If you’ve lived in Japan, you know how fierce the Tokyo vs. Osaka debate can get between both cities. Well, I have experience myself living in both cities, so I thought I would write a short post on some of the little things that really stand out to me personally when comparing my time spent living in Osaka and then Tokyo. I’m not going to cover everything, but just some minor points that I wanted to discuss. Let’s get started!
How Long I lived in Osaka and Tokyo
There is admittedly a bit of a bias here, since Osaka was not only the first place I lived in Japan, I also lived there for far longer. From early 2015 to early 2020 I lived first in Osaka, and then the general Osaka area. Actually, I wrote a pretty detailed account of the…strange but hilarious experiences I had living in Osaka’s south “minami” areas, which you can read here. After graduating from university in early 2020, I moved to Tokyo for work, where I’m currently living now.
People from Osaka are open and kind, while people from Tokyo are polite and cold? The personalities of people from Tokyo and Osaka compared.
This is probably the most common stereotype either side slings at each other when debating whether Osaka or Tokyo are better cities. When I was living in Osaka, if I brought out going to Tokyo people would always say how Tokyo people are “cold”, and how Tokyo is “overcrowded”. From a certain point of view these things…are maybe true? That being said, the way people from Osaka are kind is not the same way people in Western countries are kind. I would describe Osaka kindness as being more similar to an openness to poke fun at each other, based heavily on the boke / tsukkomi communication culture that made the region’s comedy (owarai) so famous. Tokyo, on the other hand, I have noticed feels much more like a steady progression. In Osaka, you may be expected to participate more heavily in group dynamics, while in Tokyo people tend to respect your space a little bit more. This is mostly because tsukkomi culture doesn’t really exist in Tokyo.
The unique communication style of Osaka that is distinct from Tokyo: What does boke and tsukkomi mean?
In Osaka’s unique manzai style comedy duos, there is always a boke, and there is always a tsukkomi. The boke can be thought of as the funny man. They’re the one’s who explain some crazy thing in their life, or set up the tsukkomi for a joke. The tsukkomi can be thought of as the straight man. They critique and build jokes based on the tension of poking fun of the boke. This dynamic can be seen often in normal everyday conversations in Osaka, based on my experience. People in Osaka will often reenact this dynamic by teasing each other on some tiny insignificant thing, like the color of their shirt, or the amount of food they’re ordering at a restaurant, etc. As soon as somebody teases someone, the person being teased is expected to play along and immediately play up the joke. They kind of volunteer to take on the role of the boke. It’s really subtle, but this is a dynamic that I would see ALL OF THE TIME when I would go out drinking with my main zemi class in university. I wrote a bit more about why these kinds of drinking parties are so prevalent in Japanese society in a separate article which you can read here.
To be completely honest, as much as I love Osaka, I would eventually get a little sick of this dynamic popping up so often in conversations. It is funny, but it does get a little…tiring? Constantly expected to play along with some bit about how you “Always wear blue shirts! OH MY GOD”, and “Wow, you poured way too much soy sauce! What’s up with that?!? (Please read in Jerry Seinfeld voice.) It’s just…sometimes you just want to talk about things…you know? (lol) Don’t get me wrong, I usually had a great time at all of these drinking parties, but this boke and tsukkomi style of communication would wear on me after a number of years. When I mentioned this to my friend she said “Yeah, a lot of people in the class are super Kansai people.”, so I took her word that it was a Kansai thing (Kansai is the whole region of Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Wakayama, etc.), and I haven’t really seen this happen in Tokyo so far. It must be! Maybe? If there is one thing I do prefer in Kansai, and in Osaka especially, it’s the food culture!
Why I prefer the food culture in Osaka, even though Tokyo probably has better restaurants as a whole.
There is a different vibe to the restaurants in Osaka and Tokyo. In Osaka, everything is about the venue, and everything is about the izakaya. An izakaya is often translated as a “Japanese pub”, but it’s really a place to eat and drink a variety of foods with friends or family for hours at a time. Night life in Osaka revolves around the Izakaya, for the most part. Tokyo also has a ton of izakaya (Tokyo has everything), but I noticed that there is a much higher ratio of specialty shop to izakaya. This is likely because of the extremely high standards and fierce competition people have in Tokyo. In Tokyo, so many shops are known for their “thing”, be it a restaurant that specializes in avocado dishes, or a restaurant that specializes in dishes that feature a ton of garlic. This kind of variety can be really fun. and all of the food I’ve had in Tokyo has been fantastic, but I do feel that things tend to be a bit more trendy down here than they were in Osaka. In Osaka, the attention was on the food, the immediate atmosphere, and the people around you. In Tokyo, it feels like every shop is in a fierce battle for your attention, and like every place has some new gimmick around the corner for you to try. It’s all great. All food in Japan is almost always great. But I do think I prefer the more chill and minimalist experience of Osaka’s food culture than I do to the trendiness and posh of Tokyo. That’s just me, and I’m sure many people have the opposite opinion, but Osaka is called the “kitchen of Japan” for a reason, after all.
These were a few small things I noticed that I wanted to talk about, so I decided to do a short write-up. Of course, this wasn’t an extensive comparison by any means, but these are the main factors that stick out in my mind whenever I think of this Tokyo vs. Osaka debate. I hope you got something out of it, and feel free to check out on of the articles below if you want to read more about my experiences living in Osaka and Tokyo.
If you are considering moving to Japan, or are considering learning Japanese, these articles below should be a great place to start!
A bit about my background living in Japan’s biggest cities, as well as a suburb in Japan.
Hi. My name is Evan. I moved to Osaka, Japan in early 2015 to study at a Japanese language school, eventually moving on to studying at Kwansei Gakuin University from 2016 to 2020. Now I’m working in Tokyo. If you want to read about my experience studying at the Japanese language school I wrote an article all about that experience, and also wrote about my experience studying at a university in Japan.
I’ve been living in Japan for close to 7 years now, and have lived in a decent variety of places. In fact, one of the first places I moved to in Japan was in Osaka’s supposedly very seedy “minami” south underbelly, and was probably one of the strangest places I’ve ever lived in. I actually wrote a detailed account of that…eye opening experience living in one of Osaka’s strangest neighborhoods, which you can read here.
One area I lived in Japan, and how location affects your experience with Japan’s population density.
Admittedly, most of my experience in Japan have been pretty heavily city-centric. That being said, I did live in front of a rice field for over 4 years, and would wake up to the sound of farm equipment and the insects at work trying to invade the various entranceways to my tiny Japanese apartment. If you’re wondering how I could “hear” insects, you probably haven’t seen the gargantuan size of the legs on some of the bugs in Japan. For your own protection I’ll spare you from adding any images…(lol)
That was when I was living in Nishinomiya, Japan, a key central suburb firmly in between Osaka and Kobe city. It’s about 20 minutes each way to either city, so it was a great location, being close enough to head out to Osaka or Kobe, but still removed enough to have some of that countryside charm.Near my apartment, streets had few cars, houses were spacious and spread apart, and kids would play near the local parks and shrines. It was a peaceful area to live in, if not a little bit removed from the bustle of the cities around it.
Japan is SUPER CROWDED…expect for when it isn’t? An example from my life of Japan’s strange population density phenomenon.
Nishinomiya was the perfect place to observe the strange phenomenon of Japan’s modern population density crisis. One only had to walk 5 minutes from Nishinomiya station to become lost in what seemed like a never-ending expanse of abandoned farms, quaint neighborhood alleys, and large unattended department stores. 8 lane-wide highways would be encompassed on both sides by empty shrines and service stations, with mountains and a lone Tsutaya in the distance (Japan’s version of blockbuster, which is still hanging on by a thread.) However, head back to Nishinomiya station and you’ll instantly come face to face with the reality of Japan’s modern population density issue.
Population density in Nishinomiya, Japan. In Nishinomiya, life revolves around Nishinomiya Gardens.
Next to Nishinomiya Station is Nishinomiya Gardens, an expansive modern shopping mall that dominates the area’s economy and social lives of all Nishinomiya residents. If you live in Nishinomiya, visits to Nishinomiya Gardens is likely a part of your everyday routines. Head to any shop in Nishinomiya Gardens or any of the surrounding area and you will quickly realize an unfortunate reality: Every place is super crowded. There are families everywhere!
And, if you’re like me and have a hard time with suffocating crowds, you’re now suffering from a bit of anxiety. Only 5 minutes earlier I was walking around abandoned shrines and empty roads, and now I can’t even find enough space to take a breath. This is the reality of much of the infrastructure in Japan, and this is not an isolated incident by any means. I thought this example with Nishinomiya painted the picture well, but this situation is only more extreme in Japan’s bigger cities.
Did you know that Japan has a huge number of ghost towns and abandoned buildings? But, wait…I thought Japan was overcrowded?
In fact, did you know that Japan has an ever-growing number of ghost towns? This is actually one of the most pressing issues in the country today, as Japan’s aging population (Japan is the most aging population in the world) along with a lot of societal factors driving young people to Japan’s major cities compounds this issue even more. Along with ghost towns, Japan also has a really high number of abandoned ‘ghost houses’. So much to the extent where the Japanese government has begun giving away many of these properties for free as their previous owners pass away. So, why wouldn’t more people jump at the chance of receiving a free house? There are many many reasons, but I believe there are a few main factors. First, these houses are typically washiki style wooden houses (Lit. means traditional Japanese style), meaning many of these houses are not only dilapidated, but most of them are also made entirely of wood, making it very difficult to install modern appliances and air conditioning to name a few things. The second, and more prominent reason in my opinion, are the many societal factors that push more and more young Japanese people to move to Tokyo each year. Let’s take a look at a few of these factors that lead to underpopulation in Japan’s countryside, and overpopulation in Tokyo.
Every area in Japan except for Tokyo is seeing population decline. Why most people in Japan inevitably end up in Tokyo, and why Tokyo is so crowded.
Around 40% of the people living in Tokyo weren’t born in the region, but instead migrated there later in life. Why? This is a complex question, but some personal experiences opened my eyes to a few major reasons. Throughout my time going through Japan’s job hunting process as an undergraduate student at Kwansei Gakuin University outside of Osaka, one of the reasons why Tokyo is so mindbogglingly crowded (The Greater Tokyo Area is the most populous urban area in the world.)
That’s a LOT of people, and you can definitely feel it on some of Tokyo’s more crowded train lines.
Throughout my experience going through Japan’s insane job hunting system (Something I would love to dedicate a massive article to in the future.), it became clear that the structure of this job hunting system itself was one of the primary reasons why so many Japanese students early 20’s end up moving to Tokyo and eventually settling down there.
How Japan’s job hunting system leads to Tokyo’s overpopulation.
Japan’s job hunting system was traditionally designed behind the philosophy of shushinkoyou or “lifetime employment.” In Japan, despite the reality that 40% of new graduates will leave their first job within the first year, there is still this remaining attitude within the older generation in particular that the company you choose is meant to be a lifelong commitment. This has relaxed a bit in recent years to be more of a standard of toriaezu sannen or “At least 3 years.” Go on any recruitment site in Japanese and a HUGE portion of job listings will say “3 years experience.” It’s a bit of a standard within the country, to prove to others that you were able to make it through this initial three years. This often leaves new graduates with a feeling of helplessness, as almost all companies in Japan will send you cross country to their headquarters for typically a year of jack-of-all-trades training.
And guess what? A HUGE percentage of companies in Japan are headquartered in Tokyo. This means that upon graduation most new members of the workforce are expected to move to Tokyo for training! I couldn’t find this exact statistic, but I remember reading a few years back that over 50% of new graduates move to Tokyo for work training after graduation. I was a a bit surprised. This number seemed too low. Actually, I moved to Tokyo myself for this exact reason after living in the Osaka area for over 5 years. With so many new graduates moving to Tokyo each year, and no signs of this system changing anytime soon, Tokyo has a steady supply of new migrants who will bolster the population, make areas more crowded, and contribute to the population decline of their hometowns. In fact, even large cities like Osaka and Fukuoka seen continual population decline year by year, while Tokyo continues to get more crowded by the year. It’s a viscous cycle, and is a problem with no real person to blame.
Is Tokyo overcrowded? Does this make it difficult to live in the city?
And, don’t get me wrong, Tokyo is a great city to live in. The population density can be avoided at times if you know where to go, when to travel, and the means to get there, etc. I like living in Tokyo, despite all of the setbacks. However, the government is extremely aware of this issue, and is trying to create more incentives to get young people to move to the countryside and outside of Tokyo all of the time. It’s an issue that really needs to be experienced to be fully understood, I believe, since so much of social life in Japan is dependent on the infrastructure of major areas, and major train station stations in particular. If you are interested in reading more about the lifestyle in Tokyo, as well as how the Tokyo area is defined (It’s actually pretty crazy how they measure this) , I wrote an article about all of that here.
Conclusion: Is the population density in Japan really so bad? Should you move to the countryside?
I would really say that you get used to Japan’s population density over time, and will learn how to adapt your lifestyle to it and still be happy. Everything becomes a double-edged sword. Sure, you might never get to sit while you’re riding the train in Tokyo, but hey, that makes for some great exercise. Two birds and one stone right? It might be difficult to find places to get away from crowds in the major cities, but that also leads to a society where people are constantly aware of those around them for better or worse. Japanese people are incredibly considerate, and are always looking around at the people around them. The question really is, can you make that work for your lifestyle? I did, but it did take some time.
If you are interested in learning more about what people do for fun in Japan, and how this population density has influenced the entertainment industry of Japan…
I wrote a whole article on that below, which I think would be a great natural continuation of this article. Please feel free to check it out!
But…what about the salmonella!? You’re probably asking yourself. Well, did you know that salmonella actually comes from bacteria on the shell of the egg? Japan has an extremely strict practice for cleaning eggs, resulting in extremely low cases of salmonella infection. While the odd case of infection does happen, Japanese standards and practices regarding expiration dates and cleaning practices are put in place with the expectation that people will be consuming raw eggs, because Japanese cuisine has historically included raw eggs throughout history. This is why the expiration date on Japanese eggs is typically much sooner than what you would find in the US or UK. Japanese eggs are shipped within a very short time frame to stores and restaurants around the country to maximize safety.
In short: While there is always a very small risk, raw eggs are consumed extremely often in Japan.
Why do people in Japan eat raw eggs? There are a lot of dishes that contain raw egg?
Yes, there are a LOT of Japanese dishes with raw egg in them. In fact, you know how many people consider ramen noodles to be “college food” outside of Japan? In Japan, the most famous college food is called “tamagokakegohan” (卵かけご飯), which is literally a raw egg mixed into white rice. It’s the quintessential “poor” food in Japan, because eggs and rice are much, MUCH cheaper in Japan than instant ramen is. In fact, many more premium brands of instant ramen can run you upwards of ￥300 yen (around $3), a far cry from 10 cent packs of Nissin chicken ramen back in the States. Eggs are cheap, and raw eggs make their way into a lot of Japanese dishes.
I understand though. I remember the look of horror on my family’s face when they came to visit me in Osaka, and the dish came with a side of rice, a bowl, and an egg. “What do you do with this?” They asked me. “You crack the egg in the bowl, and dip your food in the egg. It’s okay, eggs here are safe to eat raw. There’s almost no chance of you catching salmonella.” They quickly shot back: “Oh, but you’re saying THERE’S STILL A CHANCE!” I stared at them in awkward silence and proceeded to enjoy slurping up my raw egg. I suppose when you get used to eating something as a standard part of commonly served meals, it really doesn’t phase you anymore. I would bathe in raw egg if the opportunity presented itself. I would…I would…I would purchase a liter of raw egg juice for my meats. I DON’T CARE ANYMORE! It’s a part of my routine now. It is funny too, because I would think that the amount of artifical dyes, chemicals, and synthetic hormones PUMPED into most American foods would be much more dangerous. But hey, I enjoyed those artifical hormones, and I enjoy the raw eggs in Japan.
Who doesn’t enjoy artificial hormones?
A lot of things in life, and especially food culture, is often just a matter of perspective. With my sick egg fantasies out of the way, let’s look at some popular Japanese dishes that contain raw egg. Raw egg dishes that YOU can try when you visit Japan as well.
Japanese dish that contains raw egg #1: Sukiyaki (すき焼き)
Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish that consists of meat which is slowly cooked or simmered at the table, alongside vegetables and other ingredients. (including raw egg!) The raw egg often comes on the side in a small dish when sukiyaki is served, so you can cook the raw egg as much or little as you want, or even use it to dish the other ingredients in. It’s really good! I highly recommend trying sukiyaki while you’re in Japan, because it’s a unique dining experience that you won’t be able to experience easily outside of Japan.
Japanese dish that contains raw egg #2: Oyakodon (親子丼)
Did you know I have a YouTube channel? In the video above I talked with a friend about the absurdity of Oyakodon. So, what is an oyakodon? An oyakon is literally a “parent-and-child donburi”, “parent-and-child-bowl.” This dish is a Japanese rice bowl dish, in which chicken, egg, sliced scallion, and other ingredients are all simmered together in a kind of soup, and is complimented with a raw egg in the center of the dish to be mixed in with all of the other ingredients. It tastes great! But the name “oyakodon” is one of those situations where it’s…pretty awkard to translate the direct meaning from Japanese to English…”Parent-and-child-bowl,” (lol)
Japanese dish that contains raw egg #3: Tsukimi Udon
Udon is delicious, and is known domestically as Japan’s fast food. People GET IN, and GET OUT when they go to eat udon in Japan. In fact, there are a lot of standing udon restaurants in Japan, often placed on train platforms where people will be in and out in minutes. One common option you can see at one of these udon places is tsukimi udon, which contains freshly made udon noodles, naruto (a fish cake, not the character), and a raw egg on top. Because of the hot temperature of the broth, the egg gets…maybe quarter-cooked? It’s hard to describe, but something I would definitely recommend trying in Japan, because it lends itself perfectly to the tourists lifestyle when you’re out-and-about. Give it a shot! On top of this, there are many more dishes that are served alongside raw egg in Japan such as natto and different forms of gyudon. There are a ton of options.
Raw eggs are eaten very commmonly in Japan, because the practices of cultivating eggs are catered to this cultural standard. There is an expetation that people will consuming raw eggs for the variety of different common dishes in japan sush as sukiyaki, oyakodon, and so on. I have lived in Japan for around 7 years, and have consumed raw eggs in countless meals without any problem.
If you are interested in learning more about Japan’s food culture
Have you ever wondered how often people in Japan ACTUALLY eat sushi? There are tons of rules regarding food etiquette in Japan, and some of them are…a little strange. If you’re interested in reading about my experiences, perspective, and rules I have learned while living in Japan, feel free to check out the article below!
There is a lot of confusion around dental care in Japan, and in my experience most people assume that Japanese dental practices aren’t up to the standard of the rest of the world. “Japanese people don’t use fluoride.”, “In Japan, crooked teeth are considered charming.”, etc. There are a lot of rumors, and all of it left me a little apprehensive to visit a Japanese dentist when I first moved to Japan. In response to all of these assumptions around Japanese oral hygiene, I thought I could provide you with my experiences visiting multiple dentists in Japan, dispel some of the rumors around this topic, and give you valuable information on which Japanese products you can buy and what is available.
So, is having crooked teeth in Japan really considered cute? Yes, but not in the way you probably think.
I think a lot of people have this image that Japanese people think all crooked teeth are cute, but the reality is that this is true only in a very specific case. In Japan, crooked teeth are only considered cute in one case, and that is when women have crooked yaeba. Crooked yaeba teeth are considered cute, endearing, and innocent. So, what are yaeba? Yaeba is the Japanese word for double teeth, often colloquially called “vampire teeth” or “canine teeth” in English. While you may not have thought about it, crooked yaeba can be seen in all forms of Japanese media, and especially in anime. Yaeba are synonymous with a cute persona in Japan, with yaeba often being emphasized when a female character is pouting or is generally doing something cute.
Japan has a history of emphasizing the natural imperfections of things
Japan has a long history of “wabi” culture, whereas beauty is found in everyday natural imperfections. Perhaps you seen examples Japan’s Kintsugi ((金継ぎ) culture that has recently trending in the west, where imperfections in pottery are filled in with gold to emphasis their history. This can be thought of as being similar to the idealization of imperfections in Japanese beauty standards for women, where crooked teeth signify a sense of purify and youthfulness. The key here is that he focus is to highlight the history of natural imperfections in an object, rather than trying to hide it. In a country that also has a near century-long culture of emphasizing the kawaii or cute in everything, it’s no surprise that a culture formed around idealizing a cute and natural imperfection that signifies youth and innocence in women. That being said, a lot of models, talent, and actresses in japan will actually wear removable crooked yaeba called “tsuke-yaeba.” This has become a standard of the Japanese talent industry, where people are often expected to have some defining characteristic or trait. This is similar to the way Marilyn Monroe would highlight her signature mole on her right cheek. The practice is different but the goal is similar.
Another rumor: Japanese toothpaste doesn’t have fluoride in it?
Yes! And no. Nowadays most Japanese toothpastes contains fluoride, often with the level of fluoride being a main marketing point. Hence, it’s very easy to find on most packages. In Japanese, fluoride is “Fusso” (フッ素), so you can just look for these characters on whatever you’re buying. The one thing you will want to keep in mind is that many of the toothpaste brands you get for free when staying at hotels in Japan often don’t contain fluoride. I’m…not quite sure why this is, but my suspicion is that longstanding contracts and deals hotel chains have with these companies have little incentive to improve, and changing the toothpaste would disrupt the status quo! The toothpaste harmony, if you will. Besides, it’s not like people are choosing their hotel based on the toothpaste they supply in your room…right?
Actually, in Japan I wouldn’t be that surprised if there an underground toothpaste otaku culture… (An otaku is somebody who is overly obsessed with some hobby. Basically, the closest equivalent to “nerd” in Japanese.)
These misconceptions made me afraid to go to the dentist in Japan for the first 3 years or so of living here
So, let me paint the picture here. The grounds, if you will, for an interesting story about dentistry.
Interesting stories about dentistry can exist. Surely!
I had heard generally bad things about Japanese dentistry, so I avoided it for the first few years when I was living in Japan. I moved here when I was 19, so I was still in that “It’s okay if my mom does some mundane things for me sometimes phase.” Until I was around 23 I would take an afternoon out of my trip back home to the US for a routine dental checkup. This worked out, but added stress from trying to fit as many things as possible into my trip would mount up over time, and eventually I felt like I just outgrew this. There was something a little awkward about being a 23 year old grown man and still going in with my mom to the same dentist I have been visiting since I was a baby. So, I decided to branch out. I’m paying for this monthly universal health care and Japan, and up until that point I had only used it once…maybe twice?
So I took the plunge. I heard all of the horror stories about Japanese dental care. “They don’t even use fluoride!”, “If they see a problem with your tooth, they just pull them out!” etc. A lot of this was told to me by my American dentist. Definitely no ulterior motive there at all… (lol) No, in reality he’s a really great guy, and I can’t blame him for having that impression. It’s all over the internet and common media in general. Why? Well, the reality is that a lot of those stereotypes stem from previous generations. Many older people in Japan don’t have great teeth, but most people in Japan under the age of 40 or so do. Anyways, I was going to find out for myself, because I started going to the dentist in Japan back in 2018.
The big question: Are Dentists in Japan good?
The 3 dental clinics I went to had state of the art equipment, clean facilities, and some of the nicest staff. If you’re worried about visiting the dentist in Japan, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. That being said, There are a few differences I noticed when comparing the experience of visiting the dentist in Japan to what I had been used to in the US.
What going to the dentist for a checkup is like in Japan; A few things that surprised me.
I remember I sat down for my check out. The dentist came out, a very nice guy. We had a few minutes of small talk, and then he poked around for a few minutes. He came back and did a very basic cleaning, and…that was it. He told me to schedule a time to come back in the next few weeks to finish the rest of the cleaning. I would come to learn that this is a pretty common practice at dentists all across Japan.
I think it may be because of the national insurance system in Japan?…but cleaning tend to be drawn out over a series of 2 or 3 different appointments. Since I lived right next to the office, I actually vastly preferred this to what I had been used to in the US, since I could just hop in for 30 minutes and finish the cleaning in chunks. Heading in for a few minutes is a lot less daunting than sitting in that chair for an hour at a time, after all. I could just make it a small part of my routine. That being said, if you live far away from any dental office, I could see this being incredibly annoying. I suppose it just depends on your situation.
I was also pleasantry surprised with how efficient things were when I was in the chair. The few Japanese dentists I have been to were juggling multiple patients at once (likely because of the insurance situation making 30 minute appointments much cheaper for the clinic). As a result, the atmosphere of the dentist offices in Japan is much more a of “stop in for a quick check-in” kind of ordeal, rather than the endless waiting rooms and small talk that I had experienced in the US. Things were fast, clean, and state of the art, and I had a generally great experience.
How much does going to the dentist in Japan cost?
As with most healthcare, visiting the dentist in Japan is very cheap so long as you are on either the national health insurance or “kokuminkenkouhoken” (国民健康保険) or “shakaihoken” from your place of employment , which will cover around 70% of the bill (In Japan this % will likely be around 70% no matter what plan you’re on) . My bills would typically run around ￥1000 ($10) or ￥3000 ($30) for all parts of the procedure.
There is an entire market for “weird Japan” journalism, so you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet, or even from more reputable western news outlets. While crooked teeth in Japan are considered a beauty standard for women, it isn’t as common as the media would have you believe, because most of the people I have ever seen with crooked teeth are in the media. Furthermore, all crooked teeth are not seen as cute or attractive in Japan. Rather, it is the crooked yaeba or “double tooth” that is seen as a sign of youthful attractiveness. So, it’s only these two teeth. Finally, I personally had a really good experience visiting the dentist in Japan, but of course your mileage may vary.
Hey, did you know that it is almost all men in Japan don’t have facial hair?
In fact, I wrote a whole article about it! If you are interested in learning more about modern Japanese beauty standards, why not check out the article below? I went even more in-depth in that one than I did here.
The short answer: Is Japanese a useful language to learn? Yes! Yes, yes, and a resounding… yes. If you are planning on moving to Japan, please do yourself and the good people of Japan a favor and learn Japanese. It will absolutely be worth it! Let’s go over all of the reasons why.
But…I’ve heard people say that you don’t need to be able to speak Japanese to survive in Japan.
This is true in Japan’s bigger cities, but…do you really want to get through life by just “surviving?” You don’t want to just survive, you want to live! Live life to the fullest, and have the most fulfilling possible, right? Here’s the thing, If you’re planning on living in Japan for any length of time, you do NOT want to be THAT guy?
By learning Japanese and embracing the Japanese culture, I was able to avoid becoming…THAT guy.
What guy (or gal)? That foreigner in Japan who can’t communicate and ends up inadvertently over-relying on the people around them. To do so would be to rob yourself of some of the most interested experiences you can have in Japan. Learning Japanese is incredibly useful for experiencing the intricacies of the Japanese culture and everyday lifestyle. No…it’s absolutely essential! If you are interested in pursuing anything related to Japan beyond a hobby, I can promise you that if will be worth it to learn Japanese. Why? Because it provides invaluable context. What kind of context? I’ll elaborate on that throughout this article, while also going over my own experiences learning and using Japanese, and living in Japan.
How I moved to Japan in early 2015 to study Japanese
Hi, my name is Evan, I started learning Japanese back in 2013. After studying Japanese at an American university I would eventually leave that school to enter a Japanese language school in Japan, I would move to Japan to enroll in this language school in 2015, enter a Japanese University in 2016, and then graduate in 2020. Currently I’m working in Tokyo. When I first started studying Japanese back in 2013, this article: “Why you shouldn’t learn Japanese” was trending around the internet, and floated around through YouTube and reddit, spawning debates on whether or not you actually “need” Japanese to live in Japan, and whether the time commitment is worth it or not, etc.
Is learning Japanese worth the time commitment? My experience moving to Japan in early 2015, and how my Japanese ability would become the most useful asset I had in the moving process.
When I moved to Japan in early 2015, I could understand some basic Japanese, but I could barely string a sentence together.As I would soon find out, listening, reading, and speaking are all different skills that need to be trained individually. So, how did it go? I could understand some of my surroundings, so I must have gotten by…right?
Well, the first few months after moving to Japan can be tough! Moving to another city, let alone another country is an exercise in patience and learning how to deal with dead ends, but the experience of moving to Japan challenged me in ways I hadn’t expected. I expected to be challenged on my listening or reading skills, but the reality is that moving to Japan is a process that involves paperwork. LOTS of paperwork.
Like, what kind of paperwork?
Well, maybe things have been streamlined since 2015, but my experience was that in order to set up a bank account, you first need to register your address with your city ward. In order to register your address you need a phone number, which is very difficult to get if you don’t have a bank account or registered address. But, wait. While this is rapidly changing in Japan, back in 2015 it was difficult to register for anything without first creating a Japanese hanko (判子) also called an inkan (印鑑), which is like a personalized stamp with your last name on it that you use in place of Western style signatures. Nowadays you can probably do without this, but back in 2015 they were adamant that they needed the hanko, which I needed to go to a specialty shop to have made.
So…what I mean to say with all of this is that you will be challenged more than any other time you live in Japan at the beginning, because you will need to be able to explain complex situations and problems to be able to complete these tasks. Many people have friends or coworkers help them out during this phase, which is okay, but I think this is a period that will really push you out of your comfort zone in a good way, if you can make it through mostly on your own. For that to happen, learning even basic Japanese will be extremely useful for you to communicate your good will to those around you, and help avoid small issues that can easily be avoided.
You will probably…definitely need help at some point, and that’s okay! The thing to keep in mind is that most foreigners who come to Japan can’t speak Japanese. This means that people in Japan REALLY appreciate when foreigners, particularly in the beginning, make a visible effort to understand the Japanese language and culture. The most important thing to consider is your intention. More than anything, showing off your intention to learn Japanese will become a tremendously useful in forging new relationships and friendships, as well as relationships with pleasant people at the bank and city office! (lol) If you show off this intention to understand the culture and language, people will be flocking to come to your rescue. You can either take the easy way out now and struggle later, or struggle now and gain the strength to persevereand eventually thrive.
But there are foreigners in Japan who survive without Japanese ability, right?
I would discover upon moving to Japan that the foreign expat community, especially in Japan’s biggest cities, tends to be divided into two distinct groups of those who want to learn as much Japanese as possible, and those who tend to gravitate towards the English speaking bubbles of Tokyo, Osaka, and so on. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but people do tend to gravitate towards either group when they first enter the country. This isn’t to say that people who stick to English bubbles in Japan can’t speak Japanese, but I think this is the case more often than not.
This is what I think. I can’t imagine having a fulfilling life in Japan without having the ability to at least speak intermediate Japanese. Living in Japan as a foreigner can be lonely, can I can’t imagine never learning the language on top of all of that.
Is Japanese a useful language to learn? How many people speak Japanese worldwide?
Okay, but what about if you’re living outside of Japan? Should you learn Japanese if you aren’t planning on coming to Japan?
There are around 130 million Japanese speakers worldwide. However, around 90% of Japanese speakers are native Japanese citizens residing in Japan. If you are interested in communicating with as many people in as many countries as possible, there are other languages that are certainly more useful. However, things aren’t so simple…
Which country has the highest number of Japanese speakers outside of Japan?
So, where else do Japanese speakers live? Surely, a multicultural society like the U.S or Canada must have highest number of Japanese speakers, right? Or maybe neighboring neighbors like China and Korea? These countries have their Japanese communities, without doubt, but I think the country with the 2nd highest number of Japanese speakers may surprise you. Can you guess what it is? Here’s a hint: It’s probably not on the continent you would expect.
Did you guess? Okay. The area that has the highest number of Japanese speakers outside of the country of Japan is Brazil, where there are around 1.5 million Japanese immigrants. Surprised and want to know why this is? Well, I wrote a whole article about it, so feel free to check that out! So, with so many of the worldwide Japanese speakers still residing almost exclusively in Japan, is Japanese a useful language to learn for business?
If you are reading this article, the small number of Japanese speakers outside of Japan can be a HUGE advantage for you
I have written before about my experience studying about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis while in Japanese university. Put very simply, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that the languages determine not only the way we think, but also the possibilities of what we can think. This is where learning another language like Japanese can come in. One thing you will learn to stop doing once you begin learning another language is asking the question “How can I say this in this language?“. For example, how can I say “ridiculous” in Japanese? This is because, while the word “ridiculous” does have a literal translation in Japanese, it isn’t used very frequently. This level of frequency is one of the biggest determining factors that language has on our way of thinking. Learning a language like Japanese is useful not just for communicating with the 130 million worldwide Japanese speakers. It’s also useful for expanding your own cognitive horizons and changing the way you see the world. It’s my personal favorite experience of language learning, and it can also be the most grueling. This cognitive molding is done through repetition, and the internalization of complex ideas and linguistic patterns. If you choose to learn Japanese, the most useful thing you will gain from it is the ability to truly reevaluate your own way of thinking, as well as your own critical thinking skills.
Why specializing in Japanese can be change your perspective, and why being able to speak Japanese is intrinsically useful.
While I will always encourage people to learn as many language as possible, both as a gesture of respect to those whose country you’re visiting, and as a way to expand your mind, if you’re reading this article…that means you can understand English!
The reality is that with modern technology and efforts to globalize advancing year by year, for traveling or short bursts of communication, you should definitely be able to survive as an English speaker in almost any environment. The question really is, what do you want to specialize in? There are few native Japanese speakers who can speak English at a near native level (something the Japanese government is constantly trying to change), and there are even fewer native English speakers who can speak Japanese at a near native level. While these people aren’t 1 in a million like they may have been decades ago, based on my own experiences living in Japan I would estimate that there are less than 1000 native English speakers in Japan who can truly use Japanese with confidence. Just imagine how low this number is outside of Japan. Here’s an example; There’s a massive demand for bilingual Spanish and English speakers in the United States, and there is also a huge number of English and Spanish bilingual speakers. While there may be 100 times the demand, there may be 200 times the supply. Even if the demand for Japanese is rare in The United States or other countries, if you are famous for your ability, you will be THE ONE people call on whenever there is a need to translation, localization, etc.
So, is Japanese a useful language to learn for business?
Japan as a culture is entrenched in this air of ‘exclusivity’, which also permeates the community of foreign residents in Japan. As I have covered on this site before, foreigners in primarily Japanese environments can make people feel…uncomfortable. While there will always be some xenophobic people everywhere, Japan happens to be a country where the vast majority of visitors don’t speak the language, don’t have much of a concept of the deeper aspects of the Japanese culture, and is a country in which many people will visit with the goal of experiencing heavy culture shock. Japan, for better or worse, still does things very much in a Japanese way, influenced HEAVILY by aspects of the Japanese language.
Understanding the Japanese language will help you understand the way Japanese people think, and very specific nuances of the Japanese culture. Communication is very important to Japanese people. If you are planning on doing business with Japanese companies, having some knowledge of Japanese is essential.
I don’t know where I would be now if I never learned Japanese. Maybe back in the US, or maybe in a cardboard box in front of a Japanese station? Okay, okay, you CAN become an English teacher, but that sounds incredibly boring to me. I’ll take being bilingual any day!
So, if you’re interested in learning more about the Japanese language, culture, or my life in Japan, I think you’ll enjoy some of the articles I have attached below!
There are many articles about the broader reasons people enjoy living in Japan, but I feel that the topic is a little overdone. Rather than going on about how amazing the food is, or how easy it is to travel domestically, I thought I could introduce some of the little things that I really appreciate about living in Japan for 7 years.
It’s the little things that count: Small things I noticed that are actually AWESOME about living in Japan.
Why introduce the small things? Because these are the things that will actually affect your life in the long term from day to day. These aren’t the things you will notice on day 1, but they are probably the things you will notice after year 1. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Reason to Live in Japan #1: No tips, eating out is WAY cheaper than in most developed countries, and prices are very predictable.
The pricing around meals in Japan is easy to understand, a general standard exists, and things usually end up being WAY cheaper than way you would see in your average western restaurant. There is a culture of “Tabehoudai” (食べ放題) in Japan, as well as “nomihoudai” (飲み放題). Tabehoudai is “All you can eat.”, and nomihoudai means “All you can drink.” There is also “Tabenomihoudai”, which you may have guessed means that you get both all you can eat, and all you can drink. A normal price for the all you can eat tabehoudai option is typically around ￥3000 yen or $30, and service lasts for around 2 hours. That means for a FULL all you can eat meal in Japan, you can except to spend around ￥3000 ($30), and this price usually includes tax as well! (I’ll cover this point more later.)
Even still, I can’t recall any time I’ve ever had a bad meal in Japan. Food here is GOOD. You can get an amazing healthy lunch for around ￥1000 or $10 USD, and a reasonable dinner (without all you can eat service) for around ￥2000. There is a strict standard for pricing here, and so it’s very rare to ever go out to a restaurant and get shocked by the bill. With so many options to choose from opened-up (because it’s rare for most restaurants in Japan to go over this pricing threshold), The peace of mind of being able to choose whatever looks good without having to account for calculating and tipping takes a lot of the stress out of choosing where to eat, and makes splitting the bill super simple as well! It’s one of the things that I like the most about living in Japan. The food in Japan is AWESOME, and that includes the experience of paying the bill.
Reason to Live in Japan #2: I love Japan’s ichijikai / nijikai culture, and the lack of cliques in Japan
I’ve gone over this topic a bit before. You can read about the concept of ichijikai and nijikai at this article here, so I won’t go over it in too much detail. To summarize really quickly, ichijikai and nijikai are the flow of how people hang out with each other when eating out in Japan. The ichijikai is the first place you go (almost always a restaurant, and more often than not an izakaya), and the nijikai is the activity you choose to afterwards when some people have gone home. Often times for a nijikai people will visit a cafe together, or go to karaoke. In fact, this cultural dynamic is one of the main reasons why karaoke is popular in Japan. It’s a business model that really only makes sense within the context of Japan, to be honest.
The thing that I really love about this, is that people will make an effort to choose an option that caters to everybody in the group for the first ichijikai destination. So, after having amazing food together, THEN you can decide to go to some more niche thing depending on who is left in the group, and what people want to do. I like this dynamic, first because I love amazing food, and eating amazing food is always a great way to get to know people. Second, because it allows you to become friends with people you wouldn’t normally be friends with. In Japan, everyone is expected to be friends. As someone who moved to Japan almost right after graduating from American high school, it was refreshing to experience social dynamics that didn’t revolve entirely around cliques.
Reason to Live in Japan #3: Everything in Japan has some community aspect tied to it.
Somewhat related to reason #2, another thing I love about Japan is how practically anything can be enjoyed outside of your home or apartment. This is somewhat of a by-product of Japan’s small living spaces, but I personally like how I can enjoy some of my favorite hobbies like music or games outside the house because of the sheer number of community spaces in Japan’s big cities, and especially in Tokyo. If you’re somebody who enjoys meeting new people who share the same interests, or have a go-with-the-flow kind of attitude, Japan’s city infrastructure really allows for you to experience just about anything you could want to do when out and about. This goes for travel as well, since there is a practically never ending supply of cool places to explore solo or with friends. Hey, you can make friends when you get there too!
Reason to Live in Japan #4: The internet is fast. REALLY fast!
This is something more directed at my US friends, but I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been playing games with some of my US friends online, and I HAVE A BETTER CONNECTION from Tokyo than they do to the US servers! Japan has some really amazing internet, maybe second to South Korea in terms of internet speed. Granted, you need to be located near an area that has enough people to warrant optical fiber high speed service, but most places in Japan’s bigger cities should have you covered. So, just how fast are we talking about? This was the result from an internet speed test (I’m using AU hikari.) I think the price is pretty reasonable too. I pay ￥6600 a month (around $60 USD) for this service, which is worth ever penny (yenny?)
There are many reasons why you should consider moving to Japan, and many reasons that are better than this , but these are some of the more mundane the reasons you won’t see on EVERY site relating to Japan.
In conclusion:Japan’s unique social dynamics and infrastructure leads to some really fun opportunities to meet people in amazingly fun ways. In addition, Japan’s cheap food and reliable pricing let’s people really relax and enjoy the experience of hanging out outside the home and eating out, while this reliable and cheap pricing allows for more options when choosing what to do and where to eat. Finally, the internet is AWESOME, so it’s easy to keep in touch with friends and family abroad, provided your area has access to good hikari fiber optic service.
If you are thinking of moving to Japan
Why not check out one of these articles below? I have been living in Japan since early 2015 as a language school student, then a University student, employee, and translator / consultant. I hope you will enjoy reading about my experiences!
Is Osaka dangerous? Osaka locals and Tokyo natives love to give their opinions on this one all the time.
Osaka was the first place I ever lived in Japan. Over 5 years I lived in the 3 different areas, 2 of which were pretty seedy areas in Osaka, with 1 being a safe suburb in between Kobe and Osaka. So I think I have a pretty well-rounded view regarding this question. So, is Osaka dangerous? If you were to ask Japanese people outside of Osaka, they would probably tell you that Osaka is infamously dangerous, dirty…and all-around weird, in both a good and bad way. So, what is the truth? In this article, I thought I would cover this while reflecting on my 5 years of living in the Osaka area.
How dangerous is Tennoji, Osaka? – The first area I ever lived in Japan was…unique…
The first place i ever lived in Japan was Osaka’s Tennoji area, an area infamous for having some of the most seedy areas in Japan. It’s also famous for having one of Japan’s most family friendly malls!…Right outside one of Tsuttenkaku (通天閣), one of Japan’s most seedy drinking neighborhoods. It has delicious foods, beer, is famous for my favorite Osaka food kushikatsu (串カツ) , and is an all around wretched hive of scum, villainy, and elderly drunk Japanese men. Directly in front of this wretched hive is an old dilapidated zoo, which has become famous in recent years for being a popular meeting spot for the local Yakuza. Directly to the East of this park is a series of love hotels dawning such romantic names as the “Little Chapel Coconuts” and “Hotel Shrimp Love Wedding”; Words can conjure feelings of romance and flood the mind with images of happy thoughts, after all. It’s important to consider safety, in more meaning than one apparently.
Yakuza, drunk elderly Japanese men, a dirt hole in the ground, and love hotels. So…Osaka is dangerous after all?
Wow! What a title. While the area in front of the zoo has been renovated in recent years into one of the nicer outer terrace areas in the Osaka area, complete with cafe’s, bookstores, and a reasonably sized park, when I lived here in early 2015 this area little more than an expansive and undeniably visually unappealing dirt hole in the ground, a Stark contrast to what it would eventually become, and an obvious contrast in terms of danger or safety. Old men would meet in this dirt crater daily to play shogi, which can be described as a Japanese version of chess. I think they may have played go on occasion too. I know this because I would glance over at the old people out of the corner of my eye daily as I passed to make my way passed the love hotels to the family friendly amusement area. (That was my favorite sentence in this post so far.)
The triangle of strange and dangerous things in this corner of Osaka
This is where all of the strange (and often dangerous) elements of this area of Osaka would converge together into some kind of strange “weird Japan” Bermuda triangle. With the mall, yazuka meeting area, zoo, dirt shogi patch, and love hotels all within viewing distance, families would walk past gangsters. Drunk old Japanese men would waddle their way passed “soap lands” and Mr. donuts. Little kids would play in the grass patches next to the shogi hole. It was truly a site to behold. I never saw anything happen during my 8 months of living in this area, but I did question the safety of little kids playing in front of the street in a dirt hole, right next to a prominent yakuza rendezvous spot. I don’t know, was this just me being overly paranoid? Hmm…
The golden landmark that watches over it all. Abeno Harukas: The fun of watching the danger from a distance!
But, wait! There is one major landmark overlooking all of this madness that i’ve yet to mention: Abenoharukas, which is the tallest building in Osaka and all of Japan. Abeno Harukas itself has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, especially in recent years, with a viewing deck and elevator to the roof that proudly displays the number of floors to reach the roof of the building, which is also open to visitors. Abeno Harukas towers over the entire area, visible of course from both love hotel and family-friendly donut shops. To be honest, I’ll let you in on a secret: Osaka locals, and especially people in the area don’t really care about Abeno Harukas. It’s a landmark for sure, but Mio is where all of the action is at. Mio has shopping and great restaurant options right above the station, and is where most people in the area will go to hang out with friends when they hang out in Tennoji.
Osaka isn’t dangerous, it just has bad “治安!”
Hanging out at Mio and observing the surrounding chaos from one of the top floor’s windows really drives home how much of an enigma this particular area of Osaka really is. Mio (and Abeno Harukas to an even greater extent) has some high-end shopping, great restaurants, and is clean and modern. A clean and modern oasis right across the street from all of this chaos…and Q’s mall! In this mind this encompasses the feeling of living in Osaka, and whether or not this city is safe or not. In comparison, my experience is Tokyo has been that areas are much more sectioned off. There are clear rich areas, poor areas, safe and dangerous areas in Tokyo. In Osaka, there isn’t nearly as much segmentation. You can be on the 20th floor of a high-end and luxurious skyscraper eating delicious foods in comfort, only to watch kids and old people playing games in the dirt a block away. Families walk down the street enjoying the lively and local street foods, with grungy businessman holding a cigarettes’ 2 inches in front of their kid’s face as they walk down the street. This is why, in terms of this question, I don’t know if the question is really of safety or not. A Japanese person would likely describe Osaka as having a bad “Chian” (治安), meaning something like “A sense of public order.” Osaka may not be dangerous per say, especially by the standards of what I was used to in America, but nearly every area in Osaka could be described as having a comparably bad sense of public order. People generally don’t follow the rules, and often times, there are comparatively fewer rules when compared to other areas in Japan.
Is Tokyo safer than Osaka? My experience living in both cities.
If one were to compare Tokyo and Osaka, I don’t think it is a bad analogy to say that Tokyo feels much more “cold” in comparison. Things are clean, efficient, high-tech, and rules are enforced heavily in every corner of the city. This of course has it’s advantages and disadvantages. While Osaka may be less safe, and certainly has a worse sense of public order, I do miss the amount of street musicians I would see walking around in Osaka. As a musician myself, I made more than a few spontaneous friends by just walking around and being friendly. People hang out on the street much more often in Osaka, where there just wouldn’t be enough space in most places in Tokyo. In this way, many of the things that make Osaka less safe are the things that also make Osaka one of the more fun places to live in Japan. There is a sense of spontaneity on the streets which is always interesting if nothing else, although I can definitely understand how it could be intimidating for newcomers. Especially for Japanese natives who have heard the rumors of how dangerous and low-“chian” Osaka is for their entire lives.
Tokyo can be more dangerous than Osaka depending on who you are.
I will say that there are certainly areas in Tokyo that were even more seedy than any of the areas I had seen living in Osaka…from a different point of view? Perhaps as a result of Tokyo’s different infrastructure and much larger scope, walking even in close proximity of many of the more infamous seedy areas in Tokyo will result in constant harassing and “catching”. Tokyo, in comparison to Osaka, has a much higher number of “catchers”, at least in my own personal experience. What is a catcher? You may be asking. A catcher is somebody who tries to get you to go to their restaurant, club, or … let’s call them “establishments” by “cathing” you in the street and trying to convince (harass) you into coming to their restaurant. Many of these establishments are targeting foreigners, so areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku are just TEEMING with scammers ready to prey on the first innocent-eyed foreigner that wanders into their cone of vision. It can be relentless.
Why Tokyo has a lot of catchers, and why this can lead to dangerous situations for foreigners.
In a lot of ways it makes sense why “catchers” are more common in Tokyo. If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, you know that most buildings are between 5 to 10 stories tall, and most of these buildings are filled with restaurants, cafes, bars, karaoke parlors, shooting bars, owl bars…etc etc, you name it. The only street exposure most of these places get is a tiny side that juts out from the side of the building. This is why Shinjuku and Shibuya has some of the highest amounts of neon lights in the world. For a lot of these places to survive, they need people on the street flagging people down, trying to get people to head up to the 7th floor of this building, or the 9th floor of this building, etc. So, not all “catchers” are scams, but MANY of them are. It can be difficult identifying these scams if you’re new to Japan, which is exactly why those kinds of places target tourists so often. So if this is your first time visiting Japan, and you don’t know the language, or how much money things generally cost, you should be extremely careful. Many restaurants may seem legitimate on the outside, but will have a $100 “cover charge” (called “otoshi” お通し) in Japanese. This is NOT normal, obviously. Typically an otoshi will cost between $3-$5 on average (￥300 – ￥500), but many people fresh off the plane may not know any better. It’s not uncommon for foreigners to get caught up in scams like this, especially on their first night in Tokyo.
Is Osaka or Tokyo safer for women?
I can imagine that Osaka (and Tokyo, as well as other Japanese cities, but especially Osaka) are dangerous places to live as a single woman. Japan’s most common crimes are often targeted towards women, and are of the…creepy variety. As I had mentioned before, Osaka’s police force is much more vigilant (I friend I had who joined the police force mentioned the Osaka police is the hardest to join), but are generally focused to specific areas in the city. I feel that in the smaller neighborhoods of Osaka I noticed fewer police, but this may have just been my imagination. That being said, If you have your wits about you, I think you will be okay. The worst stories I have heard are creepy guys trying to…make a move on the train. It’s weird, but people here are very aware of it. I try to always report these things when I notice them, because it is pretty common. I did notice this happening more often in Osaka, but that is likely because of the lower population density making it easier to notice. I don’t know. I’m a guy and that’s as far as I can comment on that, but I think this is a problem that persists throughout all of Japan’s big cities.
If you are interested in visiting Tokyo or Osaka, here’s how you can safely travel in both cities.
This book has some great recommendations for Tokyo eats you can trust.
However, I only covered specific areas of Tokyo, so if you would like city-wide recommendations for great Tokyo eats I recommend the book Only In Tokyo: Two Chefs, 24 Hours, The Ultimate Food City if you are planning on visiting Tokyo. The book highlights some of Tokyo’s best chefs, their personal stories, and their restaurants, so it should make a great tool if you coordinate it with your trips itinerary. I’m an Amazon affiliate, so I will receive a percentage of your purchase if you use the link above, as well! It’s a great way to support what I do, and plan for your inevitable trip to Japan at the same time! As for how to use the book, what I like to do personally when I read books like this is save locations on google maps. That way you always know when you’re near something worth trying.
Is Osaka safe to visit, and is Osaka safe at night?
As for Osaka eats, Osaka is known for it’s street food, so heading to the Dotonbori area is your best bet! While I would normally recommend against eating at chain restaurants, in Dotonbori, Ganko is a particularly great restaurant if you’re looking for a place to try some delicious Japanese sashimi or sushi in a traditional environment. Ganko means stubborn in Japanese, so you can just look for the angry looking Japanese man on the sign. As far as staying safe in Osaka, I don’t think you have anything to worry about, especially if you stick near one of the major stations. Just like with any major city in the world, at night avoid unlit areas and unknown alleys. Honestly, this is funny, but I get the impression that most Japanese criminals are afraid of foreigners anyways. If someone starts intimidating you just scream at them in English (lol). Things might look shady, but based on my own personal experience, you should be fine. I wandered around for years and never had any problems. Remember, any city in Japan is likely safer than wherever you’re coming from. This IS Japan after all. Have fun!
So, is Osaka more dangerous, or is Tokyo more dangerous? I would say both. While Osaka is more traditionally dangerous, Tokyo is probably more dangerous for tourists and foreigners who are new to Japan, and are more susceptible to be being the victim of a scam or aforementioned “catcher” schemes. Especially within Japan, Osaka has this image of being a very dangerous city with bad “chian”, meaning a bad sense public order and community cohesion. While this may be true, this is what I believe. Osaka may be more dangerous to long term residents and locals, but I get the impression that Tokyo is more dangerous for tourists.
If you’re interested in reading more about my experiences living in Japan, the Japanese culture, or the Japanese language.
It surprised me when I first moved to Osaka, Japan in 2015 just how popular jazz and blues music is in Japan.
One of the things that surprised me about Japan was just how big the Jazz and blues underground music scene is in Japan’s big cities. In particular, as somehow who grew up as a native Chicagoan listening to Chicago blues legends like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, I was surprised to meet Japanese street musicians and underground artists who knew more about these traditional Chicago artists than most of the musicians I knew growing up in Chicago’s suburbs. While I have always been more of a blues guitarist myself, I dabble in Jazz and spent my high school years (and year of studying at college before moving to Japan) playing guitar in the school jazz band. Jazz has an interesting role in not only the Japanese culture, but the Japanese economy as well that hasn’t been seen to this level in America in (what I’m imagining) is quite a few decades.
Why is jazz and blues music is so popular in Japan
My opinion backed up by my own experiences: A large part of Japan’s collective culture is the concept of “ichijikai” (一次会), “nijikai” (二次会), which can be complex. “Ichijikai” literally means “first meeting”, which is the first thing you do out with a group of people, be it friends or colleagues. The ichijikai is best if it’s something that the whole group can enjoy doing together, and because drinking parties are such a common part of the Japanese social dynamic, an extremely common choice for an ichijikai will be a course meal at an izakaya (居酒屋), which is a bit hard to translate but is commonly called a “Japanese pub” in English.
So, why am I telling you this? Well, while the first thing you do when you’re out with a large group is often to go to an izakaya or similar restaurant for some drinks, as people start to go home many people will opt to head out for another place. This is called the nijikai (二次会) or literally “second meeting.” With less people in the group and people looking for a coffee cure for their hangover, a popular choice for the next stop is often a jazz café. I believe this is also one of the reasons why cafes are so huge in Japan. Jazz cafes are a good place to calm down with fewer people, and they’re good because they still offer some choices of alcohol for those who want to keep drinking, but they also have coffee and teas, as well as appetizers for those who want to wind down for the night. With many people in Japan being brought to Jazz bars through friends, colleagues, and family members at these events, I have a hunch that many jazz enthusiasts got their first fix for jazz because of a love for the atmosphere of these places.
A brief history of jazz and blues in Japan: How the Meiji Restoration lead to the rise of jazz culture in Japan.
While jazz would come a bit later, the opening of Japan to the world, and especially towards embracing western cultures really began with the Meiji restoration in the late 19th century; A time when the last samurai of Japan would fall or assimilate into society, and Japanese traditions were being rejected by the elite of the country after Japan would observe the technology and control of western nations. This would eventually lead to Japan’s fascination with Western arts, music, and eventually jazz.
It’s a bit funny. Nowadays the stereotype of a weaboo who rejects western culture and embraces Japanese culture can be cringey, but this was actually extremely prevalent in late 19th century Japan when the country would open up to the world for the first time in centuries.
The early Meiji Restoration was a time of great political change, as well as a change in the psyche and image the Japanese people would have for towards themselves. One of the most novels to come out of this period was I Am A Cat (吾輩は猫である) by Natsume Soseki.
In this story, a cat observes the everyday routine of a teacher, him being the head of the household. His ways are strange, and he looks very different, but the teacher is a symbol of great authority and respect within the society. The cat may never understand him, but he can learn to domesticate himself. For it is a reality; the cat can only live inside the house with the permission of the teacher, and with the permission of humans. You may have caught the symbolism; The cat is a symbol of the Japanese population and way of life, and the teacher is a symbol for western nations, and western imperialism. The cat may survive, but only if he is to domesticate himself within the domain of a greater and more socially accepted power. As you can see from this example, not every person within Japan would accept western ideals with open arms, but having to come to terms with Japan’s role in the world was a reality for people living in Japan during this period. Along with western ideals comes western entertainment and art, including music, and eventually along with it the importation of Jazz. For the Japanese people, jazz would come to represent a symbol of this sophistication; One of being caught up with the times, and open to the ideas of the greater world.
The golden age of jazz in Japan: When and why jazz reached it’s height of popularity in Japan.
Japan would see a interest in Jazz growing throughout the 1920’s. As the Meiji Restoration influenced the native population to turn their attention to the west, along with the jazz boom of the 1920’s in America, jazz in Japan would become a symbol of western influence and the possibility of life outside of Japan. As World War II approached (and Japan’s infatuation with imitating Western imperialism would reach it’s ultimate conclusion), Japan would ban jazz for a time as jazz was deemed “enemy music.” However, jazz had reached such a level of popularity that, similar to baseball, the Japanese government never succeeded in implementing a total ban of the artform. In post-war Japan with newfound influence from the American occupying forces, jazz would see a newfound revitalization and would surge in popularity once again.
My experience first moving to Japan and playing jazz and blues in Osaka’s underground music scene.
Moving to another country can be lonely. Even after studying Japanese HARD for almost 2 years I could still barely hold a conversation. I learned here firsthand that there is a big difference between being able to understand a language and being able to use that language. I could understand a reasonable amount of Japanese, and my reading was good for how much time I had put in, but I simply didn’t have many opportunities to speak the language when I was living in the US. Actually, it’s more that I lacked the courage to just dive into a Japanese discord channel or chat, but that does take a lot of courage to reach out to people in your second language, and even in 2014 the internet wasn’t quite the vast ocean that it is today.
More than anything, learning a language is a lesson in endurance-building. I had moved to Japan in early 2015 and enrolled in a language school. Classes at the school would run from 6-8 hours a day, which is pretty much brain-imploding levels of language learning for an English speaker learning a language as complicated as Japanese. At night I would push myself further, but I could feel my social life wasn’t building the way I had hoped. I had just moved to another country and wasn’t feeling the most confident in my speaking ability. On top of that, I was just too exhausted to try and meet people on the weekends. At least, I was too exhausted to speak to people in Japanese all weekend. This is where jazz, the blues, and music comes in to save the day.
Is jazz popular in modern Japan? What about blues? Why? What’s the difference between the two?
At this point, jam sessions around the Osaka area would become a valuable communication tool for me. I might not have been able to speak Japanese yet with much confidence, but I could play a mean blues solo. For those who don’t know, Jazz and blues are often performed in similar bars, although there are specialty blues bars, and specialty jazz bars. I would say that Japan, and especially Tokyo, has a much higher number of Jazz bars. Blues and jazz have technical differences, while jazz stems from blues, and blues tends to have a stronger sense of community backing it than jazz. I’m more of a blues man myself, but I love jazz as well. So, I would find a jazz and blues bar, go play some tasty licks, and get out all of the things I wanted to say but couldn’t say in Japanese, only I would say it with my guitar chops instead of my chops…chops.
So, why are blues / jazz jam sessions so popular in Japan?
This is conjecture, but I think the community aspect of soul music and jam sessions translate really well to the Japanese collectivist culture. At blues jam sessions in particular, the emphasis is placed less on what is being played, but more on how it is being played, and having a direct line of communication with the audience. Jazz and blues, more than any other genre’s, are inherently live performance arts. Listening to albums after the fact is a treat, but you can’t beat seeing a great jazz or blues musician in person. They feed off the energy of the crowd, and the crowd feeds off the energy of the performance. It’s entirely a give and take. For me personally, when I wandered into some of these bars in early 2015, lacking confidence and feeling self conscious about my Japanese ability, having the option of getting up on stage and feeling the call-and-response of the audience was a really great opportunity for me to feel like a part of the greater community, and relieve a ton of stress while I was at it.
I think that may another reason why these jam sessions are so popular: stress relief. If you think about it, karaoke is pretty similar to blues and jazz jam sessions. Karaoke is SO popular in Japan, because screaming at the top of your lungs in a tiny soundproof box is really great stress relief. Also because of Japan’s bureiko (無礼講) culture.(You can read more about the bureiko culture in this article I had linked previously) These jam sessions serve as a great outlet and place to get away from it all.
My experience performing at a jazz / blues jam session in Osaka Japan
The first major bar I went to was called Chicago rock. I’m a Chicagoan, so I thought it would be funny to go to the off-the-beaten-path bar on the outskirts of Osaka and jump into their jam session. As I walked in, I was met with some initial hesitation (This is what happens as a foreigner in Japan when you don’t charge in like a bull, brimming with confidence.), but I was welcomed with open arms when I opened up. “Chicago! Hey, everyone! This guy is actually FROM Chicago!” People were really friendly after that, and after watching the main set I got pulled up on stage to riff on Sweet Home Chicago. It was a great time.
A few months later, I came back to Chicago Rock as a university student and a changed man. Now I could speak just a bit…just a bit more Japanese. Things were really setting off this time! This was a full-on jam session. (At Chicago Rock nearly every set turned into a jam session, but this was an official one.) Musicians waited on standby outside the bar, a precarious staircase leading to the bar area and stage smaller than the smallest apartments even in Japan. I weed through the crowd to put my name on the jam session rotation. “Evan Stark: Guitar”, and head up to the steps to get things ready. It’s one of those things that sticks out in my memory looking back on this event. It’s funny, having to tune up your guitar outside on the street is a humbling experience that leaves an impression, a commonality with all of the best rundown jazz and blues venues in the world. It’s during moments like this where you can truly bond with the people around you and your fellow performers, everyone aligned for one night for the pursuit of earth-moving soul in a single unified key. I had a lot of fun that night, and got a lot out. Moving to another country is stressful, tiring, and unavoidably scary at night, but it really helps sometimes to just be able to get it all out.
If you want to learn more about the Japanese culture, language, or my experiences living here, I think you will enjoy the articles below!
As somebody who has studied Japanese for over 8 years and has spent considerable time sleuthing through language-learning forums, I have seen this question crop up a lot. Usually posted in a sense of desperation. It isn’t the simple question of “Why doesn’t Japanese have spaces? Please inform me.” It’s more often than not a “WHY DOESN’T JAPANESE JUST USE SPACES?? WHY?!” as I imagine the original posters fists clenched and raised to the heavens. “Oh lord, please absolve of my sins and grant me this one gift. Why not just separate noun from noun, and particle from particle?! Oh, please lord, just grant me this one gift! The gift of the Japanese space!”
Or something like that?
So, why doesn’t Japanese use spaces like we do in English or other romance languages?
There are a number of really interesting mechanics Japanese has that I will go over, while also touching on the overall utility and versality of using written kanji characters in Japanese. I say this because the question of “Why don’t Japanese people use spaces?” is usually followed up or proceeded with the question: “Why doesn’t Japanese just get rid of kanji and use spaces in between words instead?” If you’re confused on this question, don’t worry, I’ll elaborate.
The quick answer: Japanese doesn’t have spaces because Japanese uses 3 different alphabets simultaneously, meaning that it is much easier to tell Japanese words that written next to each other apart from each other than English words. This mitigates the need for spaces in the Japanese language.
The deeper reason why the Japanese language doesn’t use spaces, and how this can change your perspective
So, what if I told you that the Japanese language DOES has spaces after all? From a certain point of view, this isn’t entirely true, when you are thinking in terms of what function a “space” has in the English language. Japanese writers do uses spaces too, but only if we consider a “space” as being similar to a concept like “spatial allocation” Okay, okay I’m getting overly philosophical, so let me demonstrate what I mean with pictures.
Here is a visual example of why the Japanese writing system doesn’t use spaces, and what it would look like if it did
This is a visual simulation of how Japanese readers naturally separate words through the use of Hiragana, Katakana, and kanji. In essence, this variation achieved through the simultaneous use of Japan’s 3 different alphabets acts similarly to the way spaces are used in English. In this way, this separation of concepts through the mixing and arranging of different alphabets is very malleable. You can think of the way Japanese writers interchange the 3 different Japanese alphabets with each other as similar to how a graphic designer uses different fonts in English. The overall design of the character itself projects something to the reader. It isn’t only the concept itself, but the way you are presenting the information that informs the reader on how they should feel through this malleable context. This utility is one of the reasons why Japanese doesn’t have spaces, and why it doesn’t need to have spaces. As I attempted to demonstrate in the visual example above, the three alphabets used in tandem create enough visual contrast to give the Japanese language a malleable albeit more elusive sense of spacing.
This sense of spacing provided by the multiple Japanese alphabets in tandem can also be used in more deliberate ways towards single words, and not necessarily entire sentences. Perhaps one of the most common marketing tropes you will see in Japanese advertising copy is for a word that is commonly written in hiragana, which may be thought of as to the standard alphabet in Japanese, be written in katakana to provide added emphasis and draw the reader’s attention (Check the example below.) You can think of this effect as being somewhat similar to how we used italicized characters in English. However, since it is an entirely different alphabet we are talking about here (although there are visual similarities between hiragana and katakana), this level of embellishment is comparatively stronger in Japanese. You can think about it like bolding, underlining, and italicizing a word, but somehow without coming off as tacky or in bad taste. This is such a common thing utility in Japanese writing that it doesn’t come across as nearly as forced or “click-baity” in the context of the Japanese language. Let’s look at some real world examples.
Let’s look at a marketing example from Panasonic: How the three Japanese alphabets create visual contrast and emphasis ideas for the reader without the use of spaces.
Let’s look at this example from Panasonic. This is an advertisement for Panasonic’s chlorine filtration system for pools. The text says “Do you know? The thing that protects kids at the swimming pool with that particular smell.” They’re talking about chlorine. One thing I noticed is that the Japanese word for smell (“Nioi”, written as ニオイ in this case) would typically be written in kanji, but is written in katakana in this case, likely to conjure images in the readers mind. But, why? Well, when you think of chlorine, the first thing you probably think of is the smell of the pool, right? By writing the word “nioi” in katakana, this not only achieves a level of visual contrast and makes for good design principles, it also places emphasis on the word itself.
So, how do you arrange the different Japanese alphabets, and how does this act as a replacement for spaces in Japanese?
I have touched on this idea before in my article Which Japanese Alphabet Should You Learn First? A Beginner’s Guide. This idea being that interchanging which alphabet (technically Kanji isn’t an alphabet, but for simplicity sake let’s call it one) you use, and the ratio of whichever alphabet you use in Japanese heavily changes the nuance of a sentence. For example, if you were to write an entire sentence using only hiragana characters, not only would the sentence be incredibly difficult to read since it lost its natural sense of spacing from the visual contrast of hiragana against both the katakana and kanji alphabets. The sentence would also come across as somehow more childish or loosely based.
Japanese doesn’t use spaces…but English only uses one alphabet! Why translation isn’t a 1 to 1 endeavor, and the question I get asked most often by English learners
Here’s an anecdote; Do you know what the most common question I get asked by Japanese English learners is? Contrary to expectation, it isn’t a question pertaining to English spelling or grammar. More often than any other question, I’ve been asked how to translate the extremely common (and notoriously difficult to translate Japanese phrase) “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (written as よろしくお願いします), is commonly translated to “Please be kind to me forever” in English. While…this isn’t exactly…incorrect,.. this isn’t a statement I would label as being anything close to “natural English”, right? My point being: When you actually directly translate languages 1 to 1 the result is often less than natural. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu is almost impossible to translate into English, because the English equivalent for yoroshiku onegaishimasu simply doesn’t exist. If I were to choose one phrase, however, I would probably translate it to “I hope that we can have a smooth relationship full of prosperity now and into the future.”, or something along those lines. However, as a translator myself, I almost always choose to focus on translating the feeling of any given sentence. When people first start learning other languages they may ask “How do I say this in (target language). When one becomes a true bilingual and beyond, one would ask themselves ” How would I convey this feeling in (target language)?” It is a rare thing for languages to have a perfect grammatical and cultural equivalencies. The question is not “Why doesn’t Japanese have spaces”, but rather “Why does English have spaces, and what would English be like without spaces? Are there any alternatives to using spaces?” This is the mindset of a linguist who has experienced the diversity of the world.
A bit about me and my life in Japan
Why I title my articles the way I do, and why you can trust my content.
For any previous readers of my content, you may have noticed that nearly all of my articles (ironically, with this article being one of the exceptions) include the phrase “My experience” in the title. I do this because everything I write about is based on my own personal experiences of living in Japan. I want people to know that these experiences are what I draw from to write every article. I might not use as many sources as other sites, but it’s very rare that I even attempt to tackle a subject that I don’t have direct experience in. Here is quick timeline of my life in Japan since 2015 so you can understand my journey and why you can trust my content.
Enrolling in Japanese language school and moving to Japan 2015-2016
Enrolling in Japanese university and that experience. 2016-2020
I then enrolled in university in Japan from the 2016 to 2020. After cramming Japanesee into my brain for the better part of two years, I decided “What better way to test myself, than by taking university courses in Japanese?”. So…I did that! And failed at many things…but I still did it! You can read about that experience and some of crippling failures here: What’s It Like Studying at a Japanese University? My Experience. In addition, I also recently wrote about a strange experience I had while on a university Gasshuku (A kind of ulta-Japanese take on a class field trip), which you can read about here: Studying at Japanese University: One Strange Experience I Had
My experience working in Japan after graduation 2020-now
After graduating from university in early 2020, I moved to Tokyo to work in the marketing division of a company. My primary job would be in working with videographers to create company live stream events, and occasionally editing and adding English subtitles to videos myself. After a year of working at home because of the state of 2020 and 2021, I eventually decided to branch off and try doing a similar job, but as a freelance worker and my own boss. Becoming a freelancer is rare in Japan, but it’s even more rare for a foreigner to set up a sole proprietorship. I would like to write more about these experiences in future.
If you are interested in learning Japanese, and want to learn more about Japanese linguistics and my experiences in Japan:
Through this website and my YouTube channel (on the menu above) I try to provide a clear and realistic view of life in Japan and the Japanese language and culture, based on my experiences living in Japan as both a student and employee over around 7 years. If you are interested in learning Japanese, or learning more about the intricacies of life in Japan, please consider checking out one of the articles I have linked below. Everything I write about is backed up by years of practical experience, trial and error, and all of my own personal sweat and tears. (Personal sweat and tears are the best kind of tears)
If you are learning Japanese, I think this is a good place to start.
If you are learning Japanese outside of Japan, I covered my experiences learning Japanese through means available outside of Japan in this article here
This is a tough one. I think there’s a bit of a cultural difference between the Western and Japanese concept of “happiness.” While covering some of my own experiences I would like to cover some key concepts unique to the Japanese language and culture, and why this answer isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem.
A quick note
Hi. My name is Evan. I’ve been living in Japan since 2015. Since I moved here I have been through Japanese language school, university, job hunting, working, and now working as a translator and marketing consultant in Tokyo. While I will be basing many of my points in recent data, all of my opinions in this article are of course based on my own personal experiences while living in Japan.
Trying to analyze and inevitably dumb-down the complexities of a culture for a single article can be…somewhat cringy. I always try to do my best. My opinions are primarily based on my experiences studying Nihonjinron (日本人論) under Japanese instructors while in Japanese university, as well as by reading studies by Japanese sociologists. My passions lie in developmental linguistics and cultural anthropology, but that doesn’t mean my opinion is concrete. Think of this as a essay on my own perspectives and experiences supplemental by additional knowledge from other minds more qualified than myself.
My experience living in Japan; Can foreigners be happy living in Japan, and is living in Japan worth it?
This is something I have covered a few times before, but put simply, living in Japan comes with a lot of responsibility. Foreigners in Japan still make up only around 2% of the population. Of this foreign community, an even much smaller percentage of foreigners living in Japan are westerners. Simply put, you stand out, everywhere you go, at any time of the day…no matter what. This can manifest itself in a number of really awkward ways on a day to day basis, but it can also be a great opportunity as well. I would say that living in Japan is worth it, but only if you take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you on a day to day basis. More than ever before in your home country, life in Japan as a foreigner is absolutely what you make of it. I’ve seen people thrive, and I’ve seen people struggle. If you are worried, your fate is entirely up to you! If they are willing to put in the effort and maintain a positive and proactive attitude, foreigners can definitely live a happy life in Japan. I wrote a little bit more about this dynamic in my article Can you Live in Japan Without Speaking Japanese? My Experience
Are Japanese people happy? Depressed? Let’s look at the relevant data
According to the 2019 World Happiness Report commissioned by the United Nations Japan is ranked the 58th country in the world in terms of happiness. The ranking is measured using six factors: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and absence of corruption. Japan scored 2nd in “life expectancy”, but scored 92nd in “generosity.” So, why is this ranking for generosity so low, and what does this mean in the context of Japanese society? First, let’s explore how Japanese relationships form, starting with the unique (and notorioulsy difficult to translate) Japanese word: Tanin (他人)
The Japanese concept of tanin （他人), and why this leads to low public generosity and a lack of happiness in Japanese society
I would say that this is a factor that I personally would agree with. I do think that the Japanese social dynamics created by the concept of tanin do lead to less overall happiness in the country, and generally makes it more difficult for people to express themselves to those around them. So, what does tanin mean? I actually covered this topic quite extensively in my graduate thesis, where I focused primarily on the Japanese concept of enryo (遠慮), or “restraint”, and how social classifications create extreme distance between people in Japan depending on their relationship dynamic.
Tanin (他人) is what you would label an “absolute stranger” in the context of Japanese society. Japanese social dynamics tend to start from a commonly agreed-upon standard of distance. A distance that is gradually decreased over time as relationships foster between different people, and depending greatly on the context on which people meet. This can make relationships very complicated, which leads to a propensity for loneliness in Japan, thus resulting in this feeling of a lack of generosity and a decreased level of happiness between people. You can think of these “steps” or “degrees” of closeness people graduate to as their relationship progresses as static barriers to entry. For my graduation thesis, I created this graphic below as to better visualize this phenomenon.
The graph above probably looks very…confusing. What I’m attempting to demonstrate is the concept of how group relationships in Japan can penetrate and become a part of one’s individual identity depending on the relationship classification. The reserved attitude and restraint are used as social tools to show one’s goodwill towards people that have some connection to you. In order, tanin have no connection to an individual outside of being a member of the Japanese society. These are people that you see on the train, on the street, or while waiting in line at the grocery store. Shirai can probably be best translated as “acquaintances”, while nakama would probably be between the English word “friend” and “acquaintance.” In Japanese, the word nakama literally means “ally.” This is a pretty complicated concept, but allow me to attempt to summarize below.
The dynamic of hospitality, or omoiyari in Japan, and how this affects the happiness of people in Japan
While Japanese hospitality towards acquaintances and people bordering on friendship (shirai and nakama) are treated with respect and hospitality (as well as added distance), this level of hospitality and politeness is not applied to the tanin who are completely outside of your social circle. This results in a much more extreme contrast between “stranger” and “friend” within Japanese society. As sad as it is to say, there have been times when I’ve seen an elderly person need to sit down on the subway steps, only to have waves of people walk past them, leaving them all alone. I do think that if this was a western country, a much higher portion of people would stop to offer assistance. This is one of the many contradictions in Japanese society. In a modern sense, the elderly may be respected in Japan, but often only to those who exist within your inner circle, so to speak. I’ll say it again. Community is very important in Japan, but only towards your direct community.At least, this has been my experience living in Osaka, Kobe, and now Tokyo. I think this is one of the reason why many people feel this lack of generosity in Japanese society, and why people often end up unhappy with nowhere to turn in Japanese society. Don’t get me wrong, Japanese people are very willing to help each other, but I think they typically need much more prompting than your average westerner. The emphasis in Japan is typically placed upon harmony, restraint, and perseverance, also known as the ever-present culture of Japanese gaman! (我慢)
So…what is gaman, and why does it affect how happy people are in Japan?
Gaman is a somewhat difficult concept to fully capture for those who have not directly experienced it in Japan. It’s practically become a meme over the years with Japan expats. The answer to everything in Japan is always gaman, topped with more gaman, and the artful skill of properly demonstrating your will to practice consistent and hardy gaman. So, what does gaman mean, and why is it an important factor to consider when asking the question of whether people in Japan are happy?
How the concept of gaman influences the Japanese perspective on individual happiness.
Gaman is most often translation to “perseverance” in English, although to leave the definition at that is to rob it of it’s cultural context and true societal impact. I’ll…attempt to explain. To gaman, or “persevere” in Japan, is to not only challenge oneself to persevere through hardship for a desired outcome. The very act of perseverance itself is a virtue in and of itself. The act of performing proper gaman in Japan is to not only persevere to one’s best ability, but to also demonstrate your good will to your colleagues, friends, and family in order to show them your good intention. This cultural dichotomy would serve as the catalyst from the majority of Japan’s greatest achievements and cultural milestones, while also serving as a factor that can…make it difficult for people in Japan to prioritize their own happiness over the idealistic pursuit of perfection.
After one becomes accustomed to ignoring their own desires, their own feelings, and their own needs for the pursuit of perfectionism, it can become a habit to prioritize not only the needs of the greater good, but the needs of the society as a whole over your own needs. This is maybe what I would say is my interpretation of one of the absolute base components of Japanese collectivism. Self-sacrifice is a cultural motif seen across many aspects of Japanese culture and history, and is one of the reasons why virtues such as harmony group cohesion are often valued more than individual happiness in Japanese society.
The concept of self sacrifice and individual happiness in Japan, as explored through more key concepts.
There are many concepts in Japanese that are additional components of this Japanese ideal of self-sacrifice for the surrounding group. Two concepts that immediately come to mind, both of which I have covered in some manner on this website, are enryo (遠慮) which can be roughly translated to “restraint”, andkuuki (空気) which may be roughly translated to “the air”, meaning the overall indirect social cues and dynamics of a group setting. I had included this in the figure above, whereas group dynamics dictate whether or not, and to what extent people in Japan exercise restraint by dawning a hikaeme (控え目) or “reserved” personality, in which they exercise restraint or gaman (我慢) to those in their immediate social circle, and especially to those with whom they cannot call their friend yet. While one is expected to “read the air” by understanding the indirect and unspoken social cues of any given situation, often times one demonstrates their ability to concern themselves with the conditions of those around them and demonstrate their cares by exercising “restraint”, or enryo in a given social scenario. I had mentioned that this dynamic of graduating to subsequent “social steps” before. Strangers (tanin) become acquaintances (shiriai) and so on, but how does this timing work, and how does this work in Japanese? This is a pretty important step in understanding Japanese social dynamics, which dictate many aspects of people’s lives in this country and their level of happiness.
Being happy…with your relationships? How graduating from polite to casual Japanese works, and how this affects relationships in Japan
Relationships in Japan have many, many different stages as I have covered. In order to have healthy, happy relationships in Japan, one has to master the switch between teineigo (proper Japanese) and tameguchi (casual Japanese.) Mastering this timing is a key part of understanding Japanese social dynamics!
Mastering social dynamics is useful for not only living a happy life in Japan, but also for not coming across as a total creep! Bonus points!
Not being totally awkward would make anyone happy, right? Okay, okay, so…when exactly do you switch from proper Japanese to casual Japanese? Put simply, Japanese speakers try to find a way to just…slip in casual Japanese with somebody they feel that they’re getting close to. In my opinion, this entire process is pretty hilarious when you begin picking it apart. As a country with multiple different ways to say I (you can choose which one you want to use, thus choosing the impression of yourself you give off. I wrote about this more at my other article Should Men Use Boku or Ore? My Experience in Japan) Japanese is chock-full of these kinds of subtle shifts that indicate a change in the greater group dynamic. One’s ability to adjust to these changes and shift themselves by appropriately “reading the air” (I attempted to show this dynamic in the graph above) is an essential component of successfully identifying the murky waters of Japanese relationship dynamics.
I had a conversation with a Japanese friend about this topic on my YouTube channel, so feel free to check out the video below for a bit more context!
This sounds…complicated, right? Well, that’s because it most certainly is! It really is a constant puzzle for even native Japanese who have lived in Japan their entire lives, which can leave a lot of people feeling ostracized socially who struggle to read these subtle social cues, leading to a lower standard of happiness in regards to healthy emotional relations and community.
All of these linguistics factors ON TOP OF Japan’s absolutely insane at times population density can leave people feeling lost in the crowd
Well, not every place in Japan has high population density. In fact, many people might be surprised to find out that one of Japan’s most pressing issues is the rapid depopulation of Japan’s countryside towns. Literally every prefecture in Japan has seen a drop in population in recent years. Can you guess the one exception? You probably got it; It’s Tokyo! I’m currently a Tokyoite (Yes, that’s actually how you say it.) Tokyo is pretty awesome, but if there is one thing that absolutely sucks, it’s attempting to cram yourself into a rush hour Tokyo train car like a sardine…inside a very sweaty can…That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a happy Japanese life now, does it?
It’s not just sweat! It’s Japanese salaryman sweat! Mmm…salty?…(I’m sorry)
The Greater Tokyo Area contains roughly 40 million people! (If you are interested in learning more about the actual population and various definitions of the Tokyo area, you can read more about it here: Is Tokyo a City / State / or Prefecture? Let’s Take a Look! Everywhere you go there is a sea of people. If you’re a foreigner (and some curly-haired Italian-faced foreigner like me especially) you will stand out, even in Tokyo. It’s a strange combination of standing out in this manner and being surrounded in a homogenous society that can make life in Japan lonely for foreigners, and can leave you feeling like you’re lost in the crowd. I can’t speak for Japanese people, obviously, but I imagine it’s somewhat similar, and is one reason why some people are unhappy in Japan.
Life in Japan can get pretty complicated. If you’re interested in learning more about the Japanese language, Japanese culture, or reading about some of my experiences living in Japan, why not check out one of the articles below?