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Life In Japan: 1 Year On, Looking Back


You know, I never thought anyone would be interested in what my life is like in Japan. That is, until someone named Jim who shall remain nameless asked me like three times to write about it. Haha.

It’s been just over a year since I moved here. It’s weird…this country has been a part of my life for such a long time. Whether it was owning stuff from here, or the three Japanese roommates I’ve had (one at high school, two at university), or watching anime, and just generally wishing I lived here. And then of course there was the immersion environment. But still, it can be quite surreal. When I first came, every moment felt like “wow…I’m here? I’m here!” — to this day, whenever I walk into a bookstore filled with low-price manga, I almost have to pinch myself because it’s just so cool.


All the Japanese people I know well are the kindest, coolest people I know. ‘Nuff said. And even some of the people I don’t know are some of the kindest, coolest people I know. My roommates helped me immensely both before and after coming here. One roommate’s mother used to send clothes for us both. His grandma still sends us her homegrown rice and vegetables. And then there was that lady (a total stranger), who gave me an umbrella on my second day here. It was pouring rain (and I, in the ignorance learned from 5 years spent in Utah thought that a raincoat would cover my bases); she walked out of her shop to hand me portable shelter: “here, keep it”, she said. My clothes were soaked through, but my heart was warmed. And then there are all the other nice ladies I’ve met on trains, who started conversations about random stuff. And the nose-picking bureaucrat who knew that the reason I didn’t understand him wasn’t because I didn’t know Japanese but because it was 6am on a Monday morning and he was both mumbling and covering his mouth with his gold-digging hand. Nice guy. The businessman who let my friends use his cellphone to call me when I forgot to go pick them up at the station; the store lady who said I was handsome (she probably got a fax from my mother telling her to say it, but it still counts); the cashier at the bookstore who dropped everything she was doing to put a band-aid on my bleeding finger (I had a hangnail and/or a papercut) — seriously, if I weren’t married already, I might have fallen in love right then and there; the many other shop ladies who have handled my dirty kleenexes when I ‘ve had a cold (that’s almost too nice — I hope they didn’t get sick). [Explanation: there aren’t many public trash cans in Japan, so I’m always giving people like shop clerks stuff to chuck away]

This level of kindness is normal in Japan. People are going to be good to you. I’m going to say some bad things about Japan in a minute, but those bad things absolutely pale in comparison to the good things — and it’s easy to forget this; I forget it, too sometimes. But, really, the worst things that have happened to me here have been condescension and impolite curiosity — which, when you think about it, are not world-ending events, although they may feel like it at the time — especially the third time a cop stopped me and asked for ID — I was ready to sue somebody, and 有道出人/Arudou Debito had to suffer through reading a whiny, late-night “this cannot be happening to the great Khatzumoto” email from me…poor guy.

Expectations of Ignorance

I learned Japanese very, very hardcore for almost 2 years before ever coming here. In my own self-centered ignorance, I thought Japan would somehow “know” that. I thought that somehow Japan had “gotten the memo”. But, of course, it hadn’t. So, it surprised (and, I guess, continues to surprise) me, how little knowledge of the Japanese language that some Japanese people expect me to have. It’s weird, because I actually thought that Japanese ability would be considered quite normal in Japan, regardless of ethnicity. And I was actually mourning what seemed to be the inevitable loss of the sort of “prince of Japanese” status that I had enjoyed at college. At the same time, I was looking forward to having straightforward human interactions since I had made it my task to nuke any language barrier between me and a native speaker of Japanese. By the time I came to Japan I had more or less achieved that.

Anyway, to make a long story short, a large minority of people are still shocked whenever I speak Japanese to them. But, unlike my college friends, who got over it and accepted me more or less as a member of the Japanese community (a miserly, tight-fisted member who never gave gifts, but a member nonetheless), some Japanese people never get over it. And so, they keep looking for the thing I can’t do; they keep looking for the ceiling. They accept I can speak, but don’t accept that I can listen and comprehend. Until I listen and comprehend. Then they accept that I can listen and comprehend, but don’t accept that I can read. Until I read. Then they accept that I can read, but don’t accept that I can write. Until I write. Then they accept that I can write but don’t accept that I can write that kanji, you know, “the hard one”. Until I write it — “harder”, older (pre-US occupation), bigger, more strokes. And then it starts to dawn on them that maybe, just maybe…I am a full human being; it takes a while, but they eventually stop talking to me like I’m a retard — they go to normal speed, and stop trying to mix in badly pronounced English as if it will help me understand better. If I sound bitter, by the way, it’s because I am 😀 — especially because some people, despite all this, despite the fact that I am almost never without a Japanese book in my face (it is not for freaking decoration, my friend), still just never get over it; there are people who still seem to think I’m a retard; who still talk loudly and slowly and mix in random English words; who still stop every twelve seconds to make sure I understand what they’re saying; who still preface their statements with things like “I know this will be hard for you to understand, because it’s in Japanese, but…”; there are even people who incorrectly correct me (like the guy who tried to tell me that “機嫌” should be written “気嫌”, which would make sense given the meaning of the word, but is completely wrong; I didn’t have the heart or guts to tell this chap that he was an egit, but I quietly refused to correct something that is…correct).

It shouldn’t bother me. I should be bigger person than that. And lately, I just let it go. But it used to bug the heck out of me. Maybe it only bugged me because I was actually insecure? I don’t know. Until recently, most native-level users of Japanese have been ethnically Japanese, 30 years from now I imagine it will be a totally different ballgame. Till then, I’ll just keep letting wide-eyed curiosity and stupid questions slide.

Don’t get me started on nurses. Just don’t.

Including veterinary assistants. I have seriously never met a more condescending group of individuals. Dewd, words like “gall bladder” are really not all that complex; I can read the flaming form. And stop questioning me on my decision to feed my cat raw food. Hello? “Land predator”.


You know the romantic image of adventurous-but-prudent tourists asking directions? It’s a myth, friends. In Japan, at least. Because in Japan, no one knows where the heck anything is. Even in their own neighbourhood. The combination of not having a grid system or street signs, and being densely populated makes for a high degree of “don’t have a clue what’s around me”-ness. Any country in the same situation would produce the same results. So don’t bother learning how to ask directions in Japanese. No one can answer you. I’m seriously only 10% joking. Not even taxi drivers know where stuff is — they’ll ask you how to get there.

What you do need to know is how to read. So that you can use a GPS unit. I have GPS on my phone, and it’s gotten me safely home from my adventures (on foot and by taxi) many a time. The next time you think that asking someone how to get to Sesame通り will be a great way to start a conversation, remember that you will probably only scare that person (I mean it; she might freak the heck out at the mere sight of you). Repeat after me: people=no, machines=know.


A lot of people are excited about coming to Japan, all starry-eyed with visions of how great Japan is for not really having religion, they’re all: “wow, Japan, is areligious but safe, clean and ethical”. These people are wrong. I hate to burst your precious little humanist bubble, but Japan has a national religion; almost everyone practices it and there’s no escaping it. It’s called “food”. On TV, in the morning, in the afternoon at night, and in the commercial breaks, there is food. When people meet you, they ask “what do you eat?”, “how do you like Japanese food?”, “have you tried 納豆 (nattou)?”. When people like you, they take you out for food. When people visit each other, they bring food. When people go somewhere, they bring back food as a souvenir. On shows that have nothing to do with food, there is a food section. Food is sacred here. It’s not for snacking on casually on the train and dropping to the floor, no, that would be immoral; that would be 勿体無い(wasteful). Food is for planning around, cooking lovingly, decorating lavishly, garnishing gently, and bowing to gratefully with your chopsticks between your thumb and your forefinger, before making slurping sounds (well, with noodles) as you partake (not “eat” — “partake”) of it. Maybe there is this collective memory of the starvation after the loss of WW2?

I could get started on a more serious rant at people — especially (dis-empowered?) women — for believing in horoscopes and fortune-tellers, but we have things like skepdic for that…then again, I just realized that I am skeptical about some things in skepdic, which I guess makes me recursive skeptic at some level…OK, my inner editor is telling me you don’t need to be reading this.

There’s a lot more to Japan than I just covered, but that should do it for now. It’s really cool here and if you haven’t come, do! In fact, why not just learn Japanese and come live here? No, please, really, please do — and be sure to have kids as well, because if we get more fluent immigrants here, people will stop asking me dumb questions; you’d be doing us all a favour…LoL. Seriously, it’s a wonderful country — come on over!

  15 comments for “Life In Japan: 1 Year On, Looking Back

  1. August 1, 2007 at 12:28

    Hehe, interesting and nice summary of life in Japan thus far. I’m living here for a year and I just reached my one-month anniversary!

    You live in Tokyo right? That’s where I’m moving at the start of October. It’d be interesting to meet you and maybe interview you for my site. =D More on that later, hehe.

  2. narafan
    August 1, 2007 at 17:20


    A section on Life in Japan!
    Time for a kanji session~

  3. August 1, 2007 at 17:31

    I admire the way you tackled studying the japanese language, and enjoy reading about your experiences of japanese culture/language etc. keep up the good work. Myself, I studied in hokkaido university for 2 years molecular biology (japanese in my free time), and came to Japan without knowing the language. After two years my listening/speaking ability were at an intermediate level. Now I live again in my home country holland (doing a phd), but still study japanese in my spare. I almost went through phase 2 for studying reading and writing.

  4. August 1, 2007 at 21:12

    It’s two years now for me in Japan, and I must say it is extremely rare now for me to meet someone who insists treating me as ignorant. However, my Japanese isn’t as good as yours (I can’t quite pass JLPT-1 yet), so people tend to assume I’m 100% fluent and delve into conversations I can’t handle.

    One situation I do run into from time to time is religious solicitors (particular Jehovah’s Witnesses), who tend to park themselves in certain spots downtown and target specifically foreigners, whom they accost in broken English in hopes of cornering a hapless tourist or short-term visitor. I either decline their attempts at conversation in Japanese, or pretend I’m German and speak no English.

  5. khatzumoto
    August 1, 2007 at 21:33

    Oh my GOSH! The Jehovah’s Witnesses are constantly trying to get all up into my Kool-Aid. The first time, I thought it was a chick who knew me from college or something (she was cute; her name was Aya…I honestly thought for a moment that it was an acquaintance). Since then, I’ve become increasingly jerky to them; I have this game I play where I try to think up what I’ll pretend to know/not know/be in order to get them to leave.

    One thing I notice is that they usually give up as soon as you refuse them in Japanese (is it because they know anyone who is either Japanese or speaks it fluently can’t be swayed by their Sith mind tricks? who knows…). If you say: “遠慮します” or “お引取り下さい” (yes, they have come to my home), they make with the bowing and bounce on out.

    You know, if JW’s keep bugging me, then one day, I’m going to run for office, win, and make proselyting illegal…i’ll call it the 「異国・迷惑宗教防止法」 “Foreign and Otherwise Troublesome Religious Practices Act”. Oh, snap, inner monologue leaks out again…

  6. khatzumoto
    August 1, 2007 at 21:42

    AAAAARGGGH! CURSE YOU, BLASTED Jehovah’s Witnesses who do random street proselyting because you think foreigners are smiley and gullible!! And those forking ridiculous “When Will Terrorism End?” pamphlets of theirs…

  7. Mark
    August 1, 2007 at 22:27

    >And then there was that lady (a total stranger), who gave me an umbrella on my second day here.

    Yep, they are amazingly kind, aren’t they – I remember being lost in Tokyo on my second or third day there, and a Japanese girl on the subway, seeing that I was lost, offered to guide me to my destination. I thought that this would involve taking me a couple of hundred yards, but no, it involved taking me across Tokyo from Shinjuku to Ikebukuro, and right to the door of my destination. Incredible!

    If you get the chance, and haven’t already, take a short trip to Taiwan – it is definitely no longer the ‘beautiful’ island that the Portuguese believed it to be (well, at least Taipei isn’t!), but the people are just soooo kind and generous.

    >Because in Japan, no one knows where the heck anything is. Even in their own neighbourhood.

    That’s another amazing thing, isn’t it? I lived in Tokyo for nearly five years, and knew my way around pretty well, but couldn’t give directions to anyone else, except in terms of the proximity of the desired destination to a building of ‘unusual’ shape (‘…yes, it’s over in that direction [waving arm vaguely], just behind the green building that looks like a pile of snot’). I think that postmen are the only ones that really know there way around, and then only in their own small part of town.

    >On TV, in the morning, in the afternoon at night, and in the commercial breaks, there is food.

    Yes, it was quite a while before I realized that a food program being on every time I turned on the TV was not a coincidence, it was just due to the fact that things like news/other are mere brief interludes between the 23.5 hours of cookery programs that fill the daily TV schedules.

    >I could get started on a more serious rant at people–especially (dis-empowered?) women–for believing in horoscopes and fortune-tellers

    Try to calm yourself – ranting will just raise your blood pressure.

  8. Mark
    August 2, 2007 at 02:26

    Yikes – part of my previous comment about blood types and personalities has disappeared! You didn’t think I was being serious, did you? Well, rest assured that I wasn’t – I am far too cool, controlled, and rational for that. In fact, you might say I am the quintessential type AB : (joke! joke! JOKE!)

  9. August 4, 2007 at 14:11

    Man, I love these kinds of posts. Yes, I know it’s a language blog and not a culture blog, but it’s still cool to hear your overall impressions of integrating fully into society in Japan. Makes everything so much more real, you know?

  10. September 21, 2007 at 02:00

    LOL. i love your entries, they’re so tastefully insightful =D

    i’ve been wanting to go to japan since i was 8 i think, due to my major sailormoon obsession then. my bro was into dragonball. both of us were crazy over doraemon. so naturally, we were pretty much otakus since then =P

    at 12, when my family got a cat, my bro and i wanted to name her something japanese, but the only japanese-ish names we knew were ‘nagasaki’ and ‘hiroshima’. wanting to make either a family name, we chose nagasaki, and chose ‘rei’ as the first name (because it sounded good with nagasaki, and for my part, it’s sailormars’ first name XD).

    so yeah. i love japanese manga. and culture. and ppl. they’re a pretty amusing bunch. tryig to learn japanese, but not hardcore-ly, because laziness cant be dropped cold turkey-ly (am trying tho!). i hope i can pick up my pace and get better quick =)

    now i’m more pumped up than ever to go to the wonderful nippon! not sure if i could live there tho.. im not brave enough to stay at a foreign country on my own (yet? ;P).


  11. Brittany
    January 10, 2008 at 23:32

    The combination of not having a grid system or street signs, and being densely populated makes for a high degree of “don’t have a clue what’s around me”-ness…What you do need to know is how to read. So that you can use a GPS unit.

    So true! I was very lucky to have GPS in the car when I was in Japan. Couldn’t read a lick of it, couldn’t figure out how to make it give me directions, absolutely didn’t care. It had little icons for Family Mart, Lawson, and beaches, and that’s all I needed to know. (Okinawa).

  12. Matthieu
    July 12, 2008 at 03:01

    I just happen to bump into your site searching for a different way to get back to Japanese.

    This article is a wonderful insight of the quintessence of the Japanese spirit.

    I have studied Japanese full-time for 3 years in College in Paris 15 years ago. My Japanese, which was far from being usable at that time but was so pleasingly literate, has been lost along the path of life since then.

    Nevertheless I have decided to come live and work in Japan from now on.

    One thing that I got really surprised about, this time, is that Japanese people take for granted that I am a Japanese fluent.

    When I came here 15 years ago for a short stay, it was really different, every single person would address me in that dreadful Engrish and I was absolutely lost and did not get anything language wise out of that stay. Actually I even drifted away and went on Chinese which led me to leave in Taiwan and China for a while.

    So although my Japanese has not improved in the least, what made the change ?

    I believe it is the way I move around. The way I interact. The way I am.

    Japanese people interact a lot with non verbal communication. If you succeed in fine tuning yourself on it. It does the trick and can even get really weird sometimes.

    Like being able to answer a question where once it has been spoken out you realize that you did not know ANY of the words that composed it but still you had all the meaning out of it BEFORE it was actually spoken out… and then your answer comes out with a mere one or two words and it is right on the spot…

    It won’t be enough to live your life here in Japan at a gratifying level of communication but it is definitely part of the magic of leading a good meaningful life.

    khatzumoto your written English is so pleasurable that I will definitely go on trying the method you propose.

    I am 36, not that old, not that desperate and, although I am French I will manage to circumvent that tiny problem and get serious on using the SRS, AJATT and Monodic to kick my Japanese to a decent level.

    I will let you know.

  13. JohtoKen
    October 13, 2008 at 22:41

    >Japan has a national religion; almost everyone practices it and there’s no escaping it. It’s called “food”.

    Isn’t Japan’s national religion a mix between Shinto and Buddhism? I read this somewhere online, but I do have to admit, their food’s rather tasty…though because of my dislike of seafood, I’m not really a fan of sushi.

  14. 牛juice
    December 14, 2008 at 03:26

    Sometimes, when I attempt to speak Japanese, they completely ignore what I said and try to say something in English which I can’t understand. This is probably one of the biggest barriers in learning Japanese.

  15. April 7, 2010 at 15:50

    Khatzumoto dude,

    With regard to those who cannot get over the fact that you can speak, comprehend, read, write their language – I feel I must inform you that living in Korea as a non-native fluent speaker of Korean, my predicament is identical to yours!

    The adding of random English words – often including ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ mangled through a konglish filter as though it might help you even though you are speaking fluent Korean, the speaking to you as though you were a retard, or a child and the constant ‘second guessing’ are all two common here too. I would even say it’s more extreme here as a large minority of Koreans are under the impression that the genetic programming of foreigners also prevents them from picking up chopsticks or eating ‘spicy’ Korean food (most Koreans I know can’t handle the hot curries that I love).

    There’s a post on my site that goes into more detail if you’re interested. We call it ‘waegukin (gaijin) shock syndrome’. Actually I wrote a diary post on it in Korean with an English translation too.

    Love the site dude.

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