Japan is a land of contrasts: at once modern and traditional, noisy and quiet, natural and urban. It’s no wonder it would take a bit of getting used to for any new resident. Add to this, cultural traditions that have lasted for hundreds of years with few outside influences, a society that has only recently begun to embrace foreign residents, an intricate three-system method of writing, incessant bowing, maze-like streets, cultural shyness and lack of some Western style conveniences, and you have challenges for any new expat.
Here are eight things that any expat would have to get used to when making the move to the Land of the Rising Sun and living in Japan.
Japanese people, as you may be aware, are formal and very polite. In other words, they have manners. This a great thing when it comes to shopping and customer service, waiting in a queue for a train or bus (however foreign to an American like me), even in a convenience store.
Bowing is the norm and is done by everyone from the local ramen shopkeeper to the street crossing guard. Although it’s a normal custom, it could take a bit to get used to, especially when done by the cashier at 7-11 after purchasing a box of Pocky. At first, it’s an amazing rush and makes you feel special. Then you get accustomed to it and it becomes old, or you get disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Still, Japanese people pride themselves on being polite and it would do you well to learn some basic etiquette when dealing with strangers and friends.
2. Cost of Living
Prices here may not be so different from more expensive places in Europe, but even coming from a somewhat expensive city in the US, I found the prices for items from clothing to household goods to be quite expensive. Especially imported items and foreign brands. A pair of Gap jeans cost at least $10 USD more than in the US and a blanket could cost around $100 USD.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the cost of local food and dining out was reasonable. And of course, there’s cheap street food. Now, I live near Osaka, so I cannot speak about Tokyo, but with every big city, there are a lot of options from very expensive food to cheap bites.
Rent can be comparable to a bigger city like New York or Los Angeles in places like Tokyo and some parts of Osaka, with rents decreasing slightly for smaller cities and suburbs. What does cost a lot are the utilities. Prepare to pay a lot if you’re renting an apartment or house.
3. Natural Disasters
The tsunami and earthquake more than three years ago that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is well known. And it’s no secret that Japan experiences earthquakes more than many other places in the world. In fact, for such a relatively small country in land size, it offers up a range of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and the more recent volcano eruption.
In my first six months of living in Osaka, I experienced three minor earthquakes and three typhoons. And I’m still not used to old mother nature. Living here, you will take your chances, like any other area that experiences weather shifts, but when unsure of risks, take your cues from the locals. If they are concerned, you should be concerned.
4. “No English spoken here”
Perhaps what surprises expats the most when moving here is the lack of English spoken. With the recent push to hire foreign English speaking teachers and the required English language courses in junior high and middle school, culminating with an English proficiency test when exiting high school, there would seem to be more knowledge of English. However, with the shy nature of many Japanese people, it’s not spoken much.
If you approach someone asking for directions, most will say they do not speak English. Some will only try to speak English if they see you are making an effort, but these types are mostly in customer service roles. Many fear making a mistake and so will not attempt to speak in English. But English signs are everywhere and most have a good command of reading in English. Be prepared to do a lot of hand gesturing and pointing while learning a few basic Japanese words — at least to begin with.
5. No Deodorant
In the olden days, Japanese people called new foreigners “stinky.” Though this label would be at the least, politically incorrect, and at most, rude, it may not be entirely untrue when it comes to types of sweat glands and bacteria that are different, often based on genetic makeup.
It’s a scientific fact that people of Japanese descent, as well as many other Asian countries, have different sweat glands from Westerners that prevent them from shedding the bacteria that causes sweat to smell. It’s this fact that both limits the amount and strength of deodorant on shelves of pharmacies and beauty stores in Japan.
When buying a deodorant as an expat, one would have to search for labels specifically for “serious users.” No lie, this is actually on the label of some more prominent brands. After searching a few places for stick deodorant, I chose to use a combo of a roll on and stick and it has helped. If you tend to sweat a lot, your best bet would be to bring your own deodorant from home.
6. Cold Houses
In general, Japanese homes — both modern and traditional — don’t come with built-in insulation. Chances are, the temperature outside will be the temperature inside as well, and if you’re unlucky enough to have small windows with little sunlight, then it may be even colder inside.
Modern homes may come with an electric, plug-in heater mounted to the wall, but in an older, more traditional home, you may have to opt for a portable electric or gas burning heater. There’s also the heated tatami mats that are used to line shared rooms and sleeping spaces in traditional homes and apartments, and low heated tables called kotatsu, designed for gathering around and eating.
7. No Dryers
For some, drying their clothes on a line may not be a big deal. After all, you get to dry your clothes naturally by the sun and not have to worry about shrinkage or static cling. But for those of us accustomed to a washer/dryer combo washing experience, it could take a bit of getting used to. Houses are equipped with washing machines, usually on the outside of houses, with indoor apartment units and a dedicated space to hang clothes (usually a balcony for apartments).
This arrangement can work out well in the spring and summer, but hauling a basket full of clothes to your porch in the middle of winter can be annoying and inconvenient. Add to that the pulling out of wet clothes and hanging them outside (many smaller apartments don’t have space for hanging clothes inside). If you’re lucky, you may have space to hang your clothes inside where they take forever to dry. Or, you may be better off hauling your dirty clothes to the laundromat.
I live outside of a big city, so I was preparing for lots of noise and/or chaos when visiting the larger city. People talking, cars horns, buses and trains, pedestrian cross walks. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extra noise that came from supermarket speakers, shouting salespeople and random speakers on the street and near some shrines. However, trains and movie theaters are often pin-drop quiet.
The fact is that any new country comes with its own set of cultural traditions, conveniences, and rules. While it is an extremely traditional country, there is also so much to explore and learn while living in Japan. It’s definitely a place worth settling in — at least for a while.
Author’s Favourite Travel Gear
Microfibre Travel Towel: So here’s the thing. When traveling in Japan, many restrooms don’t have all the luxuries of a Western restroom. That’s not to say, they won’t be clean, simply that there may not be anything to dry your hands with after washing. Keep one of the ultralight travel towels in your bag, and thank me later.
Swell Water Bottle: If you’re visiting in the summer, Japan can get HOT. I like to keep my Swell bottle filled at all times for always cold, always fresh water. Also, the drinking water in Japan is safe. Filling up your Swell bottle on the go will save you from constantly spending money at the vending machines.
BAGSMART Universal Travel Cable Organizer: I used to be that person always pilfering through my purse in search of some tangled charging cord another. With this handy organizer, now all my cables are in one place for easy storage and easy access.