10 Things to Learn from Living in Japan

Being an English teacher in Japan, I’ve learned a few things from living in the Land of the Rising Sun that you can’t learn from Japanese anime, manga, or video games.

1. The students and people aren’t like the characters from anime, manga, and video games. You won’t see anyone carrying a samurai sword or wearing ninja costumes randomly on the streets. It’s more likely you’ll see a non-Japanese person wear these things than a Japanese person.

Tiny White Fish

Tiny White Fish (from "A box of kitchen" blog)

2. Watch out what you eat! If you are allergic to anything or you specifically can’t eat anything, you’ll have to state it before they give it to you, or come prepared. My husband hates these tiny white fishes that have black eyes. They don’t have tails when you eat them, so they look like worms. He absolutely can’t eat them, and when he finds that his rice and soup is mixed with them, he can’t eat it. My thing, like many non-Japanese people, is natto, which is a type of sticky bean produced opposite of miso. Either way, just be prepared to eat some unusual meals!

3. Don’t be a vegan and come to Japan. Many teachers I’ve met who are vegan have it hard in Japan. In general, Japanese food is loaded with veggies, but they also coat things in some type of animal-derived sauce or soup. Miso soup, for instance, is from a bean paste, but it uses a type of pork stock. In Okinawa, it’s especially hard to be a vegan because the diet has influences from China, Korea, and the United States, so instead of the conventional boiled egg, the egg will have a ball of meat in the middle and coated to be fried.

4. English classics are easy to find. If you’re looking for some English literature, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, How to Kill a Mockingbird, and books of those caliber, you can find them at the local bookstores. Most likely, they’ll be a bilingual edition or have complicated English words translated into Japanese. A lot of the time, these bilingual editions are for students wanting to study for their eiken exams or college entrance exams, but you can utilize them just for some leisurely reading.

5. Make friends with people in military places. There are things that you’ll miss from your home country, and the best place to get them without paying an arm and a leg through Amazon or eBay is at the military base. Some military folks are just so happy to see another non-Japanese person, they’ll befriend you rather easily and allow you to go onto base with them. Of course, this mostly applies to people in Okinawa where military bases are as common as sushi restaurants, but if you happen to come across someone in mainland Japan, utilize that resource!

6. If you’re going to stay in Japan for a while, learn some Japanese before you get to Japan. If you’re in your home country and you can learn Japanese, take advantage of it. Getting a Japanese tutor or taking JSL, or Japanese as a Second Language, courses can get expensive and time-consuming. Plus, in your home country, learning Japanese can be more comfortable in your usual atmosphere than in a foreign one. This is one of my pet peeves, since many teachers from the JET Programme are sent Japanese books to self-study before arriving in Japan. However useful these books are, most JET teachers don’t even study them, yet, they complain about not being able to understand anything. Even knowing things like “My name is…” and “Please wait” are extremely helpful to both you and the Japanese folks you’re communicating with. Let’s avoid the frustration and crack open the books!

7. Presentation, plastic, and packaging will be everywhere. In Japan, a lot of things are based off of presentation. For example, burgers at McDonald’s actually look like the pictures that are advertised. Part of looking good is the packaging. And within the packaging is the plastic. You’ll find that even cookies will be individually wrapped. Sometimes, things like onigiri, or a rice ball, will have arrows showing how to unwrap it. It’s amazing at first–everything is because you’re in Japan!–but after a while, it’s like, “Oh, it’s individually wrapped…again.” Shrink wrap should just be for CDs.

8. Though there are anime and manga advocating giant robots and mecha, Japan isn’t as technologically-advanced as everyone thinks. Sure, there are hyper-fast bullet trains, and yes, the cell phones are practically hand-held computers now. But just because there are more gadgets doesn’t mean that there are cars or cell phones ready to transform into some type of freedom fighter.

9. Respect for the environment beats out any green movement. For the 1964 Summer Olympics, Japan built a stadium in Tokyo. For every tree that was displaced by the building, a tree was planted somewhere else. Even things like trash day is a way to preserve the environment. Cans, bottles, and newspapers are separated. Even milk cartons are unfolded and recycled. Schools reuse copier paper packages for re-packaging leftover school milks. Tissue boxes are converted into sanitary napkin holders. Everything has the ability to be reused or recycled in Japan, so be weary of just throwing things out. They still have life!

Pedestrian Light10. Everyone follows the rules. When the pedestrian light turns red, people don’t cross–even if there are no cars and the distance to the other side is merely a few steps away. Of course, there are a few stranglers who influence the others, but mostly, everyone follows the rules and stays put.