4 Things I Haven’t Gotten Used to in Japan

Photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash

It’s been three years since I started living in Japan, and I clearly remember the first day I arrived at Kansai airport. Everything was new and different for me then. All those clichés about everyday Japan were laid out before my eyes. Would you be surprised to hear that the novelty wore off in a couple of months? It always does. 

And let me pause here to tell you one thing: I am not a Japanophile, nor am I excessively fond of any country or culture, for that matter. The newness spun my head at the beginning, not Japan per se. But, once the blinding bright lights vanished, I could see everything as it was without embellishing or sugarcoating reality. 

1. An abundance of red tape

Anyone living in Japan, regardless of nationality, will tell you how frustrating the Japanese bureaucracy is. Regardless of how you feel, anything that involves buying, changing, or selling something will include some red tape. 

And it will be painfully slow. Probably way slower than what you’re used to in your home country. I have lived in five “developed” countries, and Japan is the slowest and least efficient bureaucracy so far.

You will need a stamp (hanko – 判子 in Japanese) for most paperwork. You’ll also have to listen to at least two people carefully “explain” things to you—even when you don’t speak Japanese—before anything gets done. Lastly, your work probably won’t be done in a day after all the explanations. 

Where I come from, most paperwork at governmental offices is handled in a few minutes. And let’s say I am used to waiting. Even then, it’s hard for me to ignore the inefficiency and time/energy waste that could be better used on other things. And the staff should stop explaining some paper’s details in Japanese to those who can’t even handle basic Japanese dialog yet. 

2. A lack of flexible and critical thinking

“Rules are rules, and it’s not up to us to question them” is the prevalent Japanese mentality. Therefore, even if these rules don’t serve us anymore or are outdated, they should still be maintained. I obey most rules in public. I was like this in my own country, too. However, if a rule impedes my way of living or doesn’t make sense, I don’t see any point in blindly obeying it. 

Critical thinking isn’t encouraged in this country. Therefore, when you challenge someone’s authority or knowledge using critical thinking skills, most Japanese will seem puzzled as if you asked them about life’s meaning. I believe in the power of critical thinking and know it changes our lives and how we look at problems. 

And I am a teacher who wants her students to practice critical thinking. Unfortunately, most students stare at me when I ask them to do something new. They are so used to being told what to do and repeating the same things they can’t comprehend my tasks at the beginning. And these students will become adults and get churned up in the same system. 

3. Stereotyping foreigners

There are currently more than 2 million foreigners in Japan, a tiny fraction of the Japanese population. We come from diverse backgrounds, and none of us have the same goals, dreams, personalities, etc. However, stereotypes about foreigners are widespread in Japan. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Let me share some of them with you: 

  • Foreigners can be good and desirable if they stick to their roles and don’t challenge Japanese thinking.
  • Some foreigners from some countries are a menace to society. 
  • Foreigners don’t know how to behave in Japan or respect Japanese culture. 
  • Foreigners aren’t as clean as the Japanese.
  • Japan is the safest and best country in the world, and that’s why it attracts foreigners. 

I’ve heard worse things, but the clichés listed above can be heard and experienced by many foreigners in Japan. I am Middle Easterner and a woman, so the stereotypes I hear mostly revolve around religion: “Ohh, you’re from Turkey. Do you have to wear a hijab there? Can women drive in Turkey? Do Turkish men have more than one wife?” 

I still answer these questions as patiently and respectfully as possible because I don’t want to be the “mean” foreigner and scare people off. 

4. A resistance to change

You would think their thinking would be advanced because the technology in Japan is advanced. But unfortunately, that isn’t the case because most Japanese people resist change. The idea that their country is the “safest” and “best” country in the world is so profoundly embedded in their minds that any suggestion to change comes off as envy or an attack. 

There are still far-right political parties in Japan that publicly hate foreigners and other countries. Sadly, these people have serious supporters too. The elderly are more adamant than the young, and the young aren’t as political as the elderly. So who’s going to implement the necessary changes in Japan? Can you see the conundrum here? 

Criticizing this country doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t want to live here. On the contrary, I love living in Japan. I work and travel extensively, enjoy many cultural aspects of this land, and intend to live here longer. 

However, like a good parent looking after their children, I can’t help but worry about Japan’s future, with the yen getting weaker while they are reluctant to change things. I hope for a better future for Japan and everyone living here. 

What do you like about Japan? Would you like to live here? What should Japan change to make it a better and more inclusive society? 

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  1. Monkey’s Tale

    Interesting to read your experiences. I haven’t been to Japan but this all seems to fit my understanding of it, which is probably overly stereotypical, but is ringing true in this post. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      I’m glad you dropped by! Thank you 🙏


  2. kagould17

    We had often commented to our Japanese friends that we would like to live in Japan. They said tourists are treated one way as honoured guests, but once you are living there, you are no longer special and you are competing with them for space, jobs and supplies. Nonetheless, we loved our Japanese visits and our Japanese visitors. Cheers. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Hi Allan,

      Thanks for stopping by. The person who said tourists and residents are treated differently is entirely correct. Traveling to Japan is a fantastic experience, but residing here is not a bed of roses all the time.


  3. Monch Weller

    Great post right here, Bahanur, and I can’t help but agree. I used to be a Japanophile myself when I was younger.

    I wanted to learn Nihongo based on anime and manga, and even wished that I could visit the country to see the pop culture hotspots there (e.g. Akhibara, Harajuku, Shibuya, etc.) But as I grew up, I realized that there are things that pop culture alone won’t tell you — such as the points you posted here.

    It was only after I traveled overseas years ago when I realized that Japan isn’t exactly the same as how the anime shows depict it to be. Not to mention the higher cost of living there…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Thank you for dropping by 😊 I visited Japan several years ago before moving here. My experiences as a tourist and resident differ entirely.

      And unfortunately, the prices will go up in October 😞 I don’t think salaries will do, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Stuart Danker

    Oh wow, that does sound interesting. I forget what show was it, I think it was Shin Godzilla? Where foreigners watched it and was bored by it, but the Japanese people could relate so well because of how it depicted the red tape situation. Love reading your experiences!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Hey Stuart! Thank you for your lovely comment. I’ve not seen the show, but I can relate to the red tape situation, too 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. mundae.misaki

    Some of my relatives have been living in Tokyo for nearly a decade now—your experiences are pretty close to how they speak of the country! My uncle says his family being Chinese lets them blend in more, but he can definitely relate to not being conversational in the language- he’s complained to us before about all that bureaucracy too (>_<)

    As much as being East Asian makes me fascinated by the culture in the region, I have to agree that there’s a lot about places like Japan and South Korea that really shouldn’t be so romanticised—really unfortunate that even here, the idea that these countries are somehow like “perfect examples” is so widespread.

    Been really insightful reading your personal travels and experiences in Japan so far! Haven’t commented before, but browsing here’s always been a fun way to spend evenings ♪( ´▽`)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Thank you so much 😊 I’m glad you decided to leave a comment here 🙏

      Ohh, I can relate to your uncle’s frustration about bureaucracy and all. Blending in might feel like a blessing at first, but it creates the danger of losing your identity or not being recognized as a person with a different background. I noticed that among other East Asians in Japan.

      I lived in South Korea before (4 years) and met lots of people who romanticized Korean culture without having any life experience there. I’m tired of people who consider South Korea and Japan as “perfect examples,” especially those who have never lived there before should refrain from making such comments.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. mundae.misaki

        Yeahh—I personally find it funny how a lot of popular media from these two countries are really just allegories for problems in them, yet they’re still twisted as some kind of romanticised picture of said country? It’s interesting to hear you’ve lived in Korea though; maybe it’s just me but I’d love to hear more about that in the future *\(^o^)/*

        That note about losing identity’s definitely true though—some sides of my family worry about him raising his children there since they’re concerned about exactly that, and I can see where they’re coming from, so I guess it’s up to time to show us how that plays out…

        though not gonna lie after getting some family offers, the prospect of continuing my studies up there has always been enticing—probably would’ve accepted if I wasn’t (and still am) so scared about blending in (^^;;

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Bahanur

        I’d love to write about South Korea one day! Thank you for giving me a new idea 🙂 I believe studying in Japan would be a wonderful experience. You should try it if you have a chance. Working and studying here are two different things. If I could, I would choose to be a student 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. kegarland

    I totally agree with these, especially #2 and 4. Resistance to change and following the rules, no matter what seemed quite oppressive to me. I was physically sad being in the country for two weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Thank you for your comment 🙏 I can’t believe, even as a visitor, you were able to comprehend it. Some people would brush it off and focus on their journey instead. I’m glad you observed Japanese society while traveling here 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Nícia Cruz

    thank you for giving me another perspective on japan, i was expecting them to be more open minded and tolerant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      What I find interesting about Japan is that they might have very different opinions about foreigners/the world if you ask them individually, but they feel compelled to agree with others for some reason I am yet to understand 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nícia Cruz

        Isn’t how most people work? I’m not like that, but I find that many people around the world act the exact same way. Peer pressure and fitting in seems more important than standing for your values. I wonder why. I’m a rule breaker myself (when those said rules don’t make any sense to me), but I don’t find that critical thinking very often on others. I do hope to encourage my kid to question everything, even myself (and he does it really well 😅).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Bahanur

        Now that you mentioned it, I think it’s a global virus 😂 I think most people in my country, too, would find it difficult to stand up for themselves or be vocal about their opinions. Because I live in Japan, it’s easier to observe this country’s people (and conveniently forget this is actually how the world works). Kudos to you for teaching L. to be curious and question everything!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Nícia Cruz

        Thank you 💛 It’s how I’d like to have been taught myself. And i’m always surprised how this questioning leads to wonderful paths and solutions. I think he teaches me more than the other way around!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Bahanur

        Children are incredible teachers! I learn tons thanks to them each day I teach ♥️

        Liked by 1 person

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