Are You Cut Out For Life In Japan?

By Donald Ash | Articles

The most common question I get from friends, students, or family members back home “How’s life in Japan?” I often respond simply with a “It’s pretty good.” or “I can’t complain.” One friend, Derrick, sent me an email to check on me. It was great to hear from him. Derrick couldn’t understand how I’ve been able to stay here so long (and that was around the year-and-a-half-mark). He went on to say that it takes a special kind of person to be able to do what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m all that special, but in a way, he’s right. Not everyone is cut out for living in Japan. Visiting is one thing…living is an entirely different story.

When you visit Japan you get to sample culture for a short period of time: the food, the people, the language, famous landmarks, transportation, etc.. If you decide you don’t like sushi, or the language is too difficult, or the transportation is too much to handle, you can take comfort in knowing that you can go home in a few days, weeks, or however long your stay might be. When you decide to live in Japan, you are experiencing the exact same things but you’re not sampling the culture anymore…you’re in the thick of it, every single day. Do you like Japanese culture enough stay long-term? Six months, maybe more depending on your job. This is something you have to be completely honest with yourself about, otherwise it can lead to trouble later on.

Do You Like Japanese Food?

In Japan there’s a lot of raw fish, raw eggs can be added to certain dishes, there are foods that smell like socks, squid, eel, and even bee larvae (I’m not even joking). Of course you may not eat these foods everyday and there are “normal” foods here that you will be used to eating. But by and large food is quite different from what you may be accustomed to. Not worse, just different. Are you willing to try some new cuisine?

Do You Like Your Japanese Job?

It’s not always the Japanese culture that makes people leave. It can be the job that they chose. The working environment in Japan is different from America. I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m working for an Eikaiwa. In general the contract for an Eikaiwa lasts for one year. I really enjoy my job, but it’s definitely not for everyone. You’d be surprised to find that many don’t like it all. It can be quite unsettling to know how many people bail and break their contracts before they end. Do your research (online searches, make phone calls, whatever it takes) to make sure you have an idea of what you’re getting into before you leave the comfort and security of your home country.

Do You Speak Japanese?

I’ll be the first to tell you that you don’t need to know one lick of Japanese to move here and you’ll be able to survive just fine…look at me. However, if you’re staying for the long haul, it’s best to crack open a good beginner’s Japanese book, right now. Are you open to learning a new language? Japanese can be quite daunting especially with all the kanji you have to learn. But kanji won’t doesn’t make you a fluent speaker, speaking does. Even though I was surviving just fine without knowing any Japanese when I came, not knowing what people are saying, or how to say what you want to say can get you down after a while. Though I’m a bit embarrassed to say so, I remember sitting and crying in my apartment because I was so frustrated with how poor my Japanese was. But I’m the type of person that absolutely will not quit if it’s something I really want to do. Do you have the heart to persevere? You may need it.

Can You Stand Being Away From Your Family & Friends?

Believe it or not, this is one of the biggest kickers right here. Many feel that they’d do just fine being away from family or friends. But unless you’re from Korea (and the flight’s only about three hours from here), six months in or so…you start to feel it. It’s something worth thinking about. Missing out on weddings, birthday parties, family reunions etc., can be tough.

The holidays can be hard for foreigners, too. This is that time of year where people miss their family and friends most. Thanksgiving will be here in a couple of weeks and I’m not going to lie, it’s hard for me sometimes. This will be the third Thanksgiving (and Christmas) that I’ve missed. Getting the time off from work can be a challenge in itself because these aren’t holidays in Japan. Knowing that I’ll be teaching classes while my family is gathered, eating Mom’s delectable red velvet cake, is a tad disheartening. But it gets easier to deal with every year. Well, let me change that…I become more numb to it every year. But I do take heart in knowing that I will soon be at a job where I have summer and winter vacations, so I’ll have the chance to see my all my folks on the holidays.

Now, please don’t think I’m trying to scare you away from Japan. I think it’s a WONDERFUL place to live and I’m thinking about staying here for good. But I want to be completely honest with you about what you should expect. If you notice, not all of my blog posts aren’t happy ones. In general, they’re happy or educational, but not always. No matter which country you live in, you’ll have challenges because that’s just how life goes sometimes. But dealing with those challenges can be multiplied five to tenfold when you can’t speak the language, or you don’t have family/friends around you, or if you can’t understand certain aspects of the culture. Please be honest with yourself, if you know you love Japanese culture and you’re open to learning about other people’s way of life, this place is for you! On the other hand if you can’t deal with some of the realities of this place, it might be better to visit instead of taking the ultimate lifestyle plunge.

If you’re coming to Japan what are some of the things that you’re worried about? If you’ve been here for a while, how can a person tell if Japan is right for them? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Thanks for reading,

Donald Ash

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • Adrian

    Great article, I did a 5 week study abroad to Japan this summer and I have a deep reassuring feeling that I do want to live in Japan for the long haul. I’m even going back for a full semester this time because I love the country so much and to also make sure I’m not just acting on excitement. A little off topic, but since I do want to live in Japan I’ll need work, and I know a majority of foreigners go to be English teachers, but thats just not for me. How hard is it to find work if you don’t want to do the English teacher route?

    • Donald Ash

      Thank you, Adrian. You’re already ahead of the game if you’ve done a 5-week study program already. Those people that do short stays before committing long-term usually end up adjusting better than those who’ve never come to Japan before but decide to live here. I was one of the latter, but I love this place, too…I’m sure you understand why. As far as teaching positions go, there always seems to be a pretty big need for good English teachers, especially ones with experience. I went the Eikaiwa route because I could apply in the U.S., the Jet Program is supposed to be amazing, too (but a little harder to get into I hear). But once you have that first job, and you’re here, there are other Japan-based companies that can get you placed into the public school system pretty painlessly. That’s actually what I’m in the process of doing. Getting here with a Visa that will allow you to stay long enough is the biggest thing. I honestly think you can find good teaching jobs.

      Where did you stay when you were here?

      • Alex Miller

        Hi Donald I am looking to live long term in Japan like yourself. How did you network for long term teaching jobs while already working and with a language barrier? I taught JET for 3 years and finished this past July. Thanks for your time

  • Jelpati

    I generally don’t like Japanese food or culture. But I looooove Japanese women. And that’s good enough for me.

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