Since I first started working in Japan way back in 2006, it’s fair to say I’ve had plenty of adventures. Some of my experiences have been wonderful, others not so much. Overall, my time here has been overwhelmingly positive and I am proud to call this country my home, as indeed I believe it will remain so for the rest of my life.
As I home in on 9 years in Japan (the exact date of the anniversary will be September 25th), it got me thinking. If I could someone teleport myself back to August 2006 and have a conversation with myself as I was then what advice would I give. How would I approach my time here differently if I could go through it all again?
So today I present to you my own personal top 5 of the best advice I can give to newcomers and to those seriously considering moving here. I hope I can help you to make the right choice.
1) It always pays to know before you go
Photo : Colin Ryder on FlickrWorking in Japan is a great and rewarding experience, but there are also various pitfalls you must navigate in order to get the most from your time here. Therefore, it helps to do your research before you come here. Take a look at the company you will work for.
If you are coming here to teach English, there are various forums and blogs that will give you valuable information. Don’t believe everything that you read on the company website or in any orientation materials they may send you. Conversely, just because you read one or two disparaging blogs written by bitter former employees don’t assume that the company management is despotic!
Also, be aware that employment law in Japan is unique. Depending on where you come from you may have far more, or perhaps a little less rights as a worker than you are used to back home. In Japan, employment regulations can also be applied somewhat loosely at times and there are a number of companies, particularly in the English teaching industry who will openly flout the law. Be aware of this and prepare yourself. If you are new to Japan, I strongly recommend joining a workers unions, such as the General Union. Not only can a union protect you in the event of a work dispute, they can also give you advice as to your rights, entitlements and responsibilities as an employee in Japan.
Make sure you also find out what the salary will be after deductions. In most cases, the deductions for tax, insurance, pension and healthcare will be in the region of 40-50,000 yen per month. Not all companies are up front about this in the beginning so be careful.
2) Learn the language
Photo : Toby Oxborrow on FlickrOne of my biggest regrets from my time in Japan is that I have never formally studied the language. When you take away my time in Hong Kong, I have lived in Japan for a total of almost 6 years, yet my language abilities are still at the pre-intermediate level. I should have studied more in the beginning.
Even if you can only learn a few stock phrases before coming here, it will benefit you immensely and make the transition to your new surroundings a lot smoother.
Think about who you socialize with as well, in this regard. One of my other regrets about the first couple of years I had in Tokyo was that I spent too much time socializing with other foreigners and not enough time with Japanese people. If you spend more time with the locals, even if most of your conversation is in broken English to begin with, you will, in time, become more attuned to hearing Japanese.
Understanding always comes before speaking from my experience, but your fluency will develop in time. I was quite proud of myself when I finally reached the point that I was able to go on a date with a Japanese lady who didn’t speak any English!
3) Its ok to feel lonely or depressed sometimes
Photo : ryan melaugh on FlickrOne of the things about working as an English teacher in Japan is the need to constantly be “Genki”. Genki doesn’t really have a direct translation in English, but it can be interpreted as “happy”, “positive”, “energetic” or “strong”. Maintaining this façade when you’ve just had a row with your parents or broken up with your girlfriend isn’t easy, but as time goes on you will develop various coping strategies. Speaking to colleagues who have been here longer will help in this regard.
However, outside the classroom, it can sometimes be a bit lonely. When I came to Tokyo in 2006, it was the first time I had lived alone. I lived with my parents until I went to university and during my university years I always shared accommodation. It was lonely, it was, at times, a bit depressing too. Making the most of your days off really helps in this regard. Get out of town and see some local culture.
Also, thanks to the likes of Facebook, Meet-Up and various other sites, it’s easier today than it has ever been to reach out and meet new people. Don’t be shy, get out there and make new friends. Meeting new Japanese people won’t just give you a social outlet, it will also help you improve your language skills and it will open your mind to new opportunities and experiences.
4) Always be ready to make new friends
Photo : N i c o l a on FlickrThe nature of working in a country as a foreigner means that a number of the people you will meet, both in work and socially, are transient. Friendships are made and broken quite easily in Japan. Of all the literally hundreds of people I met during those first few months in Tokyo, only 2 of them remain close friends, and even then, given Osaka’s location, I only see these friends once or twice a year at most.
With this in mind, it’s important that you don’t take it personally when people lose touch with you. Instead, always be ready to embrace new friendships and relationships as they come to you. Of course, the Japanese friends you make will hopefully be a bit easier to keep in touch with, provided they aren’t planning to leave Japan.
5) Most of all, enjoy yourself!!
Photo : Edwin1710 on FlickrRemember, by coming to a new country and starting a new life, you are living the dream. You have achieved what so many can only dream of. You should rightfully feel great pride in that accomplishment.
Make the most of however much time you choose to spend here. Enjoy every day as if it may be your last, and always be receptive to new ideas.
Some of my best friends that I have made here share vastly different political or ideological ideas from me. Some of them are fluent in English, others speak little if any English at all. But each one of them is equally valued by me.
After you’ve spent a bit of time here, you will find the things you enjoy most. Perhaps it’s the Japanese sports like Kendo and Karate, or cultural activities like Ikebana and tea ceremony, or perhaps, like me, you just love it when your Japanese friends take you to new, exciting and sometimes weird places.
New sights, sounds, tastes and experiences are what I live for, and in Japan, even after so many years, there’s still so much here I have to learn.
Looking back on my time in Japan, there are some things I would change. However, it is said that experience builds character. Its shapes our outlook on life, and in no small measure determines who we are as people. Japan has had a massive impact on me, and I’m sure it will continue to do so for many years to come.