Are you planning to move to Japan, whether in the near or distant future? Be warned: no matter how much research and planning you do, you’ll never be fully prepared. Moving to a different country is a long and confusing process, which can continue for months after you’ve settled in.
The good news is that the path is well-trodden and highly organized, and there are numerous resources to help you. Japanese people are very understanding of cultural faux pas made by foreigners, and will often go out of their way to help you adjust and feel welcomed.
Though it will be impossible to remember all the advice you get, this is my list of the things I figured out along the way, that I wish I’d known before or at the start of my journey. Perhaps it will help when you go on yours.
1. Don’t procrastinate
If you’re in the habit (like me) of leaving things until the last minute, you’re in for some rough wake-up calls. Hotels, transportation, and popular attractions can book out months in advance during busy travel periods, leaving procrastinators stranded or paying inflated prices. And bureaucracy can cause seemingly straightforward tasks to drag on for longer than you’d expect. Getting internet set up is the most common example, but you should also stay on the ball for any matters related to money or your visa. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need.
And bureaucracy can cause seemingly straightforward tasks to drag on for longer than you’d expect.
2. Take advantage of technology
Flip phone keitai are cute and all, but smartphones are integral to daily life and travel in Japan. Instead of sticking to the apps you’re familiar with now, switch to the apps and websites that locals use for the best results. Hyperdia is a more detailed transportation tool than Google Maps, and Tabelog will reveal way more options for good eats than Yelp—they’re both available in English versions as well. Google Translate’s photo-translating utility has saved my life on multiple occasions—or at least, saved me from trying to look up a bunch of kanji stroke by agonizing stroke.
3. Don’t eat and walk
I knew a lot of basic etiquette before going to Japan—don’t wear shoes indoors, don’t refill your own drink, right on time means you’re already late—but this was the one that caught me by surprise. Soon after starting work, I was called into the principal’s office to discuss how it was inappropriate for the children to see me walking while eating melon pan! And whether it’s the chicken or the egg of the situation, there are also hardly any public trash cans. If you want a quick snack, pick one up at a konbini and eat it right outside, before depositing your trash in the correct bin.
4. Give small gifts to express thanks
Japan is a heavy gift-giving culture. I was familiar with the ritual of omiyage—edible souvenirs brought back for your coworkers after going on a trip—and followed it faithfully. This also works when someone helps you out. Rather than trying to translate your profuse thanks into Japanese, an inexpensive gift can be much more effective for conveying gratitude. Many coworkers kept bags of individually wrapped candies in their desks, and handed them out in return for small favours, or simply at the end of a busy day.
5. Keep studying Japanese
Ironically, living in Japan can make studying Japanese more difficult, or at least present unique challenges. It’s easy to make excuses to skip your study sessions: “I’ve been speaking Japanese to people all day! I need a break.” It’s also easy to lose hope of mastering the language when you realize how much you don’t understand. The dreaded “intermediate plateau” is real; where you know enough to get by and you can’t get beyond that. Don’t give up! Focus on studying, and you’ll improve slowly but steadily. There’s no better place to learn.
6. Ask for help
It sounds simple, but the tendency for foreigners is often to try to figure things out on their own. You’re used to being a capable and independent adult—so it’s frustrating to feel like a helpless infant who needs their hand held through basic tasks. But asking for help not only guarantees that you’ll adapt more quickly, it also shows others that you want to learn and you’re making an effort.
7. Be observant
Probably the most useful advice I could give would be to train yourself to be more observant. Notice what Japanese people say or do that differs from what you’re used to, and then literally just copy them (note: use common sense, of course. Don’t act like your boss!). Mimicry is seen as an annoying trait in western culture, but it’s an asset in navigating Japan’s more rigid social structures. Once you start to see the patterns, the etiquette becomes less confusing.
Mimicry is seen as an annoying trait in western culture, but it’s an asset in navigating Japan’s more rigid social structures.
8. You’re going to fall in love
Japan is beautiful, convenient, comfortable, and fascinating in a way that few other places are. You should know that after you live there, it’s hard to live anywhere else without dreaming fondly of your days in Japan. Cherish it, and make the best use of your time!