Monday, June 18, 2012

Gaijin Tips for Living in Japan

Reflecting on what advice I would give to newcomers to Japan, after five years of living here myself, I have a few thoughts. I won't get to them all in one sitting, but here's a start on tips and advice to consider when moving to Japan from one gaijin to another.

Do One Thing

Do one Japanese connected thing while you're here, such as archery, cooking class, ikebana, kendo, teaching English, etc. Explore other venues that interest you, but stick to that one thing. The longer you stay with it, the deeper you will go. It will impact how and what you learn and the relationships you form. As I thought about the value of the sticking with one thing, Zen and the Art of Archery which reflects on cultural lessons learned through the practice of archery in Japan came to mind. I can't say I planned my own experience this way, but it is what happened with me and my Japanese Cooking Class. I wanted to take cooking lessons to learn about Japanese food. Within two months of moving to Kamakura, I found Nansai Sensei's monthly cooking class. My comprehension of what I was doing and what was being said improved because of both repetition and to some degree the limited subject matter, primarily words about food and technique, but my relationships also deepened and became  more valuable than the cooking lessons themselves.

If you have a hobby or interest, it may well be enjoyed here, perhaps on a grand scale or with a twist. Look for trade shows and opportunities to see how they do it. I'm always amazed at the depth of knowledge and the level of interest in crafting, food, music, etc. Seek out the Japanese ways. They are known for perfecting what others invent. There is some truth to that stereotype.

Get a Black Suit

You need a black suit and a string of pearls (women). You can attend a wedding, a funeral, a party, a business meeting, in a black suit in Japan. It is versatile and will help you to blend in. Wearing peacock colors in a roomful of black and white at a cocktail party might be fine, but if you have a meeting, you want people looking at your face not your clothes. Same goes with the wedding, you don't really want to stand out as a guest, that's the bride's job. I'm not immune to fashion, but what I'm trying to get at is, at certain times your role is not to stand out. You are there to attend a wedding, make things happen in a meeting, or pass along your condolences; it is not a fashion statement opportunity. There are plenty of those events in life assuming you seek them out. As a gaijin, you by the way, are hard not to notice.

Wait in line & Zip it

Wait in line. Everyone waits in line, just get in line and be quiet. The Japanese are generally quieter than any other culture I have been around. My neighborhood is more densely packed than any I have lived in before and still it is quieter. Trains? Quiet. Line up and shut up seems to be the easy thing to do. You can of course text and walk or bike and text. My fellow Americans, we tend to talk too much, try to observe the natives for tips and zip it.

Quick Dry Fabrics

On a practical front for those who will live in Japan, at least the parts around Kamakura, it is green, very green in summer because there is a lot of rain. This means that it is humid. It may not surprise the rest of the world, but Americans will not find clothes driers in regular use here. I replaced my husband's heavy cotton t-shirts with quick dry ones. Sheets can take days to dry and towels too. I converted over to microfiber waffle weave bath towels. Hanging your bedsheets outside to dry means that you need to consider your wash load, hanging space, priorities, and the weather. Flannel and cotton can take a surprisingly long time to dry if it's cold or wet outside; it feels like this most of the year. Consider fabrics such as fleece, microfibers, blends of poly-cotton, or even Uniqlo's heattech selections.

Necessary Accessories

Wear rain gear. Maybe it's because the Japanese walk to and from the train stations for work or for shopping, but rain gear generally includes a coat, boots, and an umbrella. The rain can be heavy and continuous, be prepared. You will find plastic sleeves to contain your umbrella drippings at entrances to shops; use them. Consider having an umbrella of the more normal size for Japan, large golf umbrellas do not tuck so neatly into umbrella sleeves or allow you to politely pass others in narrow confines which are numerous in Japan where you will share the sidewalk, if there is one, with bicycles and people.

You need a hand towel. I'm terrible at this, but a hand towel should be in your purse, back pack, or bag at all times. Public restrooms in Japan generally do not offer hand dryers or paper towels, eliminating messes and electric costs, but it means that you will be walking with dripping wet hands if you don't heed this custom. Men usually have a backpack, briefcase, or even a man-purse of some type. Everyone needs a hand towel. Children may use their parents' hand towel, skirt, pants, etc.

While we are on the topic of accessories, women carry a purse and a bag or at least will have a bag that can be used in their purse to carry additional items. Slippers are necessary in some situations, particularly if you will go to yochien or shogakko events. Scuffing about in the institution's slippers is never my favorite, but bare feet or even a pair of socks tend to earn a few stares. Slippers would be carried along with a bag for your shoes, in some cases, to the event. If you have an identification badge, it would be worn as well once you arrive at the event so always take it with you.

We didn't really go native


  1. I've broken most of your rules. I definitely do more than one thing; have no pearls; queueing is second nature to a Brit; I had no drier in the UK but my Japanese washing machine does also dry - I don't use it much, having bought it to pretreat fabrics but it is useful for sheets in rainy season; worst of all, I don't have a hand towel!!!

    I do like your quick-dry fabric suggestion. The thing about synthetics is they just don't rot like cotton does even though they get smellier more quickly. I'd thought that the latter effect outweighed the former, but perhaps you are right. After a while cotton shirts become incurably smelly, but our polyester cycling tops are indestructible.

  2. I finally saw you guys on your tandem pumping up the hill to Kamakura on Sunday! No helmet Jules? That said, I'm pleased if my list even slightly resonates with a longtimer like yourself. Aren't you almost native by now?

    The one thing is supposed to be about the one thing you continuously do to interact with Japan, one long term tentacle if you will. That was more the idea. Remember most of us Americanos don't stay so long.

  3. I'm surprised you bring up cycling helmets. Knowest thee not of the great internet helmet wars? It may be best to not go there... ;-)

    I'm not at all gone native, apparently. Personally I think I have been changed quite a lot by Japan, but the Japanese are very defensive on the subject of their own special uniquey uniqueness as a culture, so they can't/won't see it.

    Now I see what you mean about the one thing. You are really trying to encourage military families to get involved in one way as it would be easy for them to not interact with Japan at all during their stay. Good advice.


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