Here's What I Learnt While Living in Japan

Japan | © Bill Green / Flickr
Japan | © Bill Green / Flickr
I first moved to Tokyo in 2012 with nothing more than a single piece of luggage and a slowly dying laptop (which I still have). This country has a steep learning curve, and having spent my entire life in the US, acclimating to Japanese life was a bit of a challenge at first. Now, after several years of living, working, and playing in Tokyo, I can say with certainty that Japan has become a part of me, and I will leave a different person than I was when I first arrived. Here is what I’ve learned after five years Japan.

Meals are better shared

When you go out to dinner in the US, everyone usually orders their own separate meal. I grew up thinking this is what people did in restaurants everywhere in the world, and I have several memories of getting annoyed when a friend or family member would ask to try something on my plate. I’m selfish.

In Japan, dinner is typically shared among everyone at the table. At an izakaya (Japanese gastropub), numerous small dishes are served throughout the meal, and at restaurants serving shabu-shabu or yakiniku (Japanese barbecue), the food is prepared at the center of the table for everyone to eat from. There is something about sharing a meal around a fire that just feels a little more human than burying your face into a basket of waffle fries (not that I don’t enjoy that as well). Dining is a more communal experience to me now, and I like it better that way.

Yakiniku © Barron Fujimoto / Flickr

Life is easier when you don’t need a car

The casual Sunday drive and Route 66 road trip are dead dreams to me now. Insurance is expensive, gas prices are too high, and traffic sucks. For someone who finds driving to be more of a hassle than a thrill, Japan is perfect. With the most extensive and efficiently operated railway network in the world, there is no need for a car or a driver’s license if you live here. Train travel is now a part of my daily life, so much so that I cannot even remember the last time I drove a car.

Cleanliness matters

Whenever I visit home, the first thing I notice is how dirty the streets and subway cars are. It infuriates me whenever someone litters or flicks a cigarette butt on the ground because I have become used to living in a place where people clean up after themselves. Even in the busiest cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you will rarely see garbage in the streets because people are expected to carry it with them until they can dispose of it properly. I don’t mean to sound like a diva, but I much prefer streets that aren’t littered with fast food wrappers, cigarette butts, and dog doo-doo.

GS: Security Guard Policing Their Section of Road © iMorpheus / Flickr

Japan really isn’t that weird

I hate to burst your bubble, but Japan is not the bizarre anime fantasyland many Westerners believe it to be. Foreign media outlets don’t like to cover Japanese culture unless they can produce an exotic, fetishized, “weird Japan” piece. The truth is, the wild fashion “trends” and freaky themed bars are only enjoyed by small subsets of the population. Most people just get up, go to work, and take care of their families. A lot of expats end up going back home once they realize it’s not the fantasy they’d hoped for, and the country is better off without them.

When you visit home, there is never enough time

Not to sound morbid, but every time I visit home I feel like I’m being pulled apart limb from limb. Okay, maybe that was a little dramatic. What I meant was that time still passes back home while you are having fun living abroad, and your friends and family (hopefully) miss you. They will be excited about your return, but unless you have two months’ worth of vacation, it is impossible to catch up with everyone without spreading yourself too thin. You won’t get a chance to see everyone, and it adds tension to relationships when people feel like they have been neglected.

You will always be an outsider (but that’s ok)

Even if you have lived in Japan for 30 years, speak perfect Japanese, and are married to a local, you will always be considered a visitor in this country. I have been here over five years now and still receive high praise for my chopstick-wielding abilities by locals who can’t believe a Westerner could figure out how to use them. A lot of foreigners in Japan gripe about this, but to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. You are not Japanese and you never will be. Besides, being a foreign guest affords you certain liberties, such as pretending you can’t read the sign that says “NO ALCOHOL”.

Don't feed the stray cats © halfrain / Flickr

Japanese offices still use fax machines

Your guess is as good as mine.