of those things, and I gotta say that they’re not half bad.
Back home, right when the clock said 5:00pm I’d be out the door. If I came in before 8:00am, it was only to make sure to get a coaster for my desk to put my Starbucks drink on, or because I got ready too early and had nothing to do at home. If I wasn’t getting paid for it, I wasn’t there. My boss and I were cordial, and though I participated in all work events (such as watching a boxing match at the boss’ house or throwing a party in Vegas), I knew it wasn’t the norm for most companies in my country. If I ever fell asleep at my desk, I could be sure that a strong reprimand for sleeping on the clock would wake me up.
Being on good terms with my old boss was the only thing that prepared me for the Japanese workforce. I never would have guessed that my new boss would look at one of my coworkers who fell asleep at their desk, smile, nod, and then go back to their office. I couldn’t believe the number of people who stayed for hours after they were supposed to be off, knowingly working for free. The only thing that reminded me of home was when I was first invited to go out drinking with the entire office – including our boss!
It’s normal for Japanese employees to both work hard and play hard. Fall asleep at your desk? You must have been working so hard that you passed out from exhaustion. Staying extra hours past your contractual schedule? You’re putting in extra effort because of your love for the company and your job. Grabbing a drink with the boss on a weekday? You want to show that you’re part of the team and support your company.
I have yet to fall asleep at my desk, but I’ve found myself more open to working extra hours without compensation. Parties with coworkers are a fun way for me to engage in Japanese and create a stronger bond with those I work with everyday. Though I felt like the token foreigner during my first few parties, I soon got into the rhythm and now feel more like a part of the team.
Changes I’ve Had to Make
I have what most people refer to as ‘hair-trigger anger’. Or at least, I used to. I still sometimes find myself boiling over with rage, but I’ve learned how to better control that aspect of my personality. I’ve learned to think before I speak, lower my volume, and be mindful of myself. I’ve learned to be patient, put my best foot forward, and really listen when others speak. Though I had some of these qualities beforehand, I’ve learned how to utilize them in a new way of adjust myself to life in Japan.
Overall Impressions of Life in Japan
In the end, despite the many differences our countries have, I’m glad I chose Japan as my new home. That being said, I’m sure that I could have adjusted to life in Korea, or China, or Australia, or the U.K. in a similar manner. Each country has their own unique variances of personal and professional normalities, and as a foreigner you have to learn how to adjust and overcome these obstacles if you want to have an enjoyable time both living and working in your new home.