JLPT BC 156 | The Realities of Living in a Foreign Country

JLPT BC 156 | The Realities of Living in a Foreign Country post image

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.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Nathaniel March 19, 2015, 11:45 pm

    I’ve had very few negative experiences here, but plenty of blunders. Just recently I was at a sumo match, and a name was being called out by the audience. I coudlnt tell if that was a house name, or the sumo’s name, so I asked the nearest man what it was. My phrasing must have sounded weird to him, because he gave me this incredulous look and said, 「なに?!」 At that point I realized it must have been a name. XD

    Anyways… good article. I never expereinced any racism during my time here in Osaka, so I really don’t know where all this racism talk comes from when other foreigners talk about it. As for jobs, I study Japanese full time right now, and am also learning front end web development so I can freelance, hopefully soon, so I dont really know how the job system here works beyond english teaching.

    • Clayton MacKnight March 20, 2015, 12:13 am

      I’m starting to think there is more racism in Tokyo or at least more ‘coldness’ when it comes to interacting with people in public spaces that can be interpreted as racism. I think freelance is definitely one way to go, because you don’t get locked into the ‘after 40, no career changes’ lifestyle. Although that too is starting to evolve it seems like.

      Good luck with your studies!

  • Nathaniel March 20, 2015, 1:34 am

    Clayton: it can be construed as coldness, perhaps, but it seems to me that in tokyo, people really tend to keep to themselves. Osaka is more open, so it is easier to make friends here. Every time I’ve been to tokyo, though, people thought it was weird that I was attempting to speak to them.

    I think part of is that most people that work in Tokyo come from the surrounding areas. So they respect each others privacy.

    Or they are too caught up in their private work lives and te people they know there that they don’t bother trying to make friends.

    Or it’s a cultural thing. Haha xD

    Either way, I don’t see it as racism, just them being a bit standoffish.

    • Clayton MacKnight March 24, 2015, 4:08 pm

      Some great observations there. I couldn’t say better myself. I haven’t been to Tokyo all that much to be honest. It tends to be the opposite of Osaka in a lot of ways.

  • Andy March 20, 2015, 9:09 am

    Hi Clayton,

    First of all I just wanted to let you know that I really like your website, I check it everyday. Not so much for study purposes (although I find the tips useful and it’s great to learn from other people’s experciences) but to motivate me and to never forget the importance of learning 🙂

    I am originally from Hungary, but I have been living in The Netherlands for more than 4 years now. I graduated here, later went on an internship and got a full time contract. I have never had any difficulties with racism or discrimination here. Holland is also known to be one of the most open countries. Ok, in the beginning even finding an internship was difficult as I didn’t speak the language, but fortunately there are a lot of “English-speaking” jobs out there (side note: if you live abroad, do take the time to learn the local language, it’s a great opportunity!!).
    I learned Dutch quite fast because I have a thing for languages. Over the years I have managed learn German, English, Spanish, Dutch and last december I passed JLPT N4, now preparing for N3. What I am also trying to say here that I cannot agree more with you that living abroad teaches you so much! It changes your perspective, the way of looking at life, there are only benefits! Not to mention all the great people you get to meet from other cultures.
    Moreover in terms of career I have never faced any obstacles here, and I must say by the age of 27 I’ve made a pretty good progress (I work in asset management).

    Next year january I am moving to Tokyo to do an intensive language course and with the plan to land a job there. I want to experience as much as possible while I am young.
    I also want to add that I think a lot of people face difficulties while living abroad because they are not willing to adapt to the local culture. You can never become a local fully, but respecting the locals is a must. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” 🙂

    Thank you again for the great website and that you take you time to help other people uncoditionally! And thanks to all the other fellow Japanese-learners who share their ideas and tips!

    • Clayton MacKnight March 24, 2015, 4:09 pm

      Let me know how it all works out. It sounds like you have a great path setup for yourself. I do think it is important to travel and experience as much of the world as you can in your 20s before you start to slow down. 🙂

  • Alex March 21, 2015, 12:40 am

    Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. I’ve visited Japan twice and have had a great time both times. As far as racism/bigotry all I can say is I’m not sure. I’m Asian-American born and raised in the US and in fact have never been anywhere else in Asia other than Japan. Apparently, the concept of Asian-American doesn’t exist in Japan because I got double takes or could see eye pupils dilate when I spoke English to people in stores, restaurants, convenience stores, etc. It really seemed to shock some people when I spoke in a perfect American accent. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t about the locals being intimidated by English because my friends (who are White) didn’t get such reactions. Don’t get me wrong, 99% of the people I met were friendly and nice but it just felt a little off to me. Totally not a big deal.

    However there was one thing that did bother me. I met up with friend of mine who is also Asian-American but he’s actually been living in Tokyo for a couple of years and working for an American company. We were out and about one night and he told me that when in doubt, always speak in English to make sure it was known that I’m American. He told me I’d get better service and be treated with more respect than if people thought I was from Asia. My friend told me there’s definitely an undercurrent of bigotry that becomes more apparent if you live there. Maybe it was just my friend’s experience or hang up but it did make me pause for thought.

    At the end of the day, I still think Japan is a great place but if I had to live there I’d have to really think about it. It might be one of those places that nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

    • Clayton MacKnight March 24, 2015, 4:17 pm

      Yeah, there is definitely a thing against other Asians that people kind of have, in general. Like people know its wrong, but they still kind of keep it around like a bad habit. Of course if they meet someone from a neighboring country like China people can end up being best buds. It’s the typical situation right? People can be bigots and racist with a faceless crowd because they can dehumanize it, but once they humanize the crowd they realize people are just people.

      I’ve heard in France there is something similar where black people with American accents are seen as ‘cool’ and ‘liberated’ but blacks from Africa or any of the former French colonies are looked down upon. It’s not everybody of course, but that 0.00001% tend to get remembered.

      • Alex March 25, 2015, 5:01 am

        Thank you for replying. I’m sad that you confirmed my concern. I was hoping you would’ve shot me down and told me I was completely off base.

        I agree with your point that once people stop generalizing and get to actually know someone it will help stop the ignorance. I want to believe most people with prejudices are generally good and just don’t know.

        A quick example, my friend over here in the states is the “real deal” Japanese from Japan. She helps me with my Japanese studies and conversation practice. Once she helped me prep for an exam at my school and I ended up doing well on it. As a token of thanks I invited her to my home for dinner. I made authentic spaghetti sauce from scratch (not from a jar but all fresh and slow cooked for 5+ hours) that was my other friend’s Italian grandma’s recipe. It just blew her away that a Chinese guy could do that. She told me she was expecting stir fry over white rice. A totally stereotypical comment but she was just naive and had no malice behind it. In relation with the subject of your blog post, I’m kinda proud that I was able to dispel my friend’s narrow view of things.

        Thanks again for your blog and keep up the good work.

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