Living in Japan

The upside/downsides of expat life in the land of the rising sun

I recently posted about the ups and downs of life in Tokyo. Due to popular demand, I’m gonna follow up with a sequel about living in Japan…

I arrived in Japan on a three-year overseas adventure before returning to start my next adventure, but “life happens” as they say… Herewith, (partial) lists of what I’ve found living in Japan for nigh-on 20 years.

To start, since I wanna finish on a positive note, the disadvantages:

  1. Urban sprawl: from the window of a train, it’s possible to travel for hours, for hundreds and hundreds of miles along Japan’s most populous corridor, aka the Taiheiyō Belt (太平洋ベルト) following the Pacific coast, one grey-concrete.and-tile city blending into the next
  2. In Tokyo, at least, life revolves around work: trains, bars, stores, everything revolves around the convenience of office and other workers (this can work in your favour if you are just visiting, and so can hit spots in off-peak hours)
  3. Karoshi, death by overwork, is a real thing; more prosaically, long hours and long, crowded commutes are the norm
  4. Lack of privacy and personal space
  5. Fewer rights and liberties compared to what you might be used to back home: police can and do demand spot checks of id for visible minorities (as a Canadian of Swedish heritage, that means me); landlords can and do discriminate, as do others
  6. Crosswalks get almost no respect from drivers. Pedestrians beware.
  7. Brutal summers everywhere except Hokkaido
  8. The countryside, especially around Tokyo, has been planted with — literally — millions of Japanese cedar trees which clouds of allergy-inducing clouds of pollen into the cities
  9. I can’t find a number for how many crows there are in Tokyo, but there are enough that Ishihara, the once-infamous governor of Tokyo, declared war on the murders of crows in the city. Ishihara lost. I got “swarmed” by a murder of crows once, on the northern island of Rebun, but that’s another story…
  10. As a visible minority, you will almost always stand out in a culture which often values fitting in: hence the proverb 出る杭は打たれる, deru kui wa utareru, or “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Sometimes, you’re the nail.
  11. Sometimes being invisible feels like receiving the silent treatment
  12. At least for me, I think I will always feel like a second-language speaker of the Japanese language (though I do love learning :-))
  13. More recently, there has been some concern about a North Korean attack on Japan. I used to think such an attack unlikely, until I learned more about the historical and strategic situation in Japan. You can follow the — ongoing — development of my thinking here
  14. More realistically, Lloyd’s insurance declared in 2015 that Tokyo was the world’s second-riskiest city in the world for disasters (beaten only by Taipei, Taiwan)

I’m sure other thoughts will arise, but these are the ones which seem most relevant to me right now… your mileage my vary (and I look forward to reading about your experiences)

On balance, however, there’s more on the plus side than than the minus. Below are just some of the advantages I’ve found to living in Tokyo, in particular:

  1. Tokyo. I’m not actually a big-city person, and decided long ago I could never live in the constant over-stimulation of a place like Manhattan. So it might seem strange, ironic even, that I’ve settled in Tokyo; still, we’ve made it work, especially as the superlative public transit makes it possible to live in the rural suburbs (a term I have only seen application in Japan, and possibly Korea) and commute daily into the heart of the biggest city in the world. Actually, I find my commute and daily life in Tokyo so inspiring I frequently carry a camera and snap along the way.
  2. Tokyo is rightly famous for its cleanness, safety, and efficiency of living cheek-by-jowl with 37.8 million neighbours in the largest metropolitan area in the world
  3. Many of those neighbours have turned out to be cool, interesting, or at worst politely indifferent people. Most will remain strangers, of course, but some have become acquaintances and a few even friends (in roughly the same proportion as back home in Toronto)
  4. The “bright lights, big city” vibe; always stimulating, if sometimes to the point of being overwhelming…
  5. The cool little neighbourhoods: Tokyo from a certain distance appears to be a monolithic, rather homogeneous urban sprawl; up close and personal, though, it’s actually a city of local neighbourhoods, just like my hometown Toronto, but on a much grander scale. Turn left on a familiar street instead of right, and you can discover whole new aspects of the city you’ve never seen before — and never guessed existed. Actually, I find all the sidestreets and hidden corners of the city so compelling that I often carry a camera with my on the daily commute, or in daily life, and snap pics along the way. I call this kind of psychogeographic photo drift project Tokyo Kills Me.
  6. Omotenashi, service with a smile
  7. Pride in workmanship — no-one here does things in a half-a**ed way (took me years to get my own work ethic up to speed…)
  8. An appreciation of aesthetics; a lack of the suspicion of the “intellectual” prevalent in North America (people in Japan do not seem to think they learned all they really need to know in kindergarten…)
  9. Shinkanesen bullet trains. Brilliant.
  10. Japan has been a “developed” country longer than its neighbours, which makes it a more stable and comfortable place to live (though not always as exciting a place to visit!) and to return to after traveling in some rougher-hewn locales.
  11. The seasons, especially spring (cherry blossoms) and autumn (colourful foliage).
  12. The peace and harmony of the countryside (I’m thinking of areas I’ve lived/spent time in, such as rural Hokkaido or the areas around, say, Okutama in west Tokyo, or Hiroshima, or the outlying islands).
  13. The love and respect for the outdoors, especially amongst the older generation but increasingly the younger ones as well (yama gyaru“mountain girl” culture, just for example).
  14. Speaking of the outdoors, I was amazed to discover that ultra-modern, hi tech, postmodern, day-after-tomorrowland urban Tokyo — inspiration for the dystopia in the Blade Runner movies— actually has a lot of beautiful nature to explore. I have camped wild on Iriomote and Okinawa islands in the far south, climbed Rishiridake off the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, and camped and trekked everywhere in between. And, even with 20 years of trips under my belt, I still haven’t run out of places to explore — or go back to.
  15. Tokyo was recently named the world’s safest city by The Economist magazine (though see #14 in Disadvantages, above)

A few other considerations: I love living in a cultural and language environment other than the one in which I was raised: reminds me almost daily that life is an ongoing adventure (and the challenges of a bilingual life should help fight off early onset :-))

Being based in Japan is a great place to explore other countries in the region, such as China and Korea and Southeast and Southwest Asia.

Finally, and last but not least as they say, the trials, tribulations, and rewards of a cross-cultural, “international marriage” :-) I enjoyed being single in Tokyo, just as I now enjoy the adventure of having someone to whom “I will park my bike next to for the rest of my life”… Plus, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the challenges of such a marriage should help stave off that early onset — for both of us :-)

Postscript (02/18/18): I just added the play.ht Chrome extension and used it to generate the computer-synthesized audio text of this post. Whaddya think? I’ve got my own impression, but as the author it’s hard for me to be objective. Please lemme know in the comments below what you think of this digital audio performance…

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