“Ganbarimasu!” (I’ll do my best!)
When one flies into Japan, the first thing they notice is that it’s different. When my wife and I flew to America for our honeymoon, our initial thought was that it wasn’t much different from Australia, in that people spoke English, ate and drank the same kinds of food and beverages, dressed in a similar fashion, watched the same TV programs, lived in houses that were identical to those in Australia, and apart from the controversial gun laws, had a culture that resembled our own.
In Japan, things were different from day one. Firstly, the language is different. No, scratch that; the language is extremely different. European languages are ‘different’. Japanese language is radically different. Apart from the fact that the Japanese people use not one, not two, but three different alphabets, grammatically their word order in sentences is opposite to ours, with the verb coming at the end. You don’t know what Mr. Tanaka is going to do with that pen until you hear the last word spoken!
Okay, let’s assume for now that you are fluent in the Japanese language. Then there is the culture. Luckily, most people are aware of the many cultural differences in Japan, either from reading about them or seeing examples of them in movies and on television. Japanese people bow, to state the most obvious one, and they remove their shoes when they enter a building (although many public buildings allow shoes to be worn inside).
Japanese people use chopsticks instead of knives and forks, and the food in Japan is very different to that found in Australia, England or America. Generally speaking, Japanese people don’t leave a tip, and the poor shopkeeper is apt to run down the street after you if you do, to return your change. There are different gestures, and of course the currency is different as well, although this is the case in almost every country.
So let’s get back to the person flying into Japan. After they have cleared immigration and customs at the airport, they have to catch a train, bus or a taxi to their initial destination, usually a hotel. A lot of taxi drivers cannot understand English, and so there may be some communication problems if you cannot speak Japanese language at a conversational level. Having an address written in Japanese would be wise in this case.
If you are really lucky, somebody (a person from the company or school you’ll be working at for example) will meet you at the airport and take you to your hotel or apartment. And since Japanese people are so hospitable, this is usually the case.
Having an apartment provided for you by your company is a truly wonderful thing, especially if it is set up and furnished beforehand. However, many foreign people coming to Japan take this for granted. Trying to arrange an apartment in Japan on your own is incredibly difficult, much more so than doing the same thing in one’s own country. The language barrier is just the start of your problems.
Sad to say, many landlords and real estate companies have rather racially discriminating policies when it comes to renting apartments to foreign workers. This is something that my wife and I have experienced personally, although we have heard many similar stories from those that we have met here. This racist approach is usually a result of some basic fears, such as the belief that the foreign tenant might not know how to use the Japanese bath properly. (Most people are probably aware that Japanese people wash themselves outside the bath, and only once they are clean do they hop into a full, hot bath.)
The fear that the landlord or real estate company has of not being able to communicate effectively with the tenant is another contributing factor. Many Japanese people worry that the foreign tenant might not be familiar with the local area’s policies of garbage disposal (almost every area has a different way of recycling, and its own designated areas for taking your garbage at certain times of the week and/or month). Then there is the general fear that ‘foreigners like to have wild parties’ that last well into the night. Unfortunately, this is sometimes true, and loud noisy parties give all foreign residents a bad name in Japanese communities. Japanese people usually don’t have ‘loud parties’ at home, but go out to establishments set up for that purpose when they wish to enjoy that type of entertainment. Generally speaking, urban apartments are for sleeping and eating.
Many foreign people have also left their apartments looking as if a bomb had hit it, or garbage trucks had used it as their own private dumping ground, and hence over the years Japanese people have been reluctant to rent an apartment to foreign tenants without charging exorbitant ‘cleaning fees’ up front first. Consequently, before moving into a private apartment, as opposed to moving into a company apartment or an apartment block reserved solely for foreign residents, a prospective tenant must pay ‘key money’ (like an entrance fee), an official bond (usually two months’ rent), cleaning fees, and must also have a guarantor (someone to pay on your behalf if you suddenly skip town overnight). Usually this person has to be Japanese, such as your boss, for example.
Once you are set up in your own apartment, then there are a whole new set of challenges. A good example is being able to read one’s bills (telephone, gas, electricity, water usage, etc) and knowing where to pay them, and/or how to pay them. You have to know where and when to take out your garbage, where to buy the specific garbage bags that one has to use (bought locally), the correct recycling system for the area in which you live, and so on. The City Office or local government office can help you with many of these things.
Exploring your local community is very important, when living in Japan, so that you can discover the whereabouts of your local doctor’s clinic, dental clinic, community hospital, police station (at which you should introduce yourself), post office, shopping center, ATM (called ‘cash card machines’), restaurants and various other useful buildings. Most Japanese people get around on a bicycle, especially in the cities where the majority of people live in apartments that don’t have a garage or sufficient car parking spaces. Public car parks in Japan are also very expensive. A bicycle is relatively cheap and convenient.
If you do choose to buy a car in Japan, there are many hurdles to get past. Firstly of course you will need a license to drive. International driving license are only good for one year, and cannot be renewed or extended while in Japan. (Even if your own country allows this, Japanese police won’t accept it, and you may be heavily fined.) Getting a Japanese license once again requires Japanese language proficiency, as everything is explained in Japanese only, including the step by step procedure that you must follow at the licensing center in order to receive your Japanese license. This takes a few hours.
Secondly, once you have your Japanese license, you must know how to read Japanese street signs, and be familiar with all the traffic symbols. This should be covered in one’s study for the paper test that you take when acquiring one’s license of course. Many street signs are in Japanese and kanji (Chinese characters used within the Japanese language). Car navigation systems also display information solely in Japanese.
Thirdly, there is the challenge of buying a car, insuring it and learning the system of compulsory car maintenance in Japan. If you miss the time period for having your car checked or registration renewed, you could easily lose your license. I recommend buying a 2nd hand car, as most used cars are in excellent condition, and are of course much cheaper as well. This is because most Japanese people enjoy buying new cars, and will change their car over every few years, creating a huge domestic used car market. It is also due to the fact that a car’s registration becomes more expensive after five years.
Generally speaking, most car maintenance centers and their mechanics are quite honest when it comes to selling cars and carrying out car maintenance, which is comforting to say the least. Almost every car yard in Japan is also a maintenance and registration shop.
The vast majority of foreign residents who live in the larger major cities, and hence do not own a car, will need to use public transport to commute to work and various other places. Japan’s public transport system is simply amazing. If the timetable states that a train will arrive at 2:24 pm, then a train will pull in to the platform at 2:24 pm, and on the very rare instance that it does not, you will receive an apology on a piece of paper from the train conductor (presumably to give to your boss at work to explain why you are late). Trains and subways are always on time, and run frequently depending on the time of day.
There are also plenty of buses operating in Japan, and vast numbers of taxis. The arguments and conflicts that occasionally occur between competing taxi companies in other countries just don’t seem to happen in Japan.
Having organized your place of residence and your means of transport, you can focus on your job, and your lifestyle outside of work, including where you shop, eat and socialize. There is a myriad of restaurants in Japan, and something to suit everyone, although ‘vegan’s and strict vegetarians might find it challenging. The ability to read Japanese and order in Japanese is of course a huge advantage, as would be expected, and will certainly expand your range of restaurants from which to choose.
Knives and forks are available in restaurants that serve western style food. If you wish to try Japanese food however, learning to use chopsticks would be beneficial. Luckily, it’s not that difficult. One thing that surprised me when I first lived here was the use of ‘oshibori’ (wash cloth) at restaurants, given to diners before they even order a meal. In winter they are heated, and it feels wonderful after having been outside in the cold. It is extremely rare not to receive a glass of water as well, in addition to the white, rolled ‘oshibori’. This custom is something I miss when I return home from time to time.
Something that is compulsory by law, when living in Japan, is National Health Insurance. For people on a tourist visa, or a working holiday visa, private health and/or travel insurance is fine, but for those with a working visa, one must enroll in the government’s health insurance plan. This can be done at the city office, or preferably, your employer, who is required to pay half of the cost, will do it for you. A card will be issued to you, allowing you to receive treatment at your local hospital and dental clinic, or other related medical clinics. Doctors and medical clinics are wary of private insurance schemes, and the paperwork for claiming expenses can sometimes be complicated. The premiums for the National Health Insurance system are a little expensive, but this also includes payment for the Japanese pension, which can be claimed back upon leaving Japan. In that sense, it is like a forced savings program, which is quite handy for people like myself who just can’t seem to save money.
Mind you, having spoken of mandatory National Healthy Insurance, the hospital system here can be a little scary for a western person who may be used to 24-hour medical clinics and hospitals that never close their doors. Often is the case where a hospital is closed to ‘outpatients’, due to either late hours or a public holiday. One night when I was living in Osaka, I had a swelling in my throat that made breathing difficult. Understandably concerned, my wife and I walked up to the local hospital only to find it in darkness, and the doors locked. Fighting the urge to panic, we began to walk back towards our apartment when we came across a pharmacy that was just closing up for the evening. Fortunately, we were able to get some medicine there that reduced the swelling.
When you live in Japan, it is prudent to find out where the local clinics, hospitals and chemists are, and what hours they operate. Furthermore, if possible, it is beneficial to learn where the local doctor lives, and pay them a visit. Japanese people do this upon moving to a new neighborhood. They seek out the closest doctor living in their community, take a gift around to their house and introduce themselves. Hence, in the case where a hospital is closed, they can call or visit the doctor personally.
An ambulance seems the logical alternative, but this has its own risks, too. An ambulance officer will ring the hospital as it nears its location, and the hospital can refuse to take the patient depending on availability of doctors, beds, or various other reasons. Hence, it’s not uncommon for an ambulance to visit many hospitals before being accepted, and sadly many people each year die while still in transit.
Another thing about living in Japan is the ‘group mentality’, especially in the neighborhood. Unlike in western countries where knowing one’s neighbor is by mutual choice only, communication between one’s neighbors in Japan is standard and commonplace. This varies depending on one’s place of residence, but is relatively strong in suburban and rural areas. There are various events and systems in place to encourage meeting and socializing with one’s neighbors.
Many neighborhoods have a ‘community clean-up’ periodically throughout the year, for example, to pick up rubbish and keep the local area looking clean and tidy. This happens approximately two or three times a year, and most people participate in this event together with their neighbors for a couple of hours. There is a fine for non-participation.
Japan is famous for its traditional festivals, and this is another time that communities come together and participate in what is generally a fun and enjoyable event. These happen on a more regular basis throughout the year, and there are in fact so many different types of festivals that it would take too long to try and describe them in this article. It should be suffice to say that most people, especially official participants, will wear a community ‘happi’ (a traditional, short, colorful jacket, made from cotton, and tied at the waist), and the place in which the event occurs will have plenty of food and drink stalls, souvenir stands, singing and dancing, and if held during summer, will usually have fireworks towards the finish. Even though these festivals are designed for families, there will be copious amounts of beer consumed, although drunkenness is frowned upon.
Many traditions are religious activities, and that raises another interesting point about living in Japan. Unlike religions in other countries, the two main official religions in Japan, Buddhism and Shinto, co-exist with each other. Families can attend either a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine, or even both, for some of life’s important events, such as the birth of a child, marriage, and funerals, and of course to worship. A lot of young Japanese people aren’t passionate about religion like in other countries, but it is customary to participate in some of the spiritual services offered in local temples and shrines. Non-Japanese people can participate in these as well. If one is a Christian, (a small percentage of Japanese people are practicing Christians), it is possible to find Christian churches in the larger cities throughout Japan, but they are far and few between in rural areas, where beliefs are more traditionally Japanese.
Body language and gestures are different in Japan as well, and this is something one gets used to when living here. Very few people will shake hands, for example, unless you are conducting business together. Subtle nodding and bowing become second nature. Also simply the way you hold yourself as you walk and stand and sit is slightly different, and the style or form of such could be described as somewhat more humble.
Furthermore, awareness of other people and the direction in which they are approaching you is more heightened, which is understandable in such a small country with a large population, and this is even more pronounced in the overcrowded cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and so on. Despite the vast number of people on the sidewalks, and what pace they are traveling, there are very few collisions. People tend to literally ‘fit in’ more here, and to maneuver more skillfully through the available gaps in the crowd, or the throng of people in a shop. Spatial awareness is a learned skill here, and Japanese people can often tell how long a foreign resident has been in Japan by their body language; a person new to Japan will appear a little like ‘a bull in a china shop’, so to speak.
What one sees and feels here is also very important to explaining what it’s like to live in Japan. Coming from Europe or North America, one might not see a big difference in the weather or environment in Japan, but as an Australian, or more to the point, someone from the southern hemisphere, all the different flora and fauna and the fact that there are four distinct seasons here is a big but delightful surprise. The trees and shrubbery are just not the same as they are in Australia, and when one ventures out into the countryside and up into the mountains, it is like looking at the clichéd, stereotypical paintings of Asia that are sold in countless shops around the world - quite a feast for the eyes and the mind when you realize that what you are seeing is real, and not just a pretty picture. Instead of seeing sheep, kangaroos and koalas, one sees deer, monkeys and mountain boars.
The cities are also an eye-opener of course, with their neon signs and skyscrapers that extend to the horizon. I recall standing in the observatory on the 18th floor of a skyscraper in Tokyo, where the international youth hostel is situated, and being stunned at seeing a 360-degree view of an endless metropolis. Akihabara in Tokyo is not just a shopping center, but an entire town of shops dedicated to electronic goods and games.
Osaka is an amazing city as well, and has some of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted. Nagoya is more western in design, but also has its own unique atmosphere. Every city in Japan strives to achieve its own style, and offers its own local specialties and experiences. Okinawa is like another country, or perhaps I should say ‘kingdom’, given its fascinating, oriental history. This is especially the case when one leaves Naha and enjoys the more idyllic islands to the south. The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is a land of rolling grasslands in summer, and a frozen land of snow and ice in winter, popular with local skiers and snowboarders as well as those from many other countries.
Japan is a wonderful country to visit, and offers an incredible plethora of shopping, sporting, cultural and travel activities. The service and hospitality has to be experienced to be believed, and the Japanese people bend over backwards to make you feel welcome.
However, having said that, and to be fair, one will never be considered a ‘local’ here, no matter how long you live in Japan, or how good your Japanese ability may become. A foreign resident in Japan is still a guest, and that distinction is made clear everywhere one goes. Japan is not truly multicultural like so many other countries.
In fact, I had never heard the word ‘foreigner’, until I lived in Japan. Growing up in Australia, I was used to seeing so many different faces, physical features and genetic profiles from around the globe, and just assumed that everyone was Australian until proven otherwise, by their accent or choice of language for example. Japan is more homogeneous, even though many young Japanese people now color their hair brown to look more fashionable.
Living in Japan has been a fantastic adventure for my wife and I, and we have many wonderful Japanese friends here. It will be a very sad day indeed if we ever have to say “sayonara” and leave this amazing country.
© Chris Ryall