Being a Foreigner in Japan: The Greats and Not-So-Greats
By Kyle Von Lanken
On August 16, 2015
Many people who have never lived in Japan may come to the conclusion based on Japanese stereotypes that Japan is a very strict, conservative country that would be hard on foreigners to live here. On the other side of the spectrum, many other people who may have only heard a few things about Japan might come to the conclusion that it is a bona fide paradise for foreigners.
We that live here in Japan know that it is actually a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B. There are things that are beneficial for foreigners and there are things that seem to just catch us out of our element.
A Great: “All You Need is English”
I use this phrase rather loosely, because I believe that to truly experience Japan you should also speak the Japanese language to communicate with Japanese people and understand the culture better. However, many foreigners have lived comfortably in Japan for several years due largely in part to that fact that they are native or near-native speakers of English and can use that to their advantage by teaching English.
If you are a native speaker of English or are bilingual (with fluent English being one of those languages), your chances of being able to live and work in Japan as an English teacher are greatly increased, granted that you have a basic college education. Many foreigners have lived in Japan for several years using only with English doing this job.
As a matter of fact, many of my Japanese friends who do not speak English have told me that they are very envious of those who can speak English fluently and can go so many places in the world because of that. One of them told me this eye opening tidbit in way I’d never thought about it before: “Many foreigners from English speaking countries can come to Japan and many other places in the world just because they speak English. We can’t just go to an English speaking country because we can speak Japanese.”
A Not-So Great: “Being Truly Accepted by Society is Difficult”
So you can come to Japan and teach English without speaking the language, but you may quickly realize that truly being accepted by society past simple pleasantries is a lot more difficult than it may sound. I simply can’t express the disdain I have felt in my heart when hearing someone say to me “まぁ、外人だからしょうがないよね” (Well, you’re a foreigner so it can’t be helped) when I didn’t understand a situation that was going on around me. Or worse, I did understand and they just assumed I didn’t because I’m a foreigner.
It is expected by some Japanese people that we won’t understand what is going on with some cultural subtlety or won’t understand what’s being said because we aren’t expected to understand Japanese. It has been said in the past in many culture classes about Japan that in order to be truly accepted, one must have the blood (Japanese blood), the Japanese language, and be from Japan. Most of us are physically incapable of satisfying all three of these, and some Japanese people assess these factors subconsciously.
This is fortunately becoming less of a thing in Japan in more recent years, but it is still very much alive in certain places.
A Great: “Oftentimes You Aren’t Held to the Same Standards as Japanese People”
This may be a good point for some and a bad point for others, but to me this is a plus. Japanese people have to constantly be considering their place in society according to the Japanese hierarchy, particularly in the workforce. Japanese people are expected to be able to read a situation at all times and make the right decision, talk to someone with the correct amount of politeness (or casualness) and society in general has high expectations of them as people.
As foreigners, we are for the most part not expected to live up to the same standards as Japanese people because we were not brought up in the culture itself. To a certain extent of course, we can get away with not following established yet unspoken social protocols—if a Japanese person didn’t follow such protocols, they were be judged much more harshly.
Considering this, many foreigners have been very happy to live in Japan for many years as pariahs of society, being able to observe but never fully expected to participate. This is again, very dependent on your outlook on whether or not this is a good thing.
A Not-So-Great: “Without Proficient Japanese, Your Job Options are Extremely Limited”
This is the other end of the stick in direct relation to point number one. While it is true that you can live and work in Japan with only your fluent English, you are almost entirely limited to nothing but English teaching in the educational system unless you get very lucky.
To work in other jobs in Japan, be it media, engineering, science or otherwise related, most companies require at that very least a certificated stating you are of JLPT N2 proficiency (Level 2 in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the second hardest Japanese language test in existence.)
The JLPT N2 is a fairly difficult test to pass, and if you do pass it your Japanese language skills will be recognized as business level.
What other great or not-so-great points of living in Japan can you think of?