What They Don’t Tell You About Being A Foreigner In Japan

by Azra Syakirah
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A holiday experience is nowhere near migrating one. The sound of moving to a new and foreign country is nothing but fun and exciting for anyone and everyone — no doubt about that. I know I was overwhelmed with those jitters of exhilaration when I first decided to pack my bags and start afresh in Japan. 

Those of us who are old enough to move on our own are matured enough to realize that the foreign country we’re moving to definitely has their own way of running things — we’re not that naive. The good and the bad, we have to accept them all. But for some of us who chose Japan as the destination country, we had no idea what we were in for as foreigners in the country. What we didn’t prepare for are the levels of settling in that we have no choice but to go through and put up with just because we’re not Japanese — physically and psychologically.

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.

It’s Not Just Because Of The Language Barrier

For those of us who aren’t aware of it just yet, Japan’s first language is not English. While they may have been taught English during their educational years as one of the subjects, the Japanese people don’t have that many opportunities to practice speaking in any other language but their native one in Japan. 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. You’ll struggle a bit more when it comes to settling in, but to be honest, that’s the least of all the matters when moving to the country. Sure, it may be one of the first few ones you face, but trust me when I say that it’s not the one that’ll leave you unsettled for a long time. At least not knowing a language is fixable — just pick it up.

The thing is, you can be completely fluent in the Japanese language but still not feel fully accepted in society. I’ve had my fair share of “you’re a foreigner so it can’t be helped” encounters to make me realize 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, unlike the language barrier. 

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 but the row with the foreigner. Strange, isn’t it? But definitely a true story! It doesn’t happen as often these days, now more than ever with tourism booming in Japan, but it still does occur. No one knows exactly why, but it’s pretty self-explanatory I reckon.

Speaking Japanese But Not Being Japanese

I know quite a few people who have spent years and years studying the Japanese language so that they can peacefully settle down in Japan. I, myself, have taken time out of my off days to sit down in front of a Japanese learning book, repeatedly writing kanji characters for memorization or taking down grammar notes. Some others went out of their way to go to language school to learn in-depth the Japanese language!

After all the efforts and even money spent, 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. And don’t get me started on the question “why did you come to Japan?”

It was also said in the past during cultural studies of Japan that you can only be truly accepted, 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 are physically incapable of changing. Yet, that is just how it is over here — though it’s not much of a thing anymore, except for certain areas where it’s still very much prominent and existing.

Job Opportunities Are Limited Regardless

There’s no denying that there are tons and tons of jobs that are available in Japan. It is a money-making country full of local as well as international businesses that are consistently thriving. 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 and whatnot. 

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 of a job in Japan is none other than being an English teacher. That’s the quickest way to get out of your home country and into this one, but don’t expect much out of the job. Unless you got extremely lucky with the company you’re with, more often than not, these English teaching jobs aren’t that well-paid and are always time-consuming — it can be for the job hours itself or the travel alone, or even both! 

People say that your job opportunities expand when you have a bit of 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. Not to mention these jobs pay more than a basic English teaching salary and you’ll have a higher chance of climbing up the company ladder.

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. 

Housing Situation Is A Whole Other Ball of Yarn To Untangle

Now, if you’ve tried your hand at living in Japan, you’ll come across the various obstacles you need to overcome just to get a decent place to live in. 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. On top of that, these places cost more than what it normally would be just because of the “special” service.

For those who speak fluent Japanese, your options are multiplied since you can go directly to a neighborhood real estate company. Tons of real estate offices are scattered around the country — you won’t be able to walk down a street in Japan without coming across one! You can liaise with the company directly without having a middleman, speeding up the process. 

What some of my own friends have encountered is that, even though they have an almost fluent level of Japanese, their options are still limited! Even going through a neighborhood real estate company! 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!

The “Gaijin” Standard

At first, you wouldn’t know what the “gaijin” standard is, but you’ll have it happen to you countless times before realizing it for yourself! This can go either way — good or bad — or even both ways. Depending on how you take it, I guess.

The Japanese have a standard for themselves. They are determined by their rank in society, everything from the strict hierarchy system at home to the one at work. They’re always conscious of themselves and their place in society as to not go out of line. This level of standard extends to speech — using various levels of politeness and respect — to actions like decision-making and bowing. 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 — this standard of not having a standard is basically the “gaijin” standard. As foreigners, we’re able to get away with certain things to a certain extent. Japan has quite a bit of unspoken rules and social protocols that the Japanese wouldn’t expect a clueless foreigner to know. If a Japanese person doesn’t follow these rules, 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”. Of course, as mentioned above, this whole “gaijin” standard is dependent on how one looks at the situation. I personally love the 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.

It’s Not Impossible, But It’s Not Easy

If you’ve reached this far, guess that just means that you haven’t been too scared off just yet from all the unknowns about living in Japan. It’s definitely not impossible, but it’s not a stroll in the park either. You’ll find it frustratingly difficult to get things like services when back in your home country, it’s just as convenient as a short walk across the road.

To all the foreign girls out there who are just like me — needing a pamper session consisting of everything from a full facial to a trip to the salon every now and then — best prepare yourself to either fork out twice the sum of money for English-speaking services or brush up on your Japanese language skills! The last thing we want is a screw up with any of these services — who wants a wrong haircut, regardless of boys or girls!

That’s just at the bottom of the matter. English-speaking services for clinics and hospitals aren’t that easy to come by either. That’ll be a nightmare if you fall ill or get an injury. Let’s say you do speak fluent Japanese and you get to the nearest hospital or clinic. There is a half and half chance that you’ll get a doctor with the specialism as your issue, and if not, you’ll have to go back to your hunt for one that is. That’s just how life is in Japan. 

At The End of The Day…

Being a foreigner in Japan isn’t all that bad. Once you get the hang of it, 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 it is worth it if you’re in love with the country as much as I do. 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. 

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