What's it like living in Japan?

What's it like to live in Japan?

I get asked this question all the time now.  The fact that I'm not a college student and I'm not an corporate transfer to Japan seems to increase curiosity.  I'm a father, a husband, an entrepreneur and a technologist in my day job, managing the IT systems of individual and business customers around the world, mostly in North America, right from my home office in Kobe, Japan.  I lived in Southern California before this, and today I live in Japan by choice.  There are a number of reasons for it, and this post hits some of the big ones.

What I love most about living in Japan

Osaka Castle seems like an anachronism surrounded by modern skyscrapers. It's a visual example of wa (Japanese) and yo (Western) coexisting in the same microverse that is Japan.

The appeal of living in Japan is so broad, and yet so personal, and depends mostly on you and your interests. Japan is a completely modernized, 21st century consumer society wrapped around several hundred years of history, tradition and social structure that make it one of the most interesting places on the planet. When most outsiders might think of Japan, it's just as easy to picture more traditional cultural symbols like Sumo, Samurai, Mt. Fuji, temples and Geisha as it is modern icons like bullet trains, businessmen armed with briefcases, robots and anime. And that's only on the pop culture surface: All of Japan is a wonderful blend of wa (Japanese) and yo (western) cultures, cuisines, technologies, languages and lifestyles. 

Right after I write this blog post, I can go to an Aikido dojo or a completely bilingual Crossfit box. For lunch I can enjoy any cuisine from any culture you can imagine, from my local organic choices I find from the local farmer's market to Indian curry to Italian to sushi or even a quick bite of kushiyaki at a standing-only bar in one of the local cities. I can go from snowboarding on top of Mt. Rokko straight to my favorite ryokan (link to Takitoritei Maruyama in Kobe) to take in the air and hot springs in a rotenburo. Sake or single-malt scotch?  Green tea or a venti soy latte? Sumo or baseball? Futon or bed? Jeans and t-shirt or yukata or kimono?

Go beyond pros and cons

Having spent many years traveling in Japan and more recently having made it my home, I no longer think of Japan in terms of pros and cons. This kind of thinking is just too simple. Drawing comparisons with my birth country and culture did help me form a surface-level understanding of Japan originally, but I eventually came to realize that trying to compartmentalize Japanese culture within outsider thinking was preventing me from really grokking Japan. It's like throwing Japanese language into a direct translator.  It always ends up sounding like Yoda and doesn't make much sense. It's easier to be open-minded, observant, respectful, meek, and kind. You'll learn more that way, you'll recognize patterns you otherwise wouldn't have, and you'll have experiences you can recall and discuss with friends and mentors that you can really learn from.

There are however a few topics that everyone asks me about.  I'll touch on them briefly or in detail here, and try to stay on point.  I'm biased of course, which is normal. So you can take or disregard my thoughts and feedback as it serves you.

Safety in Japan

Japan feels safe. And it is, much safer than a lot of other places around the world.  Children walk to school on their own from first grade, and it's not uncommon to see people to and from at night, even on dark streets. It's still appropriate to use common sense and be aware of your resources. Whether you're a girl or a guy, it's not wise to walk down a dark street at night on your own, no matter where you are. Stay to the main pedestrian routes along with other people, and know that there are satellite police stations (also called police "boxes") almost everywhere.  They are called Kobans (pronounced koh-bahns) and they're basically outposts where police officers monitor their local neighborhoods 24/7/365. If you're lost in Japan, or have any kind of serious issue, you can always ask for a local Koban or police box where you can get help.

Crime rates in Japan

Japan has a very low crime rate, compared to most countries. This is primarily because of the commonly held values that emphasize social harmony. And the fact that guns are completely illegal helps too. Shootings are rare, and often limited to crime syndicate activity, and when the occasional shooting does occur, it makes national news. Consider this: The chances of getting killed by a gun in Japan are the same chances of dying by lightning strike in the United States, 1 in 10,000,000.  The chances of getting killed by a gun in the United States is actually higher than the chances of getting killed in a car accident, about 1 in 32,000. That's terrifying.

Alcohol and accidents

Strict laws exist prohibiting drugs and weapons, with extremely harsh penalties for carrying even the smallest amount of a drug like marijuana. While alcohol is legal, there's a strict zero-tolerance policy against driving under the influence of alcohol or any other substances including medications that could impair ones driving. I've seen college students in California get pulled over for drunk driving, only to have their parents' lawyers strike deals and reduce fines and penalties. The penalties are loosely applied and usually just a matter of severe inconvenience.  Compare that to the current laws in Japan that include up to 5 years in jail and even up to 3 years in jail for a sober passenger in the same car as the drunk driver. This is a very good example of social pressure as policy. This kind of joint liability is called rentaisekinin (連帯責任, pronounced rehn-tai-seh-kee-neen), and if you think that's tough, there's another kind of liability in Japanese culture called dantaisekinin (団体責任, pronounced dahn-tai-seh-kee-neen), which is a sort of "group liability".  Imagine you're on your way to becoming a pro baseball player. You've worked your ass off for years, and you're headed with your team to the championships. Then it's discovered that one of your team mates was smoking (cigarettes) when he shouldn't have been. The entire team can get canned from participating, not just the offending team member.  This is serious stuff in Japanese culture.

And since I'm comparing statistics, take for example the worst countries in the world as measured by percentage of all automobile deaths related to alcohol: The US is third at 31%, only to be bested by Canada at 34% and South Africa at a terrifying 58%. China is at 4%. Japan isn't even on the list. When you see that Japan has an average of 4.7 deaths per 100,000 people, while the US rate is 10.6, it kind of makes sense that eradicating alcohol-related deaths as a factor has saved a lot of lives.

Ok, I've spent a lot of time on safety in Japan.  I could write an entire book about it, but I'm going to move on for you, my readers. If you have questions about safety in Japan, message me in the comments or on twitter or instagram.

Food in Japan

To me, the food in Japan is simply incredible. I haven't met anyone yet who would argue otherwise. From time to time I even bump into couples from the American midwest who haven't traveled anywhere else - folks that grew up on steak and potatoes and corn - folks I would be concerned about in Japan because some of the food can be exotic. They always report the same thing: They loved the food in Japan.

Variety, quality and safety of food in Japan

Takoyaki - a Kansai (Western Japan) favorite- savory balls of delicious, piping hot batter - being made on the grill.

The food in Japan is good for a number of reasons: Variety, quality, and safety top my list. On his first trip to Japan, my brother joked that the Japanese are a lot like our late grandma.  Growing up, my brother and I remember our grandma saying, "kids, you must be hungry.  Would you like a ______". (fill in the blank with something tasty/sugary/sweet/savory and usually not that good for you.  Almost everywhere you go in Japan is like this.  You'll be constantly presented with food that's deliriously appetizing, from traditional Japanese foods based on fish, rice and vegetables, to local food specialties like Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki in the part of Japan that I live in, to a variety of cosmopolitan foods that often outperform their country of origin on taste and presentation.  My family just celebrated my birthday, and bought a cake from my favorite patisserie in Kobe, Henri Charpentier.

Eating healthy in Japan

It took me a few months to figure out a food routine that was healthy and supported a few of my personal goals, including weight loss and muscle growth. It was actually easier than I had originally thought, but just required focus. Delicious, lean meats are available almost everywhere, and often seasonal.  Different fish are abundant and more fresh than anything I had access to in the US, and that's saying a lot because I lived in Southern California.  Chicken is inexpensive and everywhere.  Locally grown vegetables are widely available and there are more and more organically grown veggies to chose from.

One of my favorite meals, especially in the cooler months, is a nabe (pronounced nah-bey, which literally means bowl). With a single piece of konbu boiled in water as a base, adding vegetables and seafood or other lean meats, it's a delicious and really satisfying family meal.  And super healthy.

One of my favorite meals, especially in the cooler months, is a nabe (pronounced nah-bey, which literally means bowl). With a single piece of konbu boiled in water as a base, adding vegetables and seafood or other lean meats, it's a delicious and really satisfying family meal.  And super healthy.

Today, I eat about 4-5 meals per day, staying focused on each meal containing at least one lean protein and 2-3 colors of vegetables.  It's pretty easy to do that in Japan. Even at the department stores, you'll find readymade foods that are delicious and support a healthy lifestyle.  Just yesterday I found myself at the local Daimaru department store at the RF|1 specialty gourmet on the B1 floor (where all the good food is...) and while the fried foods are tempting- and you should try them - I opted for a 150gm readymade salad made up of avocado blocks, tofu cubes, wakame greens from the sea (seaweed) and shredded cabbage, with a pinch of ground sesame seed on top, and dressing on the side (which I didn't use this time).  It was delicious and I stayed "on path" on my diet.  I do reserve about 3 meals a week for eating anything I want, from Pizza to karaage (delicious, Japanese style fried chicken), to my favorite tan-tan-men (spicy chinese style ramen).

Transportation in Japan

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You can get almost anywhere in Japan easily without a car.  And that's a big deal. I currently drive in Japan and have a car, but that's because we have two young boys and having dual carseats in the back is a really great convenience.  We're at the point in our lives where it makes sense to have a car.  That said, in about a month from now when Spring arrives and the warm weather with it, we'll be riding bicycles and walking almost everywhere, and trains, bullet trains, subways, monorails and taxes can jet us almost anywhere we want to go.  In fact, it's actually just as convenient for me to hop on a bullet train from Kobe to Tokyo to fly out of Narita International Airport as it is for me to get on a bus to go to Kansai International Airport in Osaka.  It's just a matter of which flight it best.  The transportation options are almost unlimited, and with unmatched convenience.

Power assisted bicycles are big in Japan

One of the most popular modes of transportation around Japan are power-assisted bicycles.  The two most popular models are made by Panasonic and Yamaha, and they provide energy that helps you compensate, which is really amazing.  I live at the foot of Mt. Rokko, in the Nada ward of Kobe, which is mostly steep grades and hills. I routinely see moms pedaling up these 20-25% steep grades with two kids in special bicycle seats and even groceries in tote, with almost no visible stress as they cruise up the hill.  These kinds of bicycles range from about ¥80,000 to ¥150,000 for the top-of-the-line-models.

Trains and etiquette in Japan - minding your manners

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The trains are clean, on time, and like most of Japan, the population is generally respectful. Many train cars have designated priority seating for mothers with children or old folks. You can easily see these areas without any knowledge of Japanese because the signs are picture-based and easy to interpret. You'll also find signs everywhere reminding people to use their manners, including not talking on the telephone in the trains, something called "Manner mode" (pronounced mah-nah moe-doe).  In more crowded cities you'll find cars for women only, which are designed to protect against the rare but extant perverts who would take advantage of being in densely packed trains. Again, like anything, having your senses about you is still important.  

Focus on quality

My close friends and I had a saying that San Francisco had five-star food at a four-star price, and that Southern California had three-star food at a five-star price.  I still stand by this. 

In general, if you don't provide a quality product or service in Japan, you're out of business fast.  The Japanese standards of excellence are high, and you see it everywhere.  Appointments almost always run on time (I can't remember the last one that didn't), and you notice quickly that you always get what you're paying for.  This is something I'll write about more in upcoming posts.  I can think of countless examples where I walked out of a restaurant or other business and was simply astounded by the customer service, the expectations management or some other aspect of quality.  I've written about it before, too, where I pointed out that 4-star hotels in Japan often exceed the customer service expectations and service delivery of 5-star luxury brands like Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons around the world.  Quality is ingrained into Japanese culture and is part of the DNA of its society.

The one downside of living in Japan

Of course, there are downsides to living in Japan, too. One of the best experiences I've had is the result of learning what it's like to be a minority. Only 1.5% of Japan are foreigners, and that includes asians from other neighboring countries.  I'm caucasian, so every day I go out, I'm wearing a foreigner face.  In general, almost everyone I've ever come across are respectful, even if they are suspicious or concerned about foreigners in private.  It's extremely rare to come across someone rude or disrespectful to foreigners, but I have seen it.  And more often than not, it's because the foreigner was being rude or disrespectful in the first place.  Idiotic juvenile behavior by celebrities like Logan Paul are the biggest contributing factor to any kinds of built-in biases people may have.  The Japanese are particularly observant and sensitive to the behaviors of others and their own behaviors.  Act like a professional, be kind and sincere, and people will see it and treat you accordingly.

The other downsides I can think of are similarly manageable: Learning the language is something anyone can do, despite the prevailing attitude and belief system that Japanese is "difficult" compared to English (it's not).  

Some concluding thoughts (and other resources)

I spent 20-something years visiting Japan for weeks and sometimes as long as months before deciding to live here.  And while I have a B.A. degree in Japanese language and literature, it's about as old as my When I did finally make the move to live in Japan, I realized how little I actually knew compared to what I thought I knew.

One thing I believe my wife and I did very well was selecting where to live. 

I live in Kobe, Japan, which is the 6th largest city by population, but you'd never know it. Kobe is chill, calm and classy.  I actually feel relaxed when I get off the bullet train at Kobe.  Tokyo and Osaka are mega-cities that are dense, crowded and have a big city vibe. And some folks like that. I love New York and San Francisco more than Los Angeles. But that's just me. To me, Kobe is the best place to live in all of Japan, and I have several other cities and first hand experiences to compare.  But beyond my personal feelings about a city, the process we created and followed for selecting where to live was extremely detailed and results-oriented.  We created a matrix of every desired aspect of life that we could think of, and refined it down to twelve qualities that we desired in a place to live.  An obvious example is "safety". Another example is accessibility to amenities, like a grocery store.  Also on the list was close to nature.  Finding a school for my oldest son was key on that list as well.

We used that matrix extensively and kept referring to it throughout the housing search and selection.  Month after month we continuously reminded each other how happy we were that we set out a plan and created parameters for our search the way we did, because we found the right place, in the right neighborhood, close to the right school, with the right amenities.  And as a result of this we were fortunate to meet great people, make new friends, and build up a support structure that enabled us as a family to transition from California to Japan.  The move was exhilarating, and an event of a lifetime.

If you're interested in this blog post, definitely sign up to join my mailing list.  I'll keep you updated on new posts, and I'll reach out to you to find out what you want to learn more about related to Japan.  I have a little project called Living in Kobe that is underway, and you'll find more information about the city I've come to admire and love there (sign up on the mailing list if you want to be notified when it goes live....) Definitely connect with me on twitter @japaneur and on instagram @japaneur as well.