What’s the hardest thing about living in Japan as a foreigner?

There are a lot of awesome things about living in Japan as a foreigner. If you’re reading this in country as a resident foreigner, we’re sure you have your own Top 10 list! But there’s a flip side, too. When you’re having a bad day you may even feel that the bad outweighs the good. How easy is it to live here as a foreigner? And what’s the hardest thing about living here?

At Real Estate Japan, we’re very interested in your answers to these questions because our mission is to provide useful information about actually living here: the good, the bad, and the stuff that would make life a little easier.

Periodically, we conduct reader surveys to understand the concerns our users have about coming to Japan or living here. Earlier this year, for example, we surveyed users of Real Estate Japan and our network sites, including JapanToday and GaijinPot on the question of “What would make your life easier in Japan“. Below is a summary of what you told us!

It’s not hard, but it’s not easy

In answer to the question, “How easy is it for you to live in Japan? Please answer on a scale of 1 to 5, with “1” being “Really hard”, “5” being “Really easy”, and “3” being “Neutral”. The overall average of responses was 3.40, with the weight falling slightly to life here being “easier” than “hard”.

Was there a difference for people who have lived in Japan longer? Not a huge one. Among respondents who had lived in Japan for least 3 years and as long as “over 10 years”, the average of responses was 3.45, slightly higher on the scale of ease of living.

Was there a difference depending on gender? Yes, a little bit. Among female respondents, the average responses was 3.37, meaning that women surveyed indicated that it is slightly less easy to live in Japan compared to the average of the overall pool of respondents. But certainly still above a neutral “3”.

Was there a difference depending on Japanese ability?  First, we asked people to rate their own Japanese level, based on the following five categories: 1) None, 2) Can speak and understand a few phrases 3) Daily conversation level 4) Business level 5) Fluent in the spoken and written language. These were the results (as a percentage of respondents):

  • No Japanese: 5.00%
  • Can speak and understand a few phrases: 27.5%
  • Daily conversation: 42.5%
  • Business level: 12.5%
  • Fluent in the spoken and written language: 12.5%

When we segmented responses based on Japanese level, the data suggests that there was a strong correlation between Japanese ability and people’s feelings about the ease of living in Japan. Remember from above that a rating of “3” means “neutral” and the overall average rating of the “ease of living” in Japan was 3.40. Here are the ratings segmented by Japanese level:

  • None: 3.00
  • Can speak and understand a few phrases: 3.27
  • Daily conversation: 3.24
  • Business level: 3.20
  • Fluent in the spoken and written language: 4.60

Fluent Japanese speakers had the highest overall rating, close to the maximum of “5” (“really easy” to live in Japan). People who speak no Japanese averaged a neutral rating of “3”.

But take note of the average response from people with business level Japanese: 3.20. This is the second-lowest rating among all five segments. Why is this? Are we naive to think that if you have business level Japanese, your assessment of the ease of living in Japan would be higher than for people who have less Japanese ability?

The responses to the free form question: “Anything else you’d like to get off your chest about living in Japan?” may provide some insight into this, albeit anecdotal.

Below is a selection of responses to this question from users, with an indication of their self-assessed Japanese level. Again, please note that this is only a sample of answers, but we have chosen responses to reflect the range of answers given from all users who chose to respond to this question.

Japanese ability, being a foreigner, and other issues

Speaking Japanese, but not being Japanese

From a 20-something male living in the Tokyo 23 Wards, with business level Japanese: “It’s incredibly frustrating to constantly convince people I can speak Japanese or understand what they are saying. Many times I have been in the situation of asking a question in Japanese and getting a response in broken English with useless information. I also simply don’t feel comfortable going to music festivals or events anymore for Japanese artists because I get pointed at and stared at and here constantly hear comments like, “why are there foreigners here. This is Japan right?” It’s just an unbelievable amount of ignorance that I come across, but people refuse to believe that it’s an issue saying things like, “but there’s no racism in Japan.” Or “if you doing like it then why don’t you go home?” My Japanese ex-girlfriend would say stuff like that which really destroyef [sic] a lot of my faith in the country.”

From a 50-something male living in Hokkaido, with business-level Japanese: “It’s usually a lot of fun, but would be more relaxing if people would focus less on the “Japanese-ness”, and more on the “human-ness”. However, this would be true of living in most nations, I think.”

From a 30-something male living in Tokushima Prefecture, fluent in Japanese: “Foreigners need to assimilate or move on. It isn’t Japan’s job to make you comfortable if you don’t speak or refuse to learn to speak their language.”

From a 20-something male living in Tokyo (outside the 23 Wards), daily conversation-level Japanese: “I wish they’d stop asking me “why did you come to Japan?”. It’s been already 6 years and it doesn’t matter anymore.”

From a 20-something male living in Chiba Prefecture, fluent in Japanese: “I live in Japan and actually try to speak Japanese as much as possible. Most Japanese people appreciate that, but sometimes (mainly in commercial areas of Tokyo’s special wards with a high number of western tourists every day) you have to explicitly say すみません、英語わかりません [“I’m sorry, I don’t speak English”] for them to speak in Japanese to you. Luckily I work at a Japanese company, so not only I get to improve my language skills naturally, I also get lots of assistance from my company at whatever I don’t understand about living in Japan, even without asking.”

Sexual Harassment

From a 20-something female living in Kyoto prefecture, daily conversation-level Japanese: “it’s a nice country with beautiful nature and good infrastructure, but i really dislike sexual harassment. i’m asian and i have a very good japanese accent (my grammar is still not perfect). i’ve had men try to follow me, men try to follow me when i am with “gaijin” looking chick friends, men shoving their palms in my face while i’m walking out of a train station…and japanese are too wordy! less words, more pictures, more diagrams or signs, would make life easier even for japanese themselves!”

Housing Discrimination

From a 30-something female living in Osaka, daily conversation-level Japanese: “I was almost rejected for moving into an apartment simply because I’m not Japanese. Isn’t that illegal? ”

Language is a major issue

From the answers to a related question (“What would make your life easier in Japan?”, we found that language was one of the major issues for all respondents. Over 50 percent of users provided answers that had something to do with communication issues (the lack of English-speaking staff, for example, at banks and government offices), Japanese forms/paperwork, and lack of time or opportunity to study Japanese.

Insight from another survey

The data we provided above was from an online survey of users of Real Estate Japan and foreigner-friendly websites such as JapanToday and GaijinPot, so there was certainly some bias in our sample. Please take the data with a grain of salt!

So for comparison, we want to present data collected from another survey. The following is from a survey conducted by the Yokohama municipal government in 2015, asking the question: “What causes you trouble or worries you about living in Yokohama?“.  Respondents were asked to choose multiple answers from a list of choices.

As in the the survey conducted by Real Estate Japan, language was a major concern. Looking for work and issues related to health and medical care were also frequently chosen responses, but 22% of people said that they had no particular concerns about living in Yokohama.

If you currently live in Japan, what’s the hardest thing about living here (if anything)?

And if you are thinking about moving to Japan, what is your biggest worry?

Please tell us below!

Lead photo: Stock photo

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