How to Japan

Being that embarrassing foreigner can teach you many things in life

Being a foreigner in Japan can be difficult and there are many lessons you will learn along the way. In this article, I would like to talk a little bit about the lessons I learned since moving to Japan and the ways it has changed my life.

The first time I arrived in Japan, I was twenty years old. I wanted to study abroad and experience a new culture, but I didn’t really know where I wanted to go. I settled on Japan because of the opportunity of learning a foreign language, but what I didn’t realize was that this experience would teach me more than just understanding my favorite anime a little better. So, as the plane landed in the sticky Japanese summer, my life changed forever.

In this article, I would like to talk a little bit about the lessons I learned since moving to Japan and the ways it has changed my life. Hopefully along the way some of these lessons can help you with your future in Japan.

What it means to be a gaijin

This may seem to be a pretty obvious point. Of course, we all know moving to Japan means you will be a foreigner, but there’s more to “being a gaijin” than I had originally expected.
The word gaijin (written in Japanese as 外人 (がいじん) or literally “outside person”) is often used to refer to non-native Japanese individuals.

This doesn’t just mean foreigners who decide to make their life in Japan, but also anyone who doesn’t come from the Japanese ethnicity itself (this can include individuals who were raised in Japan such as second or third generation immigrant children).

To be a gaijin does not just mean to be a foreigner, but to literally be an outsider. This makes being a “gaijin” an interesting experience with both positive and negative elements. You know you will never be a Japanese person no matter how long you live in Japan and because of that you can never conform to the Japanese ideal. At the same time, you have a distance between you and your home country. This means the social pressures you often face in a society (such as how much you make or what beauty standard you adhere to) aren’t applied to you as strongly as it is to your Japanese peers.

In a way, you are freer to not have to conform. Of course, if you plan to live in Japan, there are some norms (such as being quiet in public or learning to confirm to Japanese communication styles) that you will make your everyday life easier, but this is different than having an “ideal lifestyle” you might be pressured into in your home country. Likewise, when you do make mistakes or don’t understand elements of the culture, you are given a free pass (or the gaijin pass) and people will be more forgiving than they are to locals.

However, with all things comes downsides. One problem this “gaijin” status comes with is the risk of a lingering distance between you and the rest of the society around you. The longer you live in Japan, the more you are likely to notice the ways that you are treated differently in your community. Even if you do end up making a strong community of Japanese friends and families, you will still find that every time you walk into a new restaurant or meet a new person, they will assume that you are a tourist and you will find yourself in a similar dialogue of praising your Japanese ability (regardless of how well or poor you speak) and asking you the same series of questions.

If you let it, this can make you struggle in Japan. Belonging is a fundamental need humans need met, so of course it makes sense to feel upset or even feel depressed if you live in a culture that you may feel like you will never be fully accepted into. Likewise, it can make you frustrated and even in some cases resentful. These feelings are perfectly natural.

I think many foreigners I know have gone through three phases in Japan: the honeymoon where everything is new and exciting, the “I hate Japan” phase where the negative sides overcome them, then the “this is home” where they finally adjust and find a community where they belong. You may jump around and repeat the phases, but the thing is by living in Japan you can learn how to make a community from nothing. If you can find a way to make friends that support you and care for you, then you will always belong no matter what others think.

What it means to have mental fatigue

Of course, I have felt fatigued many times in my life. Everyone knows what it’s like to come home after a big day or pulling an all-nighter to finish a homework assignment and feeling like you cannot even think straight. However, none of those experience compare to the fatigue I’ve felt in my time living in Japan.

One thing you don’t realize when going about your life is that there are millions of little things in your daily life you do entirely unconsciously. For example, think about buying groceries. You get in your car and drive to the grocery store. Inside you grab your cart and go through, picking out your produce then you grab a few regular household things you need before making your way to the checkout line. There the cashier rings up your stuff and you can finally lug it all back out to your car to go home.

In that process you likely don’t have to think much about all the little steps between leaving your house and coming home. You know how to drive from years of practice and most grocery stores you have been to have been laid out in a similar fashion. The produce is all familiar to you and as you scan through the different labels on the packages you automatically read everything without even thinking about it. Somethings you don’t even have to fully look at, you just recognize it at a glance and grab it. The checkout at all grocery stores has also been the same, so you don’t have to think of the process of putting your stuff on the black conveyor belt, the cashier rings it up, the bagger putting it into little plastic bags (or eco bags if you request it), or the spare cart they put it all in for you to take it to your car.

The thing you learn when you move to Japan (or to any foreign country for that matter) is that along that a single process, like going to the store, is filled with millions of trivial things that you’ve never encountered before.

So, let’s go back to that grocery store, but this time in your first week in Japan. You get in your car and suddenly you’re on the left side of the road, not the right. Or perhaps you don’t even have a car and you need to use the bus, listening to stops you’re unfamiliar with having to pay with coins a different shape than at home. Then you get to the store and while you’re looking through the products, you have to look at every individual label because the packages are different and the labels are in a language you’re not use to so before when you only glanced at the labels to read, you now have to stare at each one individually. Everything looks so different! Those packages you could grab without thinking aren’t there now and you have to relearn everything. Then you finally get through the store and the cashier takes your basket and points to a tablet asking you questions you don’t fully understand.

After you fumble through, still unsure if they asked you for a point card or a credit card, they finally hand you a basket full of your groceries and in your confusion you look around you to realize you have to fill up your own bag at a table near the door.

In a foreign country you learn there’s so many things you’ve never had to think about before. Things like whether you strand on the right or the left side of the escalator or how to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The language barrier can make things you would do and not even realize suddenly a challenge. For example, in your home country when you hear a knock on your door, you think nothing of opening it up and talking to the person on the other side. Now when you hear a knock on your door, understanding and speaking becomes new stressor you took for granted in your home country.

When you are constantly taking in new things every day, you find you end up fatigued at a level you’ve never felt before. There may even be days you have so little energy that all you can do is lay in your bed and stare at the ceiling. You may even go so long without having the chance to speak in your native language that the moment you hear it from across the room you feel a sudden surge of excitement at the prospect of talking to someone without any strain.

All of this is normal, and it does get easier over time, so be easy on yourself. If you need a day of isolation, then take that day and rest. Of course, it’s important to put yourself out there and see what you can in Japan, but it won’t be worth it if you’re too exhausted to take everything in.

How to Ask for Help

Following the idea mentioned before, there are millions of things you don’t know how to do when you come to a new country like Japan. You might never be able to guess that you must go to a convenience store to pay a particular bill or confused when you walk for miles looking for a trash can only to realize all your Japanese friends just pocketed their waste because they know there won’t be one. Sometimes it may even feel like everyone is on a telepathic link that tells them exactly what and how to do and you miss the memo every time.

Don’t feel bad when you don’t understand what’s going on or find things that seem so simple and natural that you just have no clue how to do. One of the biggest things you must learn is how to ask for help because it is impossible for you to know how to do everything all the time. In your home country you probably don’t think about it much. You know how your culture works and have been taught from an early age to navigate things and when you do struggle, you have long term friendships or family who can naturally help. In Japan you don’t have the same community you had at home, so you must take the initiative if you want to have a community. You can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen to you.

One of the greatest lessons you can learn in your time in Japan is that not only must you ask for help to survive, but that it’s actually ok to ask for help. Sometimes the gateway between being strangers and being friends is a single question.

How to Adapt to Ambiguous Situations

The last is perhaps the greatest lesson I learn while living in Japan. Regardless of your language proficiency, living in Japan is going to create many ambiguous situations that you’ll have to face. When I first came to Japan, I could barely speak any Japanese, so my ability to communicate was very low, but there’s still times of ambiguity even now while I speak Japanese.

There will be many times in which Japanese speak in an ambiguous manner (especially when the subject of a sentence is omitted) or the implication of a statement goes over your head due to a cultural difference. No matter how long you live in Japan, there will always be interactions where you are unsure of how to act or moments where either you or the person you are speaking to are going to be confused. Sometimes it feels like half of my life is simply “faking it until I make it”.

Ambiguity is just part of life of a foreigner in Japan and at first it can be very scary. But do know that first, it’s ok to make mistakes. You do have that “gaijin card”, remember? As long as you are trying to do your best, people will be forgiving when you make mistakes.

Second, understand that there is a reason for everything and it’s ok if you don’t always have the full context. Your job isn’t to be perfect, so just do your best and if you do that, over time you will get exceptionally good at following social cues and navigating a situation without understanding fully what’s going on.

This is called the skill of adapting and it is a great skill you can use no matter where you go in life.

My name is Katarina (Kat) Woodman
ウッドマン カタリナ (キャット) と申します。

Kyoto University Graduate School of Education
​Educational Cognitive Psychology Course, Doctoral course​
教育認知心理学講座, 博士後期課程

I was born in the United States and currently reside in Kyoto, Japan. My specialization is in Japanese Second Language (JSL) and multilingualism, but in general I write about a broad range of Japanese related topics.


Contact Us

Tokyo Office
C/O Global Village Media
1-7-20-B2 Yaesu, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
[email protected]