Summer is upon us, and with that, means a new crop of foreigners coming over to Japan in order to work or study.
Whatever your reasons for coming to Japan, preparations can be nerve-wracking, and so here are four tips to help you out.
The days and weeks leading up to my departure for Japan were fraught with numerous expectations, preparations, and fears. I was a person who had never lived more than an hour away from my family and close friends, and now I was on the verge of embarking on a journey that would take me to the other side of a world, to a country where I knew no one, and whose local language I had very little knowledge of. The future was completely wide open, I didn’t know if I would stay a year or more or if I would try to make Japan a permanent home.
If you have a predecessor you’re in contact with, make sure to understand what sort of area you’re going to. I was heading to southern Kyushu, and according to web searches, that was a pretty warm place to be. The temperature never gets below 30-40ºF, and coming from Chicago, where several inches of snow is considered a light dusting, I figured this would be great. Who needs winter clothes suited for below-zero temperatures?
Those are what we call “famous last words.” Yes, it’s much warmer in Kyushu compared to Chicago, but what I didn’t count on was that my apartment would have some of the thinnest walls imaginable, and it’s common for schools to keep the windows open during winter without any heat. I went about a week before I frantically ran to the store looking for warmer clothing.
Figure out the things you will need with you right away and have a plan for stuff you’ll need later, either getting it shipped by friends or family, or buying it in Japan. Know where you’re going and ask around to see what people can tell you about the area and what’s available. Even if you’re average-sized in your home country, you might still find clothes shopping to be difficult in Japan. Especially when it comes to shoes.
Thanks to the Internet, it’s a lot easier to get clothing in your size no matter where in Japan you are, but you may not have Internet access at first. There are some people who are lucky enough to have Internet access right away, but there are others who may have to wait a month or more before their Internet service is operational. And sometimes, there may not be a nearby Internet cafe you can go to.
Preparation also extends to money. If you’re going to the countryside, your living expenses will be substantially less than in a big city, but you also might have to worry about buying a car. In which case, make sure you get your international driver’s license before you leave. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
I didn’t have one when I first arrived, as my workplace wouldn’t allow me to drive during work hours, but I didn’t count on how remote my location was, and a car quickly became a necessity for after-hours. So get your IDL, especially if you’ll be placed in a rural area.
In Japan, salaries are typically paid once a month, as opposed to once every two weeks in other countries. Plan to have enough money set aside to last you not only for the initial expenses, such as key money, rent, phone, etc., but also for the first month or so in general. Somewhere in the vicinity of $2000 ~ $3000 should be sufficient for most, but again, that depends on your area.
Also, and I cannot stress this enough, bring photographs. And I don’t mean bring them over on your hard drive, I mean print them out and bring them with you. Then pin them up all around your apartment. This may sound sappy, but those first few weeks and possibly even months can easily become extremely lonely, and you’ll want pleasant reminders of friends and family around you. Especially if you’re not sure how soon you’ll have Internet access to be able to communicate with them again.
Manage Your Expectations
When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was excited. I was blown away by everything. Then I arrived in my new home, and I felt like I’d just been dropped in the middle of nowhere. My town was extremely small, I was the only foreigner around, and I knew absolutely no one. That first night, being left in my new apartment in an unfamiliar town and an unfamiliar country, completely alien from everything I’d ever known, was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
Within a week, I was convinced I’d only stay one year and then I’d gleefully run back to the States. There’s a saying: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. So keep things in perspective. If you’re planning to relocate to Japan permanently, realize that there’s a chance that plan will change.
I’ve known people who came over with the intention of only staying one year and turned into lifers, and others who intended to stay permanently and ended up returning home. If you’re expecting to learn the language within a short time, understand that even when you’re living in Japan, learning Japanese still takes a great deal of time and commitment.
Also on that front, be careful with your money. As a JET living in the boonies, my salary was more than adequate to handle my expenses, especially since I had no debts to pay off, but going out to the local izakaya and going to karaoke "nomihodai" (all-you-can-drink) adds up very quickly.
This also goes to managing your expectations. Sure, that big-screen HDTV would be awesome for watching movies and playing video games, and yeah you can afford it quite easily, but unless you’ve got some indication of a permanent home, maybe you should go for the smaller one that you can easily sell or get rid of without too much stress in the event that you have to leave.
And please be wary of the Internet. I love it, I’ve made some very good friends through it, and it’s helped me reach a larger audience with my writing. But as Obi-Wan said, “you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” There is some very valuable information out there about the programs and companies that operate in Japan. But there is also a lot of hyperbole. Don’t dismiss all criticism of your future employer as nonsense, but don’t take it as gospel truth, either.
It’s Not All About You
You’re off on your own, you’re on an adventure, and everything is exciting and new, but remember that there are still people back home who miss you and love you, and they might feel like you’re moving on without them. That can be a hard thing to deal with. By all means, tell your friends and family back home about your experiences, but also realize that it can be painful for them and be sure to ask them how they’re doing. Yes, you’re having a great time and your loved ones want you to enjoy yourself, but they also have to adjust to life without you around.
If you’re constantly talking about how amazing Japan is and how you never want to leave, that can be hurtful. You don’t mean it to be, but for those people you left behind, it can feel like you don’t need them anymore. Or that you don’t want to be around them. So just be careful about that and try to look at it from that perspective. Otherwise, you might inadvertently end up with some cross-continental arguments, and that’s not fun for anybody.
Before you leave, say your goodbyes. Make time for everyone you want to see, even if you have to schedule something three months in advance of your departure.
Strike The Right Balance
There are people who get trapped in what’s known as the “gaijin bubble.” They don’t bother with anything but the most essentially basic Japanese, never try anything new or different, tend to stick to foods and activities they feel are safe, and all their friends are fellow expats or the occasional Japanese person who has lived abroad. In extreme cases, they just sit at home most of the time, watching movies and TV shows from their native country, and count the days until they can leave Japan. You’re in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but you’re not doing yourself any favors if you don’t allow that experience to happen!
But, while we’re on that subject, you can go too far in the opposite direction. There are some foreigners who, once they get to Japan, adopt an attitude of, “I’m going to do everything Japanese. I don’t want to even see another foreigner. I only want to hang out with Japanese people, I only want to watch Japanese TV shows, I only want to eat Japanese food.” And that’s also the wrong attitude to have. Living in a completely different country and culture can be very stressful. Sometimes it’s good to treat yourself to a burger or a pizza or to hang out with other expats and vent about things that are bothering you.
You’re caught between two cultures right now. Balance it out however you can, but try not to go too far in one direction or the other, because that can quickly leave you feeling alienated and lonely. Japan can be an amazing place to live. But it can also be amazingly frustrating. It’s up to you to make the most of your time here, be it one year or the rest of your life.© Japan Today