Life of an Expat in Japan


One of the best and worst things about living in Hokkaido is that it’s almost necessary to own a car in order to survive.  It’s great because you can get around anywhere and see a lot of hidden gems that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to access by train.  And let me tell you, trains aren’t as abundant on The Great White Island as they are in the rest of Japan.

The downside of course is that you have to own a vehicle and all the head shaking fees associated with being a vehicle owner.  Also, you always think to yourself, what if I rode a bad-ass train to work instead of this panty-dropping Nissan March.  Or as a friend of mine always mistakenly called it, “The Mark”. He gave my car a boy`s name.  Who does that?

Well, Life of an Expat in Japan is kind of like that; what if my car had a girls name is this good or is this bad, I am what I’m not, what’s it like on the other side? For the answers to life’s deep philosophical questions hit the jump.

I’m American because I was born in the U.S… Go figure, that actually makes  a lot of sense.

One of the interesting things about being a foreigner in Japan is that you constantly define who you are by what you’re not.  For example, while living in the U.S. a part of my identity was based on my ethnic background.  In a giant salad bowl that is the U.S., our ethnic backgrounds have a tendency in determining our identity despite the fact that most of us were born and raised in the country.

So instead of labeling myself as an “American”, I would always call myself this this and that. I think that’s how it is, but who knows, I could be completely wrong.

“I’m a carrot in this giant salad bowl.  What about you bra?”

“I’m a pineapple.”

“Pineapple in a vegetable salad? Well that’s different.”

However, it’s much different in Japan.  After coming to Japan, I started to define myself as an American rather than by my ethnic origins.  I began to realize that I really have no connections with my ethnic origins and really carry a mindset that is “American”.  Is this bad? Is it good?  I have no idea, it just is.

I can’t say why my mindset changed, but I speculate that it has something to do with Japan being a strongly homogeneous society.  That or I just got tired of trying to explain to everyone that while I was born and raised in America, I’m also this this and that.

In the end every conversation always made a full 360, “Uh, so Mr. Kuma after all that explanation you’re an American?”

“Yeap, that’s right.” Mind blown.

Exploding Stars

When I first arrived in Japan it was with hundreds of other people. Everyone was pretty excited and starry eyed at the fact that we’d be living in Japan. It was like being a kid again, you instantly make friends with anyone you say hello to.  “Hey sit next me during this lecture. You’re my new best friend.”

“Share this beer with me. You’re my new best friend.”

“Your fly is unzipped. You’re my new best friend.”

After a couple of days of best friending, everyone dispersed to their intended destinations throughout Japan. Kind of like an exploding star spewing its star matter all over the galaxy, but less cosmic and more spewey.

Well, after a month or so of settling down, things started to slow down a bit, and I started to wonder what kind of adventures my 100 other best friends were having. Are they having a great time? Are they having a bad time? Neither, they’re just living their new lives and like you and me, they’re probably just trying to fit in as best as possible.

Culture Shock? More like Culture Block!

Throughout those first few weeks of orientations, a lot of what I took away was a stronger awareness of culture shock.  Honestly though, I didn’t know what culture shock was back then, and again to be completely honest, I still don’t really know what culture shock is now. Sure, I know what it is by definition, but I don’t really have a clear idea of what it’s like to experience it.

Yeah, from time to time, I would get irritated with any number of things and even after three years of being here, I still get irritated with any number of things.  Are those the symptoms of culture shock or is it natural little ticks that slip through the cracks of patience penetrating the anger membrane?  Who knows and I doubt I’ll ever know.

For example, a few weeks ago I had to renew my visa so that I could continue working in Japan. One of the requirements was to go to the post office and buy a ¥4,000 yen stamp (~$40). When I went to buy the stamp, the employees didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted and started to call the immigration office and ask me a flurry of questions, many of which were quite personal that I couldn’t see having a connection.

Eventually I got pretty tired of all the questioning and went into “American Mode” and just asked the employee, “Look bra, you got the stamp or not?”

A second later he pulled it out and said, “I think it’s this one.”

Bam! Was that so difficult? Am I a jerk for having to be so blunt? He was just trying to be thorough to not make a mistake, right? Is this culture shock? Omg!

I’m just going to be

After about a year of going through the motions, I eventually came to a point where I just stopped seeing everything as positive and negative and started to accept everything as it is.

I’m not Japanese so stop trying to be 100% Japanese. But that doesn’t mean I can’t integrate Japanese life into my personality while recognizing that I’m American.

The truth is is that Japan has thousands of years of history and still is a very homogeneous society. People just seem to have this ability of knowing without having to say anything.  It’s like my mom… creepy.

One thing is for sure though, when you stop trying to become “Japanese” and just be who you are, life as an expat becomes a lot easier in this country.  And ironically, from my experiences, those who seem to be more easy going and less interested in everything Japanese have a stronger tendency in doing really well in this country.  From my observations, Australians are the best in the business at doing this. Must be all the beer and Australian football.

So in the end, I may not be a “March” but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a “Mark”.


5 responses to “Life of an Expat in Japan

    • I really appreciate the comments and want to say that I’ve been a follower of Japanese Level Up for a while now. So this is a bit of starry-eyed moment for me now.

      To answer your question, if you’re a biking enthusiast, then I can’t imagine it gets any better than living in Hokkaido. However, if you need to get to point A to point B and live outside of Sapporo, a car is a must have in this prefecture. Kind of contrary to the general perception of Japan.

  1. I completely understand what you are thinking!! I have been living in Taiwan for quite sometime now and I always defined myself as ‘Canadian.’ BTW, I own a car here and it’s the best investment ever, especially on those all to often rainy days in winter!

    • Thanks for commenting foreignsanctuary. You’re my very first commenter ever so this is a very exciting moment for me. I too got a car and am very glad I went ahead and got one. Cause if I didn’t, I’d be having some very isolated days.

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