How to Thrive in Japan: Part I

Don’t just survive.

I’ve seen it happen so many times. Fresh out of college, big dreams about living in Japan, and the first few weeks are absolutely thrilling. Then it happens. A few months in and it’s panic, depression, homesickness, crying yourself to sleep, and finally you become a recluse, going out of your tiny Japanese apartment only for work and groceries, spending all of your free time watching American tv and playing video games. You feel trapped and the end of your contract can’t come fast enough so you can go back home.

It’s summer time! Get out of that apartment and go to some festivals!

Everyone has experienced this to some extent when living overseas. There are times when everything is going great; it’s summertime, every other weekend is the beach, beer, bbq, you’re meeting new people and each day exciting and fresh. Then winter comes; you catch the flu, it’s raining and you can’t go outside, everyone is sending you pictures of Thanksgiving dinner while you settle for KFC. Heaven forbid you have to stay in Japan for Christmas.

The problem happens when you let that winter loneliness carry over into spring, then summer, and you start to feel trapped, self-concious, and out of place. You focus on surviving your year as an English teacher instead of truly experiencing the beautiful and exciting country you worked so hard to come to.

Don’t be that person who just survives. Here’s how you can truly live life to the fullest during your first year in Japan, and potentially create a situation where you want to stay for another year or two.

Go out as much as possible

Use your apartment mostly for sleeping and as a base of operations. I don’t mean you have to be partying big at the club every weekend and at the local dive bar every weeknight (though you can meet a lot of great people at the smaller bars). When a student invites you out, say yes. If there’s a little restaurant you’ve been wanting to try, go try it. Go for walks and see if you can find some hiking trails, temples, shrines, or even a quiet road through some rice fields. Even if you live in a small town, there’s always something new to see if you just start walking. Staying at home too much will make you feel lonely, depressed, and it’s doubtful you’ll be learning any Japanese while binging on Netflix.

While you don’t have to always be out drinking in Japan to have a good time, it can be a great way to meet people.

LEARN JAPANESE

If you can only speak English, then you will only make friends with English speakers. There are some Japanese people who can speak English, but there aren’t that many. Your circle of friends in Japan will increase exponentially if you know their language. And don’t worry if you can’t speak fluently! Japanese people are very patient, and after a few months of constantly pulling out your dictionary to communicate, you’ll realize you’ve begun to pick up new words, and conversations will get easier and more fluid. Many people never make any Japanese friends because they don’t put in the effort to learn Japanese. If you’re only hanging out with other foreigners, then you’re missing out on so much of Japanese culture.

Don’t live in America while living in Japan.

“You create your own happiness.”

MAKE LOTS OF MISTAKES

A lot of Japanese people never learn to speak English well because they’re terrified of making mistakes. Mistakes, however, are an essential part of learning a new language! When you’re at a bar, talk to the person next to you and don’t worry about whether or not you sound silly.

Trust me, you sound silly.

But that’s the beauty of it! The person you’re talking to will likely appreciate the effort. Who knows? You may end up getting in an hour or two of quality conversation practice. Keep a notebook with you and jot down new words you hear. Japanese people love someone who’s making an honest attempt at learning the language and they always enjoy sharing the local dialect with you. Take your notes and make flash cards out of them the next day.

That’s it for now! If you’ve been in Japan for years, or you’ve just arrived, start getting out there and meeting people! That’s the first step to success. Say hi to neighbors, try and strike up small talk with the cashier at the convenience store on the corner, always sit at the counter and try striking up conversation with the bartender, and just try and be friendly.

Getting out there is the first step to truly enjoy life in Japan.

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