Is Japanese a Useful Language to Learn? My Experience Moving to Japan, Surviving, and Learning to Communicate.

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.

I’m so sorry, Obama…:(

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.

Reading more Growkaru is always the answer. Thanks Obama!

How I moved to Japan in early 2015 to study Japanese

Me and local blues / jazz fans having a jam session at Osaka bar
“Chicago Rock”

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.

Hanko / inkan sample

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.

Stressed? There are…some unique solutions…

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 persevere and 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.

Oh, you think you can just move to Japan and get your own personalized anime portrait, without putting all the work to learn Japanese first? Hmm..wrong! Think again, buddy!

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?

Japan has an interesting history of immigration. Depicted here are one of Japan’s single international trade partners from the west. So, who do you think it was? The British? The French? WRONG! It was the Netherlands, creating a whole new field of study in Japan “rangaku”, or “Dutch studies.”

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!

Lucky you!

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.

In conclusion

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!

Reasons to Live in Japan: 4 Small Things I Love About the Japanese Lifestyle

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 atmosphere of Japanese restaurants is first class, and comes at a great price!

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

A classic ichijikai. Me and my “zemi” university class, 2018

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!

Good internet helps you forget how small your apartment really is… BUT IT’S WORTH IT! My actual Tokyo apartment (I had just moved, hence the cardboard.)

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?)

I have no problems gaming on overseas servers, and can download games at around 30-50mb per second. It. Is. Awesome. I love it.

In conclusion

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? My experience living in Osaka’s “Minami.”

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.

I think I may have scared off some people with what I wrote about Tokyo, but rest assured if you are smart about it you should be absolutely fine. I actually wrote up my personal recommendations for what you should do on your first night in Tokyo, which you can read here.

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!

In conclusion

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.

Click here if you are interested in reading about my experience studying at a Japanese university. Or, why not check out one of the articles below? My goal is to provide the most realistic picture of life in Japan based on my experiences living here for the last 7 years.

If you’re interested in learning Japanese outside of Japan, here’s how I recommend you start!

Why is Jazz so Popular in Japan? About my Experience Performing Jazz and Blues in Japan

Me at a local Osaka blues Jam session in 2016. This blues bar in downtown Osaka is called “Chicago Rock”, but it was really a tiny…TINY blues and soul hole-in-the-wall venue being kept alive through local community Jam session nights. With the start of each jam session 100’s of people would cram themselves inside this tiny venue.

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.

Photo op before the nijikai. Me and my university class in 2018

You can read a bit more about this concept of ichijikai and nijikai here : What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”

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.

Click the above image to purchase I am a Cat on amazon. It’s a good read, and I receive a small percent of the sale. You can get a classic book and support this site! 😀

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.

Japanese language school gym day, photo taken late 2015

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?

Photo taken at Chicago Rock, 2015

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.

My first visit to Chicago Rock, October 2015

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!

Why Japanese Doesn’t Use Spaces Between Words.

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, the three writing systems of Japanese. Of course, the ratio isn’t always spaced out as evenly as in this example, but Japanese writers are constantly subconsciously monitoring this ratio for optimum readability.

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

In January of 2015 I moved to Osaka, Japan to enter a Japanese language school. With the influence of people I had met, I decided that if I was going to study Japanese…it might as well be in Japan! If you want to read about my experiences when I first moved to Japan and entered a Japanese language school, you can read more about it here: https://growkaru.wordpress.com/2021/05/01/studying-at-a-japanese-language-school-my-experience/

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
I really need a better picture of myself in a suit lol.

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.

https://atomic-temporary-179754957.wpcomstaging.com/2021/06/15/how-to-teach-yourself-japanese-my-experience/

If you are learning Japanese outside of Japan, I covered my experiences learning Japanese through means available outside of Japan in this article here

https://atomic-temporary-179754957.wpcomstaging.com/2021/07/20/what-is-the-best-way-to-learn-japanese-outside-of-japan-my-experience/

Are People in Japan…Happy? My Experience Living in Japan Over Nearly a Decade

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.

Okay, maybe the answer is clear cut…Seriously, can anyone be happy inside a packed Tokyo train??? Is that real?

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”, and kuuki (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.

In conclusion

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?

Why Japanese Food Isn’t THAT Healthy, but the Japanese Lifestyle Is; My Experience

Japan currently has the highest life expectancy in the world. Every time I plan out a new article on this site, I do a search analysis to see what people are searching around the world about Japan everyday. Overwhelmingly, the question that appears at the top of almost every auto fill result and SEO page is the question, “Why Do Japanese People Live So Long?” As somebody who has lived in Japan for the better part of a decade, I can understand a lot of this obsession, and have lived this lifestyle. Through living here I can understand how healthy the Japanese lifestyle is from firsthand experience. But…at the same time, some things do puzzle me. There was a very popular YouTube video circulating around a few years ago that claimed Japanese people were extremely healthy because of how healthy Japanese food is! “Japanese people drink green tea instead of coffee!”, “Japanese convenience stores have healthy options!”, etc. These were the kinds of points they covered in the video. I would like to talk about my opinion on this based on years of living in Japan, and having many, many, many meals here.

So… Is Japanese food really healthy?

Oh, I’m such a joker

Yes, most Japanese food is healthy!But…there is a BIG but regarding those points from the video.

The thing is…while I wouldn’t outright disagree with these points (and I do think Japanese people tend to eat healthier than the average Westerner), if you actually live here you know that one of the most popular foods in Japan is…*drumroll*…fried chicken! For real, fried chicken is treated like a side dish in Japan, with it showing up in more than a few of the more formal dinners I have enjoyed here. Among other popular Japanese foods are tonkatsu, a breaded pork cutlet. Tempura, fish and vegetables fried in oil. Yakitori, cuts of chicken on a kebab, often dressed with fatty dressings, cheese, and extremely sodium-high dashi sauces (or literally just 塩 shio. literally salt coating.) Fried tofu is also a common side dish. Don’t even get me started on how integral a role alcohol plays in the every social function in Japan. It’s practically impossible to even make friends in this country if you’re not open to heading down to the local pub and slamming back 5 pints every Friday (I love these Japanese style drinking parties, also known as nomikai飲み会、i’m just teasing, although it is true…) If you want to read more about why Japanese people have so many drinking parties you can read one of my other article’s “What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”. In addition, you can read about a weird experience I had leading up to a university drinking party at my article ” Studying at Japanese University: One Strange Experience I Had.” They both outline the expectations and impact of social dynamics on food culture and relationship-building in Japan. So…Japanese people aren’t healthy then?

I’m teasing a bit, and I’m definitely cherry-picking here…but my point is that there are PLENTY of unhealthy foods in Japan that people eat on a very regular basis. The reality is that Japan has a very long history with fried foods, but…there is one key distinction that I believe is the main reason for why Japanese people actually are healthy, and is something that I haven’t seen covered by many other outlets.

I believe that this is the main reason why Japanese people are healthy, and the Japanese diet is healthy. All about the concept of “ichiji-sansai.”

I believe the main reason Japanese people are healthy is because of the concept (not the strict principle) of ichiji-sansai (一汁三菜), lit. “1 soup three dishes”. Put very simply, while it is a principle of the ancient Japanese culinary arts, put very simply, the concept behind ichiji-sansai is to create balance in a meal by serving a variety of different side dishes. Essentially, one soup (almost always a variety of miso soup) will accompany 3 different dishes (typically 1 main dish and 2 side dishes) in a single meal.

A small dish of pickles is liking hiding behind the miso soup, making this a perfect example of ichiji-sansai.

So…what does this mean? This means that in Japanese meals, even if an unhealthy option like fried chicken or tonkotsu is served, several only healthy side-dishes are often served as well. This means that even you’re always getting some serving of vegetables, and some serving of fiber in each meal. In fact, tonkotsu’s typical meal layout encompasses this balance perfectly. Tonkotsu is a pork cutlet, but is always served alongside a healthy helping of shredded cabbage, miso soup, and typically a side plate of picked vegetables (お新香 oshinko. ) The point being, while the main dish isn’t the healthiest option you could pick, the overall meal composition as a whole ensures a consistent balance in the Japanese diet and lifestyle that you won’t find in most other countries.

Almost every meal will come with some side healthy side okazu. Most sit-down meals will come with miso soup (which is loaded in antioxidants and b vitamins, while also typically containing seaweed and other vegtables. This meal composition (While officially and historically referred to as ichiji-sansai) is colloquially often referred to as the teishoku style (Teishoku being written in kanji as 定食), and is a very common meal option for restaurants in Japan. If we look further, we can see how the teishoku / ichiji-sansai mindset has deep roots in the way Japanese people think about food.

One common misconception Westerners have about Japanese food and the Japanese diet.

Sometimes bowls of rice in Japan will be served with umeboshi, a type of pickled Japanese plum. I like it, but it’s an acquired taste.

One thing you will often see in Westernized Japanese restaurants is this idea that rice is a Japanese food, or that Japanese people eat rice. As a result, you will often see bowls of rice listed as separate options to order on menus. Restaurants in Japan offer this option as well, but the common misconception here is that westerners think that rice is something Japanese people eat as the staple of their diet. Or that Japanese people mainly eat fish and rice. While I’m not quite sure from a historic perspective how much this has changed (at one point in history rice was used as a currency between Japan’s multiple classes), in a modern context, rice (and in particular, white rice) is eaten as a palate cleaner. Meaning, rice is something that is almost unconsciously eaten between bites of other dishes. This is something that I think many Westerners don’t pick up on in regards to Japanese cuisine.

If you just serve a bowl of plain white rice to a Japanese person with no other dishes, they’ll probably be confused. Another common mistake foreigners make when coming to Japan is that they try to cover their rice in soy sauce. This is a big no-no. It just looks…really crude. White rice is supposed to be boring. It helps cleanse your palate between bites, adds overall volume to the meal, and (especially historically speaking) is cheap to make. You can think of it as the foundation of the meal, and certainly not the focus. My point being: Rice is actually a somewhat unhealthy food. It’s calorie dense and lacks nutrients. However, as a piece of an overall bigger meal, rice serves an important function in filling out less calorie dense foods, so each person can feel full despite eating other healthier, more nutrient-dense foods. This is one more way that the overall balance of the Japanese diet serves to create a healthier lifestyle for the Japanese people. While all of the individual parts that make up a Japanese meal tend to be either healthy, or not, the enter meal composition as a whole centered around the ichiji-sansai / teishoku methodology ensures that during every meal of the day people are getting some healthy portions in their meals, even if that isn’t the staple portion of the dish. I believe that this is the primary reason why the Japanese diet is healthy, why the Japanese lifestyle is healthy, and why Japanese people tend to live longer than Westerners on average.

Some other factors that contribute to the average Japanese person’s healthy lifestyle: Other reasons why people are healthy in Japan

Besides diet, there are some other things I have noticed while living in Japan since early 2015 that I believe contribute to the overall healthy lifestyle of people in Japan. Most of these things are very situational to Japan, so rather than being things that you can easily pick up into your daily routine, many of these factors are interesting anomalies or anecdotes stemming from the way people live their lives everyday in Japan.

Exercise by necessity: How Japan’s stellar public transportation system encourages people to exercise daily

The commute in Japan can be a truly intense experience, and an absolutely terrifying one at that. The fear of being shoved into Takeshi-san’s armpit pales in comparison to the thought of being even 1 minute late to work, something that will certainly be noticed by your peers. Luckily, the trains in Japan are on time. ALWAYS on time. In fact, living in Japan, you will often see news articles about the one train conductor that had the audacity to be *gasp* 20 seconds late! Trains take being on time so seriously in Japan that if the train is even one minute late, workers will be waiting on standby at each stop ready to hand out vouchers, which essentially serve as proof that your being late wasn’t your fault. Japan’s trains are reliable, clean, and are very convenient. In fact, this has permeated the way people talk in Japanese, where people always refer to the nearest station whenever describing any area in any of Japan’s major cities (Japanese streets actually don’t have street names, so this is almost be necessity.)

All of this convenience has lead to a country-wide system that means MANY, MANY people ride the trains everyday. In Japan, owning a car is almost an exception, with the vast majority of the country commuting by foot to work every day. This means that if you move to Japan, you can expect to ride the train too! Only, Japan has a another unique characteristic, especially in Tokyo: an absolutely insane population density. It is absolutely the exception, not the rule, if you ever get a chance to sit on the train while riding on any of Tokyo’s major lines. This is somewhat inconvenient, but a really positive side effect of this dynamic, is that people tend to get a lot of exercise daily just by commuting daily to and from work. I know that for me personally, when I was working an office job in Japan, between the walk to the station, and then the walk to the office, compounded with standing on the train for around 20-30 minutes, I probably walked around a mile to get to work each morning. That really adds up, and definitely helps the average Japanese person maintain a healthier lifestyle without actively taking the initiative to try and improve their own health. There almost isn’t a need. If you are eating the average Japanese diet and living the average Japanese lifestyle, you should already be pretty healthy, assuming you don’t have any prior medical conditions. Really though, I’ve been living in Japan for so long that the idea of not having access to Japan’s transportation infrastructure would really be something I would have to get used to. It keeps you active, and it’s oh, so convenient.

Societal pressure: In Japan, the people around you will let you know if you put on any weight

This is something that many people don’t like to talk about. It’s almost like this taboo thing to suggest. “What do you mean?! Japanese people are healthy because they drink green tea! There’s no pressure!!!” But, all joking aside, this is a very real aspect of life in Japan, and is something that isn’t really so negative once you get used to it. The fact is that, based on my own experience living in Japan, Japanese people will absolutely call each other out for gaining even a miniscule amount of weight. I remember one time I was sitting with a few university friends, and two guys who hadn’t seen each other in around 6 months said hi to each. Then one of them looked the other guy up…and down…and then just blurted out “最近太ったね! Translation: Wow…you got fat!” And he really wasn’t saying it to be funny. At least, I don’t think he was…this is just one of those strange contradictions that exists within the Japanese culture. People love to beat around the bush, and so much of Japanese society is about mastering the art of indirect communication. Things are expected to be sugar-coated, and people are expected to constantly demonstrate restraint and extreme caution in the words they choose. Then, one day you might run into somebody you barely know and they’ll call you fat…right to your newly fat face! It’s honestly really funny. It doesn’t make me mad at all.

Controversy aside, I don’t think people here do this to be mean. In fact, I’ve questioned a few people over the years about how they can be so comfortable telling their friends they gained weight. They told me this: “I was worried about them. I wanted to make sure they were okay!” This is a symptom of Japanese collectivism. If somebody is not matching up to the health standards of the group, others will try to help them become more healthy. Even people who aren’t very close to that person. As the person who has recently gained weight, they will likely feel like they are inconveniencing other people by making them worry, which will motivate them to try and be healthier. It…can be a bit brutal, but I think this is a huge reason why there are so few overweight people in Japan. At least, it’s certainly an important component.

In conclusion

The balanced diet of the average Japanese person, coupled with the more active lifestyle make it easier to stay thin in Japan, while the collectivist mindset towards gaining weight is what incentives people from gaining further weight (other than the obvious aesthetic incentives.) Just like with most things in Japan, there are a lot of tiny factors at play here.

If you are interested in reading more about how my experiences living in Japan, as well as how the Japanese culture effects tiny lifestyle factors in Japan, please check out one of my other articles below!

The Best Google Chrome Extensions For Learning Japanese: My Recommendations

I’ve studied Japanese both in and outside Japan (mostly inside Japan) for the past 8 years. The best advice I can give from my experience studying Japanese, is that whether you are living in Japan or not, you can only learn Japanese by learning how to be self-reliant. That means giving yourself all of the tools you need to self-teach, including when you’re on google. Trust me, a lot of your studying time will be spent using google to study, whether that’s through looking-up stuff or using Google’s auto-fill to search for the most natural way to say things, reading articles from native Japanese speakers, etc. Also, the topic of this article: There are some free google chrome extensions that can help make your life easier as a Japanese learner! I’ve used a lot of these, but I’ve only found a few to be genuinely useful for learning Japanese. Here are my top recommendations for those who are looking for Google Chrome extensions for studying Japanese.

1. Rikaikun

Rikaikun is love, rikaikun is life. It’s pretty simple. Rikaikun will tell you the meaning and reading of any Japanese words you hover over with your cursor. The internet is not designed with Japanese-English billingual speakers in mind, so I can say that even just finding a way to check the reading of Kanji more efficiently will save you so much…oh so much time. It’s great. You can download rikaikun here.

That being said, there are a few drawbacks I have noticed. Some websites absolutely freak out when you have rikaikun enabled for some reason. Unfortunately, as of the time of writing this article, Gmail seems to be one of these culprits. Lines will be randomly deleted, the format of the site will, and other annoying shenanigans will ensue. Luckily, rikaikun is really easy to turn on and off at will, so this isn’t too much of an issue, and I can still definitely recommend you use rikaikun as your go-to google chrome extension for studying Japanese.

2. Yomichan: An alternative option to rikaikun that performs a very similar function

While I haven’t used it personally, I have seen some people recommending yomichan as an alternative to rikaikun they prefer to rikaikun. I think one of the main reasons for this is because it supports Anki integration (Another very popular app and Google Chrome extension for Japanese learners I will go over later).

3. Hashigo: Enhance your Netflix and Japanese learning experience

I probably get asked more than any other question whether or not I would recommend studying Japanese through anime or other shows and movies you can find on Netflix. I generally…can’t really recommend anime as your main recourse, but live action films and shows are a great study tool. Basically, anything that involves you listening to real people speak in everyday Japanese is golden.

Hashigo is a browser extension that improves upon and redesigns the Japanese captions of videos to make it easier for Japanese learners to study. You can see how it redesigns subtitles in the picture below.

In fact, Hashigo acts similar in a lot of ways to rikaikun and yomichan, but tailored specifically for the Netflix viewing experience. I do find it kind of strange the way it chooses to separate certain words, however. You can see in the above picture (Attack on Titan) that the た in 赤かった is color coded differently, perhaps as a well to highlight the 過去形 past-tense grammar? I’m not quite sure, but other than that minor pet-peeve, hashigo will make it easier for you to self-teach yourself Japanese through different shows and movies.

4: Bonus choice: Anki

This isn’t a browser extension, but is actually both a PC and mobile app that has become increasingly popular with Japanese learners, especially Japanese learners who are living in Japan. Why? Because anki encourages the continuous repetition of new words at a spaced-out-interval that adjusts itself to your comprehension level. I actually didn’t know about anki when I first moved to Japan in early 2015, but looking back, a lot of the methods I used to study Japanese on a day-to-day basis were pretty similar to the way the app works. I attempted to take the ultimate “practical” approach to Japanese learning, where I would only study words that I actually came in contact with during my everyday life in Japan. If I forgot an important word I encountered more than once, then I would really drive it deeper into my brain until I couldn’t forget it. This is pretty similar to how anki works, and I think this is the best way to study the Japanese language. I recommend downloading anki for both your PC and smartphone, while supplementing your study through the other google chrome extensions I recommended above.

In conclusion

Studying Japanese is a game of self-reliance, and giving yourself additional tools is the greatest way to motivate yourself to keep moving forward. Coupled with these Google chrome extensions, adding some physical resources into your study routine is really important to providing context to your brain of why you are studying Japanese. Essentially, the goal is to create urgency by placing Japanese study resources in as many places as possible! Perhaps you should invest in one of the resources below? This site is an Amazon affiliate, so I will receive a small percentage of any purchase you make. It really supports this website so I can keep providing anecdotes and information based on my experiences living in Japan.

These flashcards will help you learn how to read hiragana, one of the Japanese alphabets

And this is always my go-to recommendation for a beginner Japanese textbook you should start with. Trust me, this textbook is amazing, and this set comes with a workbook as well.

Finally, if you are interesting in learning Japanese, please check out one of the other articles I have linked below. I go over many of the studying techniques I have used over my 7 years living in Japan!

Can you Live in Japan Without Speaking Japanese? My Experience

You’ll hear a lot of conflicting answers for this, depending on who you ask. I would say that, especially in Tokyo, it is entirely possible to survive in Japan without Japanese, but…just because it’s possible, that doesn’t mean life in Japan without Japanese ability is very practical or fun. Let’s get into it!

So, can you survive in Japan without being able to speak Japanese?

Especially leading up to and in preparation for the ‘2020’ Tokyo Olympics, the infrastructure of bigger cities in Japan have (with very notable exceptions I will go over later) generally taken strides to make things as accessible to English speakers as possible. Most road signs, notices, menu’s, and so on now come with a handy chiral counterpart. As far as being a tourist in Japan is concerned, it has never been this easy to navigate Japan. If you are considered to traveling to Japan, and you are concerned because you are wondering if you can travel through Japan without being able to speak Japanese, rest assured that you should have no trouble as a short-term traveler. Even compared to when I moved here in early 2015, even trivial things such as the symbols used on local maps have been reworked to be more universally comprehendible to an international audience. This attempt to globalize Japan’s infrastructure can actually lead to a lot of issues for long-term foreign residents in Japan, which I will go over later.

To summarize: If you are planning on traveling through Japan or visiting Japan short-term, and you are worried about not being able to understand Japanese, I can assure you that based on my years of living in Japan, you should have no problem enjoying traveling through Japan, or even a short stay in Japan without being able to speak Japanese. But…what about long term residents?

Can you live in Japan long term, or work in Japan without being able to speak or understand Japanese?

Yes? and no?… This is where things get more complicated. I think it depends on what your definition of ‘living’ in Japan is, I have known countless long-term expats (often dubbed ‘lifers’ within Japan’s expat community) who have lived in Japan for decades and can barely string-together a single sentence in Japanese. A lot of the time (and this is a massive stereotype of these kinds of foreigners in Japan), despite not knowing any Japanese, these kinds of foreigners often get by through assistance from their partner or friends.  Their social circles are often contained within the confines of the preverbal ‘English bubble.’

I personally fall hard into the camp of thinking that it is our responsibility as not only patrons of Japan, but also as representative’s of our home countries to learn Japanese. Not only with the goal of being able to communicate with those around you, but also with the goal of becoming as valuable a member of this society as possible. I’m going to be completely honest, and this is just my personal stance, but… what’s the point of living in Japan if your life is propped up on the support of those around you? This is not to say that you should feel bad if you can’t speak Japanese. However, if there is one things people in Japan will LOVE you for, it’s taking the effort to learn Japanese, and putting in the effort to learn as much about the Japanese culture as possible.

It has also been my experience living in Japan that in order to have a truly fulfilling life in this country, being able to speak Japanese is absolutely essential. The turn-over rate for foreigners in Japan is incredibly short (I believe the last time I checked the average foreigner in Japan will leave the country within 2 years.) This means that for people who only speak English, and only make friends with other English speakers, they’re often dooming themselves to a perpetual cycle of making friends with other English speakers and then having to say sayonara to them a few years later.

Wow, look at the cheeky way I used sayonara…

This dichotomy has lead to propensity for people to become guarded in Japan’s foreign community, with expats placing more stock in the number of years you have lived in the country. After only speaking to other foreigners for years, many people dawn this ‘in the trenches’ mentality where they only want to speak to people who are ultra-committed to living long-term in the country after seeing countless friends leave. I don’t mean to be so judgmental, but I think that it’s really important to have balance in your friend group, which really only becomes possible when you can speak fluent Japanese. Plus, speaking with Japanese natives has been most of the best experiences I have had in Japan. There is an incredible amount of responsibility you hold in Japan as the ‘foreigner that speaks Japanese’, but it is also an experience that opens so many doors for you. I have met so many amazing people, and have experienced so many amazing things that never would have been possible if I couldn’t speak Japanese. So, it’s true, you don’t NEED Japanese, but, for me personally, I don’t really see the point in living in Japan if you can’t speak Japanese. Sure, there are amazing things to see, eat , explore, but at the end of the end I’m here because I felt that through exploring and internalizing the unique manner in which people communicate in Japan in Japanese would allow me to become a better version of myself.

Okay, shabu shabu is almost enough to keep me in the country by itself.

The role foreigners still play in Japanese society, and why being able to speak Japanese will REALLY help you

No one else can make a meme this appropriate to my life, so I’m going to keep using it. No one can stop me! Life in Japan as a curly-haired Caucasian male in one image:

I have spoken many times before on this site this about the indirect mental association foreigners create for Japanese natives. Japan is still 98% ethnically homogenous, and is a country that pushes English education HARD, while at the same time being a nation that’s heavily risk-adverse culture results in a comparatively lower level of English comprehension when compared to other countries. In fact, Japan is one of the least English-literate countries on the planet. Through compulsory education Japanese students are taught that the outside world (lit. 海外, beyond the sea in Japanese) is a world wholly separate from the Japanese culture, values, and language; That being able to speak English, is to have the ability to converse with the outside world. Japan is an island, and the Japanese are an island people, after all. This perception places a LOT of pressure onto the Japanese population to perform well in English. Hospitality is an integral piece of the service puzzle, so to speak, and being able to speak English to a foreign patron may be the ultimate test. This should help you understand the meme I placed above.

This is what happens when you can’t speak Japanese in Japan.

So, what does this mean? Unfortunately (and this can also be a really great opportunity), the reality is that the average Japanese person will be afraid to talk to you before you can prove to them that you can speak Japanese. This means that every time you go to the convenience store, bank, movie theatre, dentist, you name it…you will be placed in a situation where if you don’t prove to people there that you can speak Japanese within 2-3 seconds, more often than not chaos will ensue…even if you can speak Japanese perfectly after this initial period. I’m not sure quite what to label this phenomenon, but there’s really no coming back once this happens in a lot of cases. Waiters will be so flustered they will forget your order. People will just be…suddenly a few feet farther away from you. People will get that glazed-over look in their eyes. The irony is that this reaction can actually take some time for you to learn how to spot. It can be pretty subtle.

Does this still happen to people who can speak fluent Japanese? Are Japanese people…racist?

There are always stubborn xenophobes who won’t budge no matter how good your Japanese is, or not matter how much you understand the culture. This happens everywhere, but unfortunately for us, there isn’t a culture in Japan of standing up for other people’s rights. I’ve been called “It” (これ) before, and just had some of my closest friends stand and laugh. They would then tell me how much of an a** that guy was, but confronting people directly just isn’t something that happens often in this country. Besides these kinds of people, I feel very comfortable in my Japanese ability now, but there are still days when I’m just exhausted, or maybe I even have a cold and just want to be left alone. Remember, it isn’t a test of whether or not you can speak Japanese. It’s a test of whether or not you can quickly demonstrate your ability to speak Japanese. Those are very different things.

I will say this. The average Japanese person is really nice, but also tends to be much more reserved towards the unknown than what we are used to in the West. The best way you can get people to open up, is too surprise them with your Japanese ability. You have all of the opportunity to take a difficult situation, and turn it into something awesome! Regardless of the ****** I talked about earlier, there are some really amazing people, and some awesome experiences you will get to have, and will only get to have if you can speak Japanese!

Things become much easier in Japan when you can speak Japanese

All in all, I would say that foreigners are treated well in Japan, and I’m really happy to live here! However, life in Japan really is what you make it. It’s cliché, and it’s also true. I’ve known so many long-term expats who were absolutely drowning in their own misery. They hated the people, the lifestyle, the food…and for some reason they still choose to stay here? I’ve also known some really proactive expats who took it upon themselves to carve out exactly the kind of life they want, and made efforts to surround themselves with positive people who also shared their upbeat outlook on life. Whether good or bad, things won’t just be handed to you, and you won’t instantly have the social life and lifestyle you want just because you decide to move to Japan. You need to work at it, and slowly chip away at yourself.

Look for the pink shirt

I often tell people that Japan exposes all of your weaknesses, and displays them boisterously to the world. I often compare life here, especially as a non-Asian expat, as being the only person in the room wearing a hot pink t-shirt, while everyone else is wearing muted colors. People will stare at you. They’ll ask you leading questions. “Wouldn’t a real man wear black?”, “wouldn’t a real woman wear something more subtle?”. The confident person can deflect these leading questions and handle them with style. They can turn these points into an interesting conversation that you can turn back on the people around you. The person full of self-doubt and secret insecurities will lash-out and get offended. This is the experience of living life in Japan. Every single day…and every single minute of every day, people will be questioning why you choose to wear that hot pink shirt, and when you’re going to change your clothes. Essentially, as a foreigner in Japan, you hold all of the cards. Everyone’s reaction is almost entirely dependent on how you choose to handle each situation. It is incredibly complicated, and is an incredible amount of pressure. It’s also an amazing opportunity. Being able to speak Japanese will simply allow you to begin responding.

In conclusion

In case you missed it, I absolutely think you need to learn Japanese if you are going to be living in Japan long-term! If you are thinking of studying Japanese, why not check out one of my other articles below?

Studying at Japanese University: One Strange Experience I Had

A bit about what I will cover in this article

After going over my experience studying in a Japanese university “zemi” course, I will go over some…strange things I noticed on a class field trip, including…bath time communication. Yeah…you read that right. Let’s get started!

A bit about my background and University Zemi’s in Japan

Hi, my name is Evan. I moved to Japan in early 2015, first to study Japanese at a Japanese language school in the heart of Osaka, and then later to enter Kwansei Gakuin University from 2016 to early 2020. In Japanese universities every student is assigned to an a zemi class (ゼミナール), an intensive seminar group of 10-20 students that study together, go on field trips together, and almost just as often go on nomikai drinking parties together! This zemi acts somewhat like your new university family. Really, it’s a bit like joining the Yakuza, or even the mafia. As a member of a zemi, the zemi is your life, and your life is the zemi.

Every zemi is a unique world in and of itself. Your teacher, dictate’s your fate, with the curriculum and overall vibe of each zemi class differing wildly. Essentially, choosing a zemi during your 2nd year of Japanese university dictates how the next 2 years of your life will go. What kind of connections do you want to make? What job opportunities can each zemi open up? What difficulty setting do you want to set for your own existence. These are the questions Japanese university students ask themselves before choosing their zemi class. Or…maybe they just join the zemi their friends join? I can’t speak for everyone, but one thing I did notice is how these varying levels of difficulty within zemi’s dictate the social and education dynamics towards the last two years of university in Japan. The students who want strive for challenges in their education tend to find themselves in similar zemi’s when this choice crops up.

What we studied at my zemi

Fair warning, i’m going to dive into some pretty heavy concepts in the next paragraph. Feel free to jump down to the next section if you want to read about Japanese drinking party fun, and my weird zemi story.

Every zemi also has a different theme, or subject of choice. This is heavily influenced by the teacher who runs each class. Our zemi’s theme was 「世界の中の日本のありさま」, which may be translated as “Japan’s place in the world.” Through the study of various texts relating to 日本人論 (Nihonjinron (日本人論, “theories/discussions about the Japanese”), is a genre of texts that focus on issues of Japanese national and cultural identity.), we would discuss subjects such as the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, which is the theory that the language we speak limits the boundaries of how we may think. We studied further texts such as 日本人の仲間意識(Nihonjin no Nakama Ishiki), which explores the linguistic characteristics relating to how the Japanese language defines and indirectly attributes bias to the way relationships are formulated. This would become a topic closely linked to the topic of my final graduation thesis where I would cover the link between the Japanese concept of 遠慮 (can be loosely translated to restraint) and how relationships are defined within the Japanese society. There’s more and more, but I won’t attempt to translate so many concepts that only exist within the context of the Japanese language.

What it’s like studying at a Japanese university. Drinking with your teacher every week???

It’s true! Every week the Asahi super dry would be unleashed. Kanpai after kanpai (kanpai means cheers in Japanese), jug after jug, and toast after toast, Japanese drinking parties play an important role in Japanese society. Very important! In fact, there is a unique Japanese word that encompasses this entire social dynamic: 無礼講 (Bureiko). Bureiko is a Japanese term for the minor breakdown of rules that tends to occur at nomikai, or Japanese drinking parties. This dynamic is very complex, but, put simply, drinking parties in Japan allow people to set aside all of the rules of Japan’s social hierarchy. Everyone can do what they want, and act how they want. Really. You can say almost anything to your teacher or boss and get away with it. This is the concept of bureiko. What happens at the nomikai, stays at the nomikai. Im fact, this bureiko dynamic can lead to some awkward situations.

It is of my opinion that much of the Japanese work ethic is centered around this concept of building up to the bureiko. In Japan, showing one’s effort is typically more respected than showing good results from those efforts. This leads to an emphasis placed on the process, or as i prefer to refer to them: the formalities. Japan is chock FULL of formalities, none of these so visible as the formalities seen in Japan’s working and student culture. I do believe that Japan places so much emphasis on the number of hours worked, because more hours worked = a bigger celebration when all of the work is done. This dynamic can be seen in Japan’s countless drinking parties, which also permeate a large part of Japanese university life. When i say drinking party, I’m of course referring to nomikai one has with their colleagues and coworkers. You NEED to work to build up that nomikai, whether you want to go or not! After all, everyone else is going!

The beginning of my culture shock; weird experiences with Japanese university drinking parties

And this dynamic can be funny, because what happens at nomikai really does stay at nomikai. I noticed again and again that people i been having a blast with at nomikai could barely make eye contact with me the next day. At this moment I truly realized to what extent Japanese relationships rely on situational circumstances. University friends are university friends. Nomikai friends are friends in the context of THAT nomikai. In Japan, relationships (including the relationship one has to their own identity) shift to accommodate their surroundings. Actually, you can read more about this here in the first article I ever wrote for this site. I’ll go into this more later in this article!

Our Zemi trip to Nara, and the time complete strangers bonded over Japanese bath time.

A common component of the Japanese university zemi, is the Japanese university gasshuku. What is a gasshuku? It’s essentially a field trip, but typically involves staying overnight at some far-away area, often cross-country. Gasshuku’s also typically involve a myriad of group activities and (very Japanese) intermingling.

Ohhhh so honorable, so collective! So…Japanese!

In my 3rd year of Japanese university we went on an overnight gasshuku to Nara, Japan, so a few hours away from where I was living at the time near Osaka. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I just knew that we were going to Nara, there was going to be some kind of project or group presentation, and I was going to be sleeping on a tatami mat with 3 other Japanese guys (and bathing with 3 other Japanese guys! The soap and communication shall flow, and nothing can stop it!

*I will go more into this…’bathing’ style of communication later. Bathing style of communication IS a given if you are going to be living in Japan. The SOAP WILL FLOW! JAPANESE PEOPLE CAN’T SAY NO! FRIENDSHIP GROWS (cue ancient tribal music).

Arriving at Nara

I arrive at deer-filled Nara, full of vigor and hope! “Oh, for this will be the greatest Japanese university adventure I have yet! Mystery! Communication! I…group presentation!!! (yay…..) and group bath time!!! These are the feats of adventure that make the Japanese life oh-so-spicy! …wait…group…bath time??? Yeah, i’ll get to that. As we arrive we commence initial introductions and pleasantries. I was the only non-Japanese there (a cliché thing to say, but absolutely true in this case) in a group of around 100 people. Heading into the main lobby hall, there were students from other universities’ zemi’s gathered in the area from other schools in the Kansai region. All of the teachers from the different surrounding area’s international major programs were pretty buddy-buddy, and were planning the projects were going to participate in for the day. (Majors in Japanese universities tend to be much more broad.)

We would then engage in a series of group discussions centered on how technology could impact globalism in the future. For example, virtual reality augmenting the experience of long-term communication and business meetings, etc. As shown in the picture above, we would draw out a plan or idea on a piece of paper and present it to the rest of the group.

When the weird culture shock things started happening.

I have covered earlier how there is this strong tendency in Japanese culture of categorizing relationships based on very specific criteria. Put simply, relationships in Japan, much more than what I was used to growing up in the US, are dependent on circumstance. As I had said, classmates are classmates, and drinking party friends are drinking party friends. It’s a pretty rare thing to make friends with somebody at a drinking party, and then continue where you left off on Monday morning. These circumstances are entirely separate from each other in many cases in Japanese culture, and this is also true in Japanese university life.

At this zemi event we had group discussions, lunch, another group discussion, bath time, a final group discussion. You might see where I’m going with this (lol). As we began our group discussion, everyone in the struggled to make eye contact. The simple act of uttering their name and favorite hobby would become the event of the hour. Humility, distance, restraint, and…a lot of awkwardness. These quality filled the room like a heavy humid-filled cloud. It was time to do the ‘Japanese introduction at a new formal event’ style of conversation.

SWITCH! The beginning of weird happenings at the Japanese university zemi

It’s lunch time! People are supposed to have fun, laugh, and be close friends during lunch time! Stories of hobbies, the trip over, and even everyone’s favorite movie become the topic of conversation. Everyone is having fun, enjoying their meal, and settling in. “Oh, well I guess they just needed some extra time to feel comfortable around each other. Japanese people are known for their shyness, after all. A bell rings and it’s time for us to resume our group presentations.

SWITCH AGAIN. Back to the weird creepy distance zone.

The moment everyone returns to the lobby, things seem…off? I couldn’t help but feel this distance between everyone again. Also, I could tell that for most of the people assigned to my group, none of them had a lot (if any) experience talking to a foreigner before. I could tell they had no idea how to talk to me, but I was pretty used to that at this point. The thing that perplexed me was how much they were struggling to talk to each other. And they were NERVOUS. In fact, they made me, the foreigner, give the group’s presentation in Japanese (of course) to the 100 or-so attendee’s who were there. Well…maybe they didn’t force me to, but nobody else volunteered. So I got up and did my thing…maybe they just got tired? Maybe the trip was long? Maybe Japanese university students are just…awkward? As hard as that is to say…

BATH TIME! This is when I knew things were getting…weird

Despite the fact that having a designated time for 100 people to go “Take a bath!” is pretty hilarious to me in and of itself, THEY DID THE SWITCHING THING AGAIN! I guess maybe I have some bias since I obviously was surrounded by guys, but everyone else seemed to open up…to a non-human degree once they all ran into the bathes together! The thing is too, this was a Japanese onsen-style open bath, which means 50 Japanese guys were lined up completely naked, sitting on a little stool bathing themselves. I guess in a way… I did the switching thing, in an opposite way. I was talking a bit to people around me, but they were having… a little bit too much fun in their for my own personal comfort levels.

Only in Japan will people feel more open talking to each other with their junk hanging out than when they’re sitting in a circle introducing themselves (fully-clothed of course.)

I suppose the group dynamic gave people permission to open up more? But…I can’t help but feel that these other Japanese university students felt some kind of obligation to…have fun in the bath? Yeah… I said it. It probably doesn’t have as much to do with the bath as it does with adjusting to the overall atmosphere of each particular situation. Bath time just happens to be fun time! Who woulda guessed?

The build up to the drinking party: A Japanese university staple

It’s a stale of any Japanese academic or work environment really. People work, work, work, so they can enjoy that pint of Asashi super dry with their classmates or coworkers after-hours. This even was no exception, with presentations going on for 6 or 7 hours, only to explode when the mountain of cheap beer and chu-hai was unveiled. It’s a group dynamic so common that it would be some general reverse culture shock for me to have any work or school gathering without alcohol at this point. It’s a real part of Japanese social dynamics that never fails to make me laugh a little bit at how contrived, but also how fun it can be.

In conclusion

I wanted to talk about this story to demonstrate just how extreme this shift in social dynamics can be depending on the situation in Japan. In all of my 7 years living in this country, this was by far the most blatant example, and probably the most humorous one too.

If you want to learn more about my experiences studying in Japan university or studying at a Japanese language school, please click one of the these links, or one of the articles below. I hope you will enjoy reading through this site and discovering my perspective on life in Japan and the Japanese culture and language.