At PocketCultures we love hearing about what life is like in other countries. We’ve already heard from Japanese bloggers in Blogs of the World, so when Shane and Honor suggested this interview we thought it would be a good chance to look at life in Japan from a foreigner’s perspective.

Shane Sakata has spent over 5 of the last 15 years living in and around Tokyo and Honor Dargan has been in Japan for 8 years since moving there in 2001.

Here they talk about adapting to Japanese culture: getting used to personal questions, small apartments and even smaller grocery packages.

1. Presumably it’s quite obvious to Japanese people that you are foreign. What sort of reactions do you get? Do you find you are treated differently when people see you are not Japanese?

Shane – As an obvious foreigner in Japan you stand out especially when you don’t live in Tokyo itself (I live in Chiba, about 30 minutes outside of Tokyo where the concentration of foreigners is less). Sometimes people stare openly but for the most part they go out of their way to be helpful. If you try to learn local customs and practice them the Japanese seem to be very appreciative.

Honor – It’s definitely true that I stand out simply because I have blonde hair. Japan remained a homogeneous society for a long time which means dark hair and dark eyes are most definitely the norm. My partner really appreciates this fact as he says I’m dead easy to spot in a crowd! As to reactions, well I live in Tokyo where you get the largest population of non-Japanese so the majority of people don’t bat an eyelid.

If you stay outside a big city the experience is a different one, Whether you’re living there or passing through you will likely be the center of attention while you’re there. It’s a personal thing how you react to that and I know some people who don’t like some of the personal questions that get asked. For me, I’ve never been bothered by it and if I don’t want to answer something I just laugh it off and move on.

It definitely helps when you understand that culturally it’s ok to ask questions about age, relationships, etc. If I asked the same things in the UK, however, I’d have people telling me to get lost.

2. I often read that foreigners are surprised to find English is not as widely spoken in Japan as they expected. Has that been your experience? What about learning Japanese? How is that going?

Shane – Written English is taught in schools but there is not a lot of emphasis on the spoken word and this can lead to some challenging situations. English signage is quite common but there are times when it’s not available.

But between my limited Japanese vocabulary, and an oftentimes comic version of charades, I am usually able to accomplish all that I need to live comfortably in Japan without assistance. I’ve found that knowing katakana (the Japanese script used for foreign words) makes a world of difference when you go shopping and travel about and would recommend learning it to anyone planning a move or a long term stay.

Honor – It is a surprise in some ways that English is nowhere near as well spoken in Japan as it is in other Asian countries. Especially when you consider what a major role it plays in the global business and economic world. It is certainly something that companies are aware of and I work directly with people who acknowledge that, rightly or wrongly, their lack of English ability in their current roles limits their scope to work internationally.

If you’ve traveled to other parts of Asia I think it would definitely be a surprise to land in Japan and suddenly find that very few people can communicate in English. Having said that, if you’re willing to gesture and try out some phrases, people here will generally bend over backwards to help you. I do think that if you arrive knowing you’re going to need to find other ways to communicate sometimes, it helps you make that adjustment.

How’s my Japanese? It’s functional. What I mean by that is I have the Japanese skills I need for certain situations but my conversational level is not good. Actually, one of my dreams if I ever get the chance is to quit the day job for 3 months or so and just do an intensive Japanese study course. I’ve tried doing the one hour a week lesson and it just doesn’t work for me. The other alternative if you really want to learn the language is to go and live in the countryside where access to English is much more limited.

3. Have you ever experienced a complete miscommunication because of different cultural expectations?

Shane – I haven’t made too many gaffs that I am aware of but I’m sure that there are some that my hosts have been too polite to tell me about. In new situations I try to watch the actions of others and mimic them so as not to embarrass myself.

Honor – Honestly no. I think I’m pretty culturally aware and I’m also the first to acknowledge if I make a mistake. If you take the time to understand what’s happening around you and see things from different frames of reference, then I think most complete miscommunications can be avoided. As to little ones though, there’s been a lot of those. One in particular makes me smile. In Japanese, “onna” is the word for woman. I remember when I was first introduced to a guy after I’d been in Japan for about a year. It went something like this:

Me: “Hi I’m Honor.”

Guy: “Nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

Me: (thinking he hadn’t heard me) “Good to meet you too. I’m Honor.”

Guy: (looking puzzled by now) “Sorry, what’s your name?”

And so it went on for another couple of rounds before we finally figured out he thought I was saying I was a woman, rather than telling him my name. Yes, at that point he thought I was completely nuts!

4. What was the most unexpected aspect of life in Japan for you?

Shane – First, let me say that anyone planning a move to a foreign country needs to leave their expectations behind. Most media reports are exaggerated and stereotypes abound. Some are based in reality but taken individually they don’t give you a sense of the whole experience. I have found that to be true about Japan. In some ways living in Japan is easier and in some ways more challenging than I thought.

I pride myself on being able to get around quite well and think that the train system here is amazing here but the maps that are available are oftentimes hard to navigate. Tokyo is so densely packed with buildings (and without addresses as we know them) that finding them is sometimes a real challenge even with a map!

I also think that grocery shopping is quite the experience here. In the United States and Canada everything comes supersized but in Japan a big bag or package of anything except rice is hard to come by.

Honor – Despite all the warnings, the size of an average apartment and the commute to work still came as a bit of a shock. You soon get used to both but at first it was definitely different to anything I’d experienced before.

5. What one aspect of life in Japan would you export back to your country if you could?

Shane – I love riding my mama-chari (bicycle) to run errands and go shopping and wish it was easier and safer to do at home. I’d also take pretty much every type of Japanese food home with me – the sushi really does taste better in Japan!

Honor – Oh, that one’s easy! I want to export the safety and willingness to get on with each other. I know not everyone has the same experience so not everyone will agree, but I love these two aspects of my life in Japan.

Shane and Honor are keen to share what they have learned about living in Japan and are launching Japan Discovered!, which they think is the first ever Twitter based travel chat. The chats will take place every Friday – the first one is tomorrow – at 12pm JST (convert to your time zone here) and it sounds like a good place to get answers if you’re planning a trip or a move to Japan.

You can read more from Shane on her blog The Nihon Sun and find Honor at Tokyotopia.

Read more:
What does a Japanese breakfast look like?
Japanese blogs from Blogs of the World
Dedicated follower of Chinglish: interview with Chinglish spotter Oliver Lutz Radtke


About the author

Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.