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.