5 Pros and Cons of Living in Japan as a Foreigner to Know Before Moving

David Taylor

David Taylor is the creator of the Forever Foreign Podcast. He's been a full-time liver and Part-time lover of Japan for... possibly too long at this point.
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Thinking about hopping on a flight and starting your Japanese adventure? Every year, thousands make the journey, and whether they’re planning on staying for a year or a lifetime each person will experience many of the same things.

Living in Japan as a foreigner can be isolating because you’re far away from everything you know and people tend to treat you differently. But you’ll find that the majority of your encounters are pleasant and the struggles you go through often end up being rewarding in the end.

It’s a mixed bag, and the article below will shed a little more light on that.

The Cons of Living in Japan as a Foreigner

Plenty of room for improvement, Japan!

Gimme the bad news before the good, right??

Take a stroll through the internet and you’re bound to find piles upon piles of negative opinions of living in Japan. And while it may be harsh, it’s possible that many of those people are blaming the country for problems that they haven’t put any effort into solving for themselves.

With that said, there are some obvious drawbacks to being a foreigner in this country.

1. The Language Barrier

Imagine being dropped into a room full of conversation and not understanding much more than “hello.” That’s how it is for a lot of people who show up in Japan without knowing the language. And for most of us, picking up Japanese isn’t a matter of sitting there and absorbing it like Antonio Banderas in The 13th Warrior.

Live in Japan long enough and you’ll meet plenty of folk who’ve been there for five or more years who still struggle to express the most basic things. Even things like using Lawson’s Loppi machine to buy Ghibli museum tickets can prove too much.

Take away your ability to connect with three-quarters of the people around you – not to mention reading menus, signs, etc. – and, well… You’ve built yourself a fortress of solitude. And not the cool, superhero kind.

Come on. We’re not so bad
Photo by Tim Hüfner

2. The Culture Barrier

Getting a firm grip on the language is one thing. Learning the ins and outs of the culture is another. And for some, Japan’s rules and norms can be suffocating.

You may find yourself frozen in place at a party, wondering if you’re supposed to get up and serve drinks around the table like the others. Or maybe you’ll be trying to figure out how and when to bow during a school-wide assembly.

Suck enough at navigating the culture – as we all do time and time again – and your ego will end up on life support.

3. Xenophobia and Outright Racism

Talking about the cons of living in Japan without addressing xenophobia would be like leaving Messi out of a list of soccer greats. Maybe that’s an odd example, but such is the reputation Japan has earned for shutting its doors on outsiders.

Just look at how long it held out on bringing people back into the country during the COVID pandemic.

There are plenty of tales to be told of inappropriate police interactions, racist landlords, encounters with rude locals, and good ‘ol anti-foreigner sentiment floating around in government. But while Japan has a long way to go when it comes to how they treat newcomers, there are a hundred positive stories for each negative one.

4. Loneliness

For most, Japan is far from home. And although some people come here without a care for what they’re leaving behind, the rest will probably pine for mama’s apple pie at some point. Dwell on your regrets about leaving for long enough and it can get toxic.

Add to that watching a steady stream of expats that you called friends leave over the years and Japan can start to feel like a deserted island.

5. Lack of Employment Options

We’re into long-term problems now, but lack of employment options is a pretty big sore spot among many foreigners who move to Japan. And the pressure can start to mount up, even if you’re living alone. Sometimes especially if you’re living alone.

There are certainly options, but unless you speak great Japanese you’ll be limited to teaching English or computer programing – if you’re lucky.

The Pros of Living in Japan as a Foreigner

It’s not all bad. Promise!

Take a deeeeep breath. Now let it and all of that bad energy out because we’re on to the positive stuff!

On top of getting to see some incredible sights, Japan is a wonderful place to live for a lot of reasons. Some of those reasons fade the longer you’re here, but they’re all still wins as far as I’m concerned.

1. The Language Barrier

While language can be a struggle for a lot of people it’s also easily one of the coolest things about making the move to Nihon. Put in the effort to study Japanese and you can see a whole new world open up before your very eyes. It’s like putting a really big puzzle together and hearing it all snap into place through every day conversations. Very satisfying, and a valuable skill.

2. The Culture Barrier

See what’s happening here? The culture barrier can be broken down over time, too. And with each stumble you’ll get a fantastic story to tell your friends back home as long as you have a good sense of humor about it. And if you get good enough at navigating Japanese society, the locals will notice.

3. Japanese People Will Find You Fascinating

Don’t mind me, just having my ego gently caressed by the locals. And you will too if you move to Japan.

The flip side to the lack of diversity in Japan means that the more curious people can’t help but strike up a conversation with you simply because you’re different. It’s definitely the most shameless thing on this list, but hey… resisting unearned attention can be tough!

Celebrity status: unlocked
Photo by Alexandre Pellaes

4. The Safety

Maybe this doesn’t only apply to foreigners, but it deserves to be raved about, because if there’s a country on this planet that’s safer than Japan, it’s probably because it’s uninhabited. It’s on most peoples lists of favorite things about living here.

There’s next to no violence, no strangers getting into heated arguments in the streets, and you could leave your smartphone on a park bench and feel confident that it would end up back in your hands. Many of us have experienced it first or second-hand.

You’ll be saving those shekels in no time

5. Low Cost of Living

This depends on factors like whether you’re in rural or urban Japan and what your employment situation is, but for the most part, cost of living is pretty low. If you’re one of the lucky ones who gets on the JET Programme, it’ll be even cheaper as they often subsidize your living situation.

If you’re working for someone else, fear not. There’s no shortage of affordable apartments and food options.

Conclusion: Is Living in Japan Hard For Foreigners?

Let’s yell this for the people in the back: Yes, living in Japan is hard for foreigners.

There’s no doubt that there are a lot of hurdles to jump through if you truly want to thrive in this country. But as the old saying goes, “Nothing good ever came easy.”

You’re going to run into a hundred linguistic and cultural walls during your time here, but you’re also going to gain valuable skills, friends, and experiences. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where it’s no harder than home.

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