In my final year, the JET programme came a courting at my University. I went along to the presentation which mostly consisted of an ex-JET brimming with what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm, telling us what a wonderful time he had had, complemented with pictures of smiling Japanese children and bright views of cherry blossom. Later that evening I went to my Japanese evening class and asked the two girls there who had been on JET about their experiences. One’s experience boiled down to, “I was miserable almost the entire time.” The other said she had had a good time but she had struggled with the cultural barrier and differences in the working culture.
The problem in asking difficult questions to prospective employers is that you can never escape the fact that they want you to apply. Even the most well-meaning employee in the world can’t help but sell you the job a little and so they will brush over difficult questions. I, however, am not a shower of positivity and light so I will be frank with you. My last post on what I enjoy about English teaching was genuine: I am enjoying myself time here but there are things that are difficult. No, ‘difficult’ is being too Japanese and indirect – there are things that suck. Here are three of them, that I wish I had been warned about before coming to Japan to teach English.
1) The Cash-Flow problem
“Don’t worry about money and just go travelling.”
A thoughtless sentiment tossed around by rich people.
Yes teaching English abroad is probably the best way to see the world if you don’t have a trust fund. Yes English teaching jobs in Japan are genuinely paid well. Yes, you may well have your flights paid for you, if you’re lucky. But, there is no denying that getting set up in a new country is a huge strain of your finances, and unless you have savings you are going to struggle. This is especially a problem for new graduates such as myself. Unfortunately just “not worrying about money and seeing the world” is not possible for some people.
For me, cash flow was my number one cause of anxiety when I arrived in Japan. Dealing with it on top of culture shock (see 3) and the paperwork you have to go through to get stuck (see 2) is not fun. I had worked most of the summer after leaving University, had some modest support from my parents and I still struggled. Initial costs that you will have to cover before getting your first pay slip, presuming your flights are paid for, include:
Deposit for your flat and a month’s rent
Reikin (礼金) – Seriously, f*ck reikin. Apologies for my obscenity, but this is one aspect of Japanese culture that I find difficult to accept. As well as forking out for your deposit and first month’s rent, reikin, which translates as ‘key money’ or ‘gratitude money,’ is an additional payment of at least one month’s rent that you pay the landlord to thank him for letting you live in his property that you don’t get back. This usually is at least as much as one month’s rent. What is this? I thank my landlord by paying my rent. Renting a property is his job. Reikin is like going shopping, buying something, and then paying the shop to thank them for taking your money.
Furniture – this will be less of a shock to my American friends, but for the benefit of my fellow coddled Brits, flats in Japan are almost always unfurnished. When I say unfurnished I mean as empty as my sodding bank account. No beds. No fridge. No hob. No frickin lights for Christ sake. So you bankrupt yourself to afford the deposit, the rent and the reikin, for a dark room in which you can not cook or sleep. My boyfriend and I were fortunate in that he has friends and family here who were kind enough to give us some of their old stuff. Other than that, craigslist is your friend. We spend much our first couple of weekends lugging free stuff we’d got from craigslist across Tokyo, most of it of a size that shouldn’t really be allowed on the train.
New phone – Just give in and get a new contract. I wanted to carry on using my British phone. We all did. But the phone companies here are a cartel and getting a sim only contract is very difficult.
Health insurance – Again, less of a shock to my American friends but you have to pay for healthcare in Japan. Get. Health insurance. It’s actually not too expensive for new arrivals because the price is based on your previous year’s earnings in Japan which, obviously, is zero for us. On top of the huge cost of everything else, I was tempted to leave health insurance until my first paycheck came through. I didn’t ‘expect to get ill,’ but then most of us never do. I’m SO thankful I didn’t give in to temptation as I actually needed minor surgery in my first month. Without health insurance the cost would have been phenomenal, but with it was pretty affordable.
2) Japanese Bureacracy
Japan is bureaucratic. Where one email would do in the UK, Japan has three forms. It’s one of the only countries in the developed world where people actually use a fax machine with any regularity. The amount of paperwork you have to go through to get set up is overwhelming even to someone who speaks fluent Japanese, to those of us who have limited language ability it’s a living nightmare.
To break it down:
You need to get paid and you need a phone to work, so you need a bank account. To get a bank account, you need an address. You also need to register as a resident in Japan, which also requires an address. So, starting your life hangs on having an apartment.
In the UK, you have the option of using a letting agency but I usually find better service results from renting from individuals. It’s good to know who your landlord is and for him to know you so there’s a sense of accountability and you can contact him directly if you have a problem. For three out of four of the properties I have rented, we didn’t deal with anyone other than the landlord. For the flat I share with my boyfriend in Tokyo, renting involves four companies:
Letting agent – In Japan, these guys don’t seem to do much other than show you around the property and contact the next party. I didn’t understand this so when boyfriend and I went for a lengthy signing process with these guys I naively presumed we were done when they put us in a car and drove us to see the next guys.
Management company – These are the people who actually deal with the signing. Why they can’t be combined with the letting agent I don’t know.
Guarantor company – I understand the requirement that foreigners have a guarantor and it is good that companies can provide this service as few foreigners know a Japanese national willing to be their guarantor, especially as this is seen as being a more weighty responsibility than in the UK. But there is no denying that it is yet another crippling cost. I’m also bitter about our situation because we had a guarantor, my boyfriend’s uncle, but they also made us use a company. I want to believe this wasn’t due to xenophobia.
My boyfriend actually found us an apartment before I arrived in Tokyo and put down an offer immediately. It took about four days after I arrived for them even to confirm that, yes, we could have it and so we didn’t know if we should look for other options. After that it took another three days to be able to move in. All of this time I was living in a tiny hotel room with no natural light, with my two massive suitcases almost entirely covering the floor. Every night I would hand over money I couldn’t afford to stay another night. My work were, understandably, bugging me about when I would get my bank account so they could pay me, what my phone number was so they could contact me, and where I lived so they could organise which schools I would be sent to.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious in my entire life, and believe me, I am no stranger to high stress situations. I cried. I barely slept. I had a panic attack. I wanted to go home to where I could control things. Where I have a safety net of friends and family who will feed me and let me sleep on their sofas if I run out of money. Every time the letting agency told us about some new bureaucratic hoop we had to jump through it was like a blow from a blunt object.
3) Culture shock is real and it hurts
It was still pretty hot a couple of weeks after arriving in Japan and I had been invited to a party. I was nervous (when you’ve just moved abroad, an opportunity to make friends can seem military operation) and I had picked out a dress which was suitable for the heat. I didn’t feel up to winning feminist points so I wanted to remove my leg hair. I plugged my epilator in only to find that the difference in wattage here was making it go slower than a Wagnerian opera. I don’t like shaving so I went to the Japanese equivalent of Boots (a ‘drug store’ to you Yanks) in search of wax strips. The immense difficulties of buying beauty products in Japan (even if you could read the sodding kanji the differences can still be overwhelming) deserves its own post but, needless to say, I was wandering around the shop, squinting at the shelves like an idiot. I asked a shop assistantワックスが有りますか and was directed to a product that did, indeed, look like wax strips. I went home thinking, “Wow, these things sure are cheap in Japan!” and opened the packet. “Wow, this smells impressively like roses for something designed to rip out your hair!” I’m still not sure what I bought but it wasn’t wax strips. My boyfriend thinks they’re some kind of herbal remedy which you put on your legs to relieve pain but to be honest we’re not at all sure.
The process of hair removal, which would usually take 10 minutes, had dragged out over hours and had failed. The resulting frustration occurred in the following cycle:
“Waaahhhh I’m 22 and I can’t even figure out how to shave my legs. I’m too stupid to hack it here, why did they even let me iiiinnn?”
“Why can’t this stupid country just have enough electricity in its stupid plugs to power one epilator? I’m trying to make a cup of tea to calm me down and the stupid kettle is taking forever because of the pathetic amount of electricity. It’s Japan’s fault. Stupid country.”
“No it’s my fault. I’m a complete failure for not adapting well enough to this culture. I’m not going to go to this party, I’m going to hide my pathetic foreign self in my flat forever and watch Parks and Recs whilst hating myself for being a spoilt native English speaker.”
For me, this is culture shock in miniature. Something like this happened multiple times a day in the beginning, and is getting less frequent as I slowly figure things out. The frustration you experience when something that would be simple back home takes far, far more time and energy. You’ll have read up about bowing and taking your shoes off, you know what the cloth thingy in restaurants is for and you’ve steeled yourself against homesickness and loneliness. But it’s difficult to understand these small anxieties until you come up against them. I have so much yearning to experience this culture, so many things I want to do and see. Having to navigate my huge appetite to see Japan with the energy drain of the little things being more tiring than normal is an ongoing frustration.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going to Japan. I’m mostly having a wonderful time and this is an amazing country. But if you’re planning to come to Japan you should be aware that, chances are, you will come up against obstacles like these. But hey, “Without great risk there can be no great rewards.” The rewards of living abroad are certainly great, and I’m willing to face the challenges to get them.