4 things to consider if you're thinking about a life in Japan

By Liam Carrigan

I’ve lived in Japan for almost 10 years. Yet, of the thousands of foreigners who come here to work every year, most will stay for one or just a few years. Although many of those who come to Japan do so with the clear intention of staying only a year or two for the “experience,” many of these new arrivals claim they want to settle here. However, in the end, the vast majority of them don’t. Why is this? And what is it about Japan that makes some of us want to settle down and others head for the hills? It’s something that’s been on my mind as I move through some changes in my life at the moment — still resolute in my choice to make a life here — and I thought I would put these thoughts out for discussion.

I’ve noticed over the years that there seems to be a “honeymoon period” for those that come to Japan. Generally, this seems to last about 18 months to two years, depending on the individual. During this time, many of us (myself included) tend to live in a bubble, where everything about Japan seems mystical and wonderful. We may hear dissenting voices from the wizened, grizzled veterans, but we tend to be dismissive of these older foreigners as being “bitter,” “cynical” or having stayed in Japan for too long.

What is it then that happens around this two-year mark? Most likely, a number of common factors will have changed by this time.

1) Japanese ability

After two years in Japan, hopefully, you’ll have acquired a basic understanding of daily spoken Japanese. While learning the language has the obvious bonus of opening up a number of previously closed doors to life here, both in social and work situations, there is also one drawback. You may start to develop a “double perspective,” so that things in Japanese culture may start to make too much sense. Things may start to “get real.”

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One thing I see time and time again in Japan is foreigners working as ALTs through dispatch companies getting married and having kids. It is very irresponsible (unless your other half is loaded/has a stable, well-paying job). One-year contracts which may or may not be renewed are no secure base for raising a family. Every year, around this time of year, I hear stories of ALTs (many of them who have been in Japan for over a decade and yet cannot speak good Japanese), who have found out they won't be employed the following year as their current dispatch company lost the contract for their area. They are left up the creek without a paddle. My advice would be, if you're thinking about a life in Japan, don't make the same mistake! By all means work as an ALT for a year or two, while single, and use all your free time to get good at Japanese and network. Then, when you inevitably end up unemployed or burnout through the pointlessness of the job, you will be able to find a decent job just like a Japanese person (or at least have a chance).

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I’ve noticed over the years that there seems to be a “honeymoon period” for those that come to Japan. 

Oh, really? "You've" noticed it? What fascinating and totally not-cliche insight you have into the nature of living in Japan!

Frankly, why does it matter if some people who come here thinking they'll stay long-term change their minds? Life is not about never changing your mind.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

I have lived in Japan for around twenty years. In that time as mentioned in the article I’ve gone through my periods of bitterness. Whilst there are things that will always annoy me about Japan there are also so many things about this country that I find endearing. No matter where you live you will find there is good and bad. For me the good in Japan outweighs the bad.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

“Intriguing, often mystifying and above all exciting- this is Japan. I came to Japan seventy two years ago and I have seen some changes. I could buy a house lot for eight hundred yen. One yen was big money, after all we had sen and rin.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's not a good place to work.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Pretty common-sense article, I found myself nodding to some points. Of course I had only academic knowledge about a lot of things going in and it's totally different to actually live through them.

It's not polite to say one country or culture is better/worse than another so I always add "better/worse for me" --I can decide which aspects fit my personality and lifestyle, what things I'm willing to embrace or accept, and what things I'll just avoid. It's actually the same as living in my home country--it's not like at home I love and engage in every aspect of American culture--just there it maybe feels more automatic and doesn't require as much thought or negotiation with others to accomplish.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

sumeba miyako

I've been here so long I don't even think of it as 'abroad' anymore. It's home, and there's no place like it.

It's where the(my) heart is.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I noticed there are those who come here and are happy that they can finally get a date or have a job. That ¥250,000 teaching job is the best deal they ever had. Those tend to stay and marry someone for the visa.

Others come and realize they have to get on with life and either learn how to make money here, or go elsewhere to do it, married or not.

The main problem I think is the single 250-300k English teaching jobs. Their are few other employment sources available and teaching English is usually not a career, it’s a dead end.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

For the most part, teaching English isn't a long-term prospect in Japan. That said, there are exceptions; various private schools and some universities offer solid positions that will give you roughly equivalent pay and benefits as a Japanese worker. These can be harder to find however, as most people working them tend to stay in the jobs.

From the four points given, I think the most important is number one, learning to speak Japanese. If you never learn to communicate to the level that you can join in whichever situations are necessary, you will never be a fully-functioning member of society here. There will always be a wall/barrier between yourself and a portion of the culture/people. Many people then attribute their non-inclusion to be a sign of Japanese bigotry, rather than realizing that it's a natural human reaction to think of someone who cannot communicate as being different/outside.

For me, the most important thing in enjoying life here, is not to integrate and become Japanese, nor to live in a bubble, and try to retain full-foreignness, rather it's to carve out a life that works for you. You will never be Japanese, so trying to be is ultimately a waste of time. Instead, I take advantage of the special benefits I get as a foreigner, and find my own ways around situations where being a foreigner can be a deficit. I'm happy that I don't have to be Japanese, as they are usually way harder on each other than they are on foreigners.

The other thing that makes it easier to live here is to stop comparing Japan with other countries, and take it on its own merits. Think like a local in this regards. Don't think 'I could buy an orange for 30cents in my country', rather think 'oranges on sale for 50 yen, great!'

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I will 2nd what Strangerland said. I have been here 2 decades. I have never taught language or anything else and I probably would not be very good at it as I do not have the necessary skill sets.

Learning the language is very important. Personally I had many "misunderstandings" in my early times. Some were due to xenophobism but after reflection on this I found that most were due to my inability to communicate or understand what was going on around me, leading me to make inaccurate assumptions. I find that as I am here longer these experiences are few and far between.

Use your "gaikoku" status to your advantage. We are not expected to fit into the rigid social structure that exists in Japan and we most often (for good or bad) catch a break when we screw up, act strange, etc. There are other ways to capitalize (literally) on being a foreigner. I have been able to use this effectively in business.

Finally find that balance between integrating and living in a bubble. My situation has me pretty much immersed here (employees all Japanese, clients 85-90% Japanese, etc.) so I have to work to get into the bubble sometime, which is a necessity. A foreigner can never fully integrate into Japan (or most other countries where you are a foreigner) so don't knock yourself out for trying.

Finally it is silly to compare Japan to other places. After all you are here, you chose to be here, so make the best of the situation (whatever it may be).

As for me, Japan suits me and I enjoy living here. I also fully understand it is difficult for some and some are stuck here due to being married, etc. against their will and I empathize with that situation.

In the end be happy and find a way to enjoy the good things Japan has to offer!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Strangerland Tokyo Engr

Excellent comments from you guys thanks! True about finding your own comfortable place and dont fight battles you cant win. Learn the language and be polite and enjoy life.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

For the first ten years, thought I had to become Japanese then realized I could live here as a Brit. At home we are a mix of Japanese Brit and when we are out my wife behaves like a Japanese as do I, although in busy places like Kyoto, people excuse my strangeness thinking I'm just a rich fat old American tourist.

My wife who also lived for a few years in the UK love all the Brit stuff, crazy about the Royal family and the weddings, children etc. We enjoy the cultural mix. We are a very happy couple.

I have never worked here, except one single day for a radio in Tokyo. I'm an artist-painter and very much my own man.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Been around a bakers dozen years, don't speak Japanese at all, worked in Finance IT (global, follow the sun & all English), invested locally & overseas (and living off passive income when I don't feel like punching time) and am still here.

Came to visit, liked the place, stayed, worked my way up and here, everything just works ;)

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don’t speak Japanese at all

I speak Japanese, but I can go an entire week without using much more than ordering food. The rule in my department is English only, my partner is English and I’m not one for socializing with coworkers after work. Bit of a home bird these days.

It’s useful to speak Japanese but to be honest, I’m not sure the amount of time I invested in learning it was worth it seeing as I’ll be out of here in a year or two.

Ah well, maybe I’ll be able to impress people in the pub for 5 minutes.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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