There seems to be a small subsection of the expat population in Japan, that likes to shower the world with negativity and tell you about how horrible it is to live in Japan. Some of them came over seeking the easy profits and seemingly easy lifestyle of teaching the language that they grew up natively speaking. When they grow older, they start to realize that Japan, like pretty much everywhere else on the planet, requires some hard work for you to get ahead and move into a position of comfort.
A perfect example of this type of character is Arudou Debito, who likes to rant on about the terrible reality of Japan, while he sits in Hawaii, who published a diatribe about the brutal reality of Japan awhile back. Japan Times subsequently published the praising comments, while ignoring the objections like the ones expressed on Reddit. Now, there is a need for a ranting political activist that brings up the key issues of racism and all the other problems that Japan faces today. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, that is the whole point of freedom of speech. I just thought I would add my two cents to counterbalance the lopsidedness that tends to crop up in the discussions on the realities of Japan.
So, does the bubble really need to be burst? Is that the true reality of Japan? Should you forget about your dreams of living in Japan? Well, first let’s provide a little background for you to get a clearer picture of what it is really like here.
Everyone has a different experience
Living abroad, beyond anything else in my opinion, really helps you identify who you are at your core. There are so many values, concepts, ideas that you think are apart of you, but are actually a product of your ‘personal’ culture. This culture being created by your upbringing, where you were raised, your parents, the friends you had when you were younger and impressionable. All those factors impacted you to shape your identity into the unique individual you are today.
When you spend time in another culture, you really start to see and pick out the little parts of you that you just picked up and internalized without ever really realizing it. You can start to identify what little extra pieces of you are from somewhere else, and what is actually you. It is a bit mind-blowing if you really get into it.
The great part about all that exploration and discovering is that the experience is different for everyone. There is nothing I can write or say to you that will make you have that experience. You just have to experience it. Some people might come out more awakened with a better sense of purpose. Others take ideas back with them and share them.
And being fluent in a language and living in that country and being able to understand most of the things around you, just gets you that much deeper where you can really see the depth of all the little intricacies that different cultures have.
There are times when I sit around with friends and we can talk for hours about the little nuances and observations that we make about what it is like being here. For somebody like me that is interested in the wonders and complexities of cultural diversity, its a great experience that everyone should do at least once.
I remember one blog post a travel blogger wrote a few years back about the ‘Top 10 Reasons you Should Travel.’ In it, he simply narrowed it down to just one ‘You are going to die.’ Which is so true. Traveling and living abroad are the two best ways to find yourself, and wouldn’t it be a shame if you went through such a hard life and never found yourself?
To go through this process you really need to let go of a lot of the things you might feel are a part of your identity. This can be a huge hurtle for some. There are some ideals that you might think are just and perfect, but they just don’t hold the same value in a foreign country.
Are the Cards Stacked Against Us?
Racism is still alive and well in Japan. Just when you think steps have been made in the right direction, some 80 year old lady expounds on how great it would be to have apartheid in Japan. And the real shocker was that it was published in a major newspaper. And that is just one of many signs that racism is still around. Here is another example of something that really shouldn’t be a thing anymore, anywhere.
But, many Japanese have spoken out against it, and it is for the most part a feeling shared on the fringes. I’ve never personally been discriminated against. And 98% of the time in Kansai, nobody even cares I’m a foreigner. I think the worst that has happened to me was occasionally nobody will sit next to me on the train. This seems to be especially true about men, they don’t like to sit next me. And I’m completely fine with this. Women can sit next to me anytime.
When I went to get an apartment for the first time, the rental agency I worked with never gave me problems. When I choose my apartment, the only hiccup I had as a foreigner was the landlord said he was nervous because I was the first foreigner he rented to. But I think that was more the fact that he knew no English than me being a white dude. He was a great landlord and fixed anything and everything I ever complained about.
Has it affected me in job prospects? I can’t really speak to that too much because I’ve stuck a lot to teaching English, but I’ve been able to move up in the system and have never felt like I got held back because I was a foreigner. And I know more than a few folks that have found their way in companies here and there. They were more multicultural companies that already had staff from different countries though, not the massive pillar companies of Japan. But, one could argue that this is because those conservative companies typically hire straight out of college, and for life, so it is hard to penetrate them after that time period even for Japanese.
Living abroad Anywhere
Living abroad in any country means you will have to interact with a variety of new social systems that are unfamiliar to you and the rules for which are not written down anywhere. You just have to either know or have a good mentor that can hold your hand through the process. To get a good job in your home country you probably had a pretty hard time at first, but you learned from your mistakes and eventually punched through the market and got the job you wanted.
To get a more mainstream job (not English teaching) a foreigner needs to navigate through that system just like anybody else. And you will make mistakes at first as you pile through all the mishaps that will inevitably come up. This will be complicated by the fact that the basic logic of the system is, well, foreign to you. It makes zero sense to me, an American, that companies would hire someone straight out of college before they even graduate. That makes little business sense to me, but that is the system.
And their are tons of little quirks like that you will have to learn. You also have to do a lot of networking and maintaining contacts to get any job that is going to pay well and feed your family. But, this really isn’t all that different from the States. You are not going to find a great job in a classified listing, it just doesn’t happen that way anywhere.
Chances are pretty good that you will fail at this process a few times, and it is going to be rough and scary. But, failing is good, it means you are stretching yourself farther than what you are now capable of. And you need to stretch to grow. Falling flat on your face hurts, but it teaches you what not to do.
Ask for it
There are plenty of opportunities out there though. All you have to do is ask for them. A lot of my teaching gigs and contracts have come from me simply asking someone or a group of someones if they can give me a job. And sometimes those people are other foreigners, and sometimes those other people are Japanese. In both cases, they have waved me on without issues.
Teaching jobs do exist if you do the time and you have a masters in linguistics. You will probably have to network a good amount. You will have to submit a few papers for publishing from time to time. And you will probably have to look for a new job every 3 years, but you will be in the system. I know plenty of people teaching English for good wages. And I also know a lot of world-class English professors that have done amazing research in linguistics.
You really just need to ask and try. Don’t assume that it is impossible just because someone else tried and failed. That is true for a lot of things here. People are often too scared to ask, or they expect there to be some kind of track they can get on to get ahead, but you need to strike out on your own and network like your life depends on it. And you might be the first foreigner to do that, and that is okay, as long as you are polite and not demanding, I’ve never run into too many obstacles.
Living abroad is not for everyone. It is not an easy life, but that is why it is so fun and rewarding to give it a try. If you are looking for an easy way to get through life, it isn’t here, it really isn’t anywhere. If you like people, like unexpected things, and are slightly weird, living abroad is for you. If you can’t deal with new things, and confusing new systems that you need to figure out, then you should probably stay home. Sorry, living abroad might not be for you, but by all means come for a visit.
I apologize for this post ending up as a bit of rant, but I just think it is important for people to know that living abroad is challenging but it can be truly rewarding in so many infinite ways that are just aren’t possible any other way. Sometimes that challenge is painted in a wash of negativity, but it can be a pretty positive experience.
What is your experience? Have you been living in Japan? Do you think it is too tough to get ahead? Let me know in the comments.