A holiday experience is nowhere near a migrating one. I’ve personally experienced a few setbacks when I moved to Japan. It might sound exciting to move to a new and foreign country, and fair enough, it is — I was overwhelmed with those jitters of exhilaration when I first decided to pack my bags and start afresh in Japan.
Every country has their own way of running things, and when we move to another country, we have to accept all of it, the good and the bad. No amount of research can prepare one for the actual experience of being a foreigner in Japan, but it’s better to be a step ahead than being fully in the dark.
Don’t get me wrong — Japan is wonderful. Why would I still be here if it wasn’t? But just like any other country, there are some things left unsaid. Here’s my personal take on being a foreigner in Japan — primarily what they don’t tell you about being one in this country.
Language Barrier Even With The Language Ability
Japan’s first language is not English. The Japanese language is used everywhere in Japan and English is never heard except for major cities like Tokyo and Osaka — but even then you’ll hear a foreigner speaking it or you find yourself nearby a tourist attraction.
There’s no doubt that there’s a distinctive language barrier in the country if you have no knowledge of the Japanese language. Sure, it may be one of the first few ones you face, but the thing is, you can be completely fluent in the Japanese language but still not feel fully accepted in the society.
I’ve had my fair share of “外人だからしょうがない” (“you’re a foreigner so it can’t be helped”) encounters to make me realise that it’s not just because of the language barrier — it goes deeper than that. There’s another kind of barrier that’s beyond our control.
I’ve seen with my own very eyes — while it hasn’t happened to me (yet) — a row of seats on a train being fully empty except for a foreigner. Every other seat in the same cabin is occupied except for the row with the foreigner. Strange, isn’t it? But definitely a true story! No one knows exactly why, but it’s pretty self-explanatory I reckon.
No Japanese in The Blood
There was a saying in the past, (though not so prominent nowadays anymore) that to be truly accepted in Japanese culture, you would have to have the Japanese blood, the Japanese language and be from Japan itself. Literally only one out of the three is within our control and the other two we are physically incapable of changing.
After all the efforts of picking up the language, you’d expect it to pay off at the end of the day. Little did you know that being able to speak the language just doesn’t make the cut. You’ll find yourself convincing people that you actually can speak Japanese than actually speaking the language itself. I’ve had occasions where I asked a question in Japanese but got a response in English — most of the time broken, which takes even more time for me to get a clear answer.
One of the first few conversation topics I would have with other foreigners in Japan is what kind of housing situation they are in and how they get to it. It’s a different story each time, but one thing that we all have in common is the difficulty of finding one.
True, there are tons of companies that exist for the convenience of foreigners. There are sharehouse companies and even real estate companies that offer English-speaking services to ease the moving process for foreigners who are looking for a place to live in Japan, but it’s always so limited and these places cost more than what it normally would be.
However, even with the most fluent level of Japanese, if you’re a foreigner, your options are still limited! This is because there’s this “foreigner-friendly” thing that’s going around, which basically refers to the apartment or building accepting and allowing foreigners to live there. Some landlords are strictly against having foreigners for tenants — foreigners being rejected to live somewhere just because they’re not local is still happening to this very day!
Source: Jeremy from Flickr
To this day, Japan has a country record-high of the number of immigrants in the country. There have been tons of actions taken by the Japanese government to pull in foreign workers to work in Japan, like special work visas.
If you’re a native or close-to-native English speaker and your level of Japanese is at a “konnichiwa” level, your best and fastest bet for a job in Japan is none other than being an English teacher.
People say that your job opportunities expand when you have a few Japanese language skills up your sleeve. Fair enough, it does open you up to other industries like media, science and engineering if you have at least a proficiency level of JLPT N2, which is the second-highest and hardest level.
Here’s the thing: you won’t be given the same opportunities a local Japanese would, even if you have a proficiency level of JLPT N1, the highest and hardest level of all. Regardless of whether or not you speak the language, at the end of the day, you’re still a foreigner in their eyes. There will always be that lingering and unsettling feeling of not being fully accepted, or even not being offered equal advancement opportunities and jobs.
Don’t beat yourself up too much if the reason for the company not hiring you is because you’re not Japanese.
The Strings Attached To A “Gaijin”
See, this “gaijin” standard is not good, nor is it bad — it’s the standard of not having a standard. The Japanese have a standard for themselves. There’s everything from actions like customs to words like polite speech. It’s safe to say the expectations are high.
This standard is not extended to include foreigners. For the most part, we’re not expected to live up to these expectations as the Japanese as we’re not raised in the same culture.
As foreigners, we’re able to get away with certain things to a certain extent. If a Japanese person doesn’t follow the local customs, they’re judged way more harshly than us.
Foreigners including myself have taken advantage of this “gaijin” standard. I say it as using the “gaijin card”. Mutual rules like not speaking on the phone or eating on the train — I’m definitely guilty of doing those things and just shrugging it off as “oh well, they know I’m a foreigner”.
I personally love the occasional free pass, especially if I didn’t know it was an unspoken rule of the culture that I accidentally broke. My Japanese friends would just laugh it off and teach me the correct ways, anyway.
Don’t Get Scared Off!
Don’t get scared off — Japan is not bad, I swear! Just like every other country, there are ups and downs, and in this article, I’ve just highlighted the downs that I personally experience.
There are tons of English-speaking services in Japan, and it’s getting more and more by the day. While it won’t be as convenient as back in your home country, it’s not impossible. There’s always a service that’s available if you’re in need.
Once you get the hang of being a foreigner in Japan, life can be as smooth sailing as it can get. It is a bit more extra work to get settled in at the start but I swear it is worth it. After all, it’s all part of the experience of moving to a fresh new country — especially one like the culturally rich Japan that everyone knows and loves.