A friend recently asked me what it’s actually like for a non-Japanese person to live in Japan, (knowing that my wife and I have lived here for 14 years). The hardest part about answering that question is fitting it into the length of an article, but as the Japanese say,
“Ganbarimasu!” (I’ll do my best!)
When one flies into Japan, the first thing they notice is that it’s different. When my wife and I flew to America for our honeymoon, our initial thought was that it wasn’t much different from Australia, in that people spoke English, ate and drank the same kinds of food and beverages, dressed in a similar fashion, watched the same TV programs (most of which you won’t see on Japanese TV), lived in houses identical to those in Australia, and apart from the controversial gun laws, had a culture that much resembled our own.
In Japan, things were different from day one. Firstly, the language is radically different. Apart from the fact that the Japanese people use not one, not two, but three different alphabets (one of which is ‘kanji’, based on Chinese ideograms), grammatically their word order in sentences is opposite to ours, with the verb coming at the end. You don’t know what Mr. Tanaka is going to do with that pen until you hear the last word spoken.
And it’s not just a case of getting used to the grammar and learning lots of vocabulary. There are many different levels of Japanese language, ranging from street language, through casual forms, to polite forms, and ‘super-polite’ forms, all saying the same thing in a very different way depending on where you are and with whom you’re speaking.
Okay, let’s assume for now that you are fluent in the Japanese language. Then there is the culture. Luckily, most people are aware of the many cultural differences in Japan, either from reading about them or seeing examples of them in movies and on television. Japanese people bow, to state the most obvious one, and they remove their shoes when they enter a building (although many public buildings allow shoes to be worn inside).
Japanese people use chopsticks instead of knives and forks, and the food in Japan is very different to that found in Australia, England or America. There is no tipping, and the currency is different of course, although this is the case in almost every country.
So let’s get back to the person flying into Japan. After they have cleared immigration and customs at the airport, they have to catch a train, bus or a taxi to their initial destination, usually a hotel. A lot of taxi drivers cannot understand English, and so there may be some communication problems if you cannot speak Japanese language at a conversational level. Having an address written in Japanese would be wise in this case.
If you are really lucky, somebody (a person from the company or school you’ll be working at for example) will meet you at the airport and take you to your hotel or apartment. And since Japanese people are so hospitable, this is usually the case.
Having an apartment provided for you by your company is a truly wonderful thing, especially if it is set up and furnished beforehand. However, many foreign people coming to Japan take this for granted. Trying to arrange an apartment in Japan on your own is incredibly difficult. The language barrier is just the start of your problems.
Sad to say, many landlords and real estate companies have rather racist policies when it comes to renting apartments to foreign workers. This is usually a result of some basic fears, such as the belief that the foreign tenant might not know how to use the Japanese bath properly. (Most people are probably aware that Japanese people wash themselves outside the bath, and only once they are clean do they hop into a full, hot bath.)
The fear that the landlord or real estate company has of not being able to communicate effectively with the tenant is another contributing factor. Many Japanese people worry that the foreign tenant might not understand the local area’s policies of garbage disposal (almost every area has a different way of recycling). Then there is the general fear that ‘foreigners like to have wild parties’ that last well into the night. Japanese people usually don’t have ‘loud parties’ at home, but go out to establishments set up for that purpose. Generally speaking, urban apartments are for sleeping and eating.
Before moving into a private apartment, as opposed to moving into a company apartment or an apartment block reserved solely for foreign residents, a prospective tenant must pay ‘key money’ (like an entrance fee), an official bond (usually two months’ rent), cleaning fees, and must also have a guarantor (someone to pay on your behalf if you suddenly skip town overnight). Usually this person has to be Japanese, such as your boss, for example.
Once you are set up in your own apartment, then there are a whole new set of challenges, the biggest of which is understanding your local garbage recycling program; then there is reading one’s bills, setting up a phone and internet service, and finding a nearby laundry.
Most Japanese people get around on a bicycle, especially in the cities where the majority of people live in apartments that don’t have a garage or sufficient car parking spaces. Public car parks in Japan are also very expensive. A bicycle is cheap and convenient.
If you do choose to buy a car in Japan, there are many hurdles to get past. Firstly of course you will need a Japanese drivers license. Secondly, once you have your Japanese license, you must know how to read Japanese street signs, and be familiar with all the traffic symbols. Many street signs are in Japanese only.
Thirdly, there is the challenge of buying a car, insuring it and learning the system of compulsory car maintenance in Japan. Fortunately, most Japanese cars are cheaper here than they are overseas, and most car maintenance centers are honest and reliable.
The vast majority of foreign residents reside in the major cities, do not own a car, and generally use public transport to commute to work and various other places. Japan’s public transport system is simply amazing. Trains and subways are always on time, and run frequently. There are also plenty of buses in Japan, and vast numbers of taxis.
Having organized your place of residence and your means of transport, you can focus on your job, and your lifestyle outside of work, including where you shop, eat and socialize. There is a myriad of restaurants in Japan, and something to suit everyone. The ability to read Japanese menus and order in Japanese is of course a huge advantage, as would be expected, and will certainly expand your range of restaurants from which to choose.
Something that is compulsory by law, when living in Japan, is National Health Insurance. Residents with a working visa must enroll, and this can be done at the city office, or preferably, your employer, who is required to pay half of the cost, will do it for you.
The premiums for the National Health Insurance system are a little expensive, but this also includes payment for the Japanese pension, which can be claimed back upon leaving Japan. In that sense, it is like a forced savings program, which is quite handy for people like myself who just can’t seem to save money.
Mind you, the Japanese hospital system here can be a little scary for a western person who may be used to 24-hour medical clinics and hospitals that never close their doors. Often is the case where a hospital is closed to ‘outpatients’, due to either late hours or a public holiday.
One night when I was living in Osaka, I had a swelling in my throat that made breathing difficult. Understandably concerned, my wife and I walked up to the local hospital only to find it in darkness, and the doors locked. Fighting the urge to panic, we began to walk back towards our apartment when we came across a pharmacy that was just closing up. Fortunately, we were able to get some medicine there that reduced the swelling.
An ambulance seems the logical choice in an emergency, but the hospital can refuse to take the patient depending on availability of doctors, beds, or various other reasons. Hence, it’s not uncommon for an ambulance to visit many hospitals before being accepted, and sadly many people each year die while still in transit.
Another thing about living in Japan is the ‘group mentality’, especially in schools, companies and in the local neighborhood. Communication between one’s neighbors in Japan is commonplace, especially in suburban and rural areas. There are various events and systems in place to encourage meeting and socializing with one’s neighbors.
Many neighborhoods have a ‘community clean-up’ periodically throughout the year, for example, to pick up rubbish and keep the local area looking clean and tidy. Most people participate in this event and chat together with their neighbors for a couple of hours.
Japan is famous for its traditional festivals, and this is another time that communities come together and participate in what is generally a fun and enjoyable event. These happen on a more regular basis throughout the year, and there are many different types of festivals (too many to try and describe in this article). Official participants will wear a community ‘happi’ (a traditional, short, colorful jacket, made from cotton, and tied at the waist), and the place in which the event occurs will have plenty of food and drink stalls, souvenir stands, singing and dancing, and if held during summer, will usually have fireworks towards the finish. Even though these festivals are designed for families, there will be copious amounts of beer consumed, although drunkenness is frowned upon.
Many traditions are religious activities. Unlike religions in other countries, the two main official religions in Japan, Buddhism and Shinto, co-exist with each other. Families can attend either a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine, for some of life’s important events, such as the birth of a child, marriage, funerals, and of course to worship. A lot of young Japanese people aren’t as passionate about religion like in other countries, but it is customary to participate in some of the spiritual services offered in local temples and shrines. Non-Japanese people can also participate in certain events. If one is a Christian, (about two percent of Japanese people are practicing Christians), it is possible to find churches in the larger cities in Japan although they are far and few between in rural areas.
The most traditional sport here is Sumo wrestling, and there are six tournaments a year, televised nationally. More popular though is baseball and soccer, with each team having huge legions of loyal fans. However, with regard to participative sports, many Japanese people prefer to play tennis, ten pin bowling, fishing, golf and of course winter sports.
Body language and gestures are different in Japan as well, and this is something one gets used to when living here. Very few people will shake hands, for example, unless you are conducting business together. Subtle nodding and bowing become second nature. Also simply the way you hold yourself as you walk and stand and sit is slightly different, and the style or form of such could be described as somewhat more humble.
Furthermore, awareness of other people and the direction in which they are approaching you is more heightened, which is understandable in such a small country with a large population. Despite the vast number of people on the sidewalks, and the pace at which they are traveling, there are very few collisions. People tend to maneuver more skillfully through the available gaps in the crowd. Spatial awareness is a learned skill in Japan.
The natural environment is also very different here. As an Australian, the different flora and fauna and the fact that there are four very distinct seasons in Japan was a delightful surprise. When one ventures out into the countryside and up into the mountains, the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful – quite a feast for the eyes and the mind. Often one can see deer, monkeys and wild boars, not to mention cypress trees, pine trees and cedar trees. And right now all across Japan, the Japanese Cherry Blossoms are in full bloom.
Living in Japan has been a fantastic adventure for my wife and I, and we have many wonderful Japanese friends here. It will be a very sad day indeed when we finally say “sayonara” and leave this amazing country, but as ‘Aussies’, we still call Australia ‘home’.
Author: Chris Ryall
Chris Ryall is an Australian school teacher, who has lived in Japan for 14 years with his wife, Mandy. He is a novelist, poet and enjoys writing articles about Japan.