Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Making the most of your stay in Japan.

Does Japan live up to your expectations?

I've been watching the Japan Blog Matsuri for sometime and finally decided to get in there and have a go. Thank you to Nick from The Long Countdown for reviving it and keeping the crowd moving on JapanSoc. I follow Nick on Twitter, you should too! Thanks also to Bill for this months topic.

I recently returned home to Australia from 5 years in Japan where I was teaching English. I'm still teaching languages, including Japanese at eduFire. I'm an unashamed Japanophile and will probably move back at some stage with my wife and kids.

You Can't Have Your Lion Cake and Eat It Too
You Can't Have Your Lion Cake and Eat It Too by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr

I've met all kinds of people who have decided to come to Japan, for whatever reason. Some that barely survived, some that thrived and still others that couldn't get out fast enough. And whenever I found out they were leaving I always asked them the same question.
"How did your expectations of Japan match the reality of living here?"
It's kind of a loaded question, because most people who launch right into an answer haven't really thought that hard about it before. Most people that have got a lot to talk about at this point are those that have decided that Japan didn't meet their expectations, and for that reason they're going home. They're usually disappointed with the way things turned out.

You can imagine some of the answers, you might be surprised by others;
  • "I thought there would be more nightlife"
  • "I thought more people would speak English" (honestly?)
  • "I don't really like the food"
  • "People are hard to get to know here"
  • "I don't like teaching children"
I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

Now I don't often get the chance to ask the question of people who really love living in Japan, because most of them are still there! But one thing does seem to important to making the most of your stay in Japan. The fewer preconceived ideas you have about what it's going to be like, the more open you become to the possibilities, and this means more fun!

There are other things go hand in with this, like understanding your motivation for going, having a plan when you get there, and giving yourself enough time to really appreciate the culture. The less these things are based on external factors, the more chance you have of seeing them through.

My motivation for going there grew out my love for martial arts which developed when I was a boy, it was just a natural extension of a childhood dream. I embraced culture through my association with other martial artists and found this deepened my experience. I also made a lot of friends this way, and it enabled to break away from the negative little gaijin ghettoes you find in every Japanese town.

The plan I had was always to learn the language, and pay down debt/save some money. I figured the first goal would be much easier than the second ;-) so I gave myself 5 years at the outside. I hadn't really learnt any Japanese before arriving, so initially Japanese was about survival; asking for directions, getting on the right train, that kind of thing.

Very early on I made Japanese lessons a priority, but even then I didn't rely on my once a week lessons with the obachan too much. Every chance I had, my books were out, I was soaking it up, like a sponge. Being immersed is good, but having your eyes and ears open is even better. Many people think it'll just happen via osmosis. Believe it, there are people living in Japan, longer than 10 years, who don't speak a word of Japanese, I've met them.

Patience was not always one of my strengths, but certainly something that developed during my time in Japan. I used to get frustrated easily when people couldn't understand me. Now after spending countless hours in a cubicle with people who's knowledge of English was limited to 'haroo', 'O-Kei' and 'bai-bai', I've learnt to be a little more forgiving.

Everyone goes through some rough times, no less when you are in a strange country, many miles
from loved ones. It really helped to know that I had a purpose, and to re-evaluate that along the way. Initially the chance I thought I'd give Japan was 3 months, if I absolutely hated it, at least I'd give it that much time. Once I reached that point, I gave myself another year, but then something happened, I really started to enjoy myself.

Sure I missed home at times, but I made sure I stayed in touch with people, and scheduled a couple of visits.

So in a nutshell:
To make the most of your time in Japan, go with an open mind, understand your motivation, prepare yourself for differences, and embrace the culture.
Thanks for reading, I'd really like to hear your ideas in the comments. If you've been to Japan, what advice do you have to offer people who are thinking of going? If you are thinking of going, do you have any idea of what it might be like to live there?

A special shout out to Chris from Nihongo Notes, it was his post "Learning Japanese, Blogging and how not to be perfect" that gave me the inspiration for getting back into blogging with a vengence.
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