Making the Escape 2 Years Later

Now that I’ve completed exactly 2 years in Japan as an English teacher, I feel more accomplished–and less “escaped” from the life in the U.S. I have a great job, a great husband, and an ever-growing confidence in my not-so-new surroundings here in Okinawa.

Looking back on the past year, things have really changed. I earned my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification, which has made me look at teaching completely differently than when I arrived in Japan 2 years ago. My Japanese has gotten better, and I can hold a conversation using easy language. I’ve even gone from my Japanese study books to reading Japanese comics in their native language (not an easy feat, if you ask me). And finally, I still spend every day playing with my husband (that’s something that hasn’t changed and I still enjoy).

Since this year, I’ve been looking at my future more seriously, more squarely. I’m thinking about things that I’ve always wanted to do, things that I wish I could’ve done, and all that good jazz. But you know, I’ve learned that thinking about things isn’t going to take me anywhere except nowhere. So, just like how I got my butt into shape and made my dream of coming to Japan a reality, I have to get other things in order.

I want to:

*buy a house

*publish a short story book

*lose weight

*help out more with school life

*learn how to play the piano and/or guitar

*improve my Japanese

*learn Spanish

I know I can achieve most, if not all, of these things in a year’s time.

3 Things to Notice While living in Japan

Another list about living in Japan, narrowed down to three things.
1. You’ll see foreign men with Japanese women, but not so much Japanese men with foreign women. I don’t know the exact reason, but there are many half-Japanese kids I’ve met with foreign dads. Maybe it has something to do with the ratio of men to woman, or if Americanized imports, like Hollywood movies and Disney fairy tales, play any role in these couples, but there’s a stereotype that foreign men will do chores. Every foreign bachelor who comes to Japan will have a Japanese girlfriend within a few months. (Just look at the 2010 movie make of the popular My Darling is a Foreigner manga!) But for foreign bachelorettes, it’s not the same. The way that Japanese culture is set up doesn’t support Japanese men–who are used to being served first–to be with a foreign woman–who is more likely to see everyone as equals, especially if they are from the Western world. There isn’t much space for outright opinions, which is a stereotype towards foreign women.

My Darling is a Foreigner

My Darling is a Foreigner from

2. You get more for your buck…er, I mean, yen. The quality is better, but so is what you can get. At the convenience store, I can buy breakfast for my husband and I for under five hundred yen. There are already prepared dinners–not the frozen kind– for sale at the supermarket that can feed a small family of four for around a thousand yen (less than $10). And if you like to drink, there’s all-you-can-drink specials for around eight hundred yen. Even car insurance is reasonable and you can easily customize your coverage. It may seem expensive to live in Japan, but the actual value and quality gives a lot of worth.

3. Characters and mascots are everywhere. All products have cute or appealing characters to entice buyers or explain instructions. My students even like putting popular characters to represent their class banners.

Mascots on my students' class banners (Chopper from ONE PIECE, SpongeBob, and Tigers)

6 More Things to Learn When Living in Japan

Here are a few more things to learn when you’re a foreigner living in Japan:

1. Everyone loves to say “kawaii” (cute), “kakkoi” (cool), or “ikemen”  (slang – cool or hot) whenever you wear, say, or do something interesting. It seems that Japanese people are always watching you, especially when you’re a newcomer. If you’re new to an office or school, people will notice even the smallest things about you, like your hair, earrings, bracelets, watches, or clothing. It’s a little more daunting if you’re not used to being watched, but for teachers like me, it’s a good conversation starter in English.

2.  You’ll get invited to everything. Whether the invitation is from other foreigners or from Japanese people, there is a need for everyone to invite you to every event taking place in the city. For foreigners, it’s just another chance to hang out with part of the 4%-foreigner statistic in Japan. For Japanese people, it’s a way of showing off their culture that most foreigners would be unaware of.

3. If you know how to use chopsticks, you’ll get comments wherever you go. Because there’s this misconception that foreigners don’t know how to use chopsticks, if Japanese people see a foreigner eating with them, they’ll point out in Japanese, “You use chopsticks very well.” If you come to Japan to work or teach, you’ll hear that incessantly. It’s just a way for Japanese people to get to know you. (For me, I tell them that I’ve used chopsticks since I was in high school because I knew I would come to Japan one day.)

4. It’s hard to get anywhere with “maybe”. It’s more of a cultural thing than foreigners realize. In the United States, “maybe” means that you’re considering something, but there is no clear-cut “yes” or “no”. If you say “maybe” when talking to a colleague in Japan, unless they’ve lived in a Western country before, most Japanese people will take it as a “yes”. Also, most students don’t learn the word “maybe” until they’re in senior high school, so using it freely in a conversation with junior high schoolers and elementary school students will get you confused stares. Be careful about saying “maybe” when someone invites you to an event you don’t want to go to. They’ll be expecting you to show up!

5. Customer service runs really high in Japan. Even if you’re a customer in a McDonald’s, you won’t find customer service like that in Japan. Being a foreigner who hasn’t studied Japanese, going to a fast-food place can be a little scary because everything is written in Japanese. However, most places in Okinawa has an English, Korean, Chinese, and/or Spanish menu ready for foreigners. There are some restaurants on mainland Japan where the menus have Japanese with English translations. Aside from language, places like airports are really impressive with customer service, though they must be strict with the rules. Recently when my husband and I were at Haneda Airport looking for their popular roll cake, a worker told me that they didn’t have it at their shop, but she called around to find which shop had the roll cake. She directed us and when we arrived, the other worker was ready with roll cake in spite having to close in that last few minutes.

6. Advertised food actually looks like the pictures. More than likely, when you order something, the food actually looks like the pictures. It’s not just slapped together like someone didn’t care. There isn’t too much of anything on it (unless you’re a picky type). Just right.

Mega Burgers from McDonald's

Mega Burgers (2007) from McDonald's (source:

Engrish: Toyota Car

In Japan, there’s a lot of products that have English, but it’s terribly wrong or incoherent. (The Western equivalent is getting incorrect kanji tattoed on the skin.)
Still, I, like my husband and the people running, love to read Engrish. Here is a Toyota with an Engrish statement. I caught this on my way home.

Jd by the Shore

The green on the rocks are algae.

Ok, so no, I didn’t go to enter some odd-ball place opened by a big rock like in Murakami’s Kafka by the Shore, but my husband and I went for a spontaneous drive around Senaga Island. It’s really beautiful with ocean water surrounding the small island. Many locals visit just to look out at the sea.
In the distance lies the city of Itoman. It’s funny how in Japan, you can find a sprawling area of apartments and concrete buildings then look over and find a gorgeous view of the ocean. When you’re able to see this every day, the United States seems like it’s behind. Japan makes it easy to integrate nature and man-made structures, creating a harmonious atmosphere with the natural world. I wish that the United States could learn that co-existing, not crushing, what is natural–whether it’s the sea, the forests, or the people–can be a beautiful thing, like sitting on the edge of this shore.