Learning to love Japan as a Western expat

Learning to love Japan as a Western expat

Learning to love Japan as a Western expat

Japan is perhaps the most challenging expat destination as regards its highly individual culture and unique traditions and customs.

For many expat professionals, relocating to Japan fulfils the dream of a lifetime, but for others this ancient land can take some getting used to! Closed to the rest of the world for centuries, Japan’s astonishing post WWII modernisation has resulted in economic success as well as worldwide recognition for its innovative genius, but its peoples still value many of the country’s oldest traditions.

Perhaps one of the strangest customs for expats is the Japanese love of hot spring public baths where everyone is naked. It’s an iconic, relaxing experience handed down through generations, with nakedness in this situation accepted as normal and well worth expats' getting used to for its curative properties. On the other hand, when the Japanese dress to go out, they dress with care and often elegance, with the average scruffy foreigner unsightly in their eyes.

For expats heading to job interviews, there are rituals which need to be learnt, even although the majority of Western applicants find this tricky at best. Business manners are proscribed, with foreigners able to pick up the important aspects at a real advantage over others who’re not aware of the cultural aspects of form and structure. Most Japanese language schools will provide instruction in the basics, giving Western applicants a better chance of success.

Once you’ve passed the interview stage and started in a new job, the first of many surprises is the ‘morning announcement’. It’s intended to raise everyone’s spirits before work begins by starting the day with a ‘good morning’ and continuing with ‘we look forward to working together’. Of course, newly arrived expat professionals find this totally Japanese concept strange at best.

The reality of Japan and part of the reason for its post-war success is that everything must be done as perfectly as is possible, a concept decidedly unfamiliar for many Western expats brought up in a laid-back environment. Everything is carefully planned, and everyone follows the rules obsessively. One aspect of Tokyo life hated by expats and locals alike is rush hour, especially at train stations as, even when the carriages are full to overflowing, more Japanese manage to board, and expats desperate not to be late for work are forced to follow suit.

One source of sheer frustration for foreigners is that, although many Japanese are able to speak at least some English, they’re very reluctant to do so as a result of fear of failure and sheer embarrassment. As a result, learning at least the basics of Japanese is essential for those looking to a long stay in the country. Relocation to this fascinating land can be the experience of a lifetime, but it needs work to truly appreciate its nuances.

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