At some point, maybe a year after I moved here, I was under the delusion that I’d become a “local” in my small neighborhood in Japan. I settled into a routine. I knew half a dozen shopkeepers on my street enough to say hello and chat about the weather. I received coupons for the pizza place down the street, and then I used them. I went to a Japanese dentist and made an appointment for six months in the future, confident I’d still be here.
I hit a level of Japanese language proficiency where I entered into conversations without preemptively blushing and sweating; I knew I wouldn’t understand most of it, but I knew it’d probably work out. I felt like I belonged and like the people in my community, at least my block, were starting to accept my husband and me into their daily lives.
Then, a little more time passed, and I realized I was wrong.
I’ve never gone to Tokyo without a subway map and a camera in my hand at all times. Holidays come and go and I have no idea what my neighbors are celebrating. The rules for garbage collection change — different items, different schedule, different collection area — and no one tells me.
I’m not a local. I just live here.
I think many people are in my shoes. Foreigners come to Japan on temporary work permits and stay several years but still feel like a tourist, at least some of the time. Or maybe they just haven’t realized it yet. If any of the situations below are familiar to you, you may still be a tourist in Japan.
1. In the past year, you’ve almost walked away from a toilet because you couldn’t figure out how to flush it.
Admit it. This has happened to you. It’s definitely happened to me. Push this button on the wall. No, step on this pedal on the floor. No, press three buttons on the electronic handle that heats the seat. Just flush!
2. You’ve been to a karaoke bar but don’t know the words to “Sukiyaki.”
Or you don’t know the Japanese title of the song, or you don’t know what I’m talking about. If you do know what I’m talking about, I apologize because I’m almost certain it’s now stuck in your head.
3. You’ve never carried a mikoshi in a community festival, rung a new year’s bell, climbed Mount Fuji, or worn a kimono in public.
Some of the most iconic aspects of Japanese culture are tough to experience without a Japanese friend or tour guide to help you. Carrying a mikoshi, for example, is often done by a community group that a tourist would have a hard time joining.
4. No stranger has ever knocked once and then walked into your house yelling, “Shitsureishimasu!”
I see this happening to my neighbors all the time. Friends, delivery people, utility-company workers just walk into their houses. This has happened to me only twice, and once was a mistake that was embarrassing for us both.
It’s somehow frightening and rewarding at the same time. You feel like you’re part of the community culture, and you also wonder if the person is going to kill you.
5. Some, many, or all kanji still elude you.
The Chinese characters that make up the Japanese logographic (each character represents an idea instead of a sound) writing system are beautiful, and as I’ve learned more and more, my world feels like it’s opening up. I can read some street signs! I know whether I’m ordering chicken or beef!
But why are there so many? There are over 2,000 kanji and many have multiple meanings. It feels like a losing battle.
6. You still think it’s a little weird that 7-Eleven is a one-stop shop for everything but medical care.
The following scenario is possible: You want to go skiing in Hokkaido. You visit your local 7-Eleven and pay for a flight and charge your train IC card to make sure you have enough money to get to the airport. While you’re there you also pay all of your bills, ship your skis to your hotel, buy a nutritious snack, and maybe buy a clean t-shirt and pair of socks.
Before I moved here, I used 7-Eleven almost exclusively for taquitos and lottery tickets.
7. Recycling is tough for you sometimes.
How do I throw out a semi-used candle? Do I have to separate it into burnable (wax), glass (the container), and nonburnable (the metal piece that holds the wick)? Or do I wrap it in a piece of paper towel and pretend the whole thing is burnable?
8. Your wallet isn’t filled with point cards.
If this is the case, you’re a lunatic. Everywhere has a point card. Every point redemption system is different and confusing. None of the prizes are worth carrying so many cards around. But it’s so fun.
9. You have a huge jar of yennies you don’t know what to do with.
I periodically wrap mine and bring them to the bank, but I read online they’re worth more if you melt them down and make something out of the metal.