Japan is an extremely popular destination for both expats and tourists, with more than 2.5 million foreigners living in Japan and in excess of 10 million tourists expected to visit before the end of 2013. As one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, home to a rich and impossible to imitate cultural heritage, I thought that it would be interesting to speak with some of the country's visitors and ask them one simple question: What did you learn from your time in Japan?
I also spoke to Michael Brinksman of Which Offshore, a publication offering free information to those wishing to move abroad, about why he thinks Japan is so popular with both tourists and expats alike. Brinksman has found that the country typically seems to leave a lasting impression on those that visit it.
“Ever since the 1980s, a time when no one could deny that Japan was becoming a major player in the global economic arena, there has been an influx of working professionals moving to the country from all around the world," Brinksman said. "Although it can be a real culture shock at first, many see their time in Japan as a great adventure and the ideal opportunity to step back, grow and learn from an extremely different (but still reassuringly similar) culture.
“A recent trend is the surge of young non-professional people moving to Japan for working holidays, some staying for a year or more. Out of the travellers we have spoken to, many went to Japan not in search of money or professional experience (although these things are a welcome incentive) but to challenge themselves, to step outside of their comfort zones and to grow as a person.”
According to Which Offshore data, the majority of expats and visitors to Japan commented on how polite, friendly and welcoming the Japanese were during their time there. What’s more impressive is that even those who visited over 30 years ago made the same comments, indicating a long history of kindness to visitors.
Nancy Schimmel spent seven weeks in Japan in 1970 and spoke of “unfailing kindness and courtesy of the Japanese people” who were “not intrusive, but there to help if you needed it”. Susan Santoro, who lived in Japan for 2 1/2 years in the 1990s, echoes this and speaks of a memorable train journey in busy Tokyo: “I remember one time in particular that I dropped 10 yen on the train as I was trying to get ready for exiting the train at the next stop. I was struggling with a stroller, a diaper bag and holding onto a 3-year-old, so I didn't worry about trying to pick the coin up. But a kind older woman chased the coin down, handed it to me and then moved the crowd out of the way so I could exit the train at my next stop.”
This kindness often leaves a lasting impression on visitors and Lauren Pearce, who travelled to Japan in 2007, states that “now, when I see someone who looks lost, I try to help them out to pass on the compassion we experienced in Japan.”
Charles R Scot and his 8-year-old son are also testament to the lasting effect of Japanese kindness: “During a cycling tour across Japan, we met many people who offered to help us. Strangers offered us food and water, advice on our route, impromptu lessons on Japanese culture and history, even a place to spend the night.” Scot adds that “I told my son to remember how well we were treated, and to do the same whenever we could be of assistance to strangers in need”.
Open to new experiences
Almost all of the people I spoke to about their time in Japan said that one of the main things they took away from their visit was a willingness to try new things.
Pete Giriad put this into words well when he says “The whole experience changed me. I came back more confident, and open to new things around me. Learning about a culture completely different to my own and fully emerging myself as a young high school student has stuck with me ever since in the form of a total willingness to give anything a go, no matter how apprehensive I may be.” An American expat felt that it “really makes you realize that there are alternative ways of doing and creating things other than your own. Japan taught me that America's way is not the only way, and it certainly doesn’t automatically qualify as the right way.”
Rajan De Los Santos learned the value of time from the period he spent in Japan, remarking that the “Japanese are very punctual and tardiness is foreign to them”. This made Rajan very mindful of time and the importance of his own punctuality; something that would improve the productivity of many cultures across the globe.
He also spoke of how safe he felt on the streets of Japan, and was left wondering “how a huge metropolis can be almost absurdly safe!”
“When I moved to Tokyo, I moved from New York City. I'm not one of those people who considers New York to be dangerous, but the contrast between safety levels in New York versus Tokyo is super stark. Only in Tokyo can you leave an expensive camera on the city subway, only to have it turn up the next day at the station's lost and found. Or walk around with thousands of dollars worth of Japanese yen, without worrying about it. Not to say that there is zero crime in Japan - crime does exist - but it's on such a smaller scale that the level of security a New Yorker in Tokyo feels is like a breath of fresh air.“
Respect for tourists
Its an unfortunate fact of international tourism that sometimes a cities native population doesn't take to kindly to tourists. A lot of the time this isn’t anything personal, it is just that a large number of tourists clogging up transport routes and causing queues at local attractions can be viewed as an inconvenience to those just trying to go about their day to day business.
This doesn’t seem to be the case in Japan, however, with many of the people I spoke to finding themselves humbled by the accepting and welcoming reception they were given by their local hosts. Victoria Milner visited Japan this year and was pleasantly surprised by how well accommodated for tourists are.
“You never quite know until you arrive somewhere whether there will be attempts to guide English speaking tourists around a city," Milner said. "It was a pleasant surprise to have English signage almost everywhere and everyone we met seemed to appreciated how overwhelming Japan can be for someone who doesn’t speak the language. Every effort was made to make it easier for us. I now make sure to be as helpful as I can whenever I come across tourists in my home country, Singapore.”
Several responded that Japan helped them to shake off bad habits by exposing them to people who have a different set of priorities and ethics.
Andres Zuleta moved from New York to Tokyo and states that “Living in Japan transformed me from a wanderer to a man with a mission”, by teaching him the art of concentrated study and discipline. He mentions that a “Japanese friend told me that when she sat down to study something, she always sat down for at least two hours” and so “from that point on, I would study in 4-6 hour sessions, and was thus able to advance in my Japanese studies. I learned focus skills that stayed with me for a long time, and would end up helping me tremendously in all areas of my life.”
Sam Shelley is a travel, tourism and technology writer who worked on this article in association with Which Offshore.© Japan Today