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5 Things Nobody Tells You About Living in Japan

#2. You Will Always Be an Outsider

Since this is the Internet, you're undoubtedly familiar with Engrish.com and Japan's many hilarious (hirarious?) failings with the English language. But honestly, Japan is an industrialized nation full of well-educated people, and English is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. Zany out-of-context Internet photos aside, how alienating could it really be over there?

The short answer is very.

David M. Jensen
The long answer is more rambling and incoherent.

Simply put, the country just isn't very accommodating to people who can't speak Japanese. Without the language, you will barely be able to buy food or get around, let alone establish any kind of permanent living situation that doesn't involve keeping a bilingual girlfriend/boyfriend/hostage on hand 24/7 to translate every commercial that comes on the radio. You can't just exchange shouts with people and come to a working understanding like Han Solo and Chewbacca. Real life doesn't work that way.

So how is that different from moving to any other country where English isn't the native language? Well, for starters, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for Americans to learn, requiring 2,200 hours of study if you want to be considered truly proficient. This is partly because of the difficulties of learning a new language as an adult, and partly because English and Japanese have about as much in common with each other as Halloween and Halloween III.

Yoshikazu Tsuno / Getty
Dear God, imagine what their text messages must look like.

That being said, once you actually got the whole language thing down, you might expect to finally be able to integrate yourself into Japanese society and thrive, right? Well, here's how it was with me: I've been coming to Japan for nearly a decade, my wife is Japanese, I speak the language fluently, I know the culture inside and out, and yet I'm still "that foreign guy" to most people here (even the ones who have known me for close to 10 years).

Getty
"Hi! My name is Vanillaface McCheeseburger! My hobbies include 'not being Japanese'!"

Japan is one of the most homogenous nations on Earth -- roughly 98 percent of the population is ethnically Japanese. No matter what you do to try and fit in, you will always stick out like a sore thumb in a room full of people who have had their thumbs removed by rototillers.

For instance, one of the biggest hot button issues in Japan concerns people of Korean ancestry who live in the country. In most cases, these are people who were born in Japan, have Japanese names and speak almost exclusively Japanese, but because of their Korean lineage, they are still legally considered foreigners and as such face several restrictions (such as the inability to vote or hold management positions in the public sector, a law that the Supreme Court actually upheld in 2005). The government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads who are not to be trusted and mandated it to the entire country.

Yoshikazu Tsuno / Getty
"Take your incredible goddamn barbecue and piss off!"

So now ask yourself this -- if the Koreans in this example (who by all rights should be full Japanese citizens were it not for ethnic prejudice) are given the same treatment as convicted felons, what chance does a white kid in a Gundam T-shirt have to not be considered a complete outcast?

I'm not saying that every single person in Japan hates foreigners, but if you live here, you will be constantly reminded that you are most decidedly not Japanese, nor are you likely to spontaneously become so. Still, it's a small price to pay to live in a place as outlandishly crazy and fun as Japan, right?

Yeah, about that ...

#1. The Country Really Isn't That Weird

I'm guessing that one of the top reasons people want to move to Japan is because of how eye-poppingly insane everything here is. Japan is the patron saint of the Internet -- everything is either batshit crazy or adorable (or both), with the sole requirement of being impossible to explain in any conceivable context.

Yoshikazu Tsuno / Getty
For example, this is food.

Man, I'm about to destroy a lot of illusions.

To start, let's talk a little about Japanese TV. You may have seen clips of some X-rated Japanese game show floating around the Internet wherein an audience full of young women eagerly compete for the privilege of having sex with some random guy on stage in front of hundreds of people (if not, you're probably searching for them right now). Here's the shocking truth behind those videos -- they are porn.

Kobe Surprise (NSFW)
We know, it's easy to get thrown off by the high production values.

As in, they are professional pornographic videos dressed up to look like a game show, because ... you know, just because. Does porn need a reason? There's a Simpsons porn out there featuring people sweatily groping each other in jaundiced yellow body paint, for Christ's sake. Nobody is posting clips of that on the Internet and claiming it's the new season ... well actually, somebody probably is, but nobody would seriously believe that.

The porno game show I'm referring to is called Kobe Surprise, and it is every bit an actual game show as Walt Disney's Pocahontas is a historical documentary. Just like those goofy "true life" pornos MILF Hunter or Bang Bus, nothing about it even approaches reality, yet all you apparently need to do is tell everyone it's from Japan and suddenly people think it comes on every night after Wheel of Fortune.

Kobe Surprise (NSFW)
Amazingly, this has never aired on network television.

Don't get me wrong -- there are some daffy game shows in Japan, and there is definitely erotic programming on late night TV, but the country isn't full of shamelessly sex-crazed lunatics who have stopped trying to measure the immensity of the shits they no longer give.

"So what about those infamous vending machines that sell used panties?" you might ask. Well, they do exist, but they were outlawed nearly 20 years ago. You can still find one from time to time, but they are illegal as fuck and usually hidden in sex stores or fetish clubs, and not in a bus station next to the Mr. Pibb machine.

Yoshikasu Tsuno / Getty
That's where they sell the pure strain gold.

I shook my head particularly hard when I read about the Japanese fundraiser that allowed people to squeeze some hot girl's breasts if they donated money to AIDS research, because every website that reported on it wrote about it like it happens every Tuesday in Japan. It doesn't. The event was hosted by a freaking porn channel -- that's like if Hugh Hefner held a topless car wash at the Playboy Mansion and the BBC told the rest of the world that there was one next to every McDonald's in America.

But maybe you dream of living in Japan not because the porn flows like water (it doesn't, at least not any more so than in any other country where the Internet is a thing), but because of your love for anime, which is so popular and widely accepted among Japanese adults that you could enjoy your obsession in peace with the approval of your peers. Even though we've moved on from porn, don't put those tissues away just yet -- you may need them for the next paragraph.

After all these years in Japan, I can honestly say that animation (major studio productions notwithstanding) is still mainly considered kids' stuff. There is shockingly little anime on television, and most of it is unapologetically meant for children. The only adults who really get into it (referred to as otaku) are usually perceived by the media as overweight, unwashed weirdos who are probably child molesters. Sound familiar? You're bound to spend just as much time hiding your Trigun DVDs from company here as you would anywhere else.

Yoshikasu Tsuno / Getty
With the added burden of the traditional Japanese Head of Shame.

Japan does have its eccentric side, but at the end of the day (and especially outside of Tokyo), it's pretty normal and boring. I'm not trying to discourage anyone from moving here (because I live here and I'm not planning on leaving anytime soon), but if you are really considering buying a place in Japan, make sure you know what you're getting into. Because if you step off the plane armed with nothing but what the Internet teaches you about this country, chances are you will be arrested before you make it out of the airport.



For more on Japan, check out 6 Japanese Subcultures That Are Insane (Even for Japan) and 9 Beloved Characters Made Horrifying by Japan.

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Reasons Why Fair Trade Coffee Is a Scam.

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