Danger isn’t a word we associate with Japan. They’ve got the radiation under control, though how well depends on how much credit you give the government. There’s a little crime, but you’re more likely to have your drink spiked and your credit card misappropriated at a Roppongi bar than face down in a ditch. When you live in Japan, there are internal dangers. That’s usually a very good thing because a little danger forces you to grow in the face of a country you can never quite understand as well as you’d like, but there are still a few things to keep an inward eye on while you live here.
Stopping Studying Japanese
The only fluent non-native Japanese speakers I’ve met have been college students. Besides them, I’ve met a total of one lady, a Brit, who is completely fluent. Being fluent means working for it, which means making time to work for it. College students come to Japan to study Japanese, while those of us who come over for work have less time to devote to nihongo.
If you don’t have a kanji test on Monday, it’s easy to get complacent because you can honestly get by in Japan without much Japanese. You need a certain amount to function, but a little gets you through the day. And when you do have to sign that cell phone contract, there’s probably a sympathetic coworker or friend there to help. Even if there’s not, you’d be surprised what you can do with limited Japanese. I rented my old apartment with an English-Japanese dictionary app and almost conversational level Japanese.
But it’s precisely when you can just “get by” that you need to buckle down. It’s the danger zone, when your motivation can drop to zero if you let yourself get satisfied. While you can now function as a somewhat independent human being, you have to remind yourself of everything you still can’t do–watching that movie without subtitles, reading that book, or just having a meaningful conversation.
The bottom line is you have to make studying a habit. Make a schedule and stick to it, even if you don’t feel like it. Open the textbook and keep at it. Even better, make sure you have a reason to study. Join a club that forces you to communicate exclusively in Japanese. You get practice, stay motivated, and make new friends. It’s killing three birds with one stone, because why settle for just two?
Japan’s a great place to drink. With Japanese shrines serving free amazake (sweet sake) to visitors during events, Japan has never been a culture to turn down one more glass. Nomihoudai means all you can drink, which you can order at just about any karaoke bar or izakaya. It ranks with sushi as one of Japan’s greatest achievements.
Still, keep tabs on your tab, because it’s easy to form a habit. Many non-Japanese immerse a bit too much in the enjoyable art of Japanese drinking, then find themselves with a headache and one less available sick day the next morning. One night becomes two, and three, and four, and before you know it it’s either hit the breaks or hit the wall.
If you work with Japanese, you quickly learn that alcohol is the oil of the Japanese corporate machine. For many Japanese, drinking is a job requirement. Nominikeshion, is a cocktail of the words nomu (to drink) and communication. It’s related to the word bureikou, to put aside rank. Alcohol brings down the walls of the rigid company hierarchy and lets everyone communicate openly, so you’ll have to put back a few if you don’t want to stick out like you’ve got an elf on your head. Still, remember to give your liver a break while you’re climbing the corporate ladder, less you find yourself taking work home a little too much. Just something to think about.
Most foreign residents come to Japan because they love its culture, but even Nelson Mandela got divorced. You might become critical of Japan. It just happens. If you live here long enough, you will run into an aspect of this country that you don’t like. I’m just being real. Especially if you come with unrealistic expectations, it’s easy for paper alters to crumble. The government’s thirty-four-year resistance to the Hague Treaty, which made Japan a safe haven for international child abductions, proves that even criticism has its place. But being critical is a different beast. It’s a stalking predator whose only want is to find fault with everything it can, no matter how far it has to stretch to blame Japan for its unhappiness. And it’s often the result of making generalizations from personal anecdotal evidence.
Bad things happens here. If you come, some of it will happen to you. But keeping isolated incidents in their place is the trick. It’s easy to let something influence you more than it should. I’ve been denied service at a hotel because I wasn’t Japanese–once. What I learned was: Japan has racists, just like everywhere else. Things like that happen. They happen to too many non-Japanese actually. But keep things in their place or you risk letting the beast run you down. That said, also watch out for another one.
Becoming an Apologist
Japan isn’t a utopia. It has deep-seated and unresolved issues like every other country in the world. Loving Japanese culture doesn’t mean apologizing for it. That’s projecting an image of anime and Zen over something much richer. When I was refused a room at that hotel I could have said “they probably had trouble with foreigners recently and are just being careful.” But that would have been overlooking racism just because it’s Japanese. Japan is still clumsy when dealing with non-Japanese–and sometimes “clumsy” is too nice a word. But if you can accept that Japan isn’t perfect, you’ll understand this country a lot better than if you refuse to acknowledge it.
This one hurts.
Relationships with Japanese and non-Japanese can lead to heartache if both parties have a different idea about what’s going on. Love conquers all in the movies, but in real life there’s more practical things to consider. Many Japanese/non-Japanese relationships don’t fail because of cultural differences–there aren’t any that can’t be overcome with patience and good sense–but other reasons.
First of all, maybe the pair just isn’t compatible. It doesn’t matter where they’re from if they just don’t click.
Maybe the Japanese is looking for something serious, but the non-Japanese only wants something temporary before heading home. Maybe the Japanese doesn’t know that.
Maybe the Japanese just wants the experience of dating a foreigner, but isn’t looking for commitment. Maybe the non-Japanese doesn’t know that.
Maybe the non-Japanese wants a deep relationship, but doesn’t want to stay in Japan. Maybe the Japanese doesn’t commit because they know that.
Maybe the non-Japanese wants to stay in Japan, but the Japanese wants to move abroad. Maybe both never address the issue until it’s game time, and it’s a deal-breaker.
Maybe it’s something else entirely.
Some of those maybes clear up all by themselves. Others need to be dealt with. Not too soon, of course. Use common sense. Don’t scare off the love of your life with talk of which country the kids will go to school in after three months of dating. But don’t put things off too long either, or your Japanese love life may end up more Bram Stoker’s Dracula than Twilight. (Although that may just be a good thing.) When dating in Japan, just make sure you’re both on the same page. All relationships come with problems, and intercultural ones come with additional sets, but handle them with patience, thoughtfulness, and sense, and they’ll be even more rewarding.
There’s no practice lap when you move to Japan. You just go. And grow. Just keep an eye on what you grow into and you’ll finish your adventure more polite and with a better appreciation of cooking your own food in restaurants. If you do leave, that is.