Living abroad as an expat is a mixed bag of ups and downs.
We love living in Japan because of the food, the amazing and reliable public transport and how safe it is all the time, but there will always be things about living in a foreign country that will bug you or frustrate you enough that you start to question whether it’s time to move away. Before you make that tough decision, read this article and give this choice the reflective and honest attention it deserves.
Think about why you’re struggling
This should go without saying, but you may have found that often you attribute struggles to things outside yourself. You make it about the rude customer service rep who didn’t listen to you (even though you were speaking Japanese), or the stupidly myopic bureaucracy at the Shinagawa immigration office. What you may constantly need to remind yourself is that:
“My attitude is up to me, and nobody can take the decision to see things in a different way from me.”
Rather than seeing the customer service rep as rude, you could realise that you might be one of the first foreigners s/he has interacted with for months. Rather than seeing the immigration office as stupid and nonsensical, you can realise that immigration procedures in Japan are actually incredibly forgiving compared to your home country (especially if you’re from the USA), where the smallest mistake can see you getting rejected or deported, whereas in Japan they often help with important paperwork and make sure you know what to do.
The question you need to ask is: Can you do anything about it from your end? If you can’t do anything about it, complaining about it with your friends or posting a 1* review of the restaurant (or the immigration office) on google maps will just circulate those negative thoughts in your mind. You can give yourself a chance to get past it and realise that you only hurt yourself and people around you by holding onto anger, resentment and frustration.
What can you do about your situation?
Remember that you are a foreigner living in a society that seems to get along pretty well. Trains are on time, people go about their lives and let’s not forget that this is the safest country in the world. Of course Japan has serious problems. English education standards are very low, and Japan ranks 114th in the WHO when it comes to gender equality. In the end, if the problem is your attitude, consider changing it. If it is Japan, consider whether it is a compromise you are willing to make. If you are, then you have to find a coping mechanism or change your circumstances.
If you teach English and you’re really fed up of your low-paying ALT job, consider what you can do to change that. Are you the best teacher you could be? Be really honest with yourself and think about whether you are having as big of an impact as you can at your job, or whether you are showing up with a half-assed activity or game that students will enjoy, but is designed to kill as much time as possible.
Hey, I get it; you want the time to go faster and get home, but if you really hate teaching that much take some time to figure out if you might want to get a better and more engaging teaching job, or switch it up entirely and either work in an office or start your own business. Teaching is a vocation, and if you want to be a professional about it, then you will actually start to enjoy the job more and make more of an impact in your work. If you are looking to start teaching at universities, international schools or get part-time contracts that pay ¥4000 or more per hour, we wrote a whole book about getting the best teaching jobs in Japan right here. There’s nothing else like it on the internet or off, and all the 5* reviews on Amazon are proof that it is working for a lot of people.
The flip side of that coin is that you are responsible for your situation in Japan (and really anywhere you go in life). You can make decisions for yourself and live with the consequences, good or bad. You can choose to be a better teacher, learn more about teaching methods and become respected by the managers and other teachers for getting great results for your students. This is incredibly rewarding and the reason I continue to choose to be a teacher, even if I only teach part-time now.
Culture Shock in Japan happens to everyone, so how do you deal with it?
Travel Abroad, get out of Japan for a while.
Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees, and you just bounce around from bad experience to bad experience. If you find yourself getting angry or frustrated on a regular basis, rather than planning to quit your job midway through your contract you can take a quick trip abroad. This might be tough, especially if you are on a shoestring budget, but even taking a weekend in S.Korea or Okinawa (flights aren’t that expensive) may help you get enough distance to realise that you actually quite like living in Japan, or that you really are sick of it and want to leave.
Get a better job
We always say, if you don’t like your job there’s no use in complaining. Get a better job! It’s always nice to find something that pays more, respects you and your talents and makes you feel fulfilled at the end of each day. We all want to get out of bed in the morning excited to do our best work, and that starts to happen when you get out of the standard eikaiwa or ALT jobs and into more prestigious teaching roles, or even out of teaching altogether and into something that makes use of your natural skills.
Martin figured out early on that while he enjoyed teaching, being able to speak Japanese was enough to make him a lot more money and give him a chance to use his business acumen and passion to make enough money to live comfortably in Ebisu, Tokyo, and later vagabond around Asia with nothing but a laptop and a WiFi connection. If teaching isn’t for you, there are other things you can do, even if you don’t speak Japanese! We have a whole article on working in Japan without speaking the language here.
Make more local friends
A lot of people struggle because it can be really hard to make friends here in Japan. Even in Tokyo, you would think that in a prefecture with an estimated 38 million inhabitants you would be able to meet a couple of them to have someone to talk to, right? Not necessarily true. As we wrote in our article here about making friends in Tokyo, it can feel like a social game that you don’t know the rules to. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make friends, far from it, but it does mean that you need to learn how things are done to avoid disappointment.
A great way to play the numbers game is to go to as many meetup groups as possible. You know, Meetup.com! It has become really popular in Japan for all kinds of interest groups, and since I interviewed the former director for Meetup in Japan, Ichikawa-san, it has grown to have millions of members in Japan for both international expats and Japanese natives.
Improve your Japanese
One of the biggest reasons that people find it hard to integrate into Japanese society is that they don’t speak the language. I can hardly blame you, my Japanese is only barely conversational and I’ve been here for nearly six years now. The thing is, though, that when you improve your Japanese and connect with Japanese people you’ll be able to talk to so many more people. And a lot of the daily frustrations of not being able to express yourself melt away. It’s a tough road, and the ASL has set a (somewhat arbitrary) expectation that you can reach Japanese fluency in 2200 hours of focussed study. The good news is that if you live here you can spend four times that many hours per year, so as long as you’re putting a little work in every day, you can be fluent in no time.
If you want to jumpstart your Japanese learning, read our review of Glossika, a seriously powerful spaced repetition system for getting to fluency really fast. Other options are courses like JapanesePod101, going to your local ward office volunteer classes or taking some lessons on iTalki (super cheap for private 1-on-1 classes). Making freinds really helps too, but only if you make sure you are talking in Japanese too (once you start speaking English together, it can be really hard to get friends who are excited about speaking English to talk to you in Japanese).
Reduce your information diet
It’s nice to hear funny jokes about what other foreigners experience here in Japan. Reading reddit and Facebook group posts that really resonate with you can make you feel less alone when you have a bad experience that you can’t really explain to your family back home. The thing is, that there are a lot of what we call “give-up gaijin” on these boards and in your workplace too. They also go to the regular gaijin hangouts and tell everyone who will listen that Japan is awful and racist, and that you should stop trying to have a fulfilling job or life here.
These people can’t help you. Run away now. Wish them the best and carry on trying to make something of your time here, whether that means getting a great job that makes you proud and competent, or finding the woman or man of your dreams and starting a family here. I repeat, give-up gaijin aren’t there to help you. Get away from people who bring you down, and don’t do that to other people. If you really are unhappy here then follow the steps above and see what you can do about your situation. While you’re here, you owe it to yourself to figure out why you came, and whether this is a place you want to stay for a little longer. If it really isn’t the place for you, there’s no shame in leaving, but if you know you could get a better job, bigger apartment, close friends and an exciting lifestyle, the first step is getting out of your own way!