Adapting to Unique Challenges in Japan: 5 Things to Consider Before Moving to the Country

Tokyo skyline - Expat Empire
Tokyo Skyline – Adapting to Unique Challenges in Japan

Adapting to Unique Challenges in Japan: 5 Things to Consider Before Moving to the Country – living in Japan is an enticing opportunity that excites many expats around the world, and for good reason. Some of the Expat Empire team have lived in Japan and found the team spent there to be an incredible experience. We have written before about some of the wonderful aspects of the country and some of the good memories during relocation from our founder, David McNeill, who lived in Japan from 2014 to 2016. He even published a book called Passport to Working in Japan about his experiences after moving to his next base in Berlin, Germany. Between the incredible food, the cleanliness and organization, the appreciation for the outdoors, and the wholly unique culture, this wonderful country can make expat living into cherished memories.

While it’s easy to look at such an incredible country through rose-colored glasses, many expats have found out that it’s not all so easy and exciting at times. While Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, it’s at times bogged down from bureaucracy and can turn into an isolating place for anyone that isn’t native Japanese. 

Before considering a move to Japan, it’s important to get both sides of the decision and determine whether such a dramatic change will be the best for you. Let’s look at some of the contrasting issues that can make expat life in Japan difficult at times. 

Hard Working Chef in Japan - Adapting to Unique Challenges in Japan by Expat Empire

Long Work Hours and Little Time Off: Keeping Up with the Job

Working in Japan can lead to some of the most important connections in a career and help build a professional life across cultural boundaries. Japan’s thriving and open economy remains a powerhouse in all sectors of business, so the opportunities are there for the taking. However, many expats have found that the work culture can be quite a bit more intense than in other parts of the world.

Though legislative changes have been made in recent years, many Japanese companies still tend to overwork their employees. Employees in all sectors of the economy are known to work six or seven days a week for significantly long hours, sometimes until their final train home for the night leaves the station. 

Japanese companies also provide relatively few days of paid time off for vacation and sick leave. With as few as 10 days of paid time off per year, foreign workers who set off for Japan excited to visit many parts of Asia may end up feeling like they aren’t able to take as much advantage of the opportunity as they would like. In fact, while labor laws mandate that a certain amount of time off be given to every employee, many workers simply do not take their time off due to guilt and perceived disloyalty to their company. 

As a result of this work culture, many expats have found that they are expected to put in more hours than in their home countries. This trend often leads to fatigue and emotional exhaustion from overwork, making the adjustment to Japanese life more challenging. 

Giant City in Japan - Adapting to Unique Challenges in Japan: 5 Things to Consider Before Moving to the Country by Expat Empire

Packed Cities and Expensive Apartments: Japan’s City Lifestyle

Japan is home to some of the world’s largest cities, including the largest metropolitan area in the world: Tokyo, with over 37 million inhabitants in the surrounding area. This translates to an average of 2,642 people per square kilometer. By contrast, the population density of the New York metro is more than 20% less at 2,053 people per square kilometer. With some of the highest population-density cities in the world, it’s a good thing that Japan is also known for its spacious and beautiful national parks.

The average tenant in Tokyo that rents a one-bedroom apartment spends around 110,000 Yen ($965USD as of January 2022) per month for a one-bedroom apartment averaging about 35 square meters (380 square feet) in size. Tokyo typically has the highest rents in the country and is known to be one of the most expensive cities in the world for expats. It’s a good idea to have a company sponsoring your move and covering many of your living costs or to set your expectations that you might not be able to have the apartment size or location you’re hoping for if you’re moving to one of these metropolises. 

Language Struggles in Japan

Daily Life Struggles: Expat Life Without Knowing Japanese

As you may expect, there are likely to be few times where languages other than Japanese are used on the street. Modern Japan is nearly linguistically homogeneous and it’s rare to find any government services in any other language. Like many countries, English is taught as a second language for a large part of the population. Despite this, rates of fluency are minimal, around 5% of the population, and most Japanese people do not speak English at all.

David found himself in the advantageous situation of speaking Japanese very well, so he was able to get by in most situations without help from others. He found that nearly all aspects of daily life involve some sort of Japanese speaking, especially when it comes to dealing with government officials. A lack of knowledge in very basic Japanese when arriving in Japan can add to the social isolation that expats may feel.

Social Life in Japan - Adapting to Unique Challenges in Japan: 5 Things to Consider Before Moving to the Country by Expat Empire

Difficulties in Fostering Relationships with Locals: The Potential For Social Isolation

As we wrote about in our another article describing the best aspects of expat life in Japan, the average Japanese person on the street is likely to be very friendly and helpful, especially to foreigners. They may even be excited to try out some of their English skills over a drink at the bar. However, the average person may stop short of becoming a personal friend. Even after decades of living in Japan, it’s likely you’ll still be seen as an outsider.

It’s not uncommon for expats to have few personal relationships with local Japanese people. As a result, many expats have instead become tight with the close-knit communities of foreigners in Japanese cities. The reason that expat communities are so strong in the country is related to the general lack of acceptance of foreigners into Japanese social circles. Due to the extremely close social and familial circles within Japanese society, there is often not much of an opportunity for expats to join in and get involved.

While there are of course exceptions, expats should expect for the majority of their friends to be fellow expats. Despite being of a fairly homogenous population, larger Japanese cities often have many foreign workers and officials. Those that are in their first and second years of living in Japan might feel that the potential social isolation is difficult to deal with. As we mentioned in the previous point, the situation may be even more challenging without the ability to speak Japanese conversationally.

Bureaucracy in Japan

Mountains of Bureaucracy: Outdated Processes and Formalities

Through the Japanese film and video games that have gained popularity overseas, the popular image of Japan is that it is at the forefront of the technological revolution. Cutting-edge technology is being developed in Japan in areas such as robotics and healthcare, and many aspects of daily life move at a high level of efficiency, especially public transport. 

What many expats find to their disappointment is that companies and government offices have not kept up with the same breakneck speed of technological advances as other developed countries. While many countries have moved records entirely online or switched to electronic identity confirmations, many of Japan’s bureaucratic processes seem to be still stuck decades in the past. Physical rubber stamps, known as hanko, are still used in place of written signatures and are required by most government agencies. Another relic of the past that is still in use in Japan is the fax machine. With a continued reliance on paper documentation, expats may find themselves in a surreal bureaucratic nightmare that will test their patience and commitment to living in Japan for the long-term.

Peaceful Life in Japan

Expat Consulting: Planning, Persevering, and Prospering

No expat has ever had a good time trying to move abroad without some sort of advice or assistance from experienced expats. Moving abroad is incredibly complex, especially when moving to such a unique and homogenous country like Japan. While you may get an idea of how exciting it would be to live in Japan when you visit the country as a tourist, the reality of living in the country may be quite different. For that reason, there’s no question that even experienced expats need help when they move to the Land of the Rising Sun. If the odds seem stacked against you as you consider moving to Japan, we want to be there for you as you plan your life in this wonderful country. Expat Empire offers a wide range of consulting services, such as Timeline Planning and 1-on-1 Coaching. We’ll work hard to find a way for you to move to Japan or any other country you like!