What is it Like Living in Japan as an American? My Experience Living in Japan for 7 Years

Are you ready to enjoy the ramblings of an American who went to Japanese Language School, Japanese University, and is not working in Japan as a translator and international marketing consultant? Well, humble brags aside, here I go. Here I am, sitting at 12:30am, working out in my head exactly what I even want to talk about. How do you summarize 7 years of life into a single blog post? Should I even try? Maybe not, but I’m going to write stream-of-consciousness and see what comes out. So, here I go.

My favorite thing about living in Japan

There’s a certain cold distance and impending enthusiasm that permeates the relationships here. A cold wall that people put up only to come crashing down. As a foreigner, this wall can feel impenetrable at times, but overcoming that is also part of the fun. Japanese people are famously shy and indirect, which means overcoming any initial social awkwardness and introductions tends to fall into the hands of us foreigners. We are the keepers of our own fate, in a more real sense here than what we may have experienced back home. In this way, Japan can be a particularly brutal country for true introverts. If you can’t make the effort to reach out to people here, it’s really easy to be that guy who ends up spending the party standing in the corner.

Put simply, it can be really difficult making real friends as a foreigner in Japan. People do seem to have this general apprehension towards anything they aren’t comfortable with in Japan, and it can be easy to feel that your overall role in society is to “make people feel uncomfortable.” But you can overcome this, and overcoming this challenge is exactly what makes the journey of learning how to build a fulfilling life in Japan so interesting.

The magic of meeting people in Japan, and how it can push you outside of your comfort zone as a foreigner.

After all of that, it might surprise you to find out that my favorite thing about living in Japan is all of the conversations I’ve been able to have with the people I’ve met. Relationships here truly are what you make them, for better or worse. Every single conversation I’ve ever had, every emotional connection, every new experience, it was all because I decided to really put myself out there in a real way. To challenge opening myself up to others, even though I might make a fatal mistake in Japanese, get discriminated against, or feel left out despite all of the laughs. Living life in Japan forces you to make the most of every possible encounter, which can also be one of the most difficult aspects of living here as foreigner. It can be easy to find yourself quickly in a rut, and it can be really difficult to get out of. Nobody is coming to save you, invite you to a party, or force you outside of your comfort zone. At least in my experience, life in Japan has been entirely of my own accord. It is difficult,, and it can be lonely. It’s also very real.

I look back and I’m happy when I think of all of the people I was able to meet, all of the late-night beers I’ve enjoyed with new friends at the local izakaya, and all of the times I was able to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Especially in the context of writing this article in 2022, it really puts things into perspective. Being stuck inside of my room has really sapped a lot of that magic away, and I can’t wait to get outside and explore Japan again. 

My experience with life in Japan. In general ramblings.

Where to begin. The first thing that comes to mind is the food. Delicious and healthy food available everywhere. The balance of the food is fantastic. The frustration of having no restaurants open until 11 or 12 is real, along with the daily break most restaurants have from 3pm to 5pm where they don’t serve any food. Trains are always on time, but because of this, everyone rides the train. This means that riding the train is equivalent to shoving yourself into a vacuum-sealed tube on-the-daily. Making friends is difficult, but it’s always a growing experience. People tend to ask when you’re going to go back home to your home country, which I can’t help but have bother me, even if people in Japan only mean it to be a bit of small talk. The weather in Japan can be beautiful. There’s nothing quite like the sakura cherry blossoms blooming in spring along with spring breeze. There’s also nothing worse than trying to work out of a tiny room in Japan with spotty air-conditioning and 90% humidity. Compared to the Chicago winters I came from, winter in Japan would seem mild, but there’s a different kind of cold you experience when the humidity clings to your skin like an elastic seal. Jobs are busy, and very hectic. Living in Tokyo, there’s a shop where you can experience almost anything you could ever think of. Specialty shops dominate the landscape. Whereas life in the Japanese suburb I previously lived in centered around a few central general stores, the fierce competition in Tokyo means only the strongest shops specializing in extremely specific things can hope but survive the tough marketplace. You want to eat avocado’s? Takeshi’s avocado emporium is just down the road! I have a love-hate relationship with this. I miss the community aspect of going to THE restaurant at the center of my Japanese town. In Tokyo, every excursion is an event, and an amazing experience to be cherished. In my Osaka suburb, everything was pretty decent, all of the time. Nothing amazing, but things were much more simple. The music scene in Tokyo is much more sophisticated, but as a blues and guitar-session lover Osaka had a certain grunginess to it that really fostered a local music community to rival Tokyo’s posh feeling. They’re both great. I can’t wait to explore more once the pandemic dies down, just a little bit more. 

Health, and healthcare in Japan

This is something I personally really love. Sure, you might not get the BEST healthcare in the entire known civilized world with every hospital visit, but I always feel like I can go to the hospital with peace of mind, and that I won’t have to fork-over some insanely high bill. Healthcare in Japan is really reasonable, and I’ve never been treated differently for felt uncomfortable using a Japanese doctor just because I’m a foreigner. The Japanese lifestyle is also demandingly healthy. If you’re living out-and-about and aren’t eating fast food for every meal, you really don’t have a choice but to live a reasonably healthy lifestyle. Japan’s infrastructure forces almost everyone to walk. Food is more healthy (most of the time), you can read more about what I really think of this idea that Japan’s food is SO HEALTHY that has been going around social media the last few years. 

What is working like as a foreigner in Japan?

There’s a fine line between being caught in the “foreign bubble”, and being fully accepted into the Japanese inner circle. I find that the best balance is in the middle. More than anything, you should try to be yourself! There’s nothing wrong with not being Japanese, but you also shouldn’t accept being labeled as an outsider either. My general impression of working in Japan is that it can be brutal if you don’t frame yourself in the right way. As I have comically demonstrated above, the subordinate- superior relationship in Japan can be especially brutal. I think there’s 1 thing you absolutely should keep in mind if you are a foreigner working in Japan; You aren’t JUST a foreigner, but you shouldn’t shove yourself into a box where your employer would prefer a native Japanese speaker either. The key is to find where YOU belong. 

Friendships in Japan, and what you can expect as a foreigner

Friendships in Japan as a foreigner can be tricky. The same thing could be said for dating in Japan as a foreigner. The tough bit is, you never know who is interested in talking to you because they’re interested in getting to know you, and who is interested in talking to ANY foreigner that they stumble across in life. In fact, some of these people I have come across have been positively creepy, and weird! The main thing to consider is the unique manner in which Japanese friendships progress. Generally speaking, Japanese relationships progress in a very step-by-step basis, where initial interactions are very standard, and become more unique and personal over time. The unique bit is how long this period can be dragged out for. Since Japanese people can take so long to show their true personality, it can be difficult for people to really judge if they initially have anything in common. This can create a lot of complications as a foreigner in Japan, because it’s just the nature of things that you will attract more attention from weirdos than you normally would in your home country. You DO stand out everywhere after all. 

The Japanese lifestyle: A bit about technology and internet 

Japan has some of the best internet in the world. In fact, my experience with the internet here has been absolutely fantastic. I’m talking about real 60 MB/s download speeds for games and the like. As a PC gamer it’s awesome. Of course, it’s really great for keeping in touch with family back home as well. I’m happy that I can have such high quality video chats with people back in America even though I’m literally on the other side of the world. As far as technology in general goes, there do exist a lot of comical contradictions. Japan is a very technologically advanced country, but it also isn’t uncommon to still see flip phones around, and even still fax machines. It can be pretty comical. Part of this is a result of Japan’s aging population, and the slow rate at which the Japanese culture adopts change in general. Really though, if you’re into enjoying vinyl records and generally more analog experiences, there’s a lot to love too. I love seeing most small bar owners still playing record players on their counters and what-not. It generally has a more tactile feel, doesn’t it?

What is the Japanese lifestyle like for Americans and foreigners in general? In conclusion. 

It can be a real challenge. A lot of people don’t make it in the long run in Japan. The lack of intimate connections and the constant social isolation can get to people, but at some point, the foreigners who do well in Japan also realize that life is what you make it. Japan is a country of extremes. 40 million people live in Tokyo, and it can also be one of the most lonely places in the world. Japan is an endless land of opportunity for foreigners, in where each and every one of those opportunities feels for out of reach than the last. The key is to keep moving forward, putting yourself out there, and taking the kinds of risks that can make it possible for you to have the life you want. 
If you’re seriously thinking of moving to japan, I would be honored if you would read about some of my other experiences. You can read about my experience studying at Japanese university here. I think it’s worth your time!

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