Wednesday, October 26, 2011

20 Survival Strategies for Living in Japan

Getting along in Japan requires some special adaptation skills. Living there can be a challenge - I know because I’ve lived in Japan twice, each time for about a year. I have made a lot of mistakes, which have probably made me look pretty dumb to my Japanese coworkers and friends. To give a few examples, on occasion I have showed up late because I took the wrong train. The first time I ate edamame beans, I ate the entire thing, shell and all. When I called a moving company, I told them I had about ten “haka,” meaning traditional Japanese tombstones, instead of “hako,” boxes. I have also misinterpreted “maybe” and “it’s difficult” to mean there’s still a possibility. On my first day of work, I showed up at 8am. The building was dark and I sat alone until 10am. Last but not least, I could not read or recognize my gas bill and so after three months, my gas utility was cut off. These experiences are funny now, but in the moment they were a challenging learning experiences. The tips below are the product of my time so far in Japan.

1) Cover up. It might seem prude at first, but if you want to blend in you’re going to have to show less skin. Japanese summers can be brutally hot, but Japan is a largely conservative society. Light cotton layers are best in all seasons.

2) Develop drinking stamina. Just about every after-work or social gathering involves alcohol. Japanese communication is at its strongest during “nominication,” drinking-inspired conversations. It is socially acceptable to speak more openly if drinks are involved. Thus, alcohol is a commonly applied social and professional lubricant. So, think about your drinking strategy because when your boss is shoving a drink into your hand, it is hard to say “No, thank you.” One of the first questions a boss or acquaintance may ask you is “Do you like to drink?” If you do not or can not drink at all, let people know. Another important point is that it is customary to keep all glasses full all the time. There is no real custom like “help yourself” for food or drink, but each person is supposed to pour drinks for others. Your boss will be tickled pink if you show your intercultural skills by pouring his/her beer. At my school’s employee enkai or drinking party, my supervisor told me to go pour the boss’ beer.
When you’ve had enough, leave your glass full. If you’ve had too much, it is easy to find hangover cures in convenience stores and even in some vending machines.

3) Learn some lyrics. After drinking (and along with it), karaoke is the second most popular social and professional activity. Workplace parties involving karaoke are not uncommon. Several times I have been put on the spot to select and perform songs, so I strongly recommend to know a few songs. According to the the 2010 Japanese karaoke ratings of most requested songs, current most popular choices include “Poker Face,” “Yesterday,” “My Heart will go on” and “We are the World.” I have personally sung all of these and many more.

4) Accept that rules are rules. The Japanese love to follow rules. That is probably why they study English grammar so much, but I digress. There are written and unwritten rules for everything - from the way you order food at a restaurant to who is allowed to leave first from the office. If you are not sure, observation helps a lot. It is also helpful to ask others. However, in my experience it can be impossible to get a clear answer from a Japanese person because the unwritten rules of Japanese society, while seemingly inexplicable to Westerners, are second nature to them. “Shikata” is a popular phrase meaning “way of doing things.” Not following the rules is akin to committing a sin against society. Just try to jaywalk - you’ll see peoples’ reactions. The process is more important than the outcome here.

5) Know that “maybe” or “that is difficult” means “no.” As an ambitious young woman, this one tripped me up the most at first. I would ask my supervisor if I could work on a special project, and she would tell me, “Hmm... that is difficult.” For most Westerners, our interpretation of this is: difficult = possible with a little effort. For the Japanese, difficult = NO WAY!
You can also use this strategy to be graceful when declining an invitation even in English. For example, A: “Hey, want to play video games with me?” B: “Hmm... (slight hesitation is important)... that might be difficult today.” The point will be taken quite quickly. The Japanese are expert at getting information from the context, or what is left unsaid.

6) Use train schedule applications. Accessing train information from my smart phone has saved a lot of time and confusion. The best site is

7) Be humble. If you stay in Japan longer than a few days, you will probably be complimented on your ability to use chopsticks and your ability to speak great Japanese. While this may seem like a back-handed compliment, be humble. Just say thanks and let it go. The Japanese use phrases like this to build rapport. And sarcasm doesn’t exist, so you can take compliments like these at face value. Apologies are everywhere - “sumimasen” can mean “excuse me,” “sorry” and “thank you.” Japanese are used to apologizing all the time because of a long history of social rules. It is almost impossible even for the Japanese to do everything right. So, work on your acting skills. In a society where face is valued, you’ll get a lot farther if you act in the right way. If you show humility, it will earn you the respect that will take you a long way.

8) Take invitations with a grain of salt. Unless a specific day and time are mentioned, invitations are given sometimes just to be nice.

9) Once you settle in, you should keep some extra supplies in an emergency kit. In a country with daily earthquakes, you want to be prepared. In general, it’s a good idea to keep a first aid kit. If you have space, you may want to bring basic supplies with you because it can be difficult to read labels in a Japanese drugstore. Unfortunately, when I asked a pharmacist in Japanese if he spoke English, he made an “x” sign with his arms, said, “No English,” and ran away from me.

10) Be aware of city tax liability, fees associated with renting an apartment, health insurance, pension and other deductions you may have from your paycheck if you’re working in Japan. Do some research on-line. There are many fees that your employer may not think to inform you about.

11) Wi-fi Internet is not widely available in Japan. Modem and wi-fi monthly subscriptions are available, sometimes with a 2-year contract and hefty fees for devices. Check around for the best options for your situation.

12) Trash is usually separated in a different way in Japan. Find out what the rules are in your building, or you could run the risk of upsetting your neighbors.

13) Try new foods. This is obviously part of the adventure of living in a foreign country. If you have food allergies or don’t eat certain foods, use the phrase, “(food you don’t eat) haitemasu ka? (high-tay-mahs-kaw),” which means “Does it contain (food you don’t eat)?” Alternatively, you can just say you don’t eat a certain food: “Sumimasen, (food you don’t eat) tabemasen desu ga” (Sue-me-mahs-en, (food you don’t eat) tahb-mahs-en dis-ga). Food allergies or not eating certain foods is still widely unheard of in Japan and there is only a very small natural foods subculture. So you might get some blank stares if you say you don’t eat meat, or wheat, or dairy. Also, try to adapt your diet to traditional Japanese foods, as imported goods like cheese, cereal and fruits can be expensive.

14) Use cash. Japan is a largely cash-based society. No one uses checks and credit cards are used less often than in the US. Many small stores will only accept cash.

15) Join a community activity. Perhaps because of language or cultural differences, a common complaint from students and foreign workers in Japan is that it can be difficult to make Japanese friends. Use, local international centers, and the foreign press, for ideas on where to meet new people. However, be wary of people who seem to want to be instant friends, as they may have alterior motives.

16) Keep a journal and/or write or call home. Everyone goes through culture shock. Keeping a journal and communication with friends and family back home can help to give you an outlet for feelings of frustration or loneliness. Schedule time for calling or writing home each week and balance it by spending the rest of your time focusing on living in and enjoying Japan.

17) Slip-off shoes and clean socks. In Japan, you have to take off your shoes before you enter temples, restaurants, bathrooms, schools, some workplaces, and homes. Do you really want to make people wait while you unlace your boots? Also, since your socks get a lot more air time here, you want to be proud of them.

18) Smoke. For better or worse, if you’re a smoker, you will love Japan. If you’re not a smoker, you might want to limit your visits to small cafes, bars and restaurants because they will often be filled with smoke. Every time I went to Mister Donut, I came out smelling like I spent all afternoon in a bar.

19) Working hours are usually later in Japan, from about 10am to 6pm. You may not have to wake up as early, but be ready to work late. The lower your position in the ranks, the later you are supposed to leave.

20) Learn Japanese language. Obviously this is an important part of moving to any new country. Japan’s literacy rate is almost 100%. Being able to read the two alphabets (hiragana and katakana) as well as several of the most common kanji characters will improve your quality of life immensely. You will make mistakes, but the most important point is to try to use the language and learn from your interactions with people. For native English speakers, it takes over 2,000 hours of study to become fluent in Japanese. It is difficult, so have a study strategy and don’t give up. Study with a textbook or in a class, but also pay attention to the way people really speak in casual conversations. This will help you to participate in daily conversations, to get to know new friends, and to understand life a little more in a sometimes very confusing country.

Living in Japan is sometimes like waking up in the middle of the night and not remembering where you are. It can be confusing, scary, and challenging. But if you follow these tips and focus on learning from your experiences, the time will pass and you will open your eyes, see the light, and enjoy your days in Japan. As you develop your own survival strategies in Japanese society, you will come away with funny stories and experiences that will inform the rest of your journeys.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Public Bath

Tonight I went to a sento, or public bath house.  It was good timing to try it, because the gas company shut off my apartment's gas last Friday (four days ago) because I didn't pay my gas bill for 3 months. That means no hot water! I couldn't read the bills because they were all in Japanese. Now I know what they look like and have paid, but I am still waiting for the gas to be turned back on.

Imagine leaving all your clothing in a locker and walking into a large open room with several different, large bath tubs. There are several middle-aged and older women (or men, if you go to the men's side), also naked, and you don't speak the same language. You don't know the rules of behavior. They stare at you when you walk in because you are may be the first and only foreigner they've seen in their local neighborhood sento.

Since I couldn't really just ask, I tried to observe some sento etiquette. First, you must sit at one of the faucets and scrub yourself with soap and a wash cloth for a very long time. No one was shaving or doing anything other than scrubbing, so I followed suit. Then after you are really clean, you can enter one of the many different baths. It seemed that women would alternate between a bath and rinsing off. There were two plain baths - one cold, one hot. There was a "relax-bath" like a jacuzzi.  There was a separate room with a "lavender" bath. There was even an electrified bath - which I found out about by surprise after entering the water and experiencing shocks all over my body. I freaked out and got out, thinking I wasn't supposed to be in the water if it was electrified - I couldn't figure out why you would want to bathe in electrified water. It seemed to go against every hair-dryer warning label I have ever seen. But after observing for a little while more, I noticed other women going in for an electrified dip.

It seems like unless they know each other, women don't really talk much in the sento. Unless someone joins you in a small communal bath area, which was the case in the lavender bath. A very skinny 70-something woman with pixie-short hair joined me and said something in quick, colloquial Japanese. All I could catch was the word "ofuro," - "bath." So I made a noise of general agreement. I had no idea how to carry on the conversation, so I smiled, said the water was very hot, and left.

The entrance of the sento from the street. The symbol on the sign means it is a public bath house.

 The entrance inside the sento - make sure you go in the right side! The symbol on the right (red) is for women.

Historically, peoples' houses did not have baths, so everyone always went to sento to bathe. Nowadays almost all houses have baths, so the sento is more of a social activity. It is a unique and relaxing way to spend a couple of hours.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


In the last 3 months, I've been busy adjusting to life in Japan. A new apartment, new job, new friends, new language, new food, new routine... yeah, it's a lot to get used to.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The end of a chapter

I ran into my boss at the printer yesterday as I was picking up some financial paperwork about the closing on my apartment. I told her about it and today she asked me if it was a good thing (most people just assume it is), and if it was the end of a chapter in my life. This made me realize that yes, it is most definitely the end of a chapter. She said that we all go through many chapters in life.

This last year was a crazy ride. I traveled around the US to Honolulu, New York City, Portland (ME), Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. I worked as an English teacher and tour guide at an international teenagers camp. I was a Spanish teacher and girls' soccer coach at a modern orthodox Jewish high school  until last September when I quit to follow my dream of getting my masters in TESOL at Boston University, which I am finishing the last class for at the moment. I student taught and I worked as a substitute teacher and researcher this whole year at BU's English Language Program and enjoyed it immensely. I worked with many talented, experienced teachers and got to know ESL students from around the world, including a special group of teenage guys from Saudi Arabia. I biked to work and class almost every day. I ended a relationship, I reflected, I finally learned to look for love in myself and not someone else.

I sold my apartment. I'm selling all my furniture and getting rid of everything that I don't absolutely need. I helped start a weekend pick-up soccer group with friends and strangers. I volunteered at the Dance Complex and attended ballet and flamenco dance classes, pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I tried eating only raw food for a week. I did a lemonade diet. I saw my extended family for the first time in several years at a family reunion. I applied for a Fulbright Grant and didn't get it. I am applying again for next year. I had many great gatherings with my TESOL program classmates, including a Thanksgiving dinner with 19 guests in my 400sq ft condo. I tried "hot" vinyasa yoga with friends. I tried a kickboxing class and a Turkish language class at BU. I got a sailing & kayaking pass and have taken out several friends on the water. I've gone on "epic" bike rides along the Charles River with friends. I went salsa, samba and forro dancing. I've had dates with movies, food, and drinks. I read several books, text books and others about travel and adventure. I've volunteered at local festivals. I've met some great people. I've had a few friendships come and go, but best of all I've seen some endure the test of time and geography.

So some things are over, some things will never be the same. But some things endure, I find out more about relationships, who my friends are and who I am and what I want in life. I had all these experiences and hopefully, and most importantly, learned to be a better person from them.

Monday, June 07, 2010

River Fest Volunteer

My friend and co-worker Jen invited me to volunteer with her on Saturday for the Cambridge River Festival, an annual event featuring live music, dance and art performances. At first because it started at 7am, I wasn't sure, but I am so glad I agreed to go. It was so nice to spend the morning with her and we met some other interesting people too, especially Alicia. She just moved to Boston and is such a positive, energetic and resourceful person, I felt more excited about the day just being around her! I was reminded that when you volunteer for events, or go out of your way to do things that you might not normally do, when you get out and help, you meet great people and can have a lot of fun.

Monday, May 31, 2010

This Time

Last time I went to Japan, I was in a relationship. He stayed in Boston and I moved to Japan. The whole time I was there, I constantly doubted my decision to move abroad. Was I ruining my chances at a happy relationship? Was I breaking that guy's heart? The whole time, I worried so much.

This time I don't want to worry, I want to live in the present moment with no strings attached to any relationship or any promise for what might or might not be. I've promised my best friend that I will stay single, that is not in a serious relationship, for 2 years.  Thank goodness for her - She's holding me accountable to myself. This time, it's all about finding out who I am, what my talents are, what is important.

Dust less: Life is better dirty

It's funny how moving makes you realize how much stuff you have.  The process makes you handle every item you own at least once if not multiple times - organizing, choosing what to let go of, what to pack, how to pack it, in what box to pack it, etc. The moving company I'm using, Yamato, actually asks me to make a detailed list of items in every box, so it makes me really notice how much I am packing and how to organize it. Whenever I start to get overwhelmed and stressed, I try to remember to just let things go. They're only things. Sometimes when I think about throwing something away, I hear certain voices saying, "what if you could use it later?... or couldn't you sell it and make some money?... or isn't there someone you could give it to?... what a waste!... don't you know there are poor people who would love to have that thing you're throwing out?"

The voices of self-doubt in my mind might be right. But do you know how much time and energy it takes to sell small items?  Definitely not worth the $1 I might make. Yes, I will try to sell my TV and furniture. But measuring cups? Beer mugs? An ugly orange tank top I never wear?  Those things are going in a box marked "free stuff" that I will put outside my building.

"Free stuff." I like how that sounds, like that 90's movie "Free Willy." Really, wouldn't "stuff" be happier if it were "free?"

It might be more difficult to get certain things in Japan, or more expensive, but not impossible. The world is smaller than ever, and true physical freedom means you have to be portable, mobile, always ready to go on the next adventure.

My philosophy, which comes in part from growing up in cluttered houses, is that stuff not only keeps you from moving physically to a new geographical location, but it keeps your mind cluttered with worries (where did I put my passport?... maybe I should dust the bookshelf?... or iron the drapes?.... polish the end tables?...). Open space = an open mind. Your physical environment, meaning your apartment, desk, computer, and even the way you dress, mirrors what is inside your mind. The more attached you are to things, the less willing you are to give things away, be generous with your possessions and even your less tangible gifts.  If there are papers to file, clothes to iron (I swear to never again own clothing that needs ironing, much less an iron), or books to dust, how can you go out into the world and meet your destiny, fulfill your dreams, meet, help and learn from other people?  Dust less, get dirty more - playing soccer with friends, helping construct houses with Habitat for Humanity, or planting flowers in your garden.

As soon as I finish writing this, I am throwing out my feather duster and re-labeling my "stuff to maybe bring" box to "free stuff." Now, the time I would have spent listing the contents of the "maybe" box is free time... and the possibilities are endless.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Portland, Maine

What is it about certain smells, feelings, names, and places that can evoke so many memories?  The brain makes connections based on senses and it seems that some memories are just waiting for a trigger to bring them back to our conscious thoughts.  I went to Portland to see my mom over this Mother's Day for a long weekend.  On the first morning, I went for a 5-mile jog from the East End to the West End of Portland and back.  Jogging up the hill on the East side, I remembered sailing in Casco Bay with my college team mates and our coach, and then instructing sailing for a summer. I remember that whole summer I refused to shave my legs because I was trying out being "natural." Thank goodness that didn't last too long. Jogging down Congress Street, I saw Zarra's Cafe was still there, and I remembered my college friend Ruthy introducing me to Zarra the first week he opened his Cafe about 7 years ago. I ran past the library, and the Longfellow Garden where my friends John & Jess got married. I ran past the Dunkin' Donuts and Portland Hall, places where I would go with my American and Japanese roommates during the Rissho Program. As I jogged past these places, I just saw them for a few seconds, but faces, feelings and the memories of doing these everyday activities came rushing back just from the blueprint of the place in my mind, like a visual combination that opens up a lock on the "memory" safe. Well, I also ran by the Dominican corner store that opened up shortly after I broke up with my Dominican boyfriend, who I lived with (along with his little brother) for a year or so in the back of that big blue apartment building on Park St. in front of Deering Oaks Park. I ran by there, too, and realized I had forgotten that the apartment where I lived before was right next door - my first place living with roommates.  They were both musicians, Alison and Nick.  I remember the last time I went up to Portland I ran into him. It was about 6 years after we had been roommates, but instantly we recognized each other.  Each time I go up to Portland, which is at least a few times a year, I'm always amazed at all the changes. There's more development on the Old Port and there's always new restaurants or different stores. But, I can see the old Portland in my memories wont go away. The only places, people and things that stay the same are in our memories. As a phrase I like says, "The only constant is change."