Facing the ‘two-year mark’ in Japan: Should I stay or should I go?

By Julia Mascetti

Expat life can sometimes feel like an exercise in repetition, especially when you get the same questions every time you go to a gathering.

“Where are you from?”

“Are you an English teacher?”

“How long have you been in Japan?”

When I answer “two years” I get that look immediately.

“We find that most of our teachers stay about two years,” I remember the manager at my old company telling me. “After that they reach a turning point… Some have had their fill of Japan life and leave. The ones who stay get serious.”

I wonder which I am. Two years. Tokyo is definitely no longer a new place, but it doesn’t quite feel like a permanent home either. I feel as if different pathways stretch out before me and they hold a certain gravity. I feel like the choices I make now will shape my life significantly for years to come. For the first time since arriving, things are indeed getting serious.

Cultural adaption: what does the two-year mark mean?

The two-year mark is the conventional wisdom that many expats reach a turning point after two years in Japan. It’s a time when people re-evaluate their priorities and either leave Japan or begin to experience expat life differently.

Click here to read more.

© Savvy Tokyo

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The answer to this question is very simple.

Are you satisfied with low wages you will be earning for the rest of your life? If yes, then stay.

If not, it is time to pack up and leave for a greener pasture back home, including any siginificant other that you may have picked up in Japan. Just having a Japanese significant other is not a reason strong enough to stay in Japan.

Japan is a low-wage country in 2018, and there is basically zero wage growth potential, so there is no point in staying in Japan. And you will never truely be accepted as Japanese in Japan even if you acquire Japanese citizenship and renounce the other, because you are just a gaijin with Japanese citizenship.

6 ( +11 / -5 )

Blunt but mostly true Samit Basu.

This is my 14th year here. I always say I'm here for good, but you never know do you?

For every thing I hate about living here, I can think of a hundred things I like. Japan certainly beats "home" at this time.

My biggest gripe?

The standard of considerate driving in Japan is appalling.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Tokyo is definitely no longer a new place, but it doesn’t quite feel like a permanent home either. 

Only two choices. Go home or move to Osaka. :-)

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Low wages sure, but way better cost of living! I can actually live outside of my parents house here.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Having the experience of living in Japan, Korea and China, Japan is definitely the better choice in life style, food, people, and entertainment. Though every once in a while you need to get out of the country just to get out of the Japanese bubble.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

If you’re an English teacher it’s best to go home after 2 years as you’ll be trapped in a minimum wage job at the bottom of the ladder for the rest of your life, bitter at everyone around you, while also earning no skills to take back home.

Professional expats also leave after a few years as their earning power is higher in other global cities these days and career tracks are clearer. Although this is getting much better recently with most big firms paying closer to globally competitive salaries for upper management, etc.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Tough choice, also depends on job, family, kids and more.

Having spend 30yrs overseas I can't see myself moving back to work, would be like moving to a 'new' country. Still want to retire back home though or I could sell my country property there to shore up my pension.

Said that I met my wife overseas(both were working/travelling) and we decided on Japan and start a Family.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Head the words of wisdom from The Clash - you'll be better for it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )


Very clever bud. So true.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You should run like the wind blows.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

one good thing about staying in Japan for as long as I have: I get older, but Japanese women stay the same age...

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Depends entirely on if you are happy.

Secondly if you aren't looking outside being an English Teacher the potential for salary increases may be low, and the job often is limited in duration, and frankly age of the teacher.

This being said amongst my friends I have a few that have moved towards Professor assistants and Associate Professors at Universities and are doing fairly well, as well as one that is now in upper management of an English education group.

I am in the industry I was trained in and have nearly a decade of experience in before coming to Japan, the HQ is US, and I have no direct boss in Japan and am a Manger of a small group within my company for APAC, this wouldn't have been possible from NZ, Im not planning on going anywhere for now, however, unfortunately further promotions may mean moving to the states...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Been here over 30 years, my first child was entering ES, had been here about 5 years at the time, and we were making plans to move back, she got pregnant, so we ended up staying.

Jump forward 6 years, my first child was about to enter JHS, and the 2nd one ES, we were in the process of preparing to move back home again.

She got pregnant again.....we ended up staying.

Like other posters have commented as well, wages are stagnant, and we could not be where we are at today if it was only one of us that worked, we both work, and thanks to thank dual income, we were able to afford quite a few things and send our kids to University, 2 overseas, and one here.

Now it's kind of too late to go back, at our ages, and pretty much start from zero and rip up our roots here.

Believe me I, we have NO regrets about not moving back, but if I had to do it over, I think I would have tried to at the time, again, pregnant or not. It gets harder and harder to do as you get older and take on more responsibilities.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

If you're young and doing the eikaiwa thing or working for, god forbid, a dispatch company, by all means, don't stay too long. If you have an actual career with (gasp) benefits, a family, friends, interest in the culture, stay as long as you like. I think a lot of the folks most soured on Japan just aren't making enough (for the amt. they work) to enjoy their lives.

I'm happy I went home once. I spent 3 years here in my 20s (mostly inebriated), returned to the U.S. for 6 then came back nearly 10 years ago. Had I never returned, I'd probably be completely unhinged by now, seeing only the negative in Japan and only the positive back home (neither being an accurate portrait). As it stands, I have a relatively balanced outlook. I'd add that just as coming abroad doesn't fix every problem in your life, returning home won't do the trick either. And reverse culture shock is worse IMO.

As Yubaru noted, it does get harder as you age. Though I long to retire in the US, do I want to move to a community where I know no one, long after my parents are gone. Do I want to be living in Montana while my kid remains in Japan? I don't know about Brits or Kiwis, perhaps they've retained a more egalitarian society, but raising a kid here is easier than in the US. I teach college, my wife also has a good job. But stateside the same incomes wouldn't allow us to live in a safe, middle class ward in a city like Kobe. We couldn't afford a zipcode allowing our kid to enter a good school. Nor would we feel nearly as safe. I often say I didn't leave the US, that the US left me.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

 I often say I didn't leave the US, that the US left me.

How true! I am going to borrow that one, thank you. As the US that I knew, no longer exists either, I'd literally be afraid to even attempt to raise my family there, the way I was able to here. It's a nice place to visit, but.....

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Try China or Taiwan;learn the language and get involved in something productive! In Japan, unless extremely motivated, talented and/or financially solvent, it is difficult to achieve anything with two years experience here. Don't wait-leave asap!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Does anyone think working conditions in Japan are gong to change?

Lots of people i speak too say its getting better but i honesty don't think it is, the hierarchy in place makes progression too slow, and also creates an atmosphere that promotes laziness amongst older staff and stiffles productivity and non lateral thinking.

You also have the increasing amount of jobs offered on a temp contract or employers trying to do everything possible to not pay health insurance or to have to turn staff onto permanent contracts.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If you are a standard English teacher, and you want to stay after two years, you should do one of two things:

1) Go home, get a masters, and come back. You want something to distinguish yourself from the other teacher.

2) Stay here but get yourself some other set of skills that is more portable.

The problem is that teaching English is not really a skill set you can bring to other countries easily. And if/when you get tired of Japan, you’re stuck due to a lack of options in other countries.

I’ve seen this happen countless times. But if you can get a skill set that makes you employable in other countries, it keeps your options open. You can stay as long as you want, and it you decide to leave, you have other options.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

If you are still teaching after two years, then I’d say leave because you either don’t have the experience or drive to get a real job with career prospects. Teaching English is a great way to get into Japan, but it’s an awful existence.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

the working vacation is over. Either get a job or make teaching your real job. Add to your skills as mentioned above with a Master's (or other degree or teaching certification). Teaching and translation can be fun but are also known for their lackluster pay. If you wanted to learn to code, freecodecamp would do the trick. That might get you out of the teaching gig and into the technology one. Since everyone is online then it's not a matter of where you need to live, but where you want to

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Only two choices. Go home or move to Osaka. :-) two types of gaijin in Japan, those that have been assimilated, those that refuse assimilation but have a high tolerance level to handle all the petty BS, the rest go home.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

There's an old saying: "if you look in the mirror and you're surprised that your eyes are not brown, you've been in Japan too long."

But, unlike some of the other lucre-oriented chumps here, did you come to Nippon expecting high wages or expecting to gain a sociological education? If the former, certainly go home and Nippon will be the better for it. But, if you are a student of Life, personal education and a broad cultural perspective is your goal: four years. And, during those four years, learn as best you can to think like a Nihonjin. Try to minimize your time socializing in the local 'cultural bubble' such as people who spend a year in Tokyo but never 'visit' Japan interacting only with other Gaijin and never fully trust what another Gaijin says about Nihonjin. Remember, you will never BE a Nihonjin, BUT, when you return to your own culture you will see it through different eyes, almost for a time as an 'outsider', and it will inform you beyond anything you can study. It might be called the 'unblinding' as you move your 'identity' off of its habitual perceptual point and you begin to gain much greater insight into your own national collective psychotic reality. Such perceptual shift does not come easy nor is it even noticed by those who prioritize salary as the only worthy reward and are the loudest when whining and complaining that Japan is not like home. And, as a man from Vietnam sitting next to me in my UMn Nihongo class, Tuan Tran, so many decades ago told me, "We have a saying in Vietnam: 'If you want to have a long and happy life, eat Chinese food, live in the French style, and marry a Japanese woman.'" He was absolutely right about the last part.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

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