8 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Moving to Japan

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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.

8 Things I'd Wish I'd Known Before Moving to Japan

Exceptions to the walking-and-eating rule: festival food and ice cream.

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.

8 Things I Wish I'd Known

Who doesn’t appreciate a good <em>omiyage</em>?

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.

8 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Moving to Japan

Don’t give up! Stick to a schedule.

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!

8 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Moving to Japan

Truly, madly, deeply.

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Writer, photographer, and chaser of the wondrous.

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  • Thomas DiMattia says:

    I would also add that if you are accepted into a Japanese group–which is rare–make sure you do everything that the group does.
    You just can’t say to yourself “Oh, I’d rather do something else, and won’t join the group that night.”
    Depending on the group or situation, that could spell an end to your priveliged status with them.

  • Thomas DiMattia says:

    I would also addmthat if you are accepted into a Japanese group–which is rare–make sure you do everything that the group does.

    You just can’t say to yourself “Oh, I’d rather do something else, and wont’t join the group that night.”

    Depending on the group or situation, that could spell an end to your priveliged status with them.

  • Vidyullekhe Devi says:

    Awesome! Thank you very much for the advice! I’m learning Japanese in the hopes of visiting in the future. This is so helpful! Giving out omiyage is something you do immediately after the other person helps you or after a while? Is there something like a polite-time-limit for that? Thank you! 🙂

    • Joyce Wan says:

      Not really, but I guess it depends on the situation! If you want to say thank you for just a little favour, you should try to give them something as soon as possible, like the next time you see them or immediately if you happen to have sweets on hand—before you or they forget what it was even for! If you want to give someone a nicer gift for really helping you out, you can spend more time choosing something. And for travel omiyage, I always gave it out my first or second day back to work.

      I’m glad you found the post useful! 🙂

  • Nicole A says:

    The last point; definitely. I went to Japan the first time in 2011, and have been there twice more times since. Every time I leave, I find myself longing to get back ASAP.. I haven’t been as inlove with any other country since.
    Also, I can definitely relate to the intermediate plateau! Nice to know I’m not the only one experiencing that. I was thinking about it the other day, wondering why I got stuck as soon as I knew the basics.. Nice to know that there is an expression for it.

  • Laetitia says:

    This is great! I really do feel like I’m at the intermediate plateau (even though I’m not that good..) it’s hella frustrating… -_-

  • Dale Goodwin says:

    You can thank 9/11 for the lack of trash cans, and mimicing the way Japanese speak (especially the phrases commonly used) is a great way to get past that “intermediate” plateau. (Just make sure you know what you are saying and why!) If I was to add one more, never assume that everybody understands simple English because they studied it in school. That glassy-eyed look people get when you try to speak English to them is really an expression of sheer terror because they wish they had studied harder! 🙂

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