7 things to keep in mind when preparing for a move to Japan

It would be very easy for me to dismiss the hours of research and planning I put in before I moved to Japan; although at this point in time it does all seem like a blur. But I do remember that I was interested in other people’s stories about making the move to Japan, so I’ll do my best to recall the steps I took and maybe try to give some advice to those in the position I was in years ago. If there’s any interest, I can also write about my specific hurdles and struggles adapting to life in Japan. For today, I want to introduce a few concepts that I think might have helped younger me.

Me from five years ago would not have imagined I would have lived in this Tokyo share house and really started to love the city from here. Photo: Scott Kouchi

1. It’s not going to go as planned

Let’s just get this one out of the way. You can plan as much as you want, but life will always find a way to throw you off course. I’m not saying you should abandon plans altogether, but just try to be flexible and accommodating for any road bumps in your journey. It still feels like I’m giving advice along the lines of “just wing it,” but that’s also not what I’m trying to say. You should be putting in time to research and plan big life events like moving to a different country. But you also need to be aware that sometimes life just happens to you and you’ll have to react to situations as they are unfolding.

2. Everybody’s journey is different

I devoured all sorts of “living in Japan” blog content that I could find. This both helped and hurt certain aspects of my mental image of what living in Japan would be like. I maybe tried to emulate certain aspects of life here that I learned from others, rather than finding my own path. It took awhile, but now I feel very comfortable in my communities as myself.

3. Study at your own pace

Some people can spend hours and hours at home on flashcards and textbooks. Try not to compare your progress with others – it’s a quick recipe for taking the wind out of your motivation.

4. The transition from textbook Japanese to spoken Japanese is tough

No matter how many times you go over drills in textbooks, it’s going to be jarring when you step into a Japanese supermarket or restaurant for the first time. We’ve all started there, we’ve all made mistakes. Don’t get flustered if someone can’t understand you, and also don’t take it personally. The faster you move on from bad encounters, the more time you’ll have to spend with those who are helpful and encouraging.

5. Look for as many opportunities as possible

This is going to be different for everyone, but as someone who is a bit more introverted, it was a bit of a challenge to put myself out there in a new city where I could barely communicate. But this was a chance to explore more of both my surroundings and my own development.

6. It’s ok to say no

This tip runs kind of opposite of the above. If you are an English speaker in Japan, chances are you will be approached by strangers or asked if you give English lessons. Or, you might be asked out for coffee or lunch only to find the other party has brought textbooks and notepads to this (unbeknownst to you) study session. If you’re ok with acting as an English study-buddy then by all means participate in these friendships. Yes, these are “opportunities” to meet with people and expand your social circles, but also remember it’s ok to say no to these requests.

7. Ask for help

If you don’t know about taxes, bills, or your apartment rental contract: ask someone! It’s much better to get an answer and learn so you can deal with these things in the future. Your city hall should have some information in English, or should be able to contact a translator to help get you sorted out.

There’s all sorts of advice out there so I hope this just adds to the growing pile of things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about making the move to Japan. If you’re interested in following more of my story and live updates from Tokyo, follow me on Twitter at @howtotokyo!

Lead photo: The school I taught at my first year in Japan in Nagano Prefecture – Scott Kouchi