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.