10 Things to Learn after Living in Japan
It’s easy to learn a little bit about a foreign country in a year. In 5 years, any foreign resident will discover the ins and outs of their new home country. For me, I’ve learned about Japanese people, culture, and lifestyles that most foreigners won’t see in a year or two of residence.
10. You’ll be thoroughly surprised by the lack of technology Japan uses on a daily basis. The image of Japan usually includes robots on the streets, high-end luxury cars with races on straightaways, and girls in school uniforms carrying swords in their bags. Um, no, that’s a stereotype. In actuality, Japan maintains close ties with tradition–meaning that some of Japanese technology is lacking. When I wanted a copier to number my pages, my co-worker said, “Sorry. Here are these stamps.” As I sat stamping each page with what I thought were obsolete number stamps, I asked myself if all copiers in teaching places were like this. They were, and I learned to number the pages on my computer first. (I used the same copiers in business offices with the same functions in the States.)
9. You will be asked the same questions from the start of your journey to the very end. When I arrived in Okinawa, everyone asked me typical questions. “Where are you from? What is your favorite food? Do you have a boyfriend?” Along with the questions came the same remarks. “Your Japanese is good. You’re good at using chopsticks.” For fellow expats in Japan, don’t take it personal. They’re icebreakers. Segue the questions into questions about them and see where it takes you.
8. You will always have to show extra paperwork because you’re a foreigner. I don’t know how many times my husband and I had to bring unnecessary copies, documents, and forms to the bank, police station, immigration office, and the airport because people wanted to give us a hard time. My husband had it worse because he looked like a tall white man, so Japanese men thought he had a Japanese wife or girlfriend, which happens a lot when foreign males go to Japan. I solved that issue by making a binder with all the important documents and copies. It also doubled as an emergency binder. In the event of a fire or tsunami, grab the binder!
7. Whether you’re black, white, or purple, you’re in the same boat as every other foreigner. Japan is a homogenous country–you’ll mostly see and hear Japanese. The control freaks who arrive will want to immediately fit into Japanese society. No matter how well you speak, read, write, or think Japanese, Japanese people won’t fully accept you. Even half-Japanese people aren’t fully accepted (check Miss Japan). Though that seems like a dire way of looking at Japan and its people, it’s close to how privileged people in any other country treat the unprivileged populace.
6. You’ll learn how to check your attitude, anger, pessimism, arrogance, and ego if you really want to fit into Japanese society. Japanese people are very humble. You’ll find that as time goes on, Japanese people are reluctant to boast about their differences or what makes each one of them unique.
5. You’ll learn Japanese, but unless you study and maintain what you’ve learned, you’ll just be functional in spoken Japanese. You can learn Japanese without studying after listening and speaking to people for several years. Still, many expats don’t learn and maintain written Japanese without study.
4. You’ll see that options in everything is limited…except in green teas, ramen brands, and seaweed wrappers. After learning that the aisles in San-A are different from your former grocery haunts, food and marketplaces are equally unique in serving a mostly-Japanese populace.
3. You’ll notice that the Japanese lifestyle is really minimal and uncomplicated. When I returned to American life, I was surprised by how everything and everyone were fast, fast, fast, and when something was slow, it was too slow. Commuters behind me would groan at any human delays at the ancient MetroLink ticketing machines.
2. You’ll see how humans are unwilling–and even visibly scared–of change or difference. April in Japan usually meant a changeover in staff, a new school year in a new school, an assurance that you as a human had moved to the next stage in your life. I’ve noticed in between Japan and the States that people like their habits no matter how rigid or unhealthy they are to their lives. It could be eating habits, going outside the city, changing how something is done–people are afraid of change. The lesson to be learned in today’s world is that everything is always changing, always looking to grab you by the ankle and pull you under. Accepting change will keep you and other skeptical Japanese folks from drowning.
1. You’ll notice the real strength of women. Before coming to Japan, I thought that the country boasted unhappy, naive women who reluctantly accepted their roles as mothers and housewives. After watching, talking, and befriending many Japanese women, I realized that these women didn’t only define their lives as mothers and housewives. They were also teachers, workers, budget-balancers, hobbyists, cooks, cleaners, and disciplinarians. No matter how much work came their way because of their jobs or families, they could still smile and laugh and play without much worry or complaint. My problem was looking through the eyes of an American woman who wasn’t expected to do all those things. When I was put in the same positions (outside of motherhood), I couldn’t understand how other women did everything like clockwork while most men looked on. I found myself frowning at the men, especially retiring men who didn’t have any other discernible skills than work. As I looked at the women in my life and in my husband’s life, I noticed that women who worked, balanced and paid bills, cooked, cleaned, and cared and listened to their rambling, ungrateful children were the strong ones.