Welcome to this new series that I call “My Japanese Life”.
As I get so many similar questions concerning visa, work and life in general in Japan, I thought having various people share their experience is probably the best answer.
I hope with this series you’ll get a realistic picture of life in Japan and how different the life situations of foreigners in Japan can be.
And to set a good example, I’ll be the guinea pig myself and start this series.
If you live in Japan or have lived in Japan for a certain amount of time and want to share your story as well, make sure to contact me.
It would make me happy if you want to contribute and help others.
Today’s “My Japanese Life”:
How / why did you end up in Japan?
I’ve had an interest in Japan for as long as I can think.
I did karate in elementary school where I also learned my first few Japanese words.
Much later I also became interested in anime/manga, then jdrama etc.
After a short visit in Japan (3 weeks) I decided that I wanted to stay in Japan for a longer period of time – and that’s how I ended up in Japan.
I moved there in early 2008 at the age of 27.
Was it easy to come to Japan (visa / job)?
Yes, because as a German citizen I was eligible to get the so-called working holiday visa.
As long as you fulfill a few requirements, it’s fairly easy to obtain. My only worry was my age back then. I was about to turn 27 when I applied and back then I found biased information about age restriction. Some said 25 was the limit, but usually you can get it from the age of 18-30 (but some nationalities need to apply before their 26th birthday). It’s a visa intended for young people who’ve just graduated from high school or university so that they can earn a bit of extra money through part-time jobs funding their vacation in a foreign country. And as the visa is fairly easy to get in countries where it would be tough to obtain a proper work visa, it’s quite a nice deal.
The only drawback is that it’s limited – depending on your nationality – to 12-18 months and there are certain jobs you’re not allowed to do (e.g. cabarets, nightclubs, gambling establishments).
I researched a lot online to see what jobs other working holiday holders did. A lot of them worked as part-time language teachers or in hotels.
I thought a full-time position would be better and so I applied for English teaching jobs.
It’s extremely difficult to get an English teaching position if you’re not a native speaker, but I had two advantages: I brought my own working visa and I had a MA in educational science.
The working holiday visa is not intended for full-time work.
My plan back then was to earn enough money and then travel or attend a language school.
But I liked the job so much that I stayed and finally changed my visa into a work visa. As I worked at an eikaiwa I got a “specialist in humanities” visa.
Please note, that there is a huge variety of work visa in Japan and each has different requirements.
Mt. Fuji during the Shibazakura Festival.
To be honest, changing from a working holiday visa to a work visa was extremely difficult in my case.
They told me that as a German citizen I could easily get a visa for being a German teacher, but not for being an English teacher.
Had I been educated in English for 12 years or had I graduated in English literature, ESL etc., then it would’ve been a different story.
My first visa application was thus rejected. I thought I had to pack my things within days and leave.
But luckily with the help of my former boss and a few other people we could persuade the immigration office.
After that, I only had to renew my visa. Renewing was never an issue.
I first got a 1-year visa, then a 3-year visa, eventually a 5-year one.
As the transition was so difficult, I never dared to change to a job that required a different visa type (e.g. ALT).
People often ask me if it’s easy to get a job / visa in Japan.
But this cannot be answered easily. It depends on so many individual factors … and believe it or not, even on the immigration officer in charge of your documents!!
What were the difficulties you had to struggle with at first?
I barely can remember now. To my surprise there weren’t that many things I struggled with.
It was difficult to understand all the kanji around me.
Getting used to the bad insulation was also tough for me. I came at the beginning of the year, so it was still cold – also INSIDE. A whole new experience for me.
It also took a while to find the right/best items for daily use (trash bags, skin care products, food etc.) and to figure out how to use the washing machine.
Other than that it was a rather smooth start.
I knew what I was up for. I had visited Japan before and I knew quite a bit about Japan and its culture, so I never had a culture shock.
My Japanese was rather basic at that time, but at least I could do small talk and right after moving there I started to study like crazy on my own.
Did you struggle obtaining things one needs for daily life such as bank account, cellphone, credit card, driving permit?
Obtaining a bank account was really easy, though I have to admit my Japanese co-workers helped me with that (same with the cellphone).
I heard a lot of people had difficulties obtaining a credit card as a foreigner, but I got one at first try (though that was an online banking service, no facilities).
Obtaining a driving permit can be easy or difficult depending on your nationality. Being German made it really easy.
Driving in Japan is also not very difficult. They drive on the left side, but apart from that the rules are very similar to the ones in Europe.
What was your first job in Japan?
I started as an English teacher. Loved it so much that I never wanted a different job.
I would have loved to be a German teacher as well, but the demand for German is rather low in Japan.
A lot of people say that being an English teacher in Japan isn’t a career and many people want to get a different job as soon as their Japanese level is good enough.
For me, that was never an option.
I loved teaching. It’s what you make out of it. I don’t care much about a career as long as I like what I’m doing.
And we all know how crazy a job in a Japanese company can be, so …. no thanks.
Was it difficult to learn Japanese? Were you already able to speak Japanese when you moved to Japan?
My first Japanese words I learned back in the 80s when I did karate.
I studied a bit on my own during high school in the late 90s.
I attended Japanese language courses at university once a week for a year or so.
But all of that just helped me to get the basics down.
My listening skills were far ahead of everything else simply by listening to Japanese music, drama, anime etc.
Once I had moved to Japan I used up almost all of my free time to study like crazy.
We’re talking about at least 3-4 h every single day before and / or after work.
I started by memorizing 2000+ kanji because I wanted to understand at least the meaning of all the characters around me. That helped a lot!
Then I was building up my vocabulary, also by reading a lot. Having young Japanese students around me at work helped quite a bit with my conversational Japanese skills.
I don’t remember that there was ever a time where I couldn’t communicate at all. I never used English, I stuck to Japanese from the start.
At first there were a lot of times when I didn’t fully understand what the other person was saying.
As I was living in the Japanese countryside and there were almost no other foreigners around, it was the perfect environment to learn Japanese.
Was / is it difficult to find friends / a partner?
Luckily I already had a friend nearby before I even moved to Japan. Thanks to blogging and social media I already knew a few people.
I also had a Japanese friend, but she lived quite far away, so we only got to see each other when I went down to Tokyo.
At my first job, I became friends with some of my Japanese co-workers, but eventually a lot of them left (especially once they got married).
It’s really not easy to find friends.
Through my travelling I’ve met so many people.
And usually I’m getting along with pretty much everyone, too!
But if you meet people “on the go”, it’s very likely that you never meet each other again, no matter how well you got along.
Thus I barely ever got new friends.
The fact that I lived in the deepest countryside with not much to do PLUS my working hours (early afternoon to late evening, Tue – Sat) didn’t make it easy to get to know people my age.
Not having the slightest chance of meeting people at all naturally leads to not finding a significant other.
Because I didn’t come to Japan to find a partner, but to explore the country and get to know the culture more, I didn’t bother using dating sites back then.
But that’s just my story. The majority of people who live in big cities in Japan actually all seem to have found a partner. At least the majority of the ones I know personally. ;)
Do you have pets? (If yes, is it difficult to keep a pet in Japan?)
Needless to say I would have loved to have a cat!
However, most apartments in Japan don’t allow pets (esp. not cats / dogs).
If you want to have a pet, you usually have to pay a higher rent.
Also, with all my travelling there was no way I could have kept a pet.
At least I went to various cat islands, cat cafes or was chatting with random stray cats. ;)
Compare life back home with your life in Japan:
Before I moved to Japan, I thought Germany was quite decent. I didn’t leave Germany because I didn’t like it there.
However, after having lived in Japan I learned how different things can be and suddenly realized that there were so many things I don’t like about life in Germany.
To be fair, there are plenty of things that I didn’t like in Japan as well.
In Japan, the hot and humid summer was unbearable at times. The huge amount of monstrous insects is just crazy!
After a few years I developed hay fever (Japanese cedar pollen).
There are natural disasters on a regular basis. Insulation is not known, you’ll freeze to death in winter and melt away in summer.
Lack of availability of certain food was annoying, imported food is very expensive (cheese, German bread, Quinoa, …).
Bicycle thieves, the fact that you’re always gonna be an outsider, the staring … all things that were suboptimal.
Tsubosaka Temple in Nara.
In Germany, summer is my favorite season. Insulation and central heating are not a problem at all.
No killer insects, no allergies for me.
However, we don’t have fresh fish available, so the lack of availability of certain food is also a problem here. The food is generally not as healthy as in Japan.
Barely any natural disasters, but the crime rate is getting higher and higher recently. Walking along a street at night here as a woman, I don’t feel safe at all while in Japan it was NEVER a problem.
In 2015 Germany accepted 1 million refugees, that doesn’t include normal immigrants. The diversity is getting broader and it’s causing problems that are completely unknown in Japan. Also, Germany (like the rest of the Western world) has been the goal of terror attacks.
Taxes are high, living standards are lower, leisure options are fewer.
How did your life in Japan change over time?
At first, I didn’t buy anything expensive or big as I thought I’d go home after a year.
So, it took me almost 2 years until I finally bought a proper mattress. Before that I was sleeping on a futon that was slowly destroying my back.
As I didn’t have the feeling I had to settle down, I didn’t. I treated it as a short-term stay and that’s why I started to travel like crazy (“Now’s my only chance!” mindset).
Eventually, I settled down and life in Japan became awkwardly normal. Daily routine wasn’t boring .. but just … normal life.
I changed jobs, lived in a different region of Japan, got a bigger apartment, a car etc.
I really had the feeling that I’d finally settled down.
But there was always this tiny evil “what if”-question in my head. Shouldn’t I leave? Didn’t I plan to stay for only 1 year in the beginning?
And that’s how I ended up leaving Japan to get rid of the “what if”-question and just see for myself. ;)
Best and worst thing about living in Japan?
Best thing was the food and the travel opportunities (from snowy Hokkaido to sub-tropical Okinawa – it’s all in ONE country, man!).
Worst thing for me: creepy (deadly) crawlers, bad insulation and the “outsider” phenomenon.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Japan?
Additionally I’d say feeding stray cats in a castle park or taking part in a local summer festival. One of my best memories was taking part in the Gujo Odori (an all-night dancing festival).
Want to stay in Japan forever? Planning to move back home?
(If you’re not in Japan anymore: What are you doing now?)
I left Japan in 2015.
I’ve tried to work as a freelancer in Germany, but with all the crazy tax regulations that are driving you insane, I eventually went back to being a full-time employee.
Currently I’m working in a job where I can use Japanese every day.
So, even if I never move back to Japan, I’m sure that Japan will always play an important role in my life.
What kind of advice would you give someone who plans to live in Japan?
If you’ve never been in Japan before, I highly recommend that you visit first.
A lot of people have a wrong impression of Japan – maybe through games, maybe through anime, maybe through bloggers that just present the sugar moments with cream on top.
Or maybe because Japan is indeed great for some people, but not for everyone!
Nobody can tell you. You need to find out yourself. And visiting Japan is at least a first step in the right direction. ;)
Another advice is not to wait too long. If you really want to do it, just do it! Do it now!
Once you’ve settled down in your own country, it becomes more and more unlikely that you’ll just drop everything and move to Japan, right?
So, that’s about it.
I hope you enjoy this new series.
Feel free to ask me questions that might not have been answered here.
Also, let me know if there are any additional questions I should add to this series.