The Truth Behind Living, Working, Playing and Surviving in Japan
A guide for anyone spending a good amount of time abroad in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Before acquiring my current position at HYPEBEAST, I was–in one way or another– a lost soul. Graduating from a State University with a Bachelor’s in Communication opened no proverbial doors, nor did the major really guide me in any direction towards a career at the time. “You can do anything, but that’s the problem: you can do ANYTHING,” remarked my counselor during my final semester. “You’re young, your grades are fantastic, and you have extracurriculars. What do you want to do?” At the time I had no real answer, but one thing I knew I wanted to do was travel and see the world I was preparing to lunge into, filled with fears and empty in my pockets. Once my counselor heard the “T” word she slid over a packet for an English language school in Japan called NOVA over to me and my journey had thus begun. “Why not?” I figured, it’s only for a year and if I hated it then I’d be done before I turn 23.
I ended up living in Japan for six years. Six.
For anyone looking for a career path in life and want to see new things, explore different cultures and customs, to become a better person and possibly learn the hard way doing so, I HIGHLY recommend considering the English teaching/instructing path in Japan, but as many have exclaimed it’s not without its pitfalls.
Japan is a tough country to live and work in. You’ll hear horror stories of businessmen working themselves to death, and how the suicide rate is shockingly high. Pay can be low; rent is high; customs are difficult to abide by (some of which are seemingly backwards at times); and if you’re of western descent there’s the stereotype that you’ll never fit in as a “gaijin” (Japanese for “outsider”). But if you’re brave, adventurous, open-minded and most of all tolerant and understanding, moving to Japan is one of the best decision you’ll ever make.
In this guide, we’ll look at four aspects to spending the next X number of years as an expat in Japan; what you need to know, how to handle certain scenarios, some pitfalls to look out for and a general understanding of what you may be getting yourself into.
First thing’s first; no matter where you’re coming from, accommodations are going to be different, especially if you’re coming from western civilizations. Most likely if you get hired by an English school like AEON or ECC, they’ll set you up with an apartment and do the majority of the paperwork for you which is a godsend. You may have roommates while other schools provide you with private housing; there’s pros and cons to both. Private apartments are great if you’d rather have privacy, but my first experience with two foreign roommates really helped as they provided insight into the neighborhood, the job and most importantly what I should or shouldn’t do on my new endeavor.
Homes are not–repeat, NOT–insulated, so winters are cold, especially if you live up North. Walls are also paper thin and conversations can sound as if all parties are behind simple dividers rather than structures. Alongside your expected humbleness towards your roommates, neighbors, building and surroundings, remember that Japanese people are generally conservative, so those hip-hop tracks, dance sessions and tense Call of Duty heats will need to stop around 10 p.m.
Once you finish your contract and are thus required to find your own place, be prepared emotionally and financially–the latter more than the former. Many apartments require a lot before moving in, so expect to pay 2-3 months worth of rent up front, plus a security fee and something called a “Reikin,” loosely translated to “Key Money” which is a sizable fee just as a gift to the landlord that you’ll never see again. The culture has since begun to stray away from needing Key Money but it’s still very much a custom that is often unavoidable. Once you’re settled in, keep in mind there are tons of regulations that may or may not seem familiar; garbage and “quiet time” schedules may seem understandable while, say, the “TV receiving fees” will blow your mind. NHK, Japan’s equivalent to PBS, operates solely on the fees provided by each and every household rather than by voluntary donations, and can cost from approximately $12 USD a month to $250 USD a year, depending on payment method and TV equipment set up. The only true way to avoid this fee once the agent comes to visit is to not have a television at all in your home–a much more reasonable option now a days with Netflix and internet streaming options widely adopted.
Remember to find your nearby supermarket/post office/gym, plan your commute to your office (rural areas can often have odd train schedules that can run 30 minutes at a time), and keep your exorbitant collections or obsessions to a minimum; you’ll run out of space extremely quickly when you realize that your bathroom contains both the toilet and the shower for a reason.
Japanese people are EXTREMELY hard working. If your office opens at 9 a.m. and you show up at 8:55 a.m., you’re considered late. Long lunches are blasphemous. Need a sick day? No problem, it’ll just be deducted from your annual holiday stash. Save your money because your minuscule paycheck won’t arrive for another three weeks, at the end of the month of course. Expect to work overtime, plan your weekends accordingly in case you need to “come in for a meeting,” and it’s not uncommon for you to be transferred to another branch in a distant town, for every Thursday during the summer. Forget about rising up; upper management is there till they die, and you’ll never see a promotion, let alone a raise.
Yes, a lot of the above are true and considered common, but that’s not to say they’re set in stone. My time spent as an English teacher in Osaka accounted for 30% of the above claims, but this unfortunately is due to the custom of work and you’ll simple need to be accommodating about it. The salary received was reasonably generous considering my subsidized apartment, but I had to quickly learn how to be frugal by cooking, commuting via walking/biking, reducing my “dinner dates” to one or two nights a week exclusively and, most difficult of all at the time, curbing my Nike SB/A Bathing Ape spending habit. In the office, it was vital that I respect my coworkers and the job by arriving early, preparing ahead of time, following the rules set by your “shibucho” (branch manager) to a T, and generally being understanding of the company who has taken you in as a humble worker, not a visiting friend. Unwind and relax after the job lets out, because happy hour can be a common occurrence, some two or three nights a week (non-compulsory, of course, unless a huge client is in town in which case it’s a must to attend).
"It’s important to stay open-minded and come to the realization that you may not enjoy or appreciate the job you are fortunate enough to have."
Personally, the work was incredible and I enjoyed the position immensely; meeting my students and learning about their lives, goals and general interests was an incredible experience I wouldn’t exchange for anything. The joy of teaching (some will argue the position is that of a glorified babysitter, which could be a cynical outlook for many jobs) a student something new they genuinely were passionate about was extremely rewarding; the look on my students’ face when they learned how to properly shake someone’s hand was a personal favorite, as it’s customary to simply bow for business situations. Your mileage may vary; people are people and work is work, so it’s important to stay open-minded and come to the realization that you may not enjoy or appreciate the job you are fortunate enough to have, so be prepared to stay or leave. Friends in the creative industry have also spoke very highly of working in Japan–their equally creative work colleagues collaborated and respected outside ideas and took feedback seriously since a foreign perspective needed for global audiences can be hard to imagine.
Chances are if you decided to take on this adventure, it’s probably your first time in Japan. If so, the best advice is to fully embrace the culture, the country and whatever it has to offer. If you have interests that you’re hoping to embrace (introverts with a penchant for video games, sports-types who would rather workout than watch a Robert Zemeckis film), do so but for 20% of the time; go out and explore outside of your comfort zone. Japan is a great place to learn how the other side of the world works, so why not take a look? I arrived with a closed-minded approach to seafood (sea urchin looks gross) and spending more than $5 USD for lunch; Osaka introduced me to “true” sushi, the fine art of teas, “Kuidaore” or blowing your paycheck on wining and dining, and so much more. My interest in fashion exploded when I discovered A Bathing Ape, NEIGHBORHOOD and UNDERCOVER. I scoffed at the idea of Karaoke, but eventually realized it’s more about the experience than the actual singing. It’s incredibly depressing to see these foreigners who arrive in Japan for a year or more and find them eating McDonalds, chilling at foreigner bars every night and never pick up a textbook. It may be their choice to do so and it’s respectable, but ill-advised and ultimately a waste of a much better experience.
Things you’ll enjoy while living in Japan: depending on your location, the people you’ll eventually meet will share your passions and form a genuine interest in them. Locals tend to be very friendly and inviting, should you project the same ethos. I once had a student invite me and a select crew of coworkers on a skiing trip up in Hokkaido, all expenses paid, simply because he enjoyed our company and wanted to thank us for being so easy-going during his initial lessons. Trains and schedules are rarely off so the efficiency you’ve heard so much about is not a myth; Japan is clean, neat, organized and, best of all, it’s all standard operating procedure. Things make sense, automation is everywhere, and if you’re willing to stay open-minded and understanding, dating can be very prosperous.
If you’re into fashion, Tokyo will provide you with anything and everything you ever wanted to know about the art. You’ll find the most fashionable brands at your fingertips with variety in design, breadth in style, and a conglomeration of it all for you to embrace. Yes, import/export may increase the cost of everything, but there are ways around it–used select shops like RagTag, KINDAL branches and KYOMEHYO cater to the fashion-thirsty while saving a ton of cash by offering clothing and footwear that’s barely used, if even at all. Expect to find racks filled with Japanese domestic brands like COMME des GARÇONS for 40-70% of its retail price; this is the inverse however for foreign brands like Supreme, Yeezy, OFF-WHITE or even Nike and adidas sneakers, so naturally these would be far more expensive.
As for stereotypical things like Maid Cafes, anime towns, temples/shrines and “ridiculous shit,” embrace that as well. A good way of thinking for trying these things out is that you’re living in Japan for an extended period of time–you owe it to your jealous friends to try anything and everything, no matter how strange or odd it may be. Going home and admitting you never took a picture of Tokyo Tower, drank tea in an owl cafe or sat down to experience the incredibleness of Kobe steak would be a huge letdown. Just keep in mind that not everything you’ve ever heard is true. No examples needed, but let’s just say the underbelly of Japan may or may not exist, and it all depends on how much time you’re willing to spend seeking them out.
First and foremost: learn Japanese. If you’re living in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and a few other cities, it’s completely unnecessary to learn Japanese, as these metropolises are so tourist-friendly that speaking 100% English the entire time will most likely suffice. This is the wrong way of thinking however, as the opportunities and experiences that come from at least attempting to pick up the language are not to be missed. The exchanges you can have with people, the areas you can venture into, the events you’d be missing out on; all it takes is the passion to learn and to even attempt to try to speak and understand. Not only is it the initiative Japanese people will appreciate, but you’d be learning something fairly valuable for the rest of your life.
Secondly: keep your finances and priorities in order. Think about your time during and after Japan, and plan for emergencies. In 2007, English language school NOVA was forced to close its doors due to a huge scandal involving its practices. As a result, hundreds of schools closed in an instance, leaving every remaining NOVA instructor unemployed; some had no choice but to move home, while those unfortunate enough to lack the funds were then stranded, unable to even afford their plane ticket back. Many had to teach English under the table for petty cash/food, homeless and unsure what to do next. It was under circumstances like these that made them realize that preparation and a keen insight into being responsible was necessary, even though it was far too late.
"Listen to the horror stories or tales of stress and depression you may encounter about Japan, but be prepared to make stories of your own."
Lastly: respect the culture and customs. There are a ton of horror stories of foreigners visiting and disrespecting their surroundings. Japan is a country of strict customs and regulations, set in place for the harmony of the locals and their way of life. As foreigners, its important that we respect these requests, as strange or outlandish it may seem; there may be a bigger picture reason as to why these rules are in place. One good way to discover these is to observe and question your coworkers about the standards and practices, or spend a little time reading up on these actions that Japanese perhaps frown upon. This is by no means saying don’t have fun while you’re there; eat, drink, and be merry. But certain things can be held back and/or avoided without completely turning over your lives. Easy things could include refraining from eating on the subway, speaking loudly on your phone in public, spitting, smoking in non-designated areas, etc. A little more left-field can include not blowing your nose in public (considered rude), taking your shoes off when entering a home, respecting the rules set for hot springs (you may be declined access if you have visible tattoos), even standing on the correct side of the escalator (right side in Osaka, left side elsewhere). These small gestures show a respect for the country and ultimately makes for a smoother experience for everyone.
Living abroad anywhere–never mind Japan–is an endeavor. It takes a brave soul and an adventurous spirit to board that plane and step off that final bus onto land that is so foreign to you that you end up lost, stuttering, lost in a supermarket and buying pasta for the first week because it’s the only thing you recognize (speaking from personal experiences of course). These challenges can be nurtured, enjoyed and ultimately embraced towards improving your life and outlook on things. The important moral to take from this article is that in order for these things to occur, it’s vital to be open-minded to new things unknown to you and to be daring enough to try new challenges if you decide to live in Japan. Don’t be pessimistic about your life and the life of others, but rather positive and controlling of your own destiny. Listen to the horror stories or tales of stress and depression you may encounter about Japan, but be prepared to make stories of your own–whoever follows in your footsteps will surely need them.