Here’s another “My Japanese Life” episode.
I’m quite sure you’ll find this one interesting as it’s different from the previous stories.
Life in Japan can have so many shades, but what is it like living in an American base in Japan?
Read on and find out.
Today’s “My Japanese Life”:
How / why did you end up in Japan?
I (Jesse) work for private contracting companies that provide IT services to US government and military organizations. I started working for the US Army in Kuwait for 3 years and then moved to Germany for a year doing the same thing there. When we were looking for our next job a friend of mine let me know about open positions at the US Navy in Japan. He put me in touch and then I applied and was accepted. So, I guess that’s networking? I don’t know. I’ve never made a point of being a big “networker”, but I guess that’s what it was. Of course, I still had to go through the whole hiring and interview process, but that initial contact and connection was crucial for knowing who was hiring at that time. We had tried to go to Japan from Kuwait, but at the time couldn’t find any jobs open.
Was it easy to come to Japan (visa / job)?
The IT contracting “world” was something we stumbled upon by accident. In 2007, I was working in the US and we wanted to live overseas some day, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. My wife came across an ad in Craigslist for “an IT job in the Middle East” and we thought we should give it a shot. Eventually I got hired to that first job in Kuwait. Once I got in, the whole world opened up to me as I could now apply to other jobs at US bases around the world. With previous experience in contracting work (and a good reputation) you can pretty easily move around. Obviously they favor people with a military background (which I don’t have). However, if you’re good at what you do, you can often get hired at junior IT levels and work your way up. The pay is pretty good and it’s US (and local) tax free up to a very high number. In some places most of your living expenses are taken care of, unless you have family.
Here in Japan we’re pretty much left on our own. We have lots of little “cheater” benefits such as access to the US grocery stores, movies and – best of all – a US address that Amazon will ship to. Downsides would be that your options are limited to where US bases are located and if there’s action, there can be actual physical danger involved (usually offset by a hefty danger pay bonus). Also, it can be difficult to really immerse yourself in the local culture when you find your work life revolving around a US base. I speak English all day long and rarely get to practice speaking Japanese.
What were the difficulties you had to struggle with at first?
Language, of course! Honestly, we still struggle with it, but we’ve made strides over the years. I still get a thrill when every now and then I can read signs in pure kanji and understand them.
We made some poor decisions on where and what kind of house to live in at first. Based on bad information and inexperience we ended up in an older Japanese-style home that was huge and unnecessarily far from work. It was also pretty expensive. They like to markup the cost on housing for the Americans, because most of the sailors and government employees have a fixed amount for housing that they have to use or lose. We don’t have that problem, so the more we save in housing, the more we save for retirement. While we loved our old Japanese house for style, there were definite downsides, such as no insulation. It was also too big for our small family, so we moved into a smaller, cheaper apartment closer to work. We enjoy living in Yokosuka and having access to all the great restaurants that are just outside our door now.
Did you struggle obtaining things one might need for daily life at first such as bank account, cellphone, credit card, driving permit?
Bank account: We didn’t need a local bank account at first as we used a service called GI Bill Pay (for Americans here who have to pay Japanese rent from a US bank account). Eventually we had to open a local bank account to transfer our rent. This was quite a process as we don’t actually exist in Japan the same way every other expat does. We didn’t have the “foreigner card” that everyone expected us to have. Luckily for us the local Yokosuka branch of Bank of Yokohama would open local accounts for people in our position, but it was a poorly documented process – entirely in Japanese. I struggled several times with writing my ridiculously long name in katakana as listed on my passport for the application form.
Cellphone: This was easy for us to get as SoftBank has a branch right on base, fully equipped to get us running. However, I had purchased a “world” iPhone in Germany just prior to coming, expecting I could purchase a SIM and slap it in. I was shocked to find that Japan, like the US, doesn’t like to do that. It took much research and about 3 hours of sitting in a DoCoMo office to convince them that it would work. Eventually I ditched that phone and went with SoftBank.
Credit Card: We’re not in need of a local credit card as our Capital One card works great here (no international fees or transaction charges either). I don’t think we could get one on our strange visa.
Driver license: Again, we’re in a weird category here as we’re licensed through the base. It’s linked to our US driver licenses, so we have to make sure those don’t expire. We had to take a paper and practical test before we could get our licenses, but from what I hear it was way easier than the usual tests.
Homeschooling: This is an odd one, but worth mentioning. We’d been homeschooling since Kuwait which worked great for us given our high mobility. The legality of homeschooling in Japan is a grey area with the difficulty varying, depending on the local school district’s feeling about the matter. Luckily, we never had any issues, probably because homeschooling is very common for people in the military. There’s a large and active homeschooling community associated with the base, so we were never at a lack for resources or friends. It’s an entirely different situation elsewhere in Japan where homeschooling is looked at as a very strange option. Much like Germany, Japan views education as a means of forging and keeping a cultural identity, so deviation from this is considered anywhere from odd to possibly treasonous. At least it’s in a grey area in Japan and not completely illegal as it is in Germany. The only reason why we were permitted to homeschool there was our SOFA status.
What was your first job in Japan?
My current job is my first job in Japan.
Was it difficult to learn Japanese? Were you already able to speak Japanese when you moved to Japan?
We had learned a tiny amount of Japanese prior to coming here, mostly from Rosetta Stone (not recommended). We had taught ourselves hiragana and katakana. Since then we’ve tried various things, from a local lady tutoring us using Genki textbooks, to Kumon (good for writing), to a community center (using Minna no Nihongo). Right now we aren’t actively involved in any classes. However, we’re still working on it, mainly building our kanji and vocabulary using WaniKani. We just don’t have much need to speak Japanese in our daily life which means we don’t get to practice much. I’m hoping our speaking skills will improve once we move away from the base and are around Japanese more often.
Was / is it difficult to find friends / a partner?
This is tied into the Japanese language issue. We have plenty of friends associated with the base, but not as many Japanese friends. We’ve met several wonderful people over the years, but we haven’t made any close Japanese friends, which is understandable given the language barrier. My wife (Kerri) has a few friends she’s met through her involvement in Japanese Roller Derby. As with making friends anywhere, finding a common interest can be the key to getting to know people.
Do you have pets? (If yes, is it difficult to keep a pet in Japan?)
Do you count the spider we didn’t kill so it could eat the bigger, scarier insects in our Japanese style house? No, we realized a while back that we aren’t pet people.
Compare life back home with your life in Japan:
We lived in Portland, Oregon when we were last in the US. Portland is a lovely little city and we really enjoyed it. However, we wanted to live in the wide world and not be confined to the US, so we left when we got the opportunity. Portland has a great public transportation system which is one of the reasons we love it, but it doesn’t extend very far outside of the city. Nothing holds a candle to how easy it is to get around by public transportation in Japan. It’s expensive, though. For us a roundtrip from Yokosuka to Tokyo costs around $40. We do have a car, because they are cheap for us to buy and we get to park for free on the base. But we’ll probably get rid of it once we move farther away at some point in the future.
One thing people always talk about is how much safer Japan is, and I’m sure it is. However, we never felt Portland was unsafe, provided you know where the bad spots are. Japan isn’t much different in that respect. In the US there’s a general paranoia that has become like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As more and more people won’t let their kids out to play, ride bikes or walk to school, spaces that would’ve been occupied become vacant and certain people take advantage of that. In Japan, kids just aren’t in as much danger usually. While there are incidents and systems set up to watch over kids, in general it’s extremely safe. We’ve allowed our son extreme freedom of movement that I know he wouldn’t be able to have in the US, either from lack of infrastructure, safety issues or social pressure to conform to the general air of paranoia.
Lack of US politics! Yay! And I’m so glad I can’t understand whatever it is that local politicians are yelling from their vans during election season. We do get our “regular” protesters down here in Yokosuka pretty much every Sunday. Not sure what they’re protesting exactly. Maybe war in general? Or the US presence? Maybe the nuclear powered aircraft carrier? But they’re very regular and we hear the strains of their warbling voices as they sing their songs of peace week in and week out.
How did your life in Japan change over time?
Honestly not much, besides our move from a huge Japanese house to a tiny apartment. Our life will really begin to change once we move away from the base.
Best and worst thing about living in Japan?
(Tongue in cheek here … there are too many to boil it down to just one best/worst.)
Worst: bureaucracy (banks/government)
What’s your favorite thing to do in Japan?
Jesse: Eat! We are foodies, I guess (enjoying discovering and sharing good food). I have a restaurant review site that I started mainly as a way to remember where I’d eaten and what I thought of it. It’s been going a couple of years now and I have several hundred reviews from all over the world, but mostly in Yokosuka. I don’t know if anyone reads them, but I don’t care. It gives me something to do and a reason to keep trying new restaurants.
Kerri: Roller Derby! I was introduced to the sport on the base here in Japan. I quickly became very enthusiastic and am now heavily involved both on base and with our league in Tokyo. I’m currently training with the Japanese National Team for a World Cup in England in 2018. I’ve recently become a certified skating instructor as well.
Want to stay in Japan forever? Planning to move back home?
Yes, we want to stay in Japan forever! We moved here with the intention of seeing if it was a place we could stay somewhat permanently. We had done our globetrotting and wanted to “settle” down. As Christians, we wanted to find a place that had very few existing missionaries and find a good ministry to partner with while being self-supported. We’ve made great contacts in the years since we’ve been here and are currently working with a pastor to start a church in Ueno. Eventually we’re planning to move closer to Tokyo. I’ll still work in Yokosuka for the next 4 years while my son finishes high school. After that, we hope to move to our more “permanent” home in Japan for however long God will allow us to stay here. If that means we live the rest of our lives here, we’ll be glad to do that.
What kind of advice would you give someone who plans to live in Japan?
Don’t idolize it. I know how it feels to look at Japan from afar and admire it for its many lovely qualities. But just like getting married will show you a side of someone you never knew before, actually living here has caused many people to fall out of love and eventually grow to hate it. Those are very miserable people, especially if they get stuck here. It’s a good idea going in to be as realistic as possible and admit to yourself that it might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. You’ll find things that annoy you or outright make you angry. Try to remind yourself of that fact. I’m not saying you shouldn’t come, just don’t hype it up too much or you’ll be inevitably disappointed to find there are plenty of frustrating things here, too.
Thanks so much Jesse and Kerri, this was really interesting!
If you want to take part in this series just like Jesse and Kerri did, don’t hesitate to contact me!
Also, if you have any questions, don’t be shy!
I’m sure Jesse and Kerri will gladly answer them.