Article written for the Ibaraki International Association
Over the ten years that I have been in Japan, I have lived in three very different places: Tajima-machi and Aizu Wakamatsu-shi in Fukushima Prefecture and Tsukuba-shi in Ibaraki. Tajima is a small, rural town with a population of about 14,000. (It is now part of Minamiaizu-machi, a merged town that has a combined population of 20,000.) Aizu Wakamatsu is a city of about 130,000 and it is famous for Tsurugajo, Byakkotai, and akabeko (red cows). And Tsukuba, the “science city” with a population nearing 200,000.
I have had very different experiences in each of these places. In Tajima, I taught English at a local junior high school and I was one of the only foreigners in the whole town. The difference between a “regular” event and an “international” event in Tajima was whether I was there or not! In Aizu Wakamatsu, I worked in an international association. The city had about 600 international residents at the time, so I was able to be a bit more anonymous in that city. In Tsukuba, it is bit easier for me to blend in with the 7000 foreign residents.
These three different experiences have given me a broader sense of the challenges of internationalization in Japan. In the past, I have been asked to write articles about how Japanese people should be “more like this” or “less like that” to make Japan more international or to make foreign people feel more welcome. However, after ten years of living here, I think it is time for me to write an article about what foreign residents of Japan should do to improve their chances of enjoying their time in Japan. (And since I don’t have a lot of space, I am going to keep my comments fairly brief.)
In my opinion, the difference between a foreign resident who loves living in Japan and one who doesn’t often boils down to two important points: how many same-age Japanese friends the person has, and how much of the Japanese language the person can speak or understand.
The more Japanese friends you have, the more you realize that Japanese people are not a single, homogeneous group of people with only one way of thinking. (And this is a common misperception among newcomers.) Japanese people are perhaps not as flagrantly self-expressive as the average North American, but that doesn’t mean that they are not individuals. When I hear about a foreign person having a hard time living in Japan, I often hear that person saying “they” and “them” to refer to the entire 130 million residents of this country as if they all conspired to make that person’s day go wrong. This kind of thinking is swiftly erased as soon as that person has made friends with “regular” Japanese people, especially if those people are from the same age group.
Furthermore, the more you understand of the Japanese language, the more likely you are to understand Japan. If you cannot speak Japanese, you cannot communicate with a majority of the people around you, and you cannot comprehend the details of the situations that happen around you. Your encounters are limited to those that involve Japanese people who are already “international” to a certain extent and your understanding of what is happening in your life is based on your ethnocentric (and often incorrect) perceptions. It is not an easy task for a foreign person to learn Japanese, but it is not easy for Japanese people to learn English either! I think that the amount of Japanese you learn is directly proportional to your enjoyment of the time you spend in Japan, so language learning should be made a priority for all foreign residents.
Many Japanese people work very hard to make foreign people comfortable in Japan. However, an equivalent effort has to come from the international residents. Foreign residents who feel frustrated with their experiences in Japan should try harder to learn Japanese and work harder to make friends with Japanese people, either in their workplace (although this can be somewhat difficult – I could fill a whole other article on that topic) or in their leisurely pursuits. And, since old habits die hard, I will finish with a wee bit of advice for the Japanese people who are reading this article: Please be friends with us (and I don’t mean “host”, I mean “friend”)!