6 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Coming to Japan
Ever do something and realize your expectations were so completely different from the truth they weren’t even in the same orbit? Yeah, that was me moving to Japan. And while some of that can be attributed to the fact that it was also my first time ever leaving the U.S., a lot of it is just stuff that all the YouTube videos and blogs in the world can’t prepare you for. This is a list of some of the things just like that!
1. English isn’t spoken as much as you think
Everyone always tells you that you can survive and get around Japan without any Japanese. This, along with a certain naivete about the level of English all over Japan, led me to only study a bit halfheartedly when I first came here.
If you’re not in a big city, or even if you are, English as a spoken language is not very prevalent. Sure you can find it on menus and street signs (sometimes) but need to ask for directions from the old lady working in her garden? Bummer.
My best advice, other than to start studying now, is to approach high school or college-aged kids and if talking doesn’t work, write your question down. That’s much more likely to get a response as reading and writing is what most of the English education system in Japan focuses on.
2. Tank Tops and Flip Flops are Awkward
In California I wore flip flops even when it (rarely) rained and my wardrobe was made of jeans, shorts and tank tops. So obviously those are the casual clothes I packed. But Japan is one of those countries that dresses more modestly: shoulders covered, no low necklines. Shorts and short skirts all work but tank tops will get you stared at for showing all that skin! Scandalous!
On a similar note, flip flops are generally used inside the home only as a kind of slipper. It’s a bit lazy to wear them out and about and you’ll notice most people (even men) wear really cute or nice shoes even with very casual outfits. You can get away with it in very large cities but otherwise consider leaving those things at home.
3. ES is more Teaching, JHS is So Not
I’m being hired as an English teacher… right? Ehh, kind of. What I didn’t know was that in Jr. High you’re more of a CD player than an actual teacher. You pronounce new words, read paragraphs, announce listening tests and basically just try to show them what real English sounds like while fighting to keep them from using the katakana pronunciation of words.
The longer you’re at a school, the more they trust you and are likely to ask you to plan either an activity for a lesson or a lesson itself. But almost universally, this doesn’t happen right away. Patience and showing your dedication and creative ideas consistently is key!
Elementary school is a whole other ball game. Whatever grade you teach you are pretty much expected to teach the full lesson with your own plan, whether it’s based on a curriculum or not depends on your location, leaving their homeroom teacher to be as involved as they’d like.
I have teachers who grade assignments during the lesson, some who aren’t even there most of the time, some who join the class and learn the English with the kids. Some sometimes just take over my lesson, some cut in to help clarify if something isn’t being understood, and one awesome teacher tag teams it with me and we practically finish each other’s sentences!
There are all kinds of teacher involvement and you’ll soon learn who does what and you’ll be able to plan around that. But I didn’t realize that there would be so many varieties of involvement and how much work it would be to keep track of and plan for six schools of that!
4. Comfortable shoes are a MUST
I started with a pair of simple Tom’s to use as my indoor shoes. A few months in I had to buy new cushy running shoes with special insoles because of how badly my feet were hurting standing, a lot of the time in one place, for six hours a day. Do it from the start and save yourself a lot of grief! Ouch! Everyone there wears athletic shoes anyway, join the fun and save your feet.
5. How Much I Stand Out/Get Stared At
I’m a pretty quiet person and, despite the blog and everything that goes with it, I’m also a pretty private person. In my life I’m most comfortable flying under the radar and in groups I gladly take the supporting roles. But being a solo female who is clearly not Japanese and is also taller than most of the population are not qualities that will leave you unnoticed.
I’m still wondering why the contents of my shopping cart are so fascinating and the number of pictures I’ve had taken with strangers boggles my mind! They want pictures of me with their children and they come up and start talking to me on the street if they want to practice their English or are at all interested in foreign countries.
I’m not saying any of this is bad, most of the time I think it’s super cute! I enjoy talking to people, my family came from the South after all. But there comes a day in any person’s life when they just want to go buy toilet paper in their sweatpants and not be an object of speculation. And living here, that day will never come.
6. How Much I’d Love It
You ever had those days when nothing much happens but just because of who you are, where you are, and the people in your life you stop and say “Wow. My life rocks!”?
I’ve had more of those days in the last two years than I ever thought possible. It’s been a combination of coming to accept and enjoy who I am as a person, meeting people I have more in common with (in a big picture, how-I-want-to-live-my-life kind of way) than just about anyone, and looking around marveling to myself that no, I wasn’t dreaming. I’m actually in Japan!
I know I go on and on about how much I love Japan and how amazing everything is and how much I’m going to miss it. But I think one reason I love it so much is because it’s the place where I faced constant challenges and obstacles by myself and still was able to conquer them (but let us never forget the delicious food!)
And there you have it. If you can believe, I cut this way way down in length so now it’ll probably be a series with a few other parts appearing over time. So now I’m genuinely curious:
What did you wish you’d known before coming to Japan? What surprised you most?
Or what are you most nervous about if you’re coming to Japan soon?
Let us know in the comments below and we can all support each other!
As always, nothing, not even Girl Scout Cookies, makes my day as much as when someone asks me a question. So ask me anything, anything at all! And feel free to subscribe to this blog if you want more on Japan, my changing life plans, and my time studying in California!
Dream big, work hard, live well. Have a fabulous day!! <3