Lessons From Your Country

How to Enjoy Life in Japan (Part 2)

April 8, 2017


What does Japan have to offer expats that other Asian countries don’t? It doesn’t offer much bang for your buck. Even a position at a major, affluent international school in Tokyo can’t offer a salary that compares to Singapore. Nor will your salary take you as far as it will in a place like Laos or Thailand.

So why choose Japan?

The depth and breadth of culture in Japan is unparalleled in Asia. China might be older, but thanks to the Cultural Revolution and the current penchant in China for tacky modernity, you’ll have a harder time finding it. But in Japan you can easily find it, at almost any street corner. Japanese are proud of being Japanese, and will bend over backwards to show off their culture to foreigners. There’s a surplus of Japanese TV shows that capitalize on this theme. “Why did you come to Japan?” follows Japan-obsessed foreigners on crazy odysseys throughout the country. It starts by following gaijin as soon as they land at the airport, often with the intention of backpacking to some remote area, studying some obscure Japanese art, or attending something unique. More often than not, the locals take great care of these vagabonds, inviting them into their homes, taking them great distances, and generally honoring these guests. Japan is very hospitable.

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But not always.

You’ll probably have a few experiences like this at first. But once the honeymoon wears off, you’ll notice that in daily interactions, especially big cities, Japanese are actually avoiding you. They don’t want to sit next to you on the train. No small talk at the bus station. They aren’t interested in talking about politics. You’ll hear the dreaded, “Ah, nihongo joozu, desu ne!” This means you speak good Japanese. It sounds like a compliment, but when you’ve heard it for the tenth time in one day, you’ll realize it’s an insult. A micro-aggression. Yes, they are complimenting you the same way you would a trained dog. Congrats, you can badly pronounce several words of our language, now piss off. You’ll discover you have few Japanese friends, and feel isolated from society.

What do you do?  How do you get past this hump and enjoy a long-term stay?

Make Japanese friends. This sounds odd, but many people have difficulty doing this. Many expats don’t have any close Japanese friends, or even a loose circle of Japanese acquaintances. These are the people that have the most difficult time in Japan and leave the soonest.

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This is because most Japanese people generally won’t make friends on the street. Japan is a very group-oriented culture, and Japanese grow up learning to make friends within strict confines. From the moment a young Japanese child enters school, they are taught that the group membership is paramount, and individualism is not welcome. They spend all their school life dressing in uniforms and following tight regimes, only to graduate into the even more regimented world of work. Uniforms become unofficial dress codes, and the company they work for takes over their life. You strictly socialize within your company. You even vacation with them. Having worked at a Japanese company, I’ve had the weird experience of going on a company sponsored vacation with my co-workers. After many all-night bouts of drinking, we all literally took a bath together. (Google Japanese public bath etiquette after you read this.)

Herein lies your hope. Once you find a group to belong to, you’ll never lack for want of social contact. You will be invited to do everything with your group. The Japanese, familiar with this way of socially orienting themselves, open up like flowers. Indeed, you may find that some get too personal with you, too quickly.

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So how do you maximize your life in Japan? How do you truly experience the beauty of Japanese culture? Join a club, organization, social circle, team sport, or group activity. Find a special interest group. Go to those late night drinking parties. Go flower blossom viewing together. Join the cheesy group vacations. Learn ikebana (flower arranging). Practice chado (tea ceremony.) Choose any Japanese art, join the classes, let the group take you in. Join and become Japanese. You will not be disappointed.

This article was submitted to us by an International School Community member guest author.