10 Things Guidebooks Don’t Tell You About Living in Japan

Day 13 [New Year’s Resolution]: 10 Things They Don’t Tell You About Living in Japan

Howdy, gang.

Thousands of people from around the world flock to live in Japan, whether it’s to teach English, travel as many prefectures as they can, or settle down and start a family. Some stay for less than a year, and others stay for decades.

Since Japan is such a popular country, there are many websites and blogs where you can find out about Japanese culture, events, food, customs, and the language. However, these tend to paint Japan in a light that makes it look perfect. I work for one of those websites, and any articles that make Japan look even a little bit bad are dismissed immediately.

I’ve been living in Japan for nearly five years now; eighteen months in Okaya, Nagano Prefecture, and two and a half years in Tokyo, the capital city. Although I love it here, there are a lot of downsides as well that you can’t really find a lot of information about online. Here are 10 things that guidebooks and blogs don’t tell you about living in Japan.

1. You Are Always a Foreigner

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Coming from the UK where we treat everyone equally and don’t care if someone’s black, white, or purple with polka dots, it’s very weird to still be considered “a foreigner” even after being here since I was nineteen.

It’s the first thing people notice about me, and almost everyone’s first question is “Where are you from?” and the first remark is “Oh, you can speak Japanese!”

It’s not really that much of a problem, but even my boyfriend does it. “Look, a white guy!” I find myself irritably replying “So what?”

Learn the language, get a job in a well-respected company, learn all the complicated customs and rules and manners, it doesn’t matter – you’ll always be a gaikokujin.

2. It’s Very Difficult to Rent a House

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There are a hundred and one rules involved if you’re a non-Japanese person hoping to rent a house. There are all kinds of fees including bond, deposit, key money, etc etc, and you need some kind of written recommendation.

I’m really lucky because in Nagano, my company sorted out my house, and in Tokyo, my boyfriend sorted it out. I’ve never had to personally deal with renting a place on my own so I don’t know all the ins and outs, but there’s a good article on GaijinPot all about it.

3. No One Has a Proper Oven

As someone who loves her pies and lasagnas, this drives me crazy. The only ovens you can really find are a sort of mixture between an oven and a microwave, and the same size as that, too. Unless you’re willing to invest tens of thousands of yen, oven dishes aren’t an option if you like to cook. Boo.

4. It’s Hard to Find Good Cheese

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Of course you’ll want to try the delicious local food that’s on offer in Japan, but sometimes you want a little taste of home. Cheese is one of the things that the Japanese just can’t seem to get right. The much-boasted Hokkaido cheese is supposed to be fantastic, but compared to the rich and sharp cheddars from home, it’s pizza-topping tier.

You can find imported cheeses in certain shops, but then you’re expected to cough up for it. I managed to find some Brie the other day from Kaldi Coffee, and after wincing at the price tag, enjoyed it very much.

5. Everything is Scripted

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Back home, I can walk into a shop and easily have a chat with a shop assistant about anything. It’s friendly, it’s good customer service, and it makes the company look good. However, as soon as I walk into a shop I know I’m going to hear the welcoming phrase “irasshaimase“, the amount of money I owe the cashier, and the thank-yous when I leave.

It’s not for lack of trying, either. I’ve tried to chat with people many times in shops only to have a very startled, nervous, and short reply, or to have them ignore me completely or look at me like I’ve grown a tit on my forehead. It’s quite lonely.

6. You’ll Miss Things from Your Home Country

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Although you may not believe it when you first arrive, you will definitely end up missing stuff from your home country after a couple of months, especially food. That condiment that you can find in every cafe at home but doesn’t exist here. Your favourite brand of tea. Good chocolate. Decent deodorant.

Still, that’s what care packages are for. Be sure to send yourself some essentials before you go.

7. Everything is Tiny

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If you’re tall in Japan, you’re going to have a bad time. It takes a bit of getting used to, as doorways, food portions, furniture, and many other things will make you feel like you’ve grown several inches or everything else has shrunk.

Couple that with the fact that the average height in Japan for men is 5″7, and you’ll feel like a wandering giant. The wandering foreigner.

8. People are Fake

No, not everyone. But as someone who grew up with a father who was more forward than most people and didn’t care who knew it, it’s really hard for me to get used to a society where people say “yes” when they mean no, “maybe” when they mean “hell no,” and “sure, you can trust me with this information” when the next thing you know they’re blabbing to unfriendly ears.

A lesson I learned the hard way is to not share things that can be used against you unless you absolutely 100% trust that person. Learn to read between the lines and read body language (tilting their head to the side with a smile/frown often means “no”). It’s a pain.

It’s all part of the politeness thing, but there’s a massive difference between being polite and being fake.

9. Everything is Ridiculously Over-Packaged

This isn’t really a bad thing, I suppose, but the amount of nagging we get in Europe about reducing, reusing, and recycling! Then you buy a box of sweets as a souvenir and hey-ho, you have to battle through three boxes and a plastic bag before you can finally get your (unexpectedly tiny) sweet. Next time you buy anything in Japan, take a look at the packaging. It isn’t normal.

10. Drinking a Lot is Normal

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Japan has one of the world’s highest life expectancies and this is said to be down to a lot of factors: better diets, healthier lifestyles, and more exercise. Despite this, drinking in Japan is huge. It’s not only okay to drink several times a week, but in some jobs, it’s expected.

Many companies engage in nomikai, a party where the boss and his employees go out to a local izakaya pub or bar to drink themselves silly. Seeing passed out young men in suits at train stations in the wee hours is a pretty normal sight.

This attitude towards drinking leaks into the lives of those who aren’t businessmen as well. I find myself surprised when I realise I haven’t had alcohol in a few days, and my boyfriend loves to go out and get wasted from time to time without even thinking of it as a potential problem.

It’s good news if you love to drink, though, as western men are often admired for being “osake tsuyoi,” or having a high resistance to alcohol. You might find that your alcohol intake, and in turn, your weight, increases while you live here unless you don’t drink at all.

The good things about Japan outweigh the bad by far, which is why I’m still here! No country is perfect, though, and it’s important to know the downsides before you arrive so you can prepare for them. Whether you count all of the above as downsides or not is up to you.

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