Feeling at home in Japan

Three years ago, when we first moved to Japan, it seemed that everything was strange and different. Everywhere we looked, there were new things, different customs, unfamiliar practices. We thought of endless lists of blogposts… but…

After living in Japan three years, we feel like we are really just at the surface of understanding this unique and wonderful country. But some of the things that once seemed strange and unusual now appear to be common place. Now it is sometimes hard to think of things to blog about. Here are some examples:

  • Using cash. In the US, we seldom carried cash. Everything was charged to a credit card. In Japan, cash is the standard. Some of the bigger stores accept credit cards. But a lot of shops, and even larger hotels, only take cash. So here, we carry cash. The ATM is our new best friend.
  • Japanese credit card? For a lot of reasons (taxes, ease of exchanging funds, etc.) it is advantageous to have a Japanese credit card. But Japanese banks don’t seem to talk to US banks, so there isn’t a seamless transfer of money. And getting a Japanese credit card is tough. We have excellent credit in the US, which meant exactly nothing in Japan. Don’t even apply for a Japanese credit card until after you are in Japan at least six months. Only then, after several rejections, were we able to get a JAL visa card. Ours is set up to withdraw the current balance each month from our bank account. It may be possible to monitor all this through the credit card website…but it is all in Japanese, so understanding is difficult.
  • Eigo ga, wakarimasu ka? 英語 が わかり ます か At first, we assumed many Japanese people could easily speak fluent English. Soon we realized that is not the case. Although many Japanese study English in school, many do not have an opportunity to speak the language and are not conversant. Often if you ask a Japanese person if they speak English, the reply will be “no.” Even if they understand a bit of English, unless they are comfortable with the language, they are reluctant to speak it. We have found that our minimal ability to speak Japanese is appreciated, and our bit of Japanese can combine with their bit of English to make communication possible.
  • The perfect sakura blossom. The Japanese people have a great appreciation of natural beauty. Whether it is a search for the perfect sakura blossoms in spring, the careful arrangement of flowers (ikebana), or the quiet solitude of a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, the people here appreciate and respect natural beauty. (Yes!)
  • May I have a doggie bag? In the US, we’ve found that portion sizes at most restaurants are so large, we often take part of our food home. In Japan, portions are more realistically sized. Seldom is there more food than desired for a single meal. Most restaurants do not allow you to take out excess food. It’s just not part of the culture.
  • Is this train full? We’ve found that in Tokyo, there is never a full train. It’s just a matter of pushing more people on board. Not a problem most times, but at rush hours, you get to know your fellow passengers better than you ever care to. The Japanese, for the most part, seem to handle this collapse of personal space in stride. It may not always be pleasant, but it is handled. And some rush hour trains have special cars for women only, to help ease the crush of humanity.
  • Safety and security. One of the remarkable things about Tokyo is the safety of the city. We’ve walked all over Tokyo, and never felt at all uncomfortable or unsafe. Of course, there is crime. But it is infrequent. Soon, we forget about the constant awareness of surroundings that we have to maintain in the US and most other countries. Perhaps we should be more concerned in Japan, but the feeling of personal safety is comforting.
  • Kindness. We don’t speak the language well, and we obviously stand out as different from the Asian population. But in the time we’ve been here, we’ve only experienced kindness and patience from the Japanese we’ve interacted with. We continue to appreciate the warm and gracious welcome we receive.

These are just a few of the things we’ve observed in our brief three years in Japan. As more comparisons and contrasts become apparent, we will include them in future blog posts.

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My husband and I were both born and raised in Kansas, but for the past 20+ years we have been living in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, with our children grown and out of the house, we have the opportunity to spend two years living in Tokyo. My husband will be working with the Japanese counterpart to his American company. UPDATE 2023... After 4-1/2 years in Tokyo, we returned to Atlanta. Now we are heading to London for a three year job assignment!

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