If you want to teach English in Japan, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the plunge. That’s just what I did back in ’97 and I’m still here, with no plans to go back to Los Angeles.
I can personally attest that Japan offers many opportunities to native English speakers to live in the countryside as well as cities of various sizes and teach English, whether it’s at private English language schools or as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) on the state-sponsored JET program or similar private programs.
And if you have an advanced university degree and want to stay awhile, it’s always possible that you’ll be able to make the jump to university teaching if that’s something that appeals to you.
There are also jobs in Japan for English speakers besides teaching, but they are obviously less plentiful, and it often takes an entrepreneurial spirit to create work for yourself. This website is in fact one such example-I retired from teaching almost ten years ago, and I now make my living dealing in new and vintage Japanese textiles, indulging my interest in traditional culture.
This post is a general primer on what life can be like in small town Japan, with some basic tips on how to get the most out of your experience. In future pieces I’ll write about specific experiences that I’ve had in different locales and at different types of schools, as I’ve sampled various teaching and living scenarios in my decades here.
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Before you actually visit the country your image of Japan may be influenced by popular media, which tends to focus on such aspects of Japanese culture as Lolita girls, surprising vending machines, manga and animé, pop stars and game shows. The more traditional side of Japan, such as its temples, its geisha, and its Shinto shrines tend to be portrayed in the west as somehow otherworldly and static, as if they belong to a different time.
The real Japan defies these stereotypes, especially in small towns and rural areas. Like any other country, Japan mixes its traditional culture with modern life and its alternative scenes with mainstream pop culture. It is also surprisingly cosmopolitan in terms of food, music and entertainment.
You don’t need to be in the big cities to find excellent quality Italian food alongside the regular restaurants and ramen diners, and small towns will often have interesting venues for small bands and performers as well as traditional festivals and craft fairs. Small-town Japan is a vibrant place to live if you’re open-minded and willing to spend a little time getting to know it.
The Japanese countryside is strikingly beautiful. Forests cover about 67% of the land in Japan, so the mountains spend most of the year looking lush and green. Roads wind through the valleys beside rocky rivers of beautifully clear water.
This is the kind of countryside in which you may well find yourself as an AET in a Japanese school or district. It can be tough to find your bearings if you don’t read Japanese, since English is used less outside of the cities. It’s far from impossible, though, and in fact, with the right approach, small-town Japanese life is very rewarding.
Life in Japan for Foreigners
The first thing you’ll realize is that, if you don’t look Japanese, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Don’t be surprised if neighbors and co-workers seem to know more about you than you might expect.
Looking different means that people notice you, and naturally people like to talk about the new person in town. This can seem invasive to non-Japanese people, so it’s important to bear in mind that talking to you about things you’ve been doing is often a Japanese person’s way of striking up a conversation and being friendly. Bear in mind that you’re noticeable, avoid doing anything you don’t want to be seen doing, and you’ll find in time that no one cares what you bought at the supermarket anymore.
Because Japan is often affected by earthquakes, its buildings must be earthquake proof. That means that Japanese houses and apartments tend not to have central heating systems to avoid the danger of fire in the case of earthquake damage. Of course the cities feel the cold, but in rural areas and small towns it will be colder.
Electric or paraffin heaters are usually used to heat apartments and houses. You will probably also use a kotatsu, which is a wonderful Japanese solution to cold weather. A kotatsu is a low table with a heater. Under the top of the table, you lay a quilt, so you have formed a quilted tent over the heater for your feet and legs. With a kotatsu to keep you warm, the winter may seem too hot instead of too cold.
It may also be necessary to have an all-night electric blanket to keep you warm at night, especially higher in the mountains. There are stories of AETs in particularly mountainous areas who have to keep their toothpaste from freezing overnight by putting it in the fridge. With those kind of temperatures inside, you need a little extra help to keep you warm at night.
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Curiously, Japanese toilets seem to vary from the very high-tech, with rows of buttons and a multitude of functions, to the very low-tech, being little more than a pit in the ground. Rural Japan still has a significant proportion of pit toilets. If you find yourself living in a house with such a toilet, you may have to get used to treating it with certain chemicals and scheduling a waste removal service.
If you’re living in a small town or a rural area, owning a car is pretty much essential. Even simple things like shopping for groceries or meeting up with friends will be a challenge without a car.
The good news is, used cars are very affordable in Japan. Your co-workers can advise you on where to find a good deal and the dealership will help you with tax and insurance.
One major advantage of living in or near the mountains is that you’re never far from a hike in the summer or a ski-slope in the winter.
Japan has been host to the Winter Olympics, which took place in Nagano-ken in 1998.Winter sports are very popular and snowfall is usually heavy enough to allow a reasonably long skiing season.
The season is longer in Hokkaido, where snowfall is usually significantly heavier than on the other islands.
Make the Most of Your Time in Japan: It Starts Before You Go!
As soon as you can after you’ve moved to Japan—or even before you’ve arrived, if possible—join any online groups that will keep you informed of events and activities in your area. AET networks are very helpful both for sharing professional resources and introducing newcomers to a ready-made social circle. It often takes some time to make Japanese friends, since Japanese people are typically reserved at first. In the meantime, other AET’s or English teachers will provide a good support network while you settle in and will be able to give you any advice you need.
The stereotype of westerners making noisy neighbors is one that endures in Japan, so if you’re living in an apartment or if your house is close to others, be aware of the noise you make during the day and even more so in the evenings. Walls can be thin! And many Japanese people in rural areas go to sleep early and get up early. This is especially true of farming families. Being a thoughtful and considerate neighbor is the very best way of fitting in with your Japanese community.
Above all, learn Japanese. Even if you never hope to be capable of reading the newspaper or a Japanese novel, a little conversational Japanese will go a long way. Not only is it extremely useful, since most Japanese people outside of the large urban centers don’t speak English, but it’s also a sign to the people around you that you want to become part of the community.
Getting familiar with katakana is a great place to start, and you can make considerable headway with this in a matter of a couple weeks. Start before you go and you’ll hit the ground running! Katakana is used for foreign words, including names, so it’s incredibly useful.
You can learn to write your name in katakana with very little effort, and you’ll get a great feeling from being able this. I wish I had done it before I arrived here, it’s incredibly motivating to have this basic system down, or at least be familiar with it. This self-study workbook is an engaging and efficient way to begin your journey.
Go With the Flow and Embrace the Challenges
Japan has a reputation for being alien and bizarre, and some aspects of its culture seem so to outsiders. Those things make up only a fraction of Japan’s culture, however, as you will find when you live in the country day to day.
There are challenges to life in Japan—as a gaijin, you will never entirely fit in—but it’s perfectly possible to find your own niche, even in the smallest of towns. Take things as they come, be open to new experiences, ask for help when you need it, and soon you’ll be right at home.
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Originally posted 2018-12-17 23:15:28.