Before I came to Japan, I read EVERYTHING I could about this place. Everything. A lot of it was completely useless though. There are tons of regional and situational differences, people have different perspectives, and Japan is always changing. You may get here and realize that Japan is more than you’d ever dreamed it could be. Or you could feel like it does not live up to your expectations at all. To help you, I’ve decided to write this list of tips.
**Before we get started, let me tell you that I am a relatively small, white girl from America. For the most part, I speak Japanese. I don’t know what it’s like to be obese in Japan, or a man in Japan, or a person of color. I can probably help direct you to some different perspectives if you are interested, but for the most part I will be speaking from my experiences as someone who looks and behaves like I do. I hope it helps you in some way! Now, to answer your burning questions!
1. Should I learn Japanese?
My opinion on the matter is simple. It’s a big fat YES. Maybe you could get by not knowing anything past your rehearsed introduction. I could not. I’m neurotic and hate making mistakes. I hate relying on other people. I want to be part of the flow and understand the world around me as much as possible. Thus, I learned Japanese.
I know this is not plausible for everyone. Maybe you only want to stay a year an learning the language for that short amount of time is a waste of your time. Maybe you find learning languages later in life really difficult. It’s really not my place to tell you what you can and should do. All I’m saying is that speaking a little Japanese helps immensely! You can buy your own bus tickets and process your own traffic tickets. You can figure out when someone’s saying something bad about you. You can wiggle your way into real relationships with people here who don’t speak English. You can start to get a real sense of what Japan is actually like by having more opportunities to talk to natives. If you can learn Japanese, do it. Start now and never give up. People will certainly respect you for it.
2. What do I wear?!
Regardless of what you’ve heard about being an ALT, it is a professional job. To quote the American designer Tom Ford, “Dressing well is a kind of good manners…I find it’s a show of respect to put on your best face and look as good as you can.” It is true that a lot of elementary and even junior high school teachers wear track suits or jeans to school. Once you’ve settled in, you can probably do that to. But my ultimate advice is to look your professional best for a while until people form an opinion of you. For ladies, this means relatively conservative clothing. High necklines, long hem lines, etc. Use your best judgement. After a while, when your newness has worn off and the school year is in full swing, you can get a little more casual (if it’s acceptable). Throw in some bright colors too. The kids love that.
As far as casual, weekend clothes are concerned, people are probably going to think you dress “different” anyway. I still live by that Tom Ford quote though. Females tend to be more conservative on the top than their western counterparts, and a lot of them seem to live in heels. This means you can wear short shorts and dresses, but cleavage is a bit of a no-go. It seems more girls go with the cute look than the sexy look, but it’s a free country! It seems people put more effort into their style here, especially in cities. I’d say wear what you want! If you are confident wearing crop tops and sleeveless shirts, do it! In the summer, you’re going to want to anyway.
Guys can get away with almost anything it seems, but I haven’t seen many people here wearing the infamous flip-flops frequently. Geez, I hate those things.
I have been told first-hand by many Japanese people that one of the things they admire most about their culture is the constant awareness of everything around them. The modern age as brought some rather flippant people, but the old school group really appreciates delicate and conscientious behavior. It is easy really, just pay attention. You are always reacting and influencing the space around you, so take the time to sit back and think about it occasionally.
Drinking party culture is also a big deal. You’ll likely be asked to numerous enkais (宴会) while you’re here. Just relax! If you don’t drink, your coworkers will probably understand. And if they don’t, lie and say you’re driving home or something. Just talk to everyone (English or Japanese…you’ll be surprised who can speak English under the influence), and keep their glasses full and you’ll be a hit!
Few people expect you to use chopsticks. I’ve found, though, that once you speak decent enough Japanese, they kind of stop asking you about it. I think it has something to do with your aura, ya know?
Old people can do whatever they want. I would advice against copying them. Pick the middle age crowd that’s still working and learn from their behavior.
Presents/souvenirs for your neighbors, bosses, teachers, etc. is definitely not necessary, but it’s a nice gesture and a good icebreaker!
What am I missing…I’ll update you later as I think of things!
4. How do I make friends?
If you are a JET coming with group A or B, this is easy. Talk to everyone at orientation and find out where they’re going.
Being an ALT, other ALTs will be around to talk to. They may be 30 or so kilometers away, but most ALTs seem to have a good inner support system so you’ll at least have acquaintances.
You may also “inherit” some local Japanese friends. This sounds weird, I know, but I’ve met a lot of really cool people who have been in the ALT/foreigner crowd for years. People who speak English, have traveled abroad extensively, or just have a general interest in the world can be found even in small towns! Get out there and talk to people. You might meet someone really interesting!
If you have the chance to do a short home-stay or a culture class of some sort, go for it! I did a short stay when I first arrived and I still hang out with my host family. My host “mom” is fairly young, and we get along great! It may be hard sometimes to find friends in your age group, but a friend is a friend, right?
Creating new opportunities for yourself and becoming a “yes” person helps. Join clubs, get involved, and just do what you enjoy. People will be attracted to you. If you speak Japanese, even better. This goes for dating as well. I find it’s best not to go searching for friends. Just live your life openly and the right people just kind of fall into your lap. It takes time, for sure, but if you’re looking for real, lasting friendships, it’s so worth it!
The best advice I can give you for your first few months in Japan is to always do more than what’s expected. Dress nicer, smile more, be more outgoing, try harder. All of this will build your reputation. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask your coworkers how to say certain things in Japanese, ask people you feel close to for help when you’re down, etc. A lot of ALTs claim that they’ll never fit in or be considered real teachers so there’s no point in acting like one, but that is completely the wrong attitude to have. If you do want to make lasting impressions and make an impact, always put your snazziest, most professional foot forward. The beginning is hard, but people will notice your efforts. I’m probably never leaving Japan, and so I’ve tried hard to fit into the working world here. Even the superintendent in my town talks to me on a regular basis. He constantly asks me how my schools are doing or if I have any problems. He also knows I want to work in Japan and he supports me. Never lose who you are, but living in Japan is not like living in America or the UK or wherever; there are a different set of rules. Whether or not you notice these differences and how you react could make or break your experience here.
Good luck! If you have a questions, please leave a comment below! See you again soon.