Things They Didn’t Tell You About Being an Expat in Japan

You’re sitting on the plane and thinking to yourself, “Did I forget anything? I’ve packed just about everything I could think of and read over a hundred articles (just like this one!) on what I can expect while living in Japan. What more do I need?” Well, in some cases, you need to dig a bit deeper than the superficial articles that are aimed at glorifying life in another country.

No one wants to point out the less glamorous aspects of being an expat in Japan because it takes away from the dream. Yet, here I am, ready to put it all out there for anyone who’s thinking of (or has already set their mind to) making their way to the land under the rising sun. Drawing from my own experiences and those of friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years, hopefully by reading this blog you’ll have a better understanding of what’s to come if you choose to uproot yourself and live (for however long) in Japan.

Disclaimer: Though I’m going to be pointing out some of the things that – to be frank – can really suck about living in Japan, rest assured that I love living here and wouldn’t change my living situation for anything. Like all things in life, you have to take the good with the bad and keep on truckin’ to get the most out of life. Your mileage may very and your situation may be different, and in some cases you might never run into some of the things listed below. I only offer up these facts of expat life in hopes that if you do encounter them, you’ll be ready. You can also read up about how I really feel about other expats in a similar article here. In that article I mostly go into issues I had with other expats I dealt with, so read it if you want to prepare yourself with some of the people you may be working with/living near.

With that in mind, let’s begin!

Your ‘specialness’ is only skin deep (at first)

You might be an award-winning pianist who’s played around the world, but to everyone else you’re just another foreigner roaming the streets of Japan. The first, and oftentimes only, thing people will notice about you is that you’re not Japanese. People will either actively seek you out or actually go out of their way to avoid you due to this fact. Even those that approach you, however, don’t really have any interest in you aside from the fact that you’re a foreigner in Japan. The ‘celebrity status’ may seem great at first, especially for those living and working in more rural areas, but after a while the fact that no one wants to learn anything about you aside from where you’re from or how much you like Japan, Japanese people, and Japanese things will really start to wear your down.

It’s common knowledge amongst seasoned expats that many Japanese people view having a foreigner as a friend to be a sort of status symbol, and will thus tote around foreigners they’ve met and befriended to show off to their friends and coworkers. Along with that are the hordes of Japanese people who only want to be friendly with foreigners to get free English lessons – and let’s not get into the fact that there are bragging rights for both males and females regarding how many foreigners they’ve had relations with. If you come from a more diverse country and think this all sounds absolutely insane, picture – if you will – how you’d react to meeting a famous celebrity and actually befriended them. You’d more than likely let friends, family, coworkers, etc., know about your friendship with said person, as not everyone can say that they’ve not only met but are good friends with a celebrity.

This is not to say that everyone you meet will think you’re just another piece of foreigner celebrity eye candy. Japan is quite a closed off country with a mainly homogenous population. Although citizens may initially just want to gawk at your appearance, many are more interested in learning about other cultures, heritages, and countries, and some will also want to get to know foreigners on a deeper level. Even so, many foreigners actual revel in the fact that they’re inherently popular and stick out like a sore thumb when walking through a crowd. For those who embrace the fact that their appearance makes them so special, Japan is a veritable paradise.

If you’re looking to make new friends with expats, be prepared for the ‘big leave’

Especially for those who have just gotten to the country, making a new life from scratch can be difficult. You have to adjust to a whole different way of life, and oftentimes you’ll find yourself in trouble or in need of assistance. Expats who work together or live close to each other often try their best to help each other out. Those that have lived in the country for even longer stretches of time can help with even greater tasks, like moving apartments, buying a car, paying pension, and more. Yet, many new expats can’t understand why some of the expats who have lived in the country for more than a few years don’t easily get attached or befriend other expats. There’s a very simple reason for this: the majority of expats who come to live in Japan leave.

It’s impossible to know for certain how a person will take to living in Japan before they come. You can read a thousand articles, take a hundred trips, and still not be prepared for the daily life of an expat. Many come just for a year or two of experience to broaden their horizons and open their mind to different cultures. Others come for a sort of working holiday, usually right out of college. Living in Japan can either ease them into the workforce and prepare them for working in their home country, or give them the ability to travel around the country while being paid to work. Still, others come to the country with the full intention to stay for life. Regardless of initial intentions, it’s not hard for foreigners to eventually reject some aspect or another that makes them realize they could never happily live in Japan in the long run. Due to the fact that it’s largely unknown just how long a person is going to last (unless of course they’re upfront and set in their decision for a short-term stay), someone you might have a great friendship (or relationship) with might inevitable leave you for greener pastures.

Although you might be thinking, “Why would I ever try to make friends with anyone? What good is it to build a real connection with another expat when one of us is just going to up and leave?” There’s always merits to staying in contact with new friends you make while you’re an expat in Japan. If the friendship is true, you can still remain long-distance friends or pen pals, and if the friendship isn’t true you’ll both slowly just stop messaging each other until you’re strangers once more. The fact of the matter is, you don’t have to be scared of true friends leaving, and you don’t have to miss out on true friendships if you wish to maintain contact with those that go home (or stay while you leave). Make friends, enjoy your time, and don’t worry about the future. Living in the now in terms of those you spend your time with will make your time in Japan a much happier experience.

It’s hard for those back home to relate to your experiences and problems

For those who learn the language and respect/understand Japan’s various societal rules, you might have a hard time explaining certain situations to friends and family back home. I can’t count the number of stories I wanted to tell my friends and family that revolved around an everyday aspect in Japan that took at least 15 minutes of explanation beforehand. By the time I finally got the relavent part in the story, they’d already forgotten the explanation and didn’t get why it was so funny or important to me. The same goes for small triumphs you may have, like, “I went to the grocery store and held a conversation with a little old lady for 5 minutes and understood everything she said!”, or “I had to go transfer money from my account to someone else’s, and I did it all without any help!”. Such trivial things don’t seem as important, and you might find herself just not telling them about your small successes for life in Japan.

If you can’t understand how this works, let me tell you an interesting story that happened with me and a few coworkers. We were talking about shoes, and at one point I realized that I had on similar shoes to another coworker’s. I don’t know much about shoes, but I can recognize brands when I see them. They were wearing Nike, and I was wearing a smaller brand whose name I had forgotten since it’s just a generic athletic company. My coworker asked me what brand I was wearing, to which I began to respond, “I don’t know”, which in Japanese is “分からない”, or ‘wakaranai’. Halfway through saying it, however, I realized that I had a golden opportunity and instead said “分からナイキ”, or ‘wakaranike’. The sentence is gibberish in Japanese, but by combining the word for “I don’t know” and “Nike”, I made a sort of pseudo-pun!

If you enjoyed that story, thank you. My friends and family back home took it in stride, as they felt more like they were getting a Japanese lesson than anything else. I guess if I wanted to relate it to them more, I could have said, “It’s akin to adding/switching an English word to make a pun/joke. Like if I was speaking English I could have said ‘I don’t know way it’s Nike!’, which is basically using ‘know’ as both ‘know’ and ‘no’ since they’re said the same in English!”, but that just hurt for me to type so I doubt it’d go over very well. Regardless, a lot of an expat experiences aren’t really all that interesting to those back home, save for things that appropriate stereotypes or strengthen foreign beliefs about Japanese people. “Do they really all go drinking with their boss after work? Do their child study 16 hours a day from kindergarten all the way to high school?” It’s all just part of the package when you choose to live in Japan, so be prepared if sharing your life with friends and family is important to you.

You will eventually start to be embarrassed of/for other foreigners

After you’ve accumulated yourself to the Japanese way of working and living (though you can still maintain your identity and habits for most aspects of your life, don’t worry), you may start to notice that others refuse to do the same. It’s customary in Japan to take off your shoes when entering a home, and all apartments that cater to foreigners have large signs at the door that remind tenants (in English!) to remove shoes upon entering. It’s also a social taboo to talk on your phone while riding the train, blow your nose in the office (though this one is changing/up for debate in many areas), talk loudly in establishments, and leave your place of work without telling your coworkers, “Thanks for all of your hard work, sorry I’m leaving before you!” There are plenty of rules than expats are expected to conform to – from walking on the correct side of the escalator to being respectful and aware of your surroundings – so it’s almost annoying to see other expats ignore or break such rules.

What really ticks things up a notch is when you see foreign tourists exploring Japan without any regard for Japanese customs, traditions, and social expectations. When dining in a restaurant, you may hear a group of travelers shouting and causing a commotion at a table nearby, which draws in the stares of every person in the building. Some of these stares, unfortunately, may transfer over to your table as patrons wonder if all present foreigners will be acting the same way. It makes you feel ashamed to be a foreigner, and some expats take it as far as talking to a rowdy group of foreigners and trying to set them straight. There’s a 50% chance such confrontation could end horribly, but many feel that it’s worth the risk.

The easiest way to solve this issue is to worry about yourself unless someone’s actions directly influence how you work or your relationship with others. Personally, I couldn’t care less if tourists or other expats are making fools of themselves – and not just because I tend to steer clear of karaoke parties and nights out at the bar (much more fun to enjoy 焼酎 in the comfort of my own home). I will put my foot down, however, if a fellow expat is doing something disrespectful in the workplace that may reflect badly upon myself. Thankfully, I don’t work closely with many expats in my workplace, but those I do have already figured out that I’m staying for the long run, and as such I don’t need to do anything (or be near anyone doing something disrespectful) that will make the company think twice about my employment.

Your experiences might start to shape the way you perceive an entire population of people – often in a negative way

In regards to interacting with other expats, it’s easy to take one person as the ambassador of their home country. Meet a crazy American? Ah, yes, all Americans are crazy. Meet a foul-mouthed gossip from the U.K.? Ah yes, they all must be that way. A quiet and demure person from Jamaica? Guess they’re all like that. You might not know that you’re doing it, but subconsciously it’s very easy for your mind to start making assumptions and creating stereotypes about those you work with.

In the same way, getting used to your native coworkers may shape your expectations for the population as a whole. If you have a strict, traditionalist coworker who adheres to every societal rule, you’ll likely be frightened to use less-than-polite Japanese with others since your coworker is such a stickler about it. If you have a fun, carefree coworker who uses plenty of slang and speaks to you on a personal level, you might be in for a shock if you encounter an older or more rigid citizen who doesn’t take kindly to such actions.

Many people eventually meet enough expats and natives to break free of these perceptions, but for the first few years it can be difficult to understand everything you’re going through. You’re trying to navigate your way through a new society and ground yourself by creating rules and expectations, but it takes time and trial and error to do so properly. Overall, it’s best not to take everything you experience as a certainty, and those who remember that every situation is different and that your mileage might vary often have an easier time adjusting.

You may shape the way locals perceive an entire population – often in a negative way

Much like what you just read above, many of the people you live around and work with will not have had many interactions with foreigners before in their lives. Students in Japan will receive English classes from foreign teachers, but even so, such classes may create perceptions about people from other countries that they will carry with them for life. Once again, it may be a difficult concept for those hailing from more diverse countries to understand. You may not think it’s hurting anyone to do what you want and disregard societal rules (like leaving your chopsticks standing straight up in your food, speaking loudly in public, or having a conversation on your phone on the train), but everyone who sees you will just add your actions onto the list they have in their mind of how foreigners from a certain country are (though they might just think of foreigners in general if it’s not obvious what country you’re from).

This is not to say that you shouldn’t be open and approachable with coworkers or others. If anything, you can always change a negative perception someone has regarding people from your country into a positive one. Be open to answering questions, like “Is it normal forle from [your home country] to do [some particular thing]?” I’ve been asked before, “Does every American own a gun and use it regularly?”, and “Do all Americans love Trump?” Knowing that your answers may, in fact, change a person’s perception of an entire population of people is important to remember.

You might not be the person you thought you were

Once you strip away a person’s friends, family, coworkers/fellow students, and anyone else they interact with during their lives in their home country, that person might realize that the image they have of themselves in their heads does not match what their new coworkers, friends, and acquaintances think of them. If your entire inner circle was always on board with making risqué jokes at the expense of others, you might do so as well by habit, which may leave a negative impression in a stranger’s eyes. If you were the loud, boisterious one of the group, you might rub people the wrong way in a country where peace and quiet is the norm. If you let your friends always take charge and decide where to go and what to do, you might find yourself staying inside and not interacting with others because you’re not the type to put forth the effort.

It might be upsetting at first to be conforonted with the barebones personality you may have, and you might not know what to do with that information at first. Many try to immediately cling to those who come from the same country, or immerse themselves in expat groups to find solace in like-minded people. Regardless, not everyone will get along, and you might find that what worked for you in your home country doesn’t work at all in the land of the rising sun. You can either accept that you’re not the same person you were when you left home, or try to find another social circle to match the one you left behind and continue being the same person. The choice is ultimately up to every expat to make.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use this experience of living in a foreign land to figure out just who you are and what you want in life. Maybe being surrounded by people who never talked about having aspirations stifled your creative flow, and moving to a place where you have to be strong and rely on your own abilities will foster positive growth and change that will allow you to create and chase new dreams. It’s true that leaving everything you’ve ever known behind gives you the opportunity to find yourself, but it’s also a chance to reinvent yourself. Many expats don’t rise to such a challenge, and instead try to surround themselves with the familiar and easy. If you’re planning on accepting who you really are, then Japan just might be the right place to find yourself.

Overall:

Honestly, there are a lot of things that people usually just have to figure out for themselves upon moving to live and work in Japan. It’s not easy by any means, and there are plenty of triumphs and downfalls when it comes to sorting out your new life. Skepticism of friends, emotional walls, shattered expectations, and a jaded overview of expat life all can develop within an expat with very little effort. Yet, if an expat keeps and open mind and realizes that while some things can be changed, others cannot, they’re going to have a much more enjoyable time living in Japan.

Have you ever thought about living and working in a foreign country? Are you currently living in one now? Have you done so in the past? Let us know about your experiences below – good, bad, or ugly! – so we can pool together our knowledge!

Happy reading, writing, working, and living!

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