When I came to Japan for the first time three years ago, I spent four weeks as a tourist, traveling across the country with a Japanese friend, and felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything was new and exciting, and everything that was different was different in a good way. Back then, I had no intentions of ever moving to Japan, but life works in mysterious ways, and here I am, approaching the one year mark of living in Japan as a full-on resident, with a full-time job.
I’m aware that I’m living countless people’s dream. I hear and read about people who say that they would love to live in Japan or that it’s even their life goal. Some of them have traveled Japan before, some of them have never been there, yet think it will be everything they ever dreamed of. I’m a bit wary about what they expect to find. Don’t get me wrong, Japan is great and I enjoy living here. At the same time my life has never been this tough, on a daily basis. Japan is not a fairy tale land where everything just magically falls into place. (At least not for me. Maybe for some people it is. You lucky bastards!)
In the following thoughts I’d like to compare and contrast my experiences as a tourist in Japan and those as an expat living in Japan. (I’m not going to talk about language and communication here, because another whole post will be dedicated to this very subject.)
Let’s start with something simple: People staring at me. In my time as a tourist, I noticed that people were staring at me big time. And I was staring back. I just couldn’t look away because I was fascinated by seeing so many Asian faces at once, with not a single Western face in between. It was like I’d landed in a different universe. Since the staring was mutual, I didn’t mind it that much. Now that I’ve been here long enough to be very much used to everyone looking Asian, the excitement has worn off on my part, but unfortunately it hasn’t on the part of the Japanese people whom I encounter in daily life. To be fair, most adults are polite enough to look away after taking me in a few seconds longer than they would if I were Japanese. It’s the staring of kids that has started to get to me lately. If I’m lucky, it’s a curious stare. If I’m not, it’s the wide-eyed, terrified “What am I looking at, the devil??“ stare. Sadly, the second one is more common. My face has made several kids hide behind their moms and some of them even burst into tears. This goes to show that no matter how well I’ll learn the language or how hard I try otherwise, I will never really fit in here, and the kids will point that out to me, every – single – day. (Maybe in ten years or so, kids will not react that way anymore because more and more foreigners will have come to and settled in Japan. I will then be one of the first pioneers who tried to make kids smile instead of cry. So far I’ve succeeded with one kid in ten months. Every journey begins with a single step.)
Speaking of trying hard – work life in Japan is as bad as its reputation. I don’t even work for a traditional Japanese company, but the Japanese work ethics didn’t just stop at our school gates. My colleagues (95% non-Japanese) are the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Their drive and dedication to the job doesn’t compare to anything I’ve seen in Europe. Here, “giving your best“ means working long hours, on some days without taking breaks at all, and occasionally falling asleep with your clothes on as soon as you get home. My life revolves around my workplace a lot more than I anticipated, and even my “free time“ (yes, quotation marks are in order) is filled with work-related events. I’m doing a lot less of the traveling and exploring than I thought I would. One reason are the work events mentioned above and another one simply being way to exhausted on the weekend to go further than my local supermarket. I do travel sometimes, and I do get to see amazing things. But going away for the weekend will always come at the cost of having to drag myself through the following work week because I’m too exhausted from wanting to have a work life and a travel life in Japan at the same time. (And keeping my apartment clean.)
The third main difference between traveling Japan for a while and living here permanently for me is the distance to my family. While I was traveling, I didn’t miss them at all, because everything was exciting and I’d see them again soon anyway, being able to tell them about my experiences face to face. Putting half the world between us has changed things drastically. The time difference is one thing, but it can be dealt with. What I consider more difficult is that I’m now living a completely different life they have never seen, with people they have never met, and it inevitably becomes hard for them to relate. In addition to that, when I have serious problems, for example with the bank or my health, my family can’t help me, because they are simply not here. Since this situation is self-inflicted, I don’t feel it’s fair to call them up and worry them with things they can’t do anything about. I know what it feels like because I feel utterly useless when a family member is having a problem and I can’t really help them because I’m too far away and all I can send are my words. I realize that not talking about problems at all is not a solution either and I have called my mum when things got really bad, but only after having them sorted out first. I simply can’t bring myself to call my mum when I’m crying and devastated, on the other side of the world. No mum should have to go through that.
To sum it up, living an “exciting life abroad“ in Japan doesn’t come at a cost, but at many different costs. The cost of not feeling like you truly belong, the cost of possibly working too much, and the cost of dealing with the most daunting things on your own. I only explained three of the costs in detail, but the list goes on.
Even though this post might sound like I’m trying my best discouraging people from moving to Japan, that’s not my intention. I’m merely sharing my experiences because I didn’t only consider the consequences of such a big move, but lived them, too. Maybe my thoughts can be helpful for someone who has to make a decision of that sort.
After moving to Japan I had another decision to make: Whether I would leave Japan when the first year was up or stay longer. Despite everything I explained above I extended my work contract and last week also picked up my visa extension at the immigration office. So for me, resident life in Japan continues, with all its obstacles happened and all its obstacles yet to come.
But hopefully, also with a little fairy dust.