Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
The Pros: Safe, Clean, and Beautiful
Culturally, Japan places a strong emphasis on consideration for others and a sense of community. This results in very low violent crime, and random assaults and muggings are rare in most areas. While burglaries sometimes happen, it's not unheard of for thieves to leave some cash or valuables behind as a courtesy! If you lose your wallet, the chances of getting it back intact are very high, especially if your ID was inside.
Japan is also very clean and beautiful. People rarely litter, and communities work hard to protect their environment. Whether you're in the city or in a far-flung rural area, you're unlikely to have any nasty run-ins with other people's trash.
You would think that a clean and safe country would come with a high price tag, but most parts of Japan are affordable to move to. Tokyo's urban studio apartments can be expensive, but apartments outside of downtown areas are often cheaper than their American or European counterparts. Dining out is also fairly inexpensive, since Japanese pubs and other informal eateries have evolved to be as efficient as possible.
The Cons: Lonely, Distant, and Strict
Though Japan is kind to foreigners, the country can still be incredibly lonely for English speakers. Japan is over 98% ethnically Japanese, and there are many more Korean and Chinese residents than there are Westerners. Most shops, restaurants, museums, and even government offices won't have much information, if any, available in English, making it frustrating to navigate everyday life.
Even if you're conversational at Japanese, you may find it hard to make friends and go on new adventures. Japan's sense of "community" is often less about making new friendships and more about protecting existing relationships, which makes it hard for outsiders of any kind to form deep relationships.
This sense of loneliness can be exacerbated by how distant Japan is from English-speaking countries. Your friends and family may not be able to visit, and unless you're from Australia or the Philippines, the dramatic difference in timezones may make it hard to keep in touch.
To complicate things further, part of what makes Japan so safe and orderly is a strong respect for authority and hierarchy. While it's rare to see an authority figure be outright rude to subordinates, it's also rare for a subordinate to offer honest feedback to a manager or other leader - even when specifically asked to! Giving feedback or new ideas to anyone for any reason can be easily taken the wrong way if delivered too directly, and this can be very challenging for foreigners to get used to. Additionally, Japanese institutions can be very resistant to change, meaning that some old-fashioned and inefficient systems have stubbornly stuck around.
Finally, Japan is very strict about drug infractions, drunk driving, and other crimes that might warrant a slap on the wrist in one's home country. The idea of "innocent until proven guilty" is almost nonexistent, and bail bonds are rare, even for Japanese citizens. If you are accused of any kind of crime, you can expect and unpleasant interrogation by local police, followed by up to three weeks of detention while they investigate. Japan's strict rules about bringing in medication have even landed people in trouble before they leave the airport!
Is it Worth it?
The pitfalls of living in Japan can be tremendous for outgoing, adventurous people who are used to speaking their minds. While it still may be worth it in the end, it is a very steep learning curve, and you may even burn a few bridges before you get used to the culture. It takes a diplomatic and patient person to truly thrive in Japan, and many people will find that they're happier in their motherland or in another Western country.
That said, though, Japan can be incredibly rewarding and full of adventures. Introverts will probably find Japan to be a soothing place to live. Even people with an extroverted streak will likely find a place to belong here, as major cities are full of places to socialize even if you don't speak Japanese yet. Japanese young people are also more liberal than their elders when it comes to tattoos, LGBT rights, and other issues that the country has traditionally held conservative views toward. Overall, taking the leap and trying at least a year in Japan is well worth it if you can be flexible and don't mind adapting to a culture that's all about harmony.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on November 07, 2018:
I think if you decide to live in Japan, especially if it's longer than one year, you should make a reasonable effort to learn the language. As you said, not many people speak English and it can be hard to get basic things done, such as sorting out your health insurance or going to the bank, especially outside the larger cities.
It can definitely be lonely if you have no friends. I made most of my friends at my first job here; almost all my friends are "foreigners" like me. Also, when I was a student and wasn't as wise about the hierarchy culture, a few Japanese people stopped talking to me because they thought I was rude, and I had no idea why.
This is a really good article honestly depicting the pros and cons of living in Japan. It's not all bright lights and sushi, is it?
Liz Westwood from UK on October 28, 2018:
Japan's profile as a tourist destination has been steadily rising in recent years.