Living and Working in Japan – Then and Now

I am now getting close to completing my fourth year of living in Japan, and recently I have been thinking about how this might have changed me and my perspective. Living in a foreign country is obviously a huge challenge and if you go in with the expectation that everything will go according to plan you are bound to be disappointed. So your perspective, your plans, your very idea of yourself and your life might change and it is up to you to figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for you. However, in order to not get too philosophical and write a more relatable article, I will try to stick to a single topic – my expectations before coming to Japan and how they are holding up.

Expectations are there to be subverted – that does not have to be a bad thing

My expectations before going to Japan

Not to toot my own horn here, but I feel like I had pretty realistic expectations before coming to Japan for the first time. I did not expect futuristic skylines or real-life anime characters walking around in the streets (they do in Shibuya though). I expected people to be friendly and customer service to be top-notch. Also, I expected people to be pretty tech-savvy – high-tech and Japan supposedly go hand-in-hand after all – and generally very interested in the goings-on outside Japan. My expectation was that people were cooking Italian food while listening to rock music from abroad. I had read many of the books by Murakami Haruki and his characters definitely influenced my perception.

My impressions upon arriving in Japan

The one thing that I completely underestimated before coming to Japan is the sheer amount of people (especially true for Tokyo). I grew up in a town with a population of around 600.000, which is not exactly small by European standards. But coming to Japan and seeing the masses that flow through airports and train stations here was definitely a big shock. Another impression that I had immediately upong landing was that there are a lot of restaurants and other food-related shops. Advertisements seemed to be either women in short skirts, some exotic travel destinations or, more often than not, somehow food-related.

My Expectations – Four years later

But the point of the whole article was to reflect a bit about what has changed. I often hear that people are bothered by being treated differently due to being a foreigner, even after they have been here for a long time. For me, this is not such a big concern. I recognize that I am different from all the Japanese people around me and being treated accordingly does not bother me (for now, at least). I try my best to fit in, of course, I speak fluent Japanese and try my best to observe rules and customs, but at the same time, I recognize that I am different from those around me just by virtue of having lived somewhere else for 25 years. As long as people do not treat me like an idiot, I am generally fine. But if I am to be treated differently, then I expect to be given some slack when I behave differently in some situations. Sure, when in Rome, do as the Romans do are wise words to live by, but for me at least there are limitations – you can only bend so much without breaking.

As for my expectations, I think it is fair to say that I was pretty off-base, even though I did not picture an anime-fairytale wonderland. While customer service is polite, there can also be a robot-like quality to it, which makes it hard to deal with unforeseen situations. People are generally friendly, but distant and it is just as hard to make meaningful connections as it is anywhere else. Also, the high-tech image is a complete hoax, many people are so stuck in the past that they are still using Windows XP on their work computers. And while there are a lot of people interested in the goings-on outside of Japan, I am reminded of a zoo, where the visitors represent the Japanese, the animals represent everything and everyone non-Japanese, and there is a big sheet of glass that separates them which represents their Japaneseness. There are a great many people here that think that they are different – although not necessarily better – from the rest of the world and I guess if you imagine something for long enough than it will eventually become true.

As for me, I still enjoy living and working in Japan. Sure, it is different from what I expected but I adapted and made it work for me. I enjoy the challenge of communicating and finding my way in a different culture and while it can sometimes be very frustrating, I feel like I am growing and learning so much that it is all worth it. Never stop dancing is the message of one of Murakami’s best books, and living in Japan is definitely a quickstep.

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