Living in Japan as a foreigner is such a fulfilling experience. I’ve been living here for over 7 years now and can’t imagine living anywhere else, but with the good comes the bad and there are some realities of living in Japan as a foreigner that some people might not be aware of before they move here. There are so many realities of living abroad, but the ones I wanted to talk about this time are Japan specific. So let’s take off those rose colored glasses for a few minutes and discuss 5 realities of living in Japan as a foreigner.
1. Life in Japan is NOT an Anime, Manga or J-Drama
Japan is the land of anime and manga, but it isn’t the reality of daily life here. I grew up watching anime and dramas and reading manga and it taught me a LOT about how life in Japan was, but in reality it’s a stretch of the real day-to-day life here. It’s the same as watching Friends or Disney channel movies and shows to learn about the US…. it shows only a snapshot of real life in Japan. In fact, real life is probably more boring and mundane than you think and and not so different from other countries. We all commute to school and work, go grocery shopping, see friends and family etc. After a while the novelty of the convenience stores wears off (though I still think they are convenient and use them every day!), riding on trains with people sleeping on you starts to annoy you and your foreign “charm” wears off on the people around you. So please… don’t expect to come to Japan and believe that real school life or work life is like in an anime OR that everyone reads the same manga here. If you do want something that is relatable and pretty accurate I highly recommend “Love Is Hard for Otaku (ヲタクに恋は難しい, Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii) as an AMAZING slice of life anime about adult life as an otaku though!
Speaking of liking anime and manga, there are so many options of entertainment in Japan and everyone has their own preferences here, so not everyone will share your same interest. Of course you will find people with similar interests if you look for them, but please don’t assume everyone likes what is “mainstream” outside of Japan.
2. Foreigners will always be outsiders
Now this one is probably more for the non-asian foreigners in Japan. I’ve been living in Japan for over 7 years now and am fluent in the language and yet I still get treated as a foreigner… because I AM one and look like one. I know the culture pretty well (though not an expert) and know how to navigate society here decently, but I still get talked to like I don’t understand. I still get spoken to in English a lot when people first talk to me, in which I politely respond to them in Japanese. People will automatically assume that I can’t speak Japanese just by looking at me. I will always be asked “foreigner questions” and will always be told “your Japanese is so good!” when they only heard me say 1 phrase. Yes, I know this is the Japanese people being polite, but for someone living in Japan for so long it can be disheartening when you have spent so long learning the language and the culture. I accept this and I am always polite because I know that the Japanese people don’t mean harm but it’s something to be aware of as a foreigner here.
Something that all foreigners here can Japan can relate to along the lines of this is the string of extra paperwork and procedures that you have to go through because you are a foreigner. Some phone companies won’t give you a contract for monthly payments for a phone unless you pay for the price of the phone upfront if your visa is shorter than the contract amount. You will be discriminated for renting places (though in Osaka I have never had that experience) because you are a foreigner and you have to jump through hoops to get a loan from the bank and credit cards from banks are almost impossible to get at times as a foreigner. Unless you get permanent residency you will have to deal with most of this for the entire time you live here in Japan.
Random fact: You can’t actually become Japanese unless you give up your own country’s citizenship because Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship. Also, something I learned recently that people born to non-Japanese parents (both are foreign not just 1 foreign) are not Japanese citizens. They are given a special “zainichi” visa but not citizenship.
3. Japan will NOT change to accommodate you
Japan has its own unique culture and ways of doing things and just because you are foreign doesn’t mean it will change to accommodate you, nor should you force Japan to change itself. Foreigners are still outsiders in their eyes and telling them something is wrong or they should change an aspect of their culture is not respectful. When in Rome, do at the Romans do. There are rules and regulations in place for a reason, so before raising up in arms and try to change it, take a minute to ask why it is in place and try to understand why first. Of course there will still be things that make absolutely no sense, but at least you know the reason why. If it’s too hard to do this and understand why, then Japan might not be the place for you.
4. Its hard to build deeper relationships with Japanese people (but not impossible)
Japan is a very heterogenous country… only abut 2% of the population are foreigners as of 2017. With this comes the automatic barrier and pride of being Japanese. Now, not all Japanese people are like this, but it’s very common for Japanese people to approach you to “learn English” or have you be the “token foreigner friend”, or just be plain cold to you because you are a foreigner. They will be nice and polite to you, but it will stay at surface level or “drinking buddy” level and rarely go deeper than that. There’s also the element of not knowing them for very long. I mention this because A LOT of Japanese people still have relationships with people from when they were in grade school that they still keep up with and you will not be able to compete with that, unfortunately. There is the final element Japanese people are just plain busy. Working in a Japanese company means long hours and not much time for rest, and days off can be all over the place depending on your job, which means a good majority of the time Japanese people just can’t meet up because of work obligations sometimes.
Now, it isn’t impossible to make friendships with Japanese people and though most of my close friends here in Japan are not Japanese, I do have a handful of Japanese friends that I can ask for advice or contact to hang out with. Also, when you are in a Japanese company your co-workers are decently close to you so you have a support network there most of the time too. In the end though, the reality is that the people I make the most connection with are my foreign friends because they understand what I am going through and I am most comfortable talking to them in my native language.
5. Bureaucracy and following strict procedures are the norm
There is hardly any bending the rules here and you are always filling in tons of inefficient paperwork. Foreigners may come from different countries where things are more efficient and the corporate structure is looser, but in Japan when there is a rule set the rule is going to be abided by come hell and high-water. The littlest things are checked down to the most minute detail and corrections are made over and over again until perfect. Even if you go to a restaurant it’s still rare to be able to customize and substitute something in your meal and if you ask for what is inside of it or to change it you will get a blank stare from the staff and they won’t be able do it. Banks are a nightmare with tons and tons of paperwork you have to fill out and very strict guidelines on how to fill it all out or you have to re-write it all over again. Despite being perceived as one of the most technologically advanced nations, they are still mostly living in an era of paperwork and paper money and ancient computer systems.
I say this particular point inside of realities for foreigners because this is a HUGE point for some people for leaving Japan and not staying for the long term, they can’t adapt to these procedures and some of the “ridiculous” bureaucracy and they eventually go back to their own home country. It can be quite annoying when it seems you have to jump over hurtles all the time and I don’t blame people for turning back and heading home.
All in all, I love living in Japan and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but there are some downsides to living here. What are your thoughts on these? Would these be deal breakers for you to live in Japan? Let me know in the comments below!