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What Your Friends Will Never Understand About Living in Japan (and That's Okay)

by Louise Hung Jun 15, 2015

WHEN I ANNOUNCED TO MY FRIENDS that I was moving from Hawai’i to Japan, the responses ran the gamut:

“OH MY GOD! I’m so jealous! You’re going to have the best time and never want to come back!”

“Wow. What are you going to do over there? Do you realize what you’re getting yourself into? I know a good language program…”

“But…you don’t speak Japanese.”

With friends scattered around the world, everyone had a different take on my big international move. From well wishes to concern, I was lucky that almost everyone who had an opinion on my move had my best interests at heart (of course there were the random curmudgeons who couldn’t help but say something like, “You’re going to hate it” — thanks???).

Upon moving to Japan, I quickly learned that life here was like nothing I’d expected — or my friends had expected. In my first weeks I tried to explain the bombardment of new sights, sounds, and people I was experiencing, but the difference between being here and hearing about here was huge.

So for those of you considering a move to Japan, here are some of the things you may have to look forward to when talking with loved ones back home.

1. It’s not a vacation if you have to pay rent.

When living in, or near, a major city known as a tourist destination, many people assume you are living life on vacation. Meals out all the time, days spent siteseeing or shopping, everything’s a photo op — that’s the life that people imagine. And why wouldn’t they? That’s the Tokyo of the movies and travel brochures (do people still look at those?).

There have been so many times that I’ve heard a tinge of disappointment in a friend’s voice when they ask if I’ve been to any number of tourist destinations — many of which are very expensive! — and I tell them, “No, not yet.”

I’d love to eat at Jiro’s famous sushi restaurant, but that one-15 minute meal is half my rent for the month (plus let’s face it, I don’t speak Japanese well enough — Jiro would HATE ME).

I DREAMED of spending my days lounging beneath the cherry blossoms every afternoon during cherry blossom season, but somehow I think putting “Gone Cherry Blossom Viewing Suckers” as my out-of-office message in my email would have irritated my bosses.

It would be a blast spending my money on all the wild fashions and oddities in Harajuku or Shibuya, but then I wouldn’t have the money to feed my cat and she would eat me in my sleep.

I would say, “life gets in the way,” but really it’s more “life has to have a balance.” I’ve done or will do most of the “Must Do” things in Tokyo and Yokohama, but in order to do those things I have to work, pay my rent, and feed my cat. Those boring day-to-day routines are so easy to forget when visions of sushi, kimono, and all-night karaoke sessions are the broad strokes of your “Japan” understanding.

I’m living a life, not a vacation. And while my daily life has a unique vibrancy and contentment that vacation life just cannot offer, it’s sometimes hard for friends to grasp that a trip to the neighborhood izakaya can be just as fascinating as a trip to the robot-themed restaurant in Shinjuku.

2. Being pushy doesn’t pay off.

A while ago I was at an onsen in Yokohama (a natural hot spring bath house), and after bathing in the warm, healing waters, I decided to get a snack at the little restaurant in the lobby.

As I ordered my food at the register, I tripped over my Japanese too much, and the woman behind the register just went blank. She SHUT DOWN. Not knowing what to make of the Asian woman who can’t speak Japanese (everyone thinks I’m Japanese here), she just stared at me and looked annoyed and uncomfortable.

I apologized profusely, and kept attempting to clarify my order, but she was unresponsive. Finally, after more sumimasens (I’m sorries) than I could count, a person in line behind me stepped up to help. I was so grateful for that kindness, though they may just have been afraid that my head was going to explode. The Japanese don’t like messes.

When I relayed this story to a friend of mine she chided, “Louise! You can’t be timid! She was being difficult and unfair. You should have told her what’s what! I’ve seen you do it before in the States.”

In telling tales of my Japan misadventures, I’ve been told a version of the above more than once. “WHO ARE YOU?!” is a common remark.

Yes, in the past I’ve been wholly unwilling to put up with guff from anyone, but what I think is hard for my US friends to understand is that being pushy, or even a bit of a bully, will get you NOWHERE in Japan.

While the Japanese are polite and can seem unwilling to engage, they are not pushovers. Just because you’re a loud, cantankerous American doesn’t mean a quietly smiling Japanese person is intimidated by you. They just deal with you differently. More often than not, I’ve found they either ask you very politely to move on or, like my friend at the onsen, they just shut down.

No amount of blustery behavior will change that. And unless they come to Japan, my stateside friends’ reactions don’t bother me. If nothing else, it makes me that much more conscious of tempering my cranky gaijin ways.

3. You WANT to speak Japanese.

“You’re in such a major, international city, everyone speaks English right? You don’t really have to worry too much about speaking Japanese.”

A LOT of friends from the US said this to me when I moved to the Tokyo/Yokohama area. They meant this as a comfort to me and my utter LACK of Japanese-speaking abilities, but after nearly a year of life in Japan I find this statement particularly odd.

I live in Japan. I want to speak Japanese.

As obvious as that may sound to someone living here, friends often can’t understand why I wouldn’t want to just default to English at every chance.

When a couple friends visited a few months ago, I took them to a popular restaurant in Tokyo. When the server came over, I ordered in my crappy Japanese (Crapanese). The server then turned to my obviously not-Japanese friends and spoke to them in English. Throughout the night I continued speaking as much Japanese as I could muster.

After finishing our meal, my friends asked me why I insisted on speaking Japanese not only at the restaurant but everywhere else we went in Tokyo — even when it was obvious that English would get me by.

My answer even surprised me.

While English was what my friends on vacation hoped for, even depended on, as they made their way around Tokyo, English had become a last resort for me. While I’m very grateful to find English speakers when I’m in a particularly difficult or unnerving situation in Japan, in my daily dealings English feels like something of a failure on my part.

Speaking Japanese (or attempting to speak Japanese) is not a novelty, it’s a necessity. I have to keep trying, keep practicing. Not everyone speaks English here, and as a foreigner what right have I to demand that my native tongue be catered to?

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think it was my friends’ intention that ENGLISH IS BEST EVERYWHERE, nor do I think anybody means any harm when they seek out English in Japan. It is intimidating to be without a language you understand — I know that first hand!

But what I do think is hard for friends to understand is that while English can be a comfort, depending on it here is very limiting. If I only went where I knew English was spoken, I’d be closing myself off to so many wonderful experiences. If I held onto the mentality, “I don’t really need to learn Japanese,” my life here would be very small.

And while it is scary to go into a restaurant or post office and potentially be met with confused “maybe we should just give her a chalkboard” stares, when I try to employ some new grammar point I’ve learned, it’s the scary parts that define my life here. Every challenge prepares me for the next, and the next, and so on.

It’s not always easy for people back home to grasp that I need the challenges to progress.

Yet living abroad has deepened many of my long-distance friendships. Talking through the scary parts, answering questions, joking about my many cultural faux pas — are just as much a part of the Japan experience as living here.

So if you find yourself living in Japan, frustrated by friends at home “just not getting it,” know that they might never, and that’s okay.

It’s part of the challenge of living in Japan.

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