Want to know what’s it like living in Japan as a foreigner? Specifically, living in Japan as an American?
My name is Jessica and I recently moved back to my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A. I have spent the last 3 years and 4 months living in Hyogo prefecture, Japan, spending most of my weekends and free time in Osaka – the city that forever stole my heart.
Living in Japan is one of the best things I have done.
This Is My Experience of Living in Japan as a Foreigner
During my first year of living in Japan, I worked as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) for the JET Program. While I absolutely adored the staff and the other teachers at the high school I was placed at, I was really disappointed with the overall job, so I quit.
I knew I wasn’t finished with Japan after only one year so I decided to look for another job. Last two years I worked as a daycare assistant in the nursery at an international school. I couldn’t have been happier with the diverse staff, adorable students, and my overall duties as a daycare teacher.
In addition, I started working one night a week at a bar in Osaka, where I eventually met Jonny (Backpackingman).
A few months before leaving, I realized that in the future I might forget what my life was like living in Japan, both the good and not-so-good aspects.
I didn’t want the details of such an important part of my life to be forgotten, so I decided to create a list: a list of things about living in Japan I would miss and a list of the things I wouldn’t miss.
I would go about my day as usual and write down things when I saw them or remembered. I tried to write down everything, not wanting any details to stay behind in Japan. In the end, I had two long lists with roughly 50 bullet points each.
Jonny contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a blog post for him about living in Japan as a foreigner. I told him I wasn’t interested in blogging (I don’t consider myself a good enough writer to do so) (editors note: she’s great!) but that I did have a list of good and bad points about Japan that I’d be willing to share.
So, here we are. I kept the same bullet points but added a brief description or explanation where I thought it was needed (especially in the “won’t miss” list).
Before reading, know my biases:
First and foremost, I wrote this from the perspective of an American. Many points, especially some of the many things that I will miss about Japan, will only make sense or apply to Americans, regardless of gender.
Secondly, I wrote this from the perspective of a woman – a white American woman who first came to Japan knowing very little about the people and culture outside of anime or media influence, and who *still* doesn’t speak the language fluently.
Thirdly, I grew up in a desert environment. In moving to Japan, I had to deal with the surprises and challenges of adapting to a sub-tropical climate. A few of my points reflect that struggle.
Lastly, remember that this is all based on my own experiences and opinions. I am not a Japan expert. Plenty of foreigners living in Japan will disagree with my points, and it’s okay for you to disagree as well.
If you are completely new to Japan some of these topics might go over your head. Nevertheless, I hope it can be helpful to anyone thinking of moving to Japan (long-term or just for a few years).
For the readers who are already there, I hope some of it can at least be relatable.
Tip: If you’re interested in living in Japan and working there by teaching English a TEFL certificate (get one with that link) can help out.
Things I Will Miss About Living in Japan
- TRAINS! TRAINS! TRAINS!
The thing I dislike most of all being back home after living in Japan is dealing with the endless money pit that is owning a vehicle. I hate, hate, hate cars!
Really, it’s not just the trains that I will miss, but public transportation in general and the lifestyle that accompanies it. Public transportation is so much less expensive and stressful than driving.
On top of that, there is nowhere else that does public transportation as well as Japan. It is affordable (minus bullet trains), prompt, has diverse routing options and is so clean. This is the best thing about Japan, hands down!
- bars/clubs open all night
- alcohol sold 24 hours
- open drinking in the streets
- the general vibe of drinking in a hugely compacted city with bars and clubs just feet apart
- the memories that flashback
- the way I’m mesmerized when I see all the lights
- the smell of dirt, cigarettes, and alcohol-infused vomit
- taking birthday pictures with Glico Running Man
- exploring the narrow streets that are all the same, yet somehow different
- how there is always something new and weird to find
- the strange feeling of belonging even though I know I really don’t…
- The way Japanese cities are built up and not out (the exact opposite of Phoenix)
This makes the streets narrow, buildings tall, and city lights bright. The atmosphere is compact and overcrowded and just what I like
- Night views from the tops of tall buildings or from mountain lookouts
Night views in Japan are nothing less than magical. (Another good aspect of cities built up instead of out.)
Every time I visited a new city in Japan I would find the highest view and make the time to see it. Usually, there is a tall skyscraper in every city that has an observatory at the very top. Cities like Tokyo and Osaka have many different observatory options.
Other cities have a mountain not far from the city center with a cable car or bus that will take you to the top to see the view. It can be pricey but so worth it.
- Cute mascots and characters for every prefecture, city, park, etc..
Souvenir shopping in Japan is the best. My favorite thing is the city mascots, but there are always a lot of other really nice high-quality merchandise available if cute faces are not your thing. If nothing else, find a souvenir with Engrish on it. That is always a win for everyone.
- How everything is cute, often incorporating food and animals together.
I can’t properly explain the food/animal combination, and I also can’t explain why it is so adorable. It’s like prints with sashimi cats on top of rice, rabbits inside of crepes, or small fluffy dogs in between two pieces of sandwich bread.
If you want to see what I am talking about, google “Gachapon sushi cats.” Be prepared to die from cuteness overload.
- The abundance of time off, both national holidays and teaching-related
In just 3 years and 4 months living in Japan, I traveled to 15 other countries and explored close to all of Japan solely because of time off.
Just to clarify, this is particular to working as an ALT or working at an international school where a significant number of the employed staff are foreigners. As you might know, Japan is famous for people literally dying from overwork.
As a rule, asking for time off, even on national holidays, can be subject to workplace hostility.
When I was an ALT there was a teacher I worked with who would go on 3-4 day weekend trips abroad with her family in secret. She only told me about them because she felt if the other Japanese staff knew they would judge her for not “working as hard as they were.”
If you end up working for a Japanese company when living in Japan or working at a public school as full time teaching staff, don’t expect to be able to take advantage of your holiday time off like I did.
- Certain seasonal happenings, apart from just watching the seasons change day by day
Phoenix does have all 4 seasons, however, they aren’t very noticeable. I really enjoyed watching how nature changed around me day by day while living in Japan. Some specific things I will miss about each season include:
- maple tree viewing in fall
- flowers and boozy picnics in spring (Actually, there are beautiful flowers blooming all year.)
- onsen with ocean or mountaintop views, heated toilet seats (though this wouldn’t be necessary if buildings were heated properly), and the extremely fluffy clothes and blankets that come out during winter
- greenery and wearing my yukata in summer
- Japanese courtesy, orderliness, and patience –especially in large crowds
This includes: not being pushed or cut in line, letting people off the train before getting on, and the quietness on public transport.
In general, I really don’t mind people talking, but sometimes it’s nice to just sit and not be distracted by the other people around you.
Yes, it’s true. Japan is very clean and one of the best things about living in Japan.
I think there are a lot of reasons for this, mainly that Japanese people are just good about not littering and being courteous. Another reason is that the poorer, rundown parts of town are conveniently out of sight.
This doesn’t mean you won’t see any trash in the city center. In fact, Osaka is probably the dirtiest place in Japan – and you can easily see this walking around the morning after a Friday or Saturday night.
The cool thing is that while Osaka gets dirty, it quickly becomes clean again. I noticed that at around 6 am, there are often senior citizens out sweeping the streets and picking up beer cans. I don’t know if they are paid to do this by the city or if they do it to keep the front of their businesses clean, but it sure does make a big difference.
- My job
The overall job as an ALT is pointless (a subject worthy of a whole separate blog post), but I absolutely loved working in the nursery at an international school. I miss the babies so much.
- How I generally felt a strong sense of safety, both during the day and at night by myself.
This includes not worrying about my stuff getting stolen if I leave things outside, not worrying about being scammed, and not worrying about being mugged, kidnapped, or raped at gunpoint. *key words in Italics*
I will acknowledge that I’m doubtful that living in Japan is actually as safe as its reputation implies, though it sure does feel safe. I know that crime is systematically underreported (especially in Osaka), and sex crimes against women and children are brushed under the rug, almost always without any trial or conviction of the offender.
My advice: take Japan’s safety reputation with a grain of salt, especially as a woman.
- Not worrying about the possibility of outrageously expensive medical bills, even without insurance
Specifically for the Americans reading this: this is a big deal! I don’t need to explain any further. You know what’s up.
- Traveling in Japan and the endless amounts of things to do and see
I used to hear from other foreigners that they didn’t like to travel in Japan because every city was the same. There is absolutely some truth in that, which is why I was so intrigued to find the differences others couldn’t see.
For me, traveling in Japan felt so easy-going that it was impossible not to enjoy.
- The ease of traveling outside of Japan to the rest of Asia
If I remember correctly, my one-way flight to Singapore from Osaka was around $100 off-season. I couldn’t fly down the street for $100 in the U.S.
- Meeting travelers and making friends from all over the world.
The foreign community in Japan is small, but it’s still pretty diverse. While working in a bar, I really enjoyed meeting travelers. Not many tourists come to Phoenix.
- Being told I am beautiful all the time
Foreigners get a lot of compliments in Japan, and who doesn’t love a good compliment? I especially enjoyed it when people told me my boobs were big, my teeth were white, or that I had a nice ass.
I know I will never get those compliments again now that I am back home.
- Halloween in Osaka.
Halloween in Japan is fun for adults if you live in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka. Loads of people dress up and drink outside in public spaces, just chilling and taking pictures with each other. There are also a lot of events at clubs and bars that aren’t too pricey.
Unfortunately, the fun is only for adults. There is nothing fun for kids other than decorations in train stations or shops.
- Pre-gaming at a cheap Izakaya nomihoudai (restaurant bars with all you can drink menus for a set price and time limit)
By far the cheapest way to drink in Japan is to find a nomihoudai. It’s usually something like all-you-can-drink for 1.5-2 hours for $15-30. Every city is different.
Beware the alcohol selections suck, though. Your choices are Japanese beer, plum wine, shochu, or watery chuhai cocktails.
- Some specific food and beverage items
- matcha, houjicha (roasted green tea), and milk tea-flavored treats
- Japanese chocolate (Meiji, Ghana, Alfort, etc.)
- umeshu (Japanese plum wine)
- unsweetened oolong/green teas available everywhere
- royal milk tea (Lipton brand specifically)
- my favorite all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu restaurant Tajimaya (locations all over Japan). It even has an all-you-can-eat Haagen Dazs ice cream bar.
- Food challenges
Japanese food is so terrible that I often got to challenge myself and eat something exceptionally gross – things like raw chicken, random animal bits and parts of unknown origin (possibly raw), things that smell so bad you would rather die than take a second bite.
It’s always fun to challenge yourself.
- The smell of high-quality incense at ryokan and temples
I never thought incense smelled good until I came to Japan. The smell is so nice that you can buy air fresheners mimicking it, which is slightly cheaper than buying the real incense at a shrine or temple.
- Recycle bins wherever there’s a trash bin (so basically only in train stations, behind the gates on specific platforms)
- Japanese dollar stores and all of the hella useful junk
Useful tip: if you have just started living in Japan and your apartment is empty, go to the 100 yen stores first (Daiso and Seria). They have almost everything you’ll need besides furniture, especially if you are only staying a year or so.
The quality of the products is surprisingly good, so long as you aren’t bothered by having plastic everything.
- Trying new snacks, pastries, and desserts at the konbini (convenience stores)
Japanese convenience stores are a little over-rated. I never thought the food was that good, though I would constantly hear other people praise it unconditionally.
I’ll admit one thing that was fun was trying the new items that came out on a seemingly weekly basis. However, it was always rare for me to find something really good, and when I did, it would usually disappear after a week and never come back.
Nevertheless, it was still exciting to always find new products. I especially liked when new chocolate or tea-flavored desserts would come out. The desserts are way better than the packaged meals or snacks.
- The button you press for the waiter/waitress to come to your table at restaurants and izakaya
Mostly just at izakaya, but yes, there really is a button to call for service. It’s brilliant. There is also sometimes a computerized tablet that you can order your food from. It’s perfect for recluses like me who don’t want to talk to anyone, including servers.
- Not tipping
No tipping in Japan ever! The only downside to this is when you’re working as a bartender.
- Food sold 30-50% off at the grocery store when the sell-by date is near
Tip: If you can, go grocery shopping later in the day around dinner time or later when everything goes on sale. It’ll save you a lot of money, especially on fruit, meat, condiments, and pre-made meals!
- The theme music playing in the background at grocery stores and Don Quijote.
I don’t know why I like this about living in Japan. The songs are just so oddly specific and catchy. They’ll get stuck in your head and you’ll sing them all the time.
I also walk into these stores and thank my lucky stars I don’t work there and have to listen to the same jingle played over and over again for a full 8-hour shift. A daily reminder that your job could be so much worse is always a blessing.
- Cheap lockers are available at clubs, train stations, museums, etc.
- Restaurant listings with pictures on the first floor of buildings and plastic food displays in front of restaurant entrances
- Soft water, no hot water tanks, decent tasting tap water, and detachable showerheads
- Wearing a surgical mask when I have a runny nose
- Using convenient Japanese words and expressions in everyday speech
Weirdly enough, I think I will miss “えええええ!?” the most. It’s useful, always appropriate, and especially funny when drunk.
- Using Japanese TV for background noise.
Japanese TV is famously terrible, shockingly terrible – which makes it perfect to have on as background noise. Living alone is lonely. Having the TV on helps with those feelings, and with Japanese TV you are never tempted to stop what you are doing to watch it.
- The look and style of Japanese houses from the outside.
Japanese houses are so beautiful and unique.
Note: ONLY FROM THE OUTSIDE. Scroll down to see how I feel about the inside of Japanese houses.
I will add one more thing- Japanese houses (not apartments) have wooden bars on all of the windows. I loved this! They made me feel safe enough to leave the windows open all night long.
- Bowing slightly to acknowledge someone, say thank you, or excuse yourself
Any instance that gets me out of talking makes me happy. Bowing is the perfect yet polite way to not say anything ever.
- Employers paying for your transportation costs to and from work
This is the norm in Japan that is really nice.
As an ALT on the JET Program, you usually don’t get this luxury. When I worked for the international school they paid for a monthly train pass that was about an extra $350 per month. Even better, I could use the train pass on the weekends, as well.
It really was a life-saver for my budget.
- Having net cafes and cheap love hotels to crash at if shit gets real
Beware some love hotels are straight-up “Japanese Only.” Most don’t allow same-sex couples.
- Refill bags for shampoo, laundry detergent, and cleaning products
There are also sample packets for any shampoo and conditioner you want to try – super convenient and fun to buy for traveling.
- Feeling completely uncomfortable in bizarre cultural situations that could never happen outside of Japan
I guess this is that “culture shock” thing everyone keeps talking about… I actually really enjoy feeling uncomfortable in this way every once in a while.
- Meeting a Japanese person who is seemingly different from the rest and it reminds me to not be such a prejudiced asshole.
I especially enjoyed running into a strong-willed, loud-mouthed Japanese woman or sitting next to groups of women talking loudly and laughing with each other on public transportation or in restaurants.
Japanese women are stereotyped to be quiet, weak, and void of opinion or personality. It filled me with so much joy to see the opposite.
And just for the record, it happened quite often.
- Living somewhere friendly to introverts
America is a loud place. People are always talking. I enjoy the happy vibes, friendly people, and culture of constant discussion, but I think there is something special about quietness.
In Japan, being shy or introverted isn’t weird; it’s quite normal. As someone who can relate to introversion more than extroversion, I will always miss feeling the comforting quiet of Japan.
Japan travel tip: If you’re planning to travel around to different parts of Japan a Japan Rail Pass (get one with that link) can save a lot of money on the fast Shinkansen trains.
Things I Will Not Miss About Living in Japan
- THE FOOD!
Specifically? Almost everything – both traditional Japanese cuisine and Japanese adaptations of Western or other Asian cuisines.
I don’t even know where to start complaining about this but really it’s quite simple: Japanese food is dull.
The food scene is so dull and boring that it’s by far the biggest disappointment I have about Japan. Japanese food is bland, overly simplistic, and completely underwhelming.
When going out to eat, there is literally no creativity or variation from one restaurant’s menu to another. Cafe food is, without exception, always gross. Food stands, festival food, and bar food are the same at every stand, festival, and bar. Even when you travel to a new city and search for that city’s famous dishes there is almost no variation.
Imagine traveling to a new city and finding out that they have a famous type of ramen, only to find out that it’s the same exact ramen as everywhere else but with a half-boiled egg on top. This is the Japanese food scene in a nutshell.
I could go on and on, complaining until the cows come home, but I think I’ve made my point. And to be completely honest, I’m fucking tired of complaining about this. Sorry to all my friends in Japan who had to deal with my relentless grumbling; I got tired of it, too.
- Not being able to eat most fruits and many vegetables on a daily basis because they are too expensive or unavailable.
I really can’t live without eating fruit, and the selections and affordability of both fruits and vegetables in Japan are pathetic.
Be ready to pay $6 for a puny pack of strawberries, $9 for two peaches, and $8 for a small pack of grapes. You don’t even want to know about the melons.
- Japanese housing
A friend of mine from California once mentioned to me that living in a Japanese house or apartment is like living in a garage. She could not have been more spot-on.
Be ready for all of these issues and more:
- no insulation or centralized heating or cooling – which means whatever temperature it is outside will be the exact temperature inside
- walls and floors are made of paper, grassy bits, and cardboard (this is not an exaggeration)
- major mold infestations
- a lack of ventilation
- little natural light
- loads of bugs in summer
- The complete lack of human and cultural diversity
- Being away from my family
- How your girlfriends will always leave
For all the women reading this and thinking of living in Japan long-term, just keep in mind that most (if not all) of your non-Japanese girlfriends will leave you.
Japan isn’t a friendly place for foreign women. I won’t get into the details of that, but just know my experience: I started out with a group of 4 other girls that I did everything with. Three years later, I was the only one left.
I have only met one foreign woman who has lived in Japan forever, but she had lived there since she was a child. I knew a couple of others who had been there over 10 years, and coincidently, finally went back to their home countries the last year I was there.
I’m not saying long-term foreign female residents don’t exist. They most certainly do. Just know that it’s not common, and be prepared to continuously say goodbye to great friends.
- Having to import basic necessities from America because Japanese products are shit (ex: deodorant, toothpaste, cold and pain medicine)
- Japanese men and the way they make me feel inhuman
As a general rule, just remember that women are not really considered people in Japan- just an object to look cute, clean, do chores, and prepare bento lunches.
Sounds harsh, but where is the lie?
Honestly, I’m not yet sure if American men make me feel any better. I’m just saying that I have more of a chance to feel human and that my thoughts and feelings will actually matter if I live somewhere other than Japan.
- Missing Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Christmas in Japan is depressing and one of the lesser things I liked about living in Japan. Thanksgiving is my favorite meal, so missing it was depressing.
The good thing about Christmas in Japan is that it’s easy to take it off as an extension to your holiday break.
My first Christmas I spent skiing in Nagano. My second and third were spent traveling in Hong Kong and Thailand. Not too shabby for what could have otherwise been a depressing holiday!
- Japanese logic – little critical thinking and reasoning skills, the inability to question authority, mainstream thought, cultural norms, explain why rules exist, or think beyond the box
Yo, I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out:
It’s pretty well known that the Japanese education system doesn’t focus on researching to find answers or teaching the necessity of critical thinking. Teachers dictate students write, teachers give tests, students fail tests, students pass their classes and graduate anyway. Enter university and repeat all steps.
That’s all well and fine… until it’s not well and fine.
I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about this unless it affected me on a personal level. Surprise, surprise! It’s something that cannot be avoided.
Be ready for this cycle to affect every aspect of your life in Japan – when you’re at work and it seems like no one is listening to your issues, giving you the same mindless responses no matter how many times you reword the problem; when you are at a restaurant trying to change an order; when you are at the airport customer service desk (or really any customer service desk) asking simple yet very important questions; when you are in any situation imaginable requesting information, searching for a general explanation, or trying to solve a problem.
All of those situations which you would never think could be complicated suddenly become impossible in Japan.
Heads up, it can be exhausting.
- Bizarre rules that make no real sense in modern times and should have changed years ago… but probably never will.
Short and sweet, Japan has a hard time changing – legally, socially, technologically, and in the business world. This means there are a lot of old unspoken rules or laws that seem odd for a country with such a high standard of education and livelihood.
A quick and famous example of this is the rule banning people with tattoos from gyms, onsen, clubs, etc. It’s not good enough for people to just cover up their tattoos. If staff find out you have them, covered or not, you will be asked to leave and your membership will likely be terminated.
- Living in a country that doesn’t speak English.
This is just an obvious point to remember: that you will consistently be inconvenienced.
Yes, you should learn and speak Japanese if you plan to live in Japan long-term (which I never did), but until you learn Japanese (which could take many, many years) it can be extremely inconvenient, especially when you need to do something over the phone, or when you get yourself into some kind of pickle (as I often did).
Basic Japanese will do you fine for everyday life for the first couple of years, but I can’t really imagine living there longer than that and not learning the language at least to a conversational level. It’s one of the reasons I left when I did.
I lost interest in learning the language.
- Having the same conversation over and over.
I’ve heard many foreigners complain about this, and it’s definitely one of the reasons why I eventually lost interest in learning Japanese.
Conversations with Japanese people rarely diverge from the same basic questions – things like “Where are you from?” “Can you eat Japanese food?” “You like to sex Japanese boys?”
You know, things like that. There are a couple of other prominent ones, but I won’t spoil the fun of figuring them out for yourself.
The point is that this gets exhausting, especially on a weekly or daily basis, and especially when I worked as a bartender. During the first and second year, it didn’t bother me, but by the third year, I was actively avoiding conversing with Japanese people just so I didn’t have to endure the same conversation again.
Really, I feel bad because it’s not their fault. I know that the opportunities to meet foreigners are rare, and they can’t know how annoying their questions are. It just sucked because it made it hard sometimes to make real Japanese friends.
- Being ignored by shop staff because they assume I don’t speak Japanese.
I guess pretending that I am not there is better than attempting to speak even one word in English, not like I ever asked or expected them to do so. This really was a rarity, but it happened often enough for me to not miss it.
- How if something really bad were to happen to me the police would likely be completely and utterly useless and that I would have little chance at justice.
Research violence against women in Japan and the statistics on rape case prosecution and conviction – it’s not pretty.
- Extremely out-of-date medical ideas and practices.
Going to see a doctor in Japan can be the most frustrating thing in the world, with or without language barriers. I would continuously hear from doctors that one of the kids at school was sick because “The air conditioner was set too cold in the room,” or that one of the babies in my class had a fever because “They drank too much cold tea.”
What the actual fuck is that? I’m still waiting for a logical explanation.
My own experiences at the doctor’s offices weren’t much better. You have to really pressure them to give you the right test or to give you stronger medicine if the first one they gave you didn’t work. And they often downplay how contagious you are.
I guess the upside is that they are affordable to see so you can continue to go back and demand better treatment until you’re satisfied.
- Japanese medicine
It’s very weak compared to Western medicine, even some of the stuff the doctor prescribes.
- Japanese cleaning products
Both in the way they *don’t* clean and the way they smell like either a flower garden explosion or a mix of Ramune and toilet water.
- Japanese washing machines
Kind of like medicine, they just don’t work. Expect to never have fully clean clothes.
- Japanese dentistry
True story: I went to a dentist in Hyogo prefecture for a “cleaning.” The dentist literally brushed my teeth with an everyday toothbrush and then brushed generic Listerine mouthwash onto each tooth, and then sent me on my way.
I really don’t know what the deal is, but Japan has by far the worst oral hygiene situation of any of the developed countries I’ve been to.
The 2-year-olds in my class would often have chipped and rotting baby teeth. I would see kids under 10 years old with front silver fillings and discolored enamel, and it was pretty rare to see an adult over the age of 35 who had all their front top teeth and no decay.
General dentistry is covered under the national health care system. It really isn’t that expensive (not to mention the kids at my school came from very wealthy families).
The only thing I can think of to explain this nonsense is just plain and simple negligence and badly trained dentists. I’m sure there are some good ones out there, but they must be hard to find.
- Japanese beer.
Yuck! Goodbye, forever Asahi and Kirin!
- Of course… the famous lack of trash cans
Although, you get used to carrying around trash in your purse. It’s not so bad.
- Store clerks taping my shopping bags shut
- The lack of proper smoking etiquette and modern smoking laws/restrictions.
I can’t tell you how many times someone at a bar has blown cigarette smoke right into my face. So rude.
- Needing cash to pay for everything but having to pay 200 yen every time I need to take money out of my bank account
- Open/close hours for banks, ATMs, and post offices
- Not having a dryer in winter.
Dryers are rare in Japan. I know some people that have one built into their washing machine, but I’m not even completely sure you can buy one that stands alone.
I get that they are bad for the environment, and I agree with that criticism, but listen up – when the inside of your house is literally at freezing temperatures in the middle of winter nothing will dry when you hang it.
- The wastefulness of disposable wooden chopsticks.
Even most nice upscale restaurants will only provide disposable chopsticks.
- Omiyage and other nasty small snacks individually wrapped
Actually, just everything that is individually wrapped, including produce.
- The lack of napkins
Fuck wet tissues and their individual wrappers.
- Pretending I am Russian so random men will not talk to me
What? A white girl that doesn’t speak English!?
Yes, it’s actually a thing.
Jokes aside, pretending you don’t speak English (or Japanese) works wonderfully when you want a Japanese guy to stop bothering you. They are pretty quick to give up.
- Women’s fashion and lingerie *gag*
The fashion for women is frumpy or childlike. The lingerie looks like something only a unicorn should wear – too many bright colors, frills, lacy flowers with bows, and too much padding.
- The obvious and in your face sexualization of very young girls *more gagging*
It’s everywhere. Girl groups, magazines, advertisements, commercials, etc…
- Being complimented on how white my skin is *ultimate gag*
This is the compliment I received most often. Colourism in Japan is just as real as everywhere else.
- Panty lines and toes
I don’t know why women in Japan don’t wear thong underwear with tight pants. I also don’t know why it really really bothered me. I guess it was just something that was always in my face walking down the street, so it was always on my mind.
Also, everyone tends to wear their shoes a few sizes too small or too big. While riding the train in silence and looking at the floor, you’ll notice everyone’s toes hanging over the edge of their sandals and high heels.
Again, I don’t know why things like this bother me. I really wish I didn’t care.
- Rude body comments
Japanese people are surprisingly rude when it comes to making inappropriate comments about other people’s bodies. This is applicable to people you know well, colleagues at work, or complete and total strangers.
No matter what your body type is, just remember that in Japan you are always fat. I straight up got called fat on one occasion and got asked if I had “become fat recently” more times than I care to remember. I’m 5ft 6in(167cm) and weigh 110 lb.(49 kg). If I am fat, then everyone is fat. No exceptions.
(I also got a lot of really positive comments that I did enjoy, as I mentioned above.)
- Women intentionally making their voices higher to sound like a child.
Imagine Alvin and the Chipmunks but much, much whinier… and you can’t just turn off the TV when you’re over it.
- Those same women welcoming you into their stores by repeatedly screaming on the streets with their fake squeaky voices, and then continuing to scream inside while you are trying to shop
“Welcome, please take a look!” “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” “Please take a look! Welcome! Welcome!” “WELCOME PLEASE TAKE A LOOK WELCOME!”
Actually, I don’t know if this deserves to be on the “won’t miss” list. It’s kind of like grocery store theme music – annoying yet oddly satisfying.
I mean, would I really be getting the full Japan shopping experience without all the unnecessary yelling? Likely not.
- The very obvious passive and casual racism, prejudice, discrimination, and xenophobia that no one realizes, points out, questions, or challenges.
Yes, I know that this is everywhere in every country to some extent. I also know that in adding this to my list it might seem ironic because I come from a famously racist country that still continues to have major problems in dealing with racism on an institutionalized level, consistently making global news.
And when I make a list titled “Things I Won’t Miss About the U.S.,” you can bet I’ll be discussing this exact issue at great length.
The thing is, injustice is never questioned or heard of by anyone in Japan, and I think that is what makes it upsetting.
Almost everything can be segregated by gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ethnicity – bars segregated by gender, clubs denying entrance to certain nationalities, hotels, some eating establishments, and housing complexes proudly proclaiming “Japanese Only.”
For a country that prides itself on its educational achievements and an economy and standard of living described as developed, modern, or high, the normalization of this is something that always puzzled me.
Let’s not mention the invisibility and systematic struggles of Japan’s other Asian ethnic minorities or people with disabilities.
Then again, fair enough. In a culture where uncomfortable discussion is preferred to be absent, and when ethnic Japanese people make up some 98% of the population, how could they possibly see or hear or even care about the difficulties of the other 2%? (This all tying into why diversity is so important to me, despite its challenges).
- The constant rain in every season made me look like a cotton ball.
The weather in Japan actually kind of sucks. It’s constantly raining, rainy season or not. It’s not so fun to have curly hair in a world where everyone else has silky smooth hair, rain or shine, every day.
- How slow people walk.
Japan’s famous English name should change from “The Land of the Rising Sun” to “The Land of the Slow Walkers.”
I laugh at my own lame joke and cry from frustration at the same time. Back home I walk a lot and living in Japan as an American I need to get my walk on.
- The pools of vomit everywhere.
Japanese cities equate to lots of people in a small space who can’t hold their alcohol. I know above I mentioned that I enjoyed the smell of vomit in Osaka. It’s really a love/hate thing. I definitely don’t like stepping in it, though.
- Karaoke bars.
I fucking hate karaoke. It’s hard to find a good bar in Japan that doesn’t have it.
- Public toilets are absent of soap 50% of the time.
… and then watching in the restroom as people never wash their hands with soap, even when it is there the other 50% of the time.
Does somebody out there want to explain to me why Japanese people don’t wash their hands with soap?
- Kitchen and toilet slippers.
Ew. Just, ew. Toilet slippers are gross and unnecessary on every level.
- Taking off my shoes in buildings that are not someone’s home.
Unsurprisingly, taking off your shoes makes absolutely no difference in cleanliness when it is a larger building.
If you work in a public school in Japan you will have to take off your outside shoes and change to inside shoes at the entrance.
The school I worked in was absolutely filthy. Staff and students changing their shoes made no difference in this regard. In fact, my outside shoes were cleaner than my inside ones.
- Rape-y Japanese porn randomly playing in hotel rooms and other convenient stores and sex shops.
Okay, let’s be fair. I don’t like the stereotypical aggressive Western porn either, but nothing is worse than Japanese porn, which you will see living in Japan as a foreigner.
The women always seem to be being raped- fake crying, screaming “no, stop it!” over and over. It’s nothing less than creepy and kind of hard to get away from.
I know this is overkill, but…
Things You Might Think I Would Miss Living in Japan, But I Won’t
- Escalator etiquette- having one standing lane and one walking lane
There are too many damn people in Japan’s large cities to have one standing lane and one walking lane. Not enough people want to walk up escalators, making the standing lane long and void of use.
- Vending machines
- too expensive
- they all sell the same shitty beverages
- there’s never Oolong tea (my favorite)
- there are convenience stores on every corner anyway that sell the same drinks at a lower price
- Japanese customer service
Yeah, whatever, they are very polite, but they don’t actually help you when you have a problem, or take responsibility for anything that is their fault, or are able to explain anything beyond a simple “no,” or are able to speak to you in a non-robotic scripted manner. Definitely one of the things I hated about living in Japan.
I prefer American customer service any day – friendlier and way more helpful and accommodating.
I’m sure there are swarms of people ready to fight me on this. That’s fine, bruh. Come at me!
- Japanese toilets.
Those high-tech toilets with a spray function, heated seats, and super private stalls are nice, but that’s not usually the kind of toilet you get when you move into your apartment unless you’re a rich bitch.
What you usually get are regular toilets probably similar to what you’re used to back home. They are low water toilets with a small flush and big flush option. The low water aspect is pointless in my mind because it only causes me to flush and clean the toilet more often than I normally would.
I got food poisoning once in the middle of December when living in Japan when the inside of my house was well at freezing temperatures. After throwing up, I realized some of the puke had frozen to the inside of the toilet bowl where the water couldn’t reach it.
So not only was my day ruined from hyperthermia and sickness, I then had to clean the frozen puke from the inside of the toilet so my poor roommate wouldn’t come home to a vomit-popsicle-lined toilet bowl.
No more standard Japanese toilets inside of old Japanese houses, please.
- Really small, uniquely styled, hole in the wall bars
- Overpriced basic drinks with no variation
- weird ambiance
- often claustrophobic
- seating charges- making it too expensive to bar hop
- bad/no food options
- too much karaoke
- usually not a great social environment for drinking in a group
- Trash collection days
I’m sure the environmentally conscious are excited to hear about Japan’s trash system. I was in the beginning, as well.
The way it works is that you have to separate your trash and then there is a designated pick-up day for each separation – usually twice a week for burnable and one day a week for each pile of recyclables. Every city is different.
I always heard foreigners living in Japan complaining about separating their trash. The truth is I really enjoyed separating it.
However, I hated only having two days a week to throw out burnable garbage. What this really means is that in summer, when your Japanese house is 95F (35C) inside, you will have hot, smelly, mold-infested garbage just chilling in your kitchen until the specific day you can throw it out.
God forbid you to miss that day, as I often did.
Things You Might Think I Wouldn’t Miss Living in Japan, But I Will
Though I bet I could think of a few for that list too.
In the end, if you are thinking about living in Japan, I hope first that you realize that Japan really isn’t all that fantastic after the excitement dies down.
Of course, it’s a wonderful country with lovely people and a rich and beautiful culture very new and foreign to your own, but just like any other country, it has its faults. For many foreigners who decide to leave, those faults are the reason for that decision.
Some of the deal-breaker negatives I hear people complain about are the lack of job opportunities, the stereotyping, the racist comments, the stares, and the lack of privacy at work or in your neighborhood being the only different face…
Wait… are these complaints from foreigners living in Japan or minority groups in the U.S.?
Yeah, that’s right. I got some jokes.
In all seriousness, even those commonly cited negatives never really bothered me that much.
And even though I made that separate “won’t miss” list, I could still see myself living in Japan again one day given the right circumstances and opportunity – most importantly, if I could find a job that I would be happy to call a career (and that could afford me $9 peaches).
Now that I am back home I will most surely continue to add to the list of “Things I Will Miss” rather than “Things I Will Not Miss,” because I will forever miss Japan and consider it a second home.
If you have the yearning and ability to do more than just travel in Japan for the 90 days allowed by your travel visa, I suggest you take it! It is never a mistake to live in a different country and learn about a new culture, even if it’s just for a short time, and living in Japan is an experience not to be missed.
Who knows? You might even find yourself in a new home.
Living in Japan as a Foreigner
Jessica has given you a good idea about living in Japan as a foreigner and becoming a so-called “Japanican” and adapting to the Japanese lifestyle and everything that went with it. Also what the Japanese attitude towards foreigners can be like.
If you’re looking for cheap places to live in Japan Osaka is one of the best as far as the big cities go. I certainly found it cheaper than Tokyo and Kyoto, so if you’re looking to live in Japan and want to stay in a city then Osaka is a great choice.
You can also find some of the cheapest accommodation in Japan in Osaka surprisingly enough given that it is a big city. A private budget hotel room can be found for as little as $15 a night and still in the center.
The cost of living in Japan is not cheap as Japan is an expensive country in many ways, but the salary you will make there will more than help compensate those costs.
The standard of living in Japan as a foreigner is very high although they do have a hard work ethic.
More reading to help with living in Japan (or visiting):
If you’re interested in living and working in Japan by teaching English a TEFL certificate (get one with that link) can help out.
If you’re planning to travel around to different parts of Japan a Japan Rail Pass (get one with that link) can save a lot of money on the fast Shinkansen trains.
Pick for a guidebook: Pocket Kyoto & Osaka (Travel Guide) for the Osaka and Kyoto area (obviously!)
Japan is an expensive place for medical treatment if something goes wrong and even if you’re just planning to visit and not for living in Japan be sure to get some travel insurance.
I recommend using SafetyWing Travel Insurance for your trip, just in case, it’s best to be prepared.
I hope this article has given a good impression of what it’s like living in Japan and I hope you get to Japan someday.
If you’re interested in learning more about Japanese culture then take a look at these articles:
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