What's life like in Japan?


Hi everybody, it's me, The Geek.

One question I am consistently asked when I leave Japan is "what's life like in Japan?" Well is that ever a difficult question to answer! Part of the difficulty is choosing how to answer it in a manner that is relative to the person asking it. Part of the diffiulty is that for me, the answer has changed over the years I've been here. And finally, having lived here for so many years, I've lost perspective about what it's like to not live here. All of these difficulties end up with my replying something along the lines of "pretty good", which isn't a particularly good answer.

For the most part, my life isn't so different here than I imagine it would be if I lived back home in Canada. I wake up, eat breakfast, maybe go to the gym, go to work, come home and have dinner with the family, watch a bit of TV or use the internet, and go to bed. Sometimes I'll meet up with friends for lunch, or a drink after work. Occasionally I go out for dinner with my family. I think that for the most part, this is true of most people around the world.

On the other hand, the setting in which I'm doing this is entirely different. When I wake up, I'm not in a bed, I'm in a futon. My home is a modern Japanese style, built more upwards, than outwards, so as to take up less land. When I leave the house, I ride my bike past shrines and temples interspersed amongst the houses and businesses. There are convenience stores everywhere (three alone within a five minute walk of my home). And if I go out to meet a friend, we will usually be the only foreigners in the place we are drinking. The food we eat is usually Japanese, and the people we meet are Japanese. I am very visibly an outsider, no matter where I go.

And yet, I rarely think about these things, because this is my normal. On the contrary, when I go back home to Canada, that's when I feel a little out of place. Even though I nominally blend in (or at least, don't visibly stand out), on the inside I'm looking around and thinking "so many white people", and "the roads are so wide" or "houses have yards here!"

When I come back to Japan, I stop thinking about my surroundings and just move on with life as it always is. When I walk into a shop, and the person is surprised at my being able to speak Japanese even though I'm not Japanese, that's normal to me. I'm used to it, dealing with it so often. More often than not it's not even a thought that's going through my head while I'm in the shop.

There are some fundamental differences of living in Japan however, that are drastically different than my life was in Canada. It's not strange to meet someone from pretty much any country in the world while living here. I've met people from Britain, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Cambodia, Korea, China, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania and more. I've been thought to be American more times than I can count. One of my best friends who I see the most often is American. I work with Japanese people all the time. In a country that largely mono-ethnic, my existence is surprisingly multicultural!

On the other hand, the foreign population in Japan is fairly transient. The percentage of foreigners who stay beyond 2-3 years is quite small, and most everyone leaves within five years. Only a small number of us become long-timers. This is great in one way, as having lived here for so many years has led to my having friends in countries all over the world. But on the other hand, it's sad losing friends when they leave. After bonding with someone and becoming really close, suddenly they are gone, only to be seen periodically, if ever.

It's really hard to convey in words what it's really like living here, and even this blog post has been a difficult one to write. So likely I'll just keep on answering the question of what it's like to live here with "pretty good". When in reality it's so different, and yet no different at all. It's just home.