25 Commonly Asked Questions (and Answers) About Life in Japan
There are thousands of people around the world who frequently say that they would love to visit or live in Japan. Japan itself is a wonderful country—safe, clean, technologically advanced and with a low infant mortality rate and high life expectancy. Lump that in with great food and a unique culture and you've got yourself a highly desirable country.
Hundreds of expats from across the world come here to live every year and are often asked many questions about life in this wonderful country. Here, I have listed 25 questions about Japan and life here that I am frequently asked, along with the most honest and detailed answers I can give.
1. Do You Have to Learn Japanese to Live There?
Many people decide to live in Japan for just a year or so, perhaps to learn about a new culture, earn some money, or simply to experience a new way of life. Learning the complicated Japanese language, then, doesn't always seem worth it for just twelve months of living.
My answer is no, especially if you plan on living in a big city. While life is certainly easier if you can speak Japanese, it isn't essential for getting round. In Tokyo, there are English signs everywhere, and many restaurants have English menus. I know several people who have been here for years and yet they only know a few words!
Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to learn the language of a country you are moving to. Speaking Japanese also makes it a lot easier to make friends with the locals, of course.
2. Is It Expensive?
Whether you're visiting Japan for a short period or hoping to move here, money is very important. The answer the question "Is Japan expensive" varies, like other countries, on where you want to live or visit.
Rent is more expensive in the central parts of large cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Yokohama. Tokyo, especially, is an expensive place to live; according to Go! Go! Nihon, a rented room in a sharehouse will cost around 35,000 yen, and you can be expected to pay around 80,000 yen for a one-bedroom apartment.
Most people who work in Tokyo live in surrounding prefectures such as Saitama (north), Chiba (east), or Kanagawa (west), where the rent is much more reasonable. Cost goes up with size and distance from the nearest train station.
The cost goes up in more in some of the posher areas of Tokyo; in Daikanyama, for example, a one-bedroom apartment can be over 200,000 yen a month!
In the countryside, rent is much lower. When I lived in Okaya, Nagano, I only paid 32,000 yen a month for an apartment with a bathroom, kitchen, and living room/bedroom, and that included a free parking space.
Food and Drink
Food and other expenses are no that much more expensive than other first-world countries, though Japan is considered to be one of the most expensive countries in Asia. If you live in Japan, buying things like fish and local vegetables are cheaper than buying red meat or imported foods.
For more detailed information on prices in Tokyo, check out the informative video below.
3. Are You Treated Differently for Being a Foreigner?
The answer to this question will change depending on who you ask, so I won't attempt to give a blanket answer that applies to everyone.
As a young white woman living near Tokyo, I've never had any real "trouble." The only things that really happen is that:
- People sometimes do a double-take, especially if I'm walking around with my husband, who is Japanese and older than me.
- People will act really surprised if I speak Japanese to them.
- People comment on physical differences, such as "pale skin" and "large nose" (both of which something of an insult back home, but a compliment here).
- People nearly always ask "where are you from?"
Experiences will vary depending, unfortunately, on physical appearance. Those with red or blonde hair, or those who are very tall, probably gain more looks than I do. Living in the countryside where there are fewer non-Japanese people also makes a big difference; when I lived in Okaya in Nagano, a staff member in a restaurant said to me, "A white guy came in earlier this week; perhaps you know him!"
The bottom line is, yes, you are treated as a foreigner nearly all the time. This doesn't necessarily mean you'll be treated badly, it just means you're always an "outsider" or "non-Japanese" person, which means you are different.
4. Is the Japanese Language Difficult?
Learning Japanese is a fun and challenging journey. The answer to this depends on your first language (for example, Chinese people have a much easier time learning the writing system) and how much you'd like to learn.
If your goal is to speak conversational Japanese so you can chat to locals, it's going to be much less of a challenge than if you want to pass the higher levels of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).
In general, Japanese grammar is fairly straightforward, though there are some unusual rules when it comes to things like days of the month and countable objects. The writing system is also a challenge, though you can learn the first two alphabets in just a couple of weeks if you knuckle down.
Japanese isn't an easy language, but if you have the motivation, you can be on your way to fluency in just a couple of months.
In my personal experience, I only really studied Japanese properly for one year, while I studied abroad in Tokyo. Aside from that, it has mostly been self-study and picking up new words and phrases in everyday conversations. The third alphabet, kanji, is the most challenging aspect.
5. Can You Eat Local Food?
People who have never been to Japan tend to assume that all the Japanese eat is raw fish and octopus. There are actually many delicious dishes in this country that are a delight to eat, ranging from deep-fried vegetables to hot noodles in broth to barbecued beef.
When you first get to Japan, eating the local food is a lot more exciting. Now that I'm spending my fifth year here, I tend to cook western food at home while usually eating Japanese when I'm out. But the answer is yes; I love sushi, ramen, fried octopus, and almost all Japanese food! The only things I can't stomach are wasabi and natto, fermented soybeans that smell like feet.
6. Did It Take a Long Time to Get Used to Living There?
I moved around a lot as a child, so going to a new place wasn't much of an issue for me. I'd always wanted to visit Japan since being a teenager, so when I went I was so excited that I wanted to try everything and settle in as quickly as possible.
Now I feel like Japan is my home. Even when I go back to the UK to visit my family, I get homesick for Tokyo!
That being said, there are some things that might be difficult to get used to. For example:
- If you are from a place where the people are friendly, it might be a culture shock for you that Japanese people don't tend to smile to strangers or start a conversation with someone they don't know, especially in Tokyo.
- Everything is smaller. The cars, the people, the food portions. For those used to getting a lot of food for cheap, you might find this surprising.
- Sounds and smells are very different. This can range from the jingle when entering a shop to sirens to the sound when it's time to cross the road. It can either be exciting or overwhelming; just try to go with an open mind.
If you do plan on living in Japan and you've never been before, I highly recommend visiting first if you are able. That way, your expectations won't be as far off because you'll have been and experienced some of it already.
Have You Been to Japan Before?
7. Do You Get Homesick?
Getting homesick really depends on one's situation. When I was a student, I got so homesick that I went home for a week during the spring holiday. Now I hardly pine for home at all; I just sometimes miss my family or crave a Cornish pasty.
From what I've heard from others, if you come over for a year to work, the hardest time is about halfway through the year. The excitement of moving in and starting your job has worn off, but there's still a long time before you go home. If you're coming for a year, plan a trip home if you can.
8. Do You Plan on Staying There for Good?
Yes, I do. I hope to start a family here with my husband and perhaps learn enough Japanese to pass N2 of the JLPT.
9. What Got You Interested in Japan?
I hear this question a lot from both people back home and by locals here. Some people add "anime?"
I don't watch anime, though I sometimes wish I did so that I could get more listening practice. I thought Japan was cool since visiting Epcot in Florida and seeing all the different country themes. I thought the taiko drums and cherry blossoms in the Japan area were the coolest thing I'd ever seen and decided to start learning the language and plan to visit from then on.
10. Do You Miss Food From Your Home Country?
Living in Tokyo, I can get a lot of imported ingredients if I want to eat western food. Often, I cook things like soups, spaghetti, and other western dishes.
There are some things you can't get here, though, or if you can get them, they're overpriced, not quite right, or both. I sometimes really fancy fish and chips, a Cornish pasty, or a sausage roll. For the most part, though, I've gotten used to the food here.
I can't speak for people from other countries, however! Britain isn't exactly famous for its gourmet cuisine, but I know at least one Italian person who misses his mother's cooking.
11. What's Christmas Like in Japan?
Christmas and other western holidays are present in Japan but are often celebrated in different ways. Here are some common aspects of a Japanese Christmas.
- There are illumination events everywhere. Thousands of lights appear all over the place and it's a lot of fun to visit these pretty displays.
- Christmas is more about romance than family. It's not uncommon for Japanese couples to plan a date on or around Christmas Day.
- Christmas Eve and Day themselves are not holidays in Japan, so people usually work. New Year is much more important in this country, so nearly everyone has time off on the 31st December, the 1st January, and likely a day or so around those dates.
- A few decades ago, KFC launched a very successful campaign that has gotten Japanese people eating fried chicken every year. Turkey is not as common in Japan, so many people don't eat it. Don't be surprised to see people lining up for fried chicken around Christmas.
12. Is Health Care Expensive?
Again, the answer to this question depends on your home country. When I was a student, those who were traveling from the UK were shocked to see that they were expected to pay medical insurance (from what I remember, it was around 3,000 yen a month). Americans, however, were overjoyed at the much cheaper prices!
A (very) basic explanation of Japanese health care is that everyone pays it depending on their income of the previous year. With insurance, you only have to pay 30% of a hospital or doctor's visit, instead of 100%.
When I had to have a surgical operation in 2018, I ended up paying just under 25,000 yen for it; without insurance, this would have been more like 75,000.
Healthcare in Japan is very high quality; you can usually see doctors the next day or the same day that you call, which is rare in the UK. For that reason, I don't mind paying insurance.
13. Is Everyone Really Polite?
Japanese people have a reputation for being extremely polite. This is partly true; customer service is nearly always excellent, people apologise for pretty much everything no matter who they're talking to, and bowing is a typical way of saying "thank you," "welcome," "hello," or "sorry."
I would say that the politeness goes out of the window when you're out in public! People don't mind pushing and shoving to get on and off the subway, and rarely will you hear an "excuse me," while someone's getting past you.
The Japanese have a strong sense of hierarchy. If you're a customer in a shop, they're "below" you, and hence very polite. People treat their boss and their superiors at work with utmost respect.
14. Are There a Lot of Vegetarian and Vegan Choices?
There seem to be fewer vegetarians and vegans in Japan, for a number of reasons. Seafood has been a huge part of their diet for centuries, and to not include any meat at all in a meal may seem strange to them. Another reason is that food is considered precious and not to be wasted, especially out of choice (rather than simply not liking something).
Another reason is that the Japanese don't really tend to respect animals as much as a lot of the west do. Of course, a lot of them love dogs and cute animals, but it isn't necessarily considered cruel to eat cows, pigs, or especially fish.
However, in modern times, there are some vegetarian options in restaurants, as well as full-blown vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
15. What's the Main Religion in Japan?
The main religions are Shintoism and Buddhism, although they are not really practiced outside of things like burials and praying for luck at New Year. Some traditional beliefs can be seen in Japanese temples (Buddhism) and shrines (Shintoism).
Religion seems to affect tradition and culture rather than laws and ways of life.
16. Is It Easy to Get a Job There?
If you want to get a job in Japan purely to get the work visa, you can become an English teacher very easily if:
- You have a bachelor's degree in any subject.
- You're a native or native-level English speaker.
Because many people only stay in Japan for a year, English teachers come and go. There are many English Conversation Schools (Eikaiwas) in Japan, such as GABA, Shane English School, ECC, and AEON, that are constantly looking for teachers. You don't usually need much teaching experience (although the TEFL certificate is a plus) and your degree can be in anything.
If you want to work in a Japanese company as a businessman, you almost always have to be able to speak Japanese. That's where the JLPT comes in - it's easy for potential employers to understand your ability if you have passed any of the five levels.
17. Is Japan Super Futuristic and Technologically Advanced?
You may have seen on TV or YouTube clips of Japan's neon lights and bullet trains. While there are indeed many high-tech gadgets you can buy in the trendier parts of town, Japan is also behind in a lot of ways.
I was surprised to see a very old-fashioned telephone - with a cord - in a shop that specialised in phones! Faxing is still quite popular here, too, in business. If you're expecting to step decades into the future as soon as you land, you might be left disappointed.
18. What's It Like to Ride a Bullet Train?
The shinkansen, or bullet train, is one of the fastest trains in the world and is mostly used to get between cities at a much quicker rate than by car or by local train, and more convenient than flying.
Bullet trains are comfortable and clean, and riding one is much smoother than the bumpier local trains. Riding a shinkansen is expensive as well as convenient, so if you get the chance to ride one, be sure to enjoy it.
19. Do People Still Wear Kimonos and Other Traditional Clothing?
Kimonos and yukatas, their summer equivalent, are still very much worn in Japan by both men and women. They aren't usually worn as everyday clothing, but you might see these charming garbs in the following places.
- During festivals. People like to wear yukatas during summer festivals, complete with fans to stay cool.
- During graduation. Girls dress up in some truly beautiful kimonos when they graduate; it's a much prettier alternative to the black gowns we wear in the west.
- In some restaurants. Restaurants' staff members might wear traditional clothing to set the tone.
- At tea ceremonies. A traditional activity often requires the kimono that goes with it.
In a lot of places, you can also rent a kimono to wear for the day while you walk around and go sightseeing.
20. What's the Climate Like?
Japan has four seasons, which can change abruptly. During the sudden dip or rise in temperatures, some people tend to catch colds.
Tokyo and the middle of Honshu, Japan's main island, has a hot and humid summer, a cold winter, a cool autumn of red leaves, and a cool spring of cherry blossoms. Some northern prefectures, such as Nagano, Akita, and Aomori, are much colder and get more snow.
Okinawa, the southern islands, enjoy a much more tropical climate, but also get a lot of typhoons.
21. When Is the Best Time to Travel There?
Taking into account these four seasons, the best time to go is based on what you'd like to do.
Early spring is a popular time to visit because of the cherry blossom trees, which only bloom for a few weeks out of the year.
Honshu's weather is warm and sunny in late April and May. However, Golden Week, several consecutive holidays, falls around this time so everyone is off work and traveling, meaning hotels are much more expensive and crowded.
Summer is very hot and humid and not ideal for visiting the city, though that doesn't seem to deter people from coming then. Rainy season is in June, with very sticky heat. Those hoping to hike Mt. Fuji, however, must come in summer (between July and September) as climbing the mountain is forbidden in the other seasons.
Autumn is much milder and cooler, and the red autumn leaves are popular to see in the countryside. Autumn is a good time for foodies because there is a lot of tasty food such as pumpkin, sweet potato, and mushrooms. Nabe hotpot is also starting to be served more at restaurants at this time of year.
Winter is crisp and clear in Honshu. The Snow Festival is on in Sapporo and you can try winter activities like skiing and snowboarding. Okinawa is almost empty of tourists and very comfortable during this time, too.
In Which Season Would You Most Want to Travel to Japan?
22. What Would You Miss Most About Japan If You Went Home?
When people go back to their home country, I think they miss Japanese politeness, especially in customer service, which is almost always high quality. I'd also miss the convenience, the food, and the discipline of "doing things properly" - none of the "can't be bothered" attitude you often see at home.
23. What Provided the Most Amount of Culture Shock?
I spent most of my childhood living in small towns in northern England, which is more friendly than cities. Going from that to moving to Tokyo, it took a long time to get used to not making small talk with people or smiling when our eyes meet. Now I'm used to it, but at first, I thought there were just a lot of grumpy people around.
Others say that they had to get used to not tipping or to seeing advertisements everywhere. For more culture shock experiences, check out the YouTube video below.
24. Where's the Best Place to Live in Japan?
I would definitely say Tokyo or near Tokyo, but that's because my heart belongs to this city. The countryside in Japan has a lot less money than the cities, so there are fewer trains and not as many places to shop or spend your time. That being said, the rent in the countryside is way lower so you can probably save on money.
Hokkaido is popular for its gorgeous scenery and mild summer. A few lucky people live in Okinawa, which is perfect for those who love beaches and sun. Hiroshima, Osaka, and Yokohama are some other great cities.
25. What Are Some Stereotypes About Japan That Are Completely Wrong?
There are a couple of "facts" often told about Japan that aren't true. Here are three examples.
- People aren't super serious all the time (you should see a group of businessmen after a couple of drinks).
- People aren't super racist (hate crimes against minorities are pretty much non-existent).
- They don't eat raw fish and live octopus for every meal.
You can talk about life in Japan all day long, but the only way to really get an idea of what it's like here is by visiting in person! You won't regret a trip to this beautiful country.
© 2018 Poppy