Living in Japan: Shari

1. Why did you move to Japan? (and where did you move from?)

I moved from California in the United States. The reasons I moved are
a bit complex. Primarily, my husband and I had a brief and very
positive history in Japan and wanted to return to recapture that
situation. We also felt that we might find a better economic
situation temporarily in Japan. Our original plan was to be here for
5 years and now it’s been 18 years.

The “brief and positive” history was my husband and I, who were pen
pals, met for the first time in Tokyo while I was on vacation. I
stayed for a month. It was a wonderful experience.

> 2. How does it differ to living in a Wester country?

For a caucasian person, it can be a bit like being a black person in
a largely white community. You get stared at. People whisper about
you or talk to each other about you (figuring you can’t understand
them even when you actually can). People can also be extremely
understanding and considerate of you because they recognize you don’t
fully fit into (or understand) the culture. In general, the main
difference is that you are always aware that you are different and
will always be different.

Other than that, there’s the obvious which is you can’t read a lot of
what is around since there are thousands of characters. Even if you
study a fair bit, you may never be able to read fluently because the
characters read differently depending on the characters they are
paired with. You often find that Japanese people make mistakes in
reading their own characters because it’s so complex. Even those who
learn to read Japanese often never learn to write. In most western
countries, a roman alphabet is used so you can read everything even
if you can’t understand it. This is a serious impediment to learning
the language compared to learning a western language.

> 3. What are the cultural differences that you’ve observed?

This is the question that would require a book. Here are just a few:

1. Communication works differently. It’s not just a language
difference. The Japanese communicate in a fashion designed to not
communicate clearly. They say “yes” when they mean  “no”. They say
nothing when they really want you to know something. They tell you
it’s okay not to do something (or do something) when they really
disapprove. The Japanese people understand the way communication
works (or doesn’t work) and are able to read into the indirect
communication and infer what is actually meant. Foreigners find this
hard to do because they don’t understand the cultural framework.

2. Your rights are limited and can be revoked at any time. You cannot
assert your right to anything strongly. The police may stop and
question you at any time or haul you into the station for questioning
at any time. I have been stopped and accused of stealing my bike
merely because I was riding it down the sidewalk.

3. There is a lot more gift giving and apologizing. Neither is
sincere or heartfelt. There is a lot more obligatory behavior based
on social rules and customs. Your acquaintances and friends who are
Japanese will not expect you to follow these rules but they will
observe them when they interact with  you.

4. Appearances mean more than substance. Food looks good but doesn’t
taste good. A beautifully wrapped gift is more important for its
wrapping than its contents. How you dress is more important than who
you are (except in family and interpersonal situations). You hang
around the office and don’t go home until everyone else does. It
doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as you give the appearance
of working as hard as everyone else.

5. People don’t complain often or loudly. You’re expected to control
your emotions and those around you usually control theirs. In the
U.S., you will often see people behave in a hostile fashion toward
strangers who annoy them. You rarely see that in Japan. People will
be rude, of course, but they rarely respond to each other’s rudeness.

6. Service is often slow and meticulous. The Japanese are sticklers
for dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s” and they don’t
mind making people wait in line while they methodically go through
every stage.

7. The Japanese place a greater value on the needs of the group (and
maintaining harmony) than on individual needs. For instance, the
Japanese often work while sick. Meetings take forever because they
won’t express their opinions assertively or clearly. As a foreigner,
you can run afoul of your coworkers if you’re too assertive or

8. The Japanese don’t like too many personal questions and are
uncomfortable offering up certain types of information we’d freely
discuss in the west.

There are also a lot of tiny things but they’re all covered in guide
books and easy to learn – taking your shoes off when you enter a
house, eating everything you are served (because any food left on the
plate indicates that you didn’t like the dish), never pouring your
own drink and pouring drinks for others, etc.

> 4. What do you do out there?

I teach English and do freelance work for a company that sells
correspondence courses.

> 5. What advice would you give to people who are thinking of
> traveling/moving to Japan?

Traveling and moving are two very different issues when it comes to
Japan. If you’re going to travel around Japan, you can pretty much
get by with just English because most of the places you’re going to
go or stay will have English speaking and signs.

If you’re moving here, any advice depends on how long you’re going to
stay. If you’re just here for the short term, see and do as much as
you can in your free time and don’t sweat the cultural differences
much since you’ll be forgiven any transgressions.

If you’re moving and plan to stay for a long time, try to abandon
ethnocentric judgments and accept that the Japanese are different but
different doesn’t mean “worse”. Expect to be frustrated at times and
to have your patience tested. Try to get yourself in the mindset that
saying what you think will probably harm you more than help you in
the long run and set yourself to the task of learning to read and
communicate between the lines. Expect to love it at first. Expect to
hate it later. Expect to like it even later.

> 6. Where in Japan do you live?

I live in Tokyo.

Explore posts in the same categories: Travel reports, Working abroad

One Comment on “Living in Japan: Shari”

  1. selona Says:

    I found this blog very insightful since I have recently moved to a foreign land. Moving from Chicago to the quiet seclusion of Jaco, Costa Rica I have found myself still trying to define what home is. I loved the cultural diversity of the US however there is something about the Costa Rican culture that has a firm hold on my spirit. I have also had to gradually adjust to being viewed as a minority. With my red hair and fair skin I often notice children staring in wonder as I shop at the local market. Although the community has greeted me with open arms there is always the question in their eyes that whispers “What is she doing her”? There always seems to be a hit of suspicion that holds in the air. When I purchased my home the real estate agent explained that the area I had chosen was rather remote and mostly populated by natives. I worked with a company called and I was able to obtain more than good advice regarding real estate. The owners of the company had also moved from the US so during the purchasing process I found myself looking to them for more than guidance on properties. It was encouraging to know someone else had gone through the same experience. Empathy creates a bond that is unspeakable at times. When I see the occasional Caucasian tourist eye contact and a genuine smile go hand in hand. I’m glad to see a stranger that is somehow familiar. Yet at the same time I know Costa Rica is my home and not my vacation.

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