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Easy Come, Easy Go: 4 Things to Consider if You’re Thinking About a Life in Japan

What is it about Japan that makes some of us want to settle down and others head for the hills?

By 6 min read

I’ve lived in Japan for almost 10 years. Yet, of the thousands of foreigners who come here to work every year, most will stay for one or just a few years. Although many of those who come to Japan do so with the clear intention of staying only a year or two for the “experience,” many of these new arrivals claim they want to settle here. However, in the end, the vast majority of them don’t. Why is this? And what is it about Japan that makes some of us want to settle down and others head for the hills? It’s something that’s been on my mind as I move through some changes in my life at the moment — still resolute in my choice to make a life here — and I thought I would put these thoughts out for discussion.

I’ve noticed over the years that there seems to be a “honeymoon period” for those that come to Japan. Generally, this seems to last about 18 months to two  years, depending on the individual. During this time, many of us (myself included) tend to live in a bubble, where everything about Japan seems mystical and wonderful. We may hear dissenting voices from the wizened, grizzled veterans, but we tend to be dismissive of these older foreigners as being “bitter,” “cynical” or having stayed in Japan for too long.

What is it then that happens around this two-year mark? Most likely, a number of common factors will have changed by this time.

1) Japanese ability

After two years in Japan, hopefully, you’ll have acquired a basic understanding of daily spoken Japanese. While learning the language has the obvious bonus of opening up a number of previously closed doors to life here, both in social and work situations, there is also one drawback. You may start to develop a “double perspective,” so that things in Japanese culture may start to make too much sense. Things may start to “get real.”

So, you need to develop a certain emotional hardness and pragmatism to punch through this strange but sometimes vexing barrier. Still, you may find a more enriching experience as you start to gain a deeper, more complex understanding of the culture.

Some people do have a natural aptitude for languages and can pick up the fundamentals without any formal training or study regimen. However, by the time you reach around the JLPT N4 or N3 levels, which many of us should be at after two years or so, you will probably hit something of a plateau in your learning. At this point, if you are planning to stay in Japan long term, I strongly recommend adopting a regular and disciplined course of study.

2) Workplace realities

It is also around the two-year point when you’ll begin to realize that working in Japan isn’t all you thought it would be. Perhaps you will have found living to be more expensive than you imagined. Or what about company advancement or advancing a side career with other companies? Achieving your dream here in Japan might not match up to the expectations you started with.

However, good opportunities are still out there for those who are resourceful enough — and with a wide enough network of contacts — to find them. Whether or not you have to keep scraping by with the lower paying, entry-level jobs or you can move on to something more progressive will go a long way to determining if you can survive in Japan longer term.

Of course, being happy is about more than just work. How is your health? Do you feel lonely? Are you homesick?

3) Happiness

Japan is a place where people pride themselves in their ability to set emotions aside when there’s work to be done. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. I will freely admit there are times in Japan when I have let my heart rule my head. In particular, I have never been able to shut my eyes to workplace bullying or harassment, whereas many of my colleagues just seem to accept it as part of the job.

The key to enduring such things lies in learning the nuances of the local culture and knowing when and how to choose your battles. Joining a labor union or seeking advice from other friends in your line of work are much better steps to take in this regard.

Of course, being happy is about more than just work. How is your health? Do you feel lonely? Are you homesick?

These are all serious questions you should ask yourself after about two years. People will have ups and downs during their early days in Japan, these things are natural. However, by this point in your stay, the negative effects of culture shock should have worn off and the reality that Japan isn’t the magical kingdom of Kurosawa-style samurai ethos, high-tech gadgetry at every turn and people wearing kimono everyday — it is, after all, a modern and maturing country, developing and growing just like yours — should also have set in.

4) Future plans

Another important question to ask yourself after a couple of years living here is more pragmatic: What do I want from my life? Are you ready to embrace the opportunities and face the obstacles that making a long-term commitment to Japan will bring your way?

Likewise, can you also accept the doors that you might be closing back home or elsewhere by choosing to remain in Japan?

“When one door closes, another one opens,” Alexander Graham Bell is quoted as saying. The key to happiness lies in knowing which door to walk through and when. I made this choice five years ago. I left a higher paying — and in many ways more interesting — media job in Hong Kong to return to Japan for a second stint.

Sure, I was making good money there, but my apartment was tiny, I found the city itself to be overcrowded and polluted and what time I didn’t spend at work I spent at home. Getting away on the weekends was out of the question given how busy everywhere was. In short: I wasn’t happy and I made the call to leave.

I decided that quality of life mattered more to me than career advancement. Do I sometimes wonder what might have been? Sure, it’s only natural. However, I don’t doubt for a second that I made the right choice. As time goes on, I can track my progress. I now live in a much bigger apartment than I could ever afford in Hong Kong. Between my teaching and my writing, I make more money these days, too. Plus — I can finally get away on those weekends.

It’s unlikely that living in Japan will ever make me a millionaire. Given the choice, though, despite its ups and downs, I can honestly say: There’s no place I’d rather be! My honeymoon period in Japan has turned into a wonderful, long-term relationship.

The choice is yours if you long for commitment, too. Or not

How long have you stayed in Japan and what keeps you here? Let us know in the comments below!

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