Living in Japan

The Challenges of Living in Japan Fall Somewhere in the Range Between Pokémon and Godzilla

Some situations, such as choosing the color of your bank debit card (coconut white, or autumn orange?) can seem impossible to resolve. Others, such as making a stealthy recovery after dropping sushi rice into the soy sauce while out with colleagues, can leave us feeling that there is hope. Combining tradition and technology in ever-intriguing—and often puzzling—ways, Japan offers endless opportunities not only to expand your horizons, but also to cultivate a perhaps necessary sense of humor. The following is a look at some of the more amusing situations that newcomers and longer-term expats alike may face, and a handful of modest victories and defeats.

Initiation rites

  • Spoken to repeatedly in pristine English by airport staff, I refuse to give an inch in the war of politeness, confidently delivering word after word of N5 Japanese.
  • Batteries on Tuesday, metal objects on second and fourth Thursdays… Clothing on—puts everything in one box and hides it.
  • Local celebrity cats that visitors flock to and take photos with near a bar run by a man named Polar Bear. Some things just can’t be known in advance.
  • Steps on a tatami mat (this time without shoes). Wonders why the world has yet to recognize it as the ultimate flooring material that it is.
  • Rather large gathering of people near the station. Asked what they are doing, a man shows me his phone and says they are trying to capture a highly valuable red fire dragon. Fair enough.

Culture shocks

  • First week on the job, I respond to a superior by his last name, without “-san”. My foreign colleague’s eyes widen. Have I just sealed my fate?
  • Reckoned with the legendary monster known as a peak-hour train. After extraction, dust myself off and exchange looks of solidarity with other survivors.
  • Order a plate of tekka maki sushi, receive a plate of natto maki. I eat it with nose plugged. Culture points +1
  • At the local sento, feeling rejuvenated. I dip into a pool I’ve yet to try, a surge of electricity hits me. I jump out. Denki bath. Culture points +1
  • A night of celebration at an izakaya, plates of raw meat arrive. Visiting friend thinks she is eating steak. I ordered cow tongue. Level up to culture ambassador.

Perils of shopping

  • Shop worker spends 20 minutes finding best pair of pants for me. Realizing that such impeccable service comes at a cost: It is silently understood that I must now buy these pants. Leave the store saying thank you repeatedly while walking backward until I can no longer be seen.
  • Roy Orbison background muzak, air-conditioned bliss. Life is good at the local konbini, when suddenly I come upon a seemingly unresolvable dilemma: macadamia cookies or cheesecake?
  • Automated cashier at clothing retailer tells me to insert the clothes into a box, give it money and bag the items myself. Am I missing something?
  • Gradually accumulates dozens of point cards for chain shops. Has only 3 free slots in wallet. Sees no way forward.
  • Meets a gal at a restaurant who knows a guy who says he knows a guy who knows another guy who can get artichokes. Two days later, they arrive, deal goes down. Shopping win.

Beast of bureaucracy

  • So the total amount I have to pay to move into this apartment is ¥80,000, plus ¥30,000, plus ¥30,000, plus ¥15,000, plus ¥80,000? Beast wins.
  • Is that someone’s wallet on the ground? Casually picks it up, looks inside. Brings to police station. Loses two life hours. Beast wins.
  • Free all-I-can-drink ion-infused water for two months, and I only have to cancel before the third month? Yes, please. Five months later, forgot to cancel. Beast wins.
  • A used bookstore owner tells me that to sell this Murakami book, I need to show I.D. Seems unusual, yet legit. I return with I.D. a few hours later. Beast wins.
  • The foresight to bring a laptop to watch a TV series on Netflix while waiting for visa at the immigration center. Ultra kill of beast.

Smart machines

  • This laundry machine is a fearsome foe. It ravages my clothing, leaves scars of powder soap on them, and throws them back at me still wet.
  • Making a cake with a talking smart oven featuring a button with the image of a cake on it; can’t for the life of me figure out how to work it.
  • I enter the stall. Washlet, courtesy device, fragrance dispenser—check. Seat automatically lowers. Turns to sit down, seat suddenly rises.
  • Ah, this is that vending machine that knows what you want to drink using A.I. Stares blankly at machine for 1 minute with no response.
  • Your transaction cannot be completed. A pair of digital characters bow and apologize on the ATM screen. The gesture feels sincere. Apology accepted.

Missteps and unusual or novel situations are at every turn in Japan. The keys to success at work or in social settings may be your ability to adapt, your willingness to go with the flow, and taking a lighthearted approach. Of course, there are always limits. Whether yours is the smell of natto, belting out renditions of classics by The Carpenters until the first train, or that student you ask the same question every week who doesn’t know how to answer it, there is no doubt that Japan is a very interesting place to test yourself and grow as a person.

Please feel free to share in the comments section below any amusing experiences you have had during your stay.

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Peter Lackner is the Managing Partner at JobsinJapan.com and has had management-level positions at major job boards in Japan including: CareerCross.com, GaijinPot, CareerEngine (formerly eCentral) and currently the managing partner at JobsinJapan.com.

Running a job board gives Peter the opportunity to speak with employers and job seekers every day and find out why some are successful and others are not. Speaking to both employers and job seekers has given Peter the ability to be able to see both sides of the hiring process. This is why JobsinJapan exists - to help job seekers find the jobs they want and employers to find the candidates they need. 

Peter is active in the ETJ (English Teachers in Japan organization), a member of JALT’s School Owners SIG and currently on the Board of Directors of the Tokyo Association of International Preschools.

You can often find Peter speaking to groups on how to get a new or better job, and to employers on how to avoid making a bad hire.


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