On the 30th of January 2017, it marks the second year of when I first stepped onto Japanese land - not for a holiday that time, but to live indefinitely.
In these two years, my Japanese has improved immensely, I’ve met amazing friends, explored magical places and learned many valuable lessons. Although for an expat living in Japan can sometimes prove to be tricky, there is so many things to love about this place. Throwing yourself into one of the most wonderfully backward countries on the planet full of delightful surprises, of course things aren’t always what they seem. While these things you may think do not make sense; Please pause, step back and reflect - Japan is not where you grew up, so it’s time to stop the expectation that Japan is going to accommodate to make you feel comfortable all the time. Here are some things I’ve noticed and experienced...
Japan ≠ English
Yes! In Japan, the main language is not English, it is, wait for it, Japanese! So please do not get irritated if someone cannot understand you! So many times I have noticed expats or tourists getting irritated with shop staff, train station staff and the like because the poor person cannot understand them. These people make all of us look bad, and maybe if you’re living here it may help that you learn a little bit of the language to help yourself to be understood. Better yet, pull our your smart phone or a pocket dictionary and use that to help you.
People will stare at you
This is something that really used to irritate me after the first few months of living here in Japan. However, please note that 1.7% of Japan’s population is foreign, and over half of that percentage is of Asian descent. If you have Asian characteristics you tend to fly under the radar but if you are part of the remaining percent; Get used to being stared at. If it makes you uncomfortable, why not try smiling? Most of the time the person doesn’t notice that they’re staring and to show you noticed that they are (politely), it will either strike a conversation or most likely the person will look away. However, yeah, if the person keeps looking back over to you over and over for more than a reasonable amount of time, of course you can get annoyed.
People will assume that you speak English
Appreciate the fact they are trying to communicate with you in a way that you can understand. Yes, your first language may not be English (mine is Portuguese), but English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and it’s a good first guess. If you do speak English and you prefer to speak in Japanese, just respond in Japanese and 99% of the time the conversation will continue in Japanese.
Be kind to your fellow expats
Another thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes when I spot other expats on the street, I tend to smile at them, to send a message like ‘hey dude, I see you, keep on hustlin’ and unfortunately I am sometimes greeted back with a scowl or blatantly ignored. I’m prettttyyy sure I’m not making a weird face, so it’s not that. Now, I'm not saying that it's everyone that does this, but a few friends and I have noticed this happening a lot. Sometimes I wonder if there is some kind of turf war, or embarrassment to be seen with another foreigner in the same vicinity. Why tho? Expats more often than not want to help each other because living here can be rough. Seeing another expat living here and doing well makes me happy, because I feel that we are walking examples that it is possible to live here comfortably.
Learn the language
If you are planning to live in the country for a few years, make the effort to learn some of the language. No one is telling you to become fluent, but it’s not a bad idea to learn enough to get by. Not only will it help you get a better job, make your life easier and help you make friends, it’s a valuable life skill and you are in the perfect environment to learn the language. There may be situations where you are not speaking the language as much as other people at their occupation e.g. English teacher, but you can still go out and make friends, who will be patient and help you learn the language. One of the things I do to help myself improve is that everywhere I go I try to read as many signs, advertisements or just any text as much as possible. If the server at the restaurant offers an English menu, put both menus side by side to learn what you are ordering. Although the learning process may not always be quick, it’s better than nothing.
Remember, Japan is pretty awesome - It’s part of the reason why you decided to live here, right?
Japan, although confusing and frustrating at times for an expat, is actually a really great country to live in. It’s clean, people are mostly polite, trains are always on time, crime rate is low, there’s always a great party happening somewhere and there’s always some place where you can have fun. Try not to get bitter, get better!