6 Things You Should Know Before Moving to Japan

I was sitting in a hotel dining room in Marshall, Missouri, kidding myself that I was working (working on watching YouTube videos, more likes!). Two of the hotel staff were cleaning up the continental breakfast fixings and having an ‘I’m gonna quit this town’ conversation. One of the ladies asked the other, ‘Where do you want to go?’

‘I dunno,’ the other said, ‘Some other country maybe, like… Japan.’

‘Japan? Well, that guy over there with the computer lives in Japan.’

I was the only guy in the Marshall, Missouri, hotel dining room with a computer who lived in Japan, so that meant me.

I told her it was cool, fun, exciting, and a real life-changer of an adventure. Then she asked about the food. I enthusiastically explained what I eat daily and the expression on her face changed. At the end, she said, ‘Maybe I should go to France.’

 Fish, Rice and Noodles

People in Japan eat seafood and lots of it. They eat meat too, and it’s often deep-fried, so you don’t have to suffer any kind of deprivation. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, it’s very tough to find a satisfying meal without any trace of animal in it (the soup broth is usually made from bones or fish).

The basis of everything is rice. In fact, it’s considered the main course of most meals. Your first few weeks in Japan you’ll be amazed that you could ever eat so much rice. They do funny things like fill omelets with rice (オムライス – omuraisu) and eat Hamburg steak with rice.

If you can’t do seafood, rice or noodles, you’re going to have trouble. Eating out will be expensive and cooking at home may mean searching hard for the right ingredients. But if you can eat like a local, you can save money and you’ll probably lose a few pounds in the process.

 Forget the Big Yard and Picket Fence

Housing is small in Japan. I’ve seen luxurious high rise apartments that were fancy but still tiny by Western standards. If you want a big yard with a white picket fence, forget about it. Unless you can pay millions in rent, you’ll have to settle for less.

However, you can do pretty well if you live outside of Tokyo. The further you get from the big city, the further housing prices decline. To give an example, I live an hour by train outside of central Tokyo and my rent and apartment size are comparable to living in a mid-sized American city.

 Bumps on the Head

If you’re tall, you’ll have special problems with space in Japan. Things are built for small people, and that includes houses, trains, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and just about anywhere else you’ll find yourself. Where ceilings are high, you’ll get brained by light fixtures and low-mounted shelves. A few places, like shopping malls, are relatively safe.

However, Japanese people are getting taller. Newer buildings and homes tend to have higher clearance. Where you’ll have the most trouble is when you visit somebody’s grandma’s house.

No English Spoken Here

You’ve got to learn at least some Japanese. If you can’t do it before you arrive, throw yourself into it once you get here. If you live outside of Tokyo, you won’t find many people who speak English beyond a very basic level.

Your Japanese ability is your key to making friends here, and that’s really important. Foreigners without Japanese friends tend to develop funny half-baked ideas about Japan and usually return home in frustration. The good news is that you just need the basics and that’s enough to get you started.

 You Ain’t From Around Here, Are Ya?

They’ll treat you funny. There’s no getting around it. It’s especially hard on white privileged Westerners who have never been treated as a racial minority before. I’ve heard co-workers at English schools go on bitter tirades because a kid shouted ‘Hello’ to them, acting like they were told they had to sit in the back of the bus or something.

If you’re not from a nation Japan considers cooler than itself (Europe, US, Australia, other Western or English-speaking countries), you’ll have a tougher time. There’s pretty serious discrimination against foreigners, especially those with dark skin. My only advice is to try to be patient and to make some good Japanese friends who you can rely on to show you that the whole country isn’t like that.

You’ll get used to Japan but Japan will never get used to you. That’s one of the basic truisms about living here.

I’m Fine Thank You and You?

Finally, job opportunities are limited and you’ll probably have to teach English. The pay will never go up and you won’t get benefits or bonuses. However, I’ve got to say that teaching English, no matter how dodgy the school you work for may be, is still better than most jobs on your soul. A lot of it involves singing songs and playing games with kids. I’d take it over office work anytime.

If you coming to Japan, give it a year and see. Commit to one year, try to make friends and enjoy the unique things it has to offer, and after a year or so decide how much longer you’re going to be here. If a lucrative career is waiting for you at home, go back. Even if you run a successful business in Japan, to an employer back home those are years you didn’t work. But if you like it, settle in. You’ll know after a year or so if you’re going to enjoy staying.



19 thoughts on “6 Things You Should Know Before Moving to Japan

  1. I’m really grateful for your writings. They had been helping me to consider my plan on studying in Japan further to the extent of living situation. Your point of view is the most evident, pragmatic and directly explain the actual situation of living in Japan than any other sources I had. Thank you very much, you’re a BIG help for me!

  2. Thanks for the article. I’m moving to Japan in a week to play football in the X-league. Trying to figure out as much as I can, as fast as I can haha. Trying to get either my GF or brother to move out with me and they might have to settle for teaching English. Thanks again!

  3. Awesome, Loka… I recommend: Learn how to eat with chopsticks (if you can’t already). It’s how food gets into your body here!

    Good luck with the X-league,

  4. Do you know what’s even worse? Being Asian AND dark skinned (I’m from Thailand). I can never go to Japan, China or Korea. Asians hate each other haha. Well, not everyone but you know…

  5. Really interesting nice to have an honest view on Japan was looking for advice as I was thinking about spending some time over there I am from the UK so wasn’t to sure how they treated the English.

    I wanted as much info as possible before I considered anything as I would hate to not be prepared and this article really helps with the little things that you would not think about.

  6. very informative! thanks for this brilliant ideas shared!
    I am dark skinned Filipina but my eyes looks more Japanese than my husband who’s a Japanese descendant.

  7. Great reading! I only found your blog today, but I already know I will definitely pass by it again :) I have only lived in Japan for about a month, so I should probably give the whole gaijin-thing a bit more time, but I guess the staring, whispering, and “hello!”‘s won’t stop, haha! What’s really funny though, is when someone say something to their friend about me in the street, and I understand what they’re saying. It’s even more fun to smile at them if they say something nice. I have yet to hear someone say something bad about me, usually it’s “高い!”, “かわいい!”, “きれい!” or something like that.
    I guess I should be happy that I’m Scandinavian though, if the Japanese are “racist” towards people from other parts of the world.
    “You’ll get used to Japan but Japan will never get used to you.” – I really like this one :)

  8. Hi Hedda, thanks for the comment. About the stares and ‘hello’s’, it probably depends on where you live. The further in the sticks, the worse it probably is. But you’re right, when I started to understand Japanese, I realized what they were muttering about me – 高い and でかい! Like you, I just smile and nod.

  9. Hi Greg, thanks for all the good info! I am a Singaporean married to Japanese. We just came back to Osaka permanently since last year Nov. I gotten a one year spouse visa here. But because of completing my driving test to get my license, I will have to go back Singapore for more than 3months after I passed the driving test. Now I am worrying if I can come back Japan to do the renewal on time! Will it be difficult for re-entry if my visa has expired by then? I was trying to search websites if I can do the renewal in Singapore but to no trace of info.

  10. Mrs. Hamamoto,
    I don’t know, that sounds like a tricky situation. There’s a grace period to renew your visa, but I don’t know if it’s the same if you’re outside of the country. If I were you, I’d wait to go back to Singapore for 3+ months until I’ve got my visa renewed. I hope I could help and good luck.

  11. Helpful post. Thanks! I have been an english teacher and been living with japanese here in the philippines for quite some time now. And i am sure they r so polite and kind. So ur post that racial discrimination for dark-skinned people is rampant in japan is quite a shock. I have a much lighter skin complexion to filipino but im still a filipino. I wonder if they r being submissive and polite to me coz i am their teacher.

  12. Jimwell,
    I think the racism is more here in Japan. It seems to me that Japanese folks who live or spend a great deal of time overseas tend to be more broad-minded. But there are people here in Japan who have never been outside of Japan or have never spoken to a non-Japanese before! The population of non-Japanese (except maybe in Tokyo) is extremely low.

  13. I am mixed-raced, does the racism occur to me too? I watch Japanese anime, so I know a few basic words but not enough to have a proper conversation. I wouldn’t mind teaching English but which stage of school (middle school, high school- etc.) would be best to teach English in? I have no expierance of the Japanese writing so I think I will have a lot of trouble there-they all look like a bunch of hash tags!:) thanks for all the information though

  14. Naruto here again,one more question, I have three kids, 2 boys and a girl, my oldest son is 12- is he in high school or middle school? My daughter is ten- she is in middle school right? And my other son is 7- is he in elementary school?- sorry three questions! But one more- are the schools,the children in general,teachers- friendly to the English? Actually this is the last one!- is it easy to learn japenese?

  15. Naruto, I don’t know if racism would be a problem for you. Foreigners in Japan get treated differently, but not everybody finds it to be a problem.

    As far as the best age to teach, I’ve heard from people that high schools and elementary schools are more interesting than junior highs. Elementary school English classes are really basic but they’re fun, centered around games and activities. High school English is more advanced so you can talk to the students a bit more. Junior high is basic and boring.

    Take the Japanese kanji learning slow and easy! It’s tough!!

  16. I think your oldest is in junior high and the others in elementary school? I don’t know how your kids would get treated, but there isn’t much in the way of English in the schools. It would be tough at first I think, but I don’t know it from experience because my kids were born and raised here. And no, it’s not easy to learn Japanese, but it’s really fun and interesting (I think!).

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