All About Japan

How Hard Is It to Live in Japan as a Foreigner

Life in Japan FAQ Japan 101
How Hard Is It to Live in Japan as a Foreigner

One of the biggest questions we get here at AAJ is about the difficulty of living in Japan as a foreigner. As this cannot be summed up by one simple answer, we polled our writers to find out how their experiences have been. From language to cultural differences, there are challenges indeed. But, life here can be quite simple with the right outlook.

Ellery Smith

Ellery Smith

Depending on your language level, and how well you try to blend in, living in Japan can be a cake-walk or a constant uphill battle. The former is obvious. As your Japanese speaking, reading and listening improve, things that once seemed impossible, like ordering dinner at an izakaya , gradually become easier. If you ever feel like you are reaching a plateau, try something new with your study habits by taking up a new hobby either in traditional Japanese arts, or something with a more modern flair.

Being a foreigner does mean that you will stick out like a sore thumb, which is why you should try to blend in as best you can. That being said, don’t go out and dye your blonde hair black. Just try to listen, pick up on the social etiquette cues as to what people are, or are not, doing. Reading up on proper Japanese etiquette. The do’s and don’ts of Japan is a great place to start (we've covered a lot in FAQ Week) and will keep you from running into any social catastrophes.

Living in Japan can be an easy, exciting adventure, so long as you remember to study up on the language and social etiquette before jetting off into the land of the rising sun.

Read more of Ellery's work here

Thomas Shiozaki

Thomas Shiozaki

To be honest, I do not think living in Japan is difficult for countless reasons. I will discuss a few of the bigger ones. First, the air and water are clean, the food is not overwhelming to the senses nor hard to adjust to, which is hard to find even in developed countries.

If you are living in the cities, everything is convenient thanks to public transportation. Even if you live in the countryside, stores are fairly easily accessible. Etiquette is important to Japanese people as well as manners and always being considerate; service here is unbeatable.

One thing foreigners might be concerned about living here is the language barrier. Japan is known as a country that is not very capable of dealing with foreign languages. However, the Japanese government is working hard to encourage its people to improve their foreign language skills for 2020. Japanese people have been endeavoring to improve their English, and even learn Chinese; most of the signs in larger cities are now in four languages: Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. Many of my foreign friends have no problem settling in and enjoying their lives in Japan. I see this trend going in a positive direction and Japan is becoming more foreigner-friendly!

Thomas has a wealth of articles you can read here

Nicholas Rich

Nicholas Rich

This is a pretty broad question that is, at the same time, deeply personal. If I had to answer in a single sentence, it would be a rather nebulous: “Well, it depends on the person.”

There are a LOT of great things about living in Japan, many of them unique to the country itself. The landscapes are drop-dead gorgeous, no matter the season. It’s exceptionally regional, so each area has its own distinct cultural identity, which makes traveling domestically a journey of constant discovery. The culinary traditions go back centuries, and are time-tested and ramen is super delicious. It’s also really safe and clean, and the average standard of living is relatively high. Plus, it’s a great place to be a nerd! I could go on.

But there are aspects of living in Japan, and Japanese society, that can make it difficult. Japan is a notoriously homogeneous place, and whether you like it or not, as a foreigner you are an outsider. Which comes with challenges.

The first of which is, obviously, the language. By no means impossible to learn, Japanese is nonetheless time consuming, and can be intimidating for beginners. It’s possible to get by without it, thanks to the hard-won, collective knowledge of ex-pats residing here (and the ever-increasing utility of smartphone apps), but every single aspect of life is more difficult when surrounded by a language you don’t understand. It can make it more difficult to do simple daily tasks (as I can attest to, firsthand), or to make friends or get closer to co-workers, and can even limit your employment opportunities. You can mitigate this aspect of difficulty by studying, but it’s understandable if you simply aren’t up for the years required to master a language.

Although usually benign, you will encounter xenophobic behavior. It often takes the form of Japanese people finding constant amazement in your ability to use chopsticks or offer a greeting in Japanese, or maybe strangers (sometimes drunk) engaging you in basic English conversations apropos of nothing. But it can also have a more insidious side, like when a landlord refuses to rent to a foreign tenant, or you’re stopped by police for no apparent reason. I have been lucky in my time here and can count encounters of this nature on one hand. But they can, and do, happen. I look forward to a time when that sort of behavior becomes unheard of, instead of just rarely spoken about.

The last point I’d like to address is an important one, and goes hand in hand with the other two. Living in Japan, it’s easy to feel isolated. A lot of people come to Japan as English teachers, with relatively little say about where they end up. It’s entirely possible to find yourself in a small town with little or no Japanese ability, a very small population of foreigners, and neighbors or residents who aren’t used to outsiders. My advice for those planning a move to Japan is to try to understand why you want to live here. What is it about the culture that you like? What sort of experiences do you want to have during your stay? Knowing that you have things that you enjoy, that give you an opportunity to meet and connect with other people, is a huge first step in making real connections that can last the rest of your life. Which is what it’s all about, right?

Find more of Nick's articles by clicking here

For a few more perspectives on life in Japan, check out:

Memoirs of Being a Black Sheep in Japan
Life in Japan for a Trans Woman
My Life in Japan as an Openly Gay Foreigner