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Living in Japan: Starting a New Life as an Expat

Japanese calligraphy by author.
My calligraphy on exhibit in the local mall. It reads yukidaruma (snowman).

The first day in Tokyo. I set out to look for the office of the Japanese Association for Working Holiday Makers. I had a working holiday visa, but was seeking a more permanent job teaching English. Anxiously, I was hoping, perhaps even counting on the JAWHM to help me with everything required to settle in a foreign land: set up a bank account, find a place to live, take language classes, find a job, and maybe even meet some friends. Still jetlagged, I wandered up and down the street, searching for the office at least an hour. Finally, I stopped at the post office and asked an employee if she could point me in the right direction.

The woman walked out of the building, motioning for me. When we got outside, she turned in the direction from which I had come, and kept walking at a unique Tokyo pace, expertly dodging “salary men,” and designer clad women in high heels. The January air was chilly, but there wasn’t a flake of snow in sight. Everyone seemed to be going about their business with even more anonymity than do Londoners.

We walked a few blocks, while I was muttering how sorry I was the whole time. We finally reached a building that I must have passed at least half a dozen times. I went inside and started climbing the stairs. After a few flights, she opened the door and walked down a hallway, entering a hair salon. After speaking to the hairdresser for a minute, my guide turned around and we went back the way we had come, all the way down the stairs to the entrance. She knocked on a little window that an older man with thinning hair and glasses on the end of his nose opened. After a brief exchange, he handed her a sheet of paper, which she passed to me. They both started apologizing repeatedly in Japanese, with the postal worker bowing repeatedly. 

I looked down at the piece of paper in my hand and read the first sentence:

“We regret to reform you that the Japanese Association for Working Holiday Makers is permanently closed.”

The date at the bottom of the paper was more than three months prior to the current date, something I must have overlooked when browsing their website. The postal worker continued to back out into the busy sidewalk, bowing and apologizing to me for something about which she had zero power, before finally turning to me with one last apology and rushing back to work.

On Finding a Job in Japan

A few days later, I moved to a different hostel to plan my next step. Before arriving in Japan, I had emailed a few hostels to see if it was possible to clean a few hours a day in exchange for room and board while I looked for a teaching job. Miraculously, one actually got back to me.

I spent the next month in Tokyo, eating food from the ¥100 grocery store, walking to the local temple every day, singing karaoke, and eventually searching for a job after a few weeks watching my bank account dwindle. As it turns out, finding a job as a conversation teacher in Japan is relatively easy if you have the requirements: a degree (in any subject), you are a native English speaker, and have a TEFL certificate or equivalent experience (these aren’t always required, but usually help both find a job and for negotiate a higher salary). It’s even easier if you’re already in the country. I took the first job offer I found, in Yamaguchi-ken. When I said yes to the job, I couldn’t have pointed the prefecture out on a map to save my life. It turned out it was a very rural area, and when I told any Tokyoite where I was moving, they would reflexively laugh and ask why. 

A few days later, I was on a night bus heading south. When I stepped off the bus the next morning, it was like stepping into a completely different world. This was the real Japan.

On Living in a Japanese Apartment

I was escorted directly to my apartment. I’ve always lived with friends or family, or even in hostels for extended periods; this was my first time living on my own. I was lonely at first, but soon got used to the peace and quiet. I worked with one other foreign teacher who lived in the same building. My boss organized a few outings at the beginning of my stay, such as ohanami (a cherry blossom viewing party) in the spring, karaoke parties, and barbecues on the roof of her condominium overlooking the sea.

I knew my Japanese apartment would be tiny, but I still wasn’t prepared for the actual size. Upon walking into my first apartment, I walked through the hall (which was also the kitchen) to "the room." The room was the bedroom, living room, and dining room, all in one. My bed was raised up, offering some space underneath it for storage, and the little stairs leading up to it also opened up for storage. There was also a hinged table attached to the wall that could be folded down. Such was typical of most Leopalace apartments, a building company that rents to many foreigners. I retraced my steps to the entrance, passing the bathroom and opened closet doors, looking for the rest of the apartment, but that was it! Eventually, I became accustomed to the size and found it cozy. How much room do you really need when you arrive with a 40-pound bag anyway?

Thankfully, every school for whom I worked found me an apartment, as is the case for most foreign teachers. They paid my rent, taking the money out of my check each month, meaning I didn’t have to sign anything. Moving in and out of places is expensive in Japan, however, involving key money and cleaning money on top of the first month’s rent.

On Work in Japan

The day after I arrived, I went to work and began teacher training and observing classes, as it was my first teaching job. Within a week, I was teaching my own classes and loving it. I was teaching at an Eikaiwa (English conversation school), where students came after their regular daily school and learn as a form of extracurricular activity. My students ranged anywhere from 2 years old to senior citizens! Each age group had aspects about them that I loved:

  • Younger students were incredibly cute and energetic, and their classes involved playing many games.
  • Teenagers loved both learning about Western pop culture, and teaching me about Japanese pop culture.
  • Adults whom I taught informed me all about traditional Japanese culture. 

With classes no bigger than eight students, I came to know all of my students personally.  

On the Japanese Way of Living 

Japanese people can be notoriously difficult to read. In Japan, there is something called honne and tatemae. These words describe the difference between how a person acts and how they feel. Tatemae is what is expected by society, and honne are true feelings, which may be different to tatemae. At first, this can be difficult to understand and even frustrating. On top of this unique cultural trait, individually, Japanese people are often shy and reserved with foreigners. Therefore, it can sometimes become difficult for foreigners when dealing with adult students or co-workers. How to know whether they are acting out of honne or tatemae. In Japanese workplaces, the boss leaves first, followed by the next in command, all the way down the chain. Many Japanese co-workers may become upset by the fact that foreigners are exempt from this social nuance, but will never outwardly show it.

Many of my adult students told me that honne and tatemae is necessary for such a large population living in such a small area, in order to live in harmony, often citing the Japanese proverb: “The nail that stands up is hammered down.”

On Japanese Food 

Enjoying Hiroshima style okonmiyaki.
Enjoying Hiroshima style okonmiyaki.

Having a shellfish and fish allergy, Japan maybe wasn’t the wisest place for me to move, but I somehow managed to survive with no traumatic experiences, besides having to turn down a lot of wonderful looking food and always carrying an EpiPen.

However, I did discover one dish that I couldn’t get enough: okonomiyaki. Yaki means cooked and okonomi means anything you like. The dish is a type of savory pancake composed of common ingredients, including cabbage, pork meat, mochi (gelatinous pounded rice cake), cheese, and green onions. However, the best part is by far the okonomiyaki sauce, and mayonnaise on top.

On Life in Rural Japan

Life in rural Japan is certainly not easy for a foreigner, nor is it as terribly difficult as I would have thought. If you don’t speak the language and come alone, it’s difficult to make friends. However, you are something of a celebrity, especially if you have blonde hair. People are always willing to try their best to help you. The Japanese want to practice their English with you, and far more people speak some English than I would have originally imagined.

For the most part, I felt just as welcome in Japan as I had in any other foreign country in which I had lived. Of course, there were instances where I didn’t feel so comfortable and grew tired of having all eyes on me at all times, which is completely normal living in any foreign land. In the grocery store, for example, everyone peered into my basket to see what the local foreigner was buying. I also tasted a bit of racism for the first time in my life, sometimes in a passive aggressive form (being cut off in line as though I was invisible), and sometimes more aggressively (being called baka gaijin — a racist slur meaning stupid foreigner), but such instances were few and far between.

After months of solitude and meeting no friends, I managed to seek out another foreigner in the next city who was employed by the JET program, thanks to their Facebook page. Through him, I met his whole network of friends: the 30-odd other JET’s in the prefecture, other private teachers they had met, as well as their Japanese friends.

Through them, I was introduced to people, culture, and events I otherwise never would have enjoyed. When, unexpectedly, I had to leave Japan 18 months later for surgery, I had friends who helped me pack and kept my things in storage at their apartment.

Traditional horse archery in Tsuwano.
Traditional horse archery in Tsuwano.

On Learning Japanese

Before I arrived in Japan, I had virtually no knowledge of the language, and yet somehow still managed to survive 2+ years.

The Japanese language is essentially made up of three different alphabets. Hirgana is the phonetic alphabet used to write Japanese words, katakana is the phonetic alphabet used to write foreign words and names, and kanji are the Chinese characters. Hiragana and katakana can easily be learned in a day or two, but with over 50,000 kanji, it would take more than a lifetime of studying to fully learn and master understanding. Japan has a list of the Joyo Kanji, consisting of 2,136 kanji which every Japanese adult should know, but according to many of my students, most people do not. In addition, depending on your occupation of course, a doctor would know kanji a lawyer wouldn’t, just as in any other language. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, one kanji can have many different pronunciations, depending on whether it is in the sentence with other kanji, or alone (i.e. surrounded by hiragana or katakana).

Many foreigners take up some sort of hobby in Japan in order to both learn about the culture and the language. I had friends learning taiko, the shamisen, and how to make soba from scratch. I studied shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. Not only did it help me learn the written language, it also helped to learn the spoken language, as the sensei and most of the other classmates spoke very little English.

On Commuting

One of the schools where I taught was an hour away, so I spent many hours on the train before I started driving. The train soon became an integral part of my life in Japan, as it is for most locals. Most people commute on the train every day. In my case, it offered plenty of time to read, text friends, write, study Japanese, and gaze out the window. We passed through the rugged coast of the Inland Sea, we chugged past flooded rice fields and through swaying bamboo forests, dotted with a blush of pink for those few precious days each spring. And it gave locals the chance to practice their English with me. Plus, I was living in the countryside, while many of my friends lived in other cities, so almost every weekend involved a trip to the train station. Not even in Canada would I be willing to spend six or more hours roundtrip on the train just to go to a friend's birthday party. But in rural Japan, if you’re not willing to, you’ll never see your friends.

Then there’s the shinkansen. The bullet train is one of the things I miss most about Japan. Always on time and delivering you straight to the city center in less than half the time a bus or local train would — paying double the cost is well worth it in most situations.

On the Weather

Spring in Japan is especially bad for anyone who suffers from hay fever. The usual spring pollen, plus the pollution and yellow sand which drifts all the way from China, can wreak havoc on even the toughest individual. But it’s soon over, and the high humidity of summer hits, lasting from April until about November. Unlike Western countries, where many people lay in the sun and try to catch that perfect golden shade, Japanese are the exact opposite. Women cover themselves head to toe on the beach, they go for walks with welding-helmet-like-visors, and wear long white gloves up to their shoulders while driving. They even use whitening lotion. One of my students told me that in Japan, white skin means you are well off, because the lower wage workers (those working in construction or other similar jobs) are outside all the time and therefore develop darker skin. There is a cultural symbolism in this view, though in the West a tan means health, and the fact that you can afford to take a vacation somewhere warm. While all this may seem strange to us, it obviously also has its positive health benefits, as Japanese women often look much younger than their age.

Although the winters themselves aren’t cold, due to the high humidity in the summer, most buildings have no insulation, for fear of mold, as well as no central heating. But there are a few solutions. Many of my friends in older buildings had to use kerosene heaters, but luckily, I had a newer building with an air conditioning unit that served doubly in the winter as a heater. My apartment also had a sliding door to close off the sleeping area, thus reducing the heating bill. Using a humidifier in the dry winter also helps to keep the heat in the air.

But by far my favorite innovation for staying warm is the kotatsu. A low coffee table with a heating element underneath and a large blanket covering it to keep the heat in, it sounds so simple, but is a truly glorious invention. Originally heated with coal fires, it was designed so the heat would enter the robes and travel up the body, warming the person as it goes. Nothing made me feel closer to the Japanese than sitting under my kotatsu, eating a Christmas orange, and watching anime.

Fortunately, my region of Japan rarely had earthquakes that could be felt, but even the small ones were surreal and unnerving. Our coast had tsunami warnings after the Tohoku earthquake. One of the first questions any newcomer to Japan should quickly pose relates to what to do in the event of a major earthquake, and where to go in an emergency.

On Leaving Japan

After being told the JAWHM office was closed, I returned to my room. I cried myself to sleep that night, wondering what I was doing there, in a country where I knew no one, had little money, and didn’t understand a thing.

Yet, it’s amazing how quickly a place can become home. Over two years later, my 40 pound backpack had burst out into a couple more suitcases of clothes, boxes of dishes, appliances, a kotatsu, furniture, an exercise bike, a barbecue, camping gear, and countless drawings from students. I had a boyfriend and a large support group of friends. I felt comfortable spending long weekends and parts of vacations at home relaxing, rather than feeling the need to go out exploring. I loved my job and my students. A week before I left, a man stopped and asked me in Japanese for directions to the train station — and I understood and answered him in Japanese.

The night before I left, I cried myself to sleep again. But this time, the tears were due to far different emotions.

Resources for Living and Working in Japan

Finding a Job

  • O-HAYO SENSEI is a very useful free virtual newsletter, published every two weeks.
  • Gaijin Pot is a fine newsletter for work, study, and and is also helpful for meeting people, buying used furniture, finding an apartment, etc.
  • Dave’s ESL Cafe has a form and a job posting board for everywhere, not just Japan, but is usefull for finding out first-hand experiences.

Finding a Place to Live

  • LeoPalace offers short- and long-term apartment rentals throughout Japan.
  • Sakura House is a search engine for apartment rentals and house shares in most major cities.

Traveling in Japan

Cell Phone Providers

  • Softbank is the easiest company to deal with to get cellphone service.
  • au offers cellphone service plans of all types, including the iPhone.

Other Useful Resources

  • JAWHM is the Japan Association for Working Holiday Makers.
  • JET is great if you want to go through a English teaching program and prefer to have everything organized prior to arrival.
  • Japan Guide Cherry Blossom Forecast also lists plenty of other sightseeing information.
  • Japan Meteorological Agency provides the necessary up-to-date earthquake, tsunami, air quality, and typhoon information.
  • Japan Post Bank is useful bank in which to get an account, as their branches are located all throughout Japan.
  • 7 Bank is an easy bank account to set up, and to send back money to home country.
  • Kotoba is a great dictionary app with the ability to draw in the kanji in order to figure out the meaning (you must be able to draw in the appropriate stroke order).

See our web page on Living in Japan: Expatriate Articles and Resources for more.

After graduating with an Agriculture degree, Tzigane Ludwig spent most of her 20’s living abroad in Australia, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Japan, and Switzerland and traveling to many others. She is currently in Canada working on a second degree in International Development. 

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