Debunking Myths of Living Abroad in Japan

I’ve been back in Canada for twelve weeks now, and while I’d like to say that I received a warm welcome back to the place of my birth and have easily assimilated into the maple syrup and hockey lifestyle, the reality is that it’s been more like being doused in ice water than it has been a bed of roses. My grandfather’s passing has unleashed a shitstorm within the family, as estate dealings usually do, but even I wasn’t prepared for the level of stress and toxicity I was returning to. Instead of unpacking all of that though, I want to look back a bit nostalgically on my time in Japan, and give you, reader, a list that is by no means complete of all the things I miss about my life abroad. Here are twelve reasons why living in Japan is better than living in Canada.

  1. Employment – I was a foreigner in Japan, so this may not apply to actual Japanese nationals, and I know in some cases it absolutely does not apply to my Japanese friends, but employment is so much easier to find, and a living wage is so much easier to come by in Japan than it is in Canada. Even without the university degree that is a requirement of most of the big schools I was able to find work teaching English with little difficulty and in fact, the job I ended up in had the most amazing boss, the best perks, a great student base, and near unlimited freedom to teach as I wanted. I was happy there. Alex and I were making enough money to not only live comfortably, but to have vacations and date nights and shopping sprees. Contrast that with Canada: it took me ten weeks to find any work, the longest I’ve ever been unemployed. This is with many years of experience in the field I was applying for, and equal experience in a management position. The job I’m working at now pays minimum wage, with a commission percentage on top of that. I’m working about ten hours a week. As a thirty year old who was making $25 an hour at my previous job, this has left me stunned and worried for my financial future.
  2. Transit – When I was young and stupid, I used to think that Vancouver had a world class transit system. Holy shit was I wrong. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the trains in Japan, and how they are accurate to the minute, and broadcast any delays in real time to the stations they will be arriving at. Commuters always know exactly when their train will arrive, and if there is a delay they can request a notice from the station master to excuse their tardiness at work or school or wherever they have to be. Subway stations in Kyoto even let you know where your train is in relation to your station, so you know how long your wait will be. Buses are the same. Bus stops in Kyoto electronically track where the buses are and how long they will take to get to your pick up. Missed your bus? No problem. Buses run on a 15 minute cycle, with the popular routes sending buses every five minutes. And if you’re in a hurry and you don’t want to take a bus, taxis operate everywhere. MK in particular is convenient for its shuttle service and private bus route that can take travelers to and from airports hassle free. Transit in Vancouver on the other hand is a nightmare. By all accounts it has been steadily degrading in the time that I’ve been gone, but our light rail system, the SkyTrain breaks down on the regular, often stranding commuters in between stations and forcing them to walk the tracks back to civilization. While TransLink continues with plans to expand the SkyTrain lines to other parts of British Columbia (parts with few actual potential riders, and more potential for developers to draw people in) the bus system is woefully inadequate for the demand. Amid a multi-million dollar “upgrade” to train stations, construction is causing delays and outright cancellations of buses throughout the day. These cancellations come last minute and at times, hours after the bus in question was due to arrive, leaving commuters with little or no opportunity to make alternate arrangements. This is in addition to slashing the frequency of buses from every 15 minutes, to every 30. Missing a bus in Vancouver means being ridiculously late for your appointments. And no, TransLink doesn’t issue notices to stranded riders that they may present to their employers as an explanation.
  3.  Rental Offices – There’s this really cool service in Japan that is literally everywhere you go: rental offices. Do you need new accommodations? Something closer to your new job, or just need a change of scenery? Do you know what you’re looking for down to the number and size of windows? Just walk on down to the nearest rental office (you can find them by the brochures they leave literally everywhere) and talk to an agent. At no cost to you they will find you the right rental property for your needs, your budget and your location. 1LDK? 2LDK? They’ll be able to match you with the perfect house, hassle free. In Vancouver? Shit on you, you’re on your own. Good luck. Most of the rental adds you’ll find that are halfway to affordable are a new version of the Nigerian Prince scam.
  4. Housing – It’s a myth that the housing situation in Japan is deplorable. Yes, it’s a small country. Yes, most of the country is functionally unusable due to the amount of mountainous regions. Yes, people live close together but you know what? The Japanese make it work. And they keep it affordable. Now, keep in mind that I’m still talking about Kyoto here. Tokyo is its own little bubble that I’m not going to get into. Our first apartment was nothing to write home about, but at 50,000 yen a month (roughly $500) it was definitely affordable for one full-time student and one part-time teacher, especially considering that the utilities were all included. But still, we wanted something better, something with more space and with more comfort, as we were suddenly planning on staying for more than a year. With the help of a rental office we were able to find a gorgeous two story townhouse, 2LK (two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen). The closet space alone was as much as all the floor space in our first apartment. It was 20 minutes convenient to work, at the base of a mountain in a quiet neighborhood with lots of shops, restaurants, nature and temples within walking distance. And we paid 80,000 yen a month for it. “NJ!” I hear you cry because, as we’ve already established reader, you and I are telepathically linked. “I’ve heard all about this thing called ‘key money.’ Isn’t that a huge problem in Japan?” Ah yes, key money. A gratuity to the landlord for the honor of renting the property. It can be pretty steep. Ours was two months rent, on top of the deposit and the first month’s rent but our landlord was super nice, and knocked 50,000 yen off of the total, so in the end, with some help from a friend, we were able to pay the initial expense, which we recouped in the end when our landlord took most of our old stuff off of us and saved us a hauling fee to remove it. Looking back, I miss that place more than I have words for. Housing in Vancouver is dreadful at the moment. Foreign investors are causing real estate prices to soar. One bedroom basement suites are going for $1100 a month minimum. Renters are being forced out of their homes by owners wanting to sell while the market is hot. To say that housing is in crisis in Vancouver is to be seriously understating the situation. At the moment I’m living rent free in my grandfather’s old house, but it too is being sold and without any student financial aid to back me until September, where I’m going to live over the next year is worryingly uncertain.
  5. Food – To be honest, in Kyoto, the food isn’t as great as it is in many other parts of the country. It’s more about the presentation of the food than the actual flavor and how much it can fill you up. It’s not what I generally like in dining, but I took what I could from it. Food in Kyoto is also very seasonal. You can’t buy foods year round and many foods are entirely unavailable outside of expensive specialty shops. However, there are many different shopping options available in Japan, especially for food items. In our neighborhood there were no less than four grocery stores to choose from and at varying price ranges. We were able to find the things we needed, and cook fancy meals at home on a budget, and even had enough to eat out a couple nights out of the month. In Vancouver, however, food costs have risen to the point that even the lowest cost grocery store has pricing comparable to mid-level grocers. I’m spending on average $200 a month to feed three people with just the basics. Every time I go shopping I cringe at the check-out counter.
  6. Leisure – There is always something to do in Japan. Especially for someone like me who loves nature and culture and history, Kyoto was an ideal place to live. Leisure activities are very low cost and easily accessible. For the weekend we could go out and enjoy the city for less than $50. Here in Vancouver, not only is everything ridiculously far to get to, it’s expensive, seating is limited and options themselves are limited. In the suburbs, there’s next to nothing to do other than go to the mall and look at all the things we can’t afford to buy.
  7. Data/Bandwidth – One of the things I miss the most about living in Japan is my unlimited data plan on my cellphone and the lack of bandwidth caps on my internet service. I never even had to think about it. The internet was just always there at my finger tips, and we only paid 6,000 yen a month for internet and 9,500 a month for two cell phone plans. Not here. We’re paying $75 for an internet service that barely covers three average net users and $192 a month per phone for 2.5GB of cell phone data. I feel like I’m being robbed.
  8. Immigration – It doesn’t matter what country you’re trying to enter, immigration is never a fun experience. The lengths one has to go to to prove that they are employable and financially self-sufficient and in general decent human beings is ridiculous, but Japan actually has one of the easier immigration systems. They love paperwork, and the more supporting documentation you can show them the better your chances are at being admitted into the country. They also have multiple means of entry, depending on what your primary purpose for visiting Japan is. Renewing and even changing your visa is an uncomplicated process that can be done within the country. In Canada, all immigration procedures must be done at a port of entry, even if you’re already here. Getting Alex her student visa was a headache enough due to the lack of information and transparency from the university who should be making this as easy as possible to attract foreign students. Actually getting her permanent residence is a minimum two year process if it’s started in Canada. That can be brought down to 18 months, if it is started in America. It is also a one time only thing. If she is denied, we cannot reapply. And they don’t give you any help with it, either. Figure it out yourself and hope to god you didn’t forget any of the paperwork.
  9. Convenience – Oh my god, is Japan ever a convenient place to live. I don’t know how true this holds to super rural areas, but in Kyoto I had everything I needed for daily life within a 10 minute walking radius of my house. Banks, post office, buses, trains, grocers, drug stores, art store. Everything. I would walk to most places I wanted to go, and transit took me everywhere else. But Canada being such a very large country, everything here is very spread apart. Our nearest convenience store is an hour walk away. The mall is a 45 minute walk. The bus stop is relatively close, but half the time the bus doesn’t come or else it is late. The train station is at the mall. There is nothing at all within 10 minutes of me but the school and a lake and a whole lot of houses.
  10. Postage – It cost me 82 yen (about 82 cents) to send a postcard from Japan to Canada. It costs $1.30 to send a postcard from Canada to Canada.
  11. Recycle Shops – Because of how the corporate world in Japan is set up, often times families have to pack up and move when a company sends one of its employees arbitrarily to a different branch, sometimes on the other end of the country, or even abroad. Moving costs can quickly add up, and to avoid such costs, many families unload their non-essential items at recycle shops. Some of these shops will buy used items, others charge a fee for pick up. But all items are thoroughly cleaned and if necessary, repaired and then resold at a discount. Many items sold at recycle shops are antiques that sell for pocket change. We got almost all of our furniture at recycle shops in Japan. All of it clean and comfortable and very much usable. These things just don’t exist in Canada, making everything so much more expensive bought new.
  12. Health Insurance – I paid a lot for Japan’s national health insurance. About $130 a month. This is compared to the $32 a month I paid in Canada before I left. However, Japanese health insurance covers everything: doctors visits, emergency room care, dental and prescriptions. Canadian basic government coverage only covers doctor and emergency room services. Dental and pharmaceutical is paid through employers, if you’re so lucky. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to a $0 premium when I returned as a citizen with no income. Unfortunately, since I hadn’t been living in Canada for the last 12 months, I am automatically enrolled in the highest income premium for an entire year, with no eligibility for premium assistance until then. See point #1, 4, 5 and 7 for why this is a bit of a problem for me.

In all, I’m missing my life in Japan a great deal. I wasn’t ready to leave when we did, but we didn’t have a choice. Life was moving forward and we had to move forward with it. I’m frustrated with the way things are in my country right now, especially seeing how another country seems to have very workable solutions for these little frustrations. And don’t get me wrong, there were things I disliked about living in Japan too, while I was there. But now that I’m home, I find myself struggling to understand how life and living in the country of my birth can be so fundamentally more difficult than it had been in a country with a completely different language and culture.

Looking on the bright side, however, we have Trudeau where they have Abe, so I suppose Canada scores a point in that regard.

9 thoughts on “Debunking Myths of Living Abroad in Japan

  1. Reverse culture shock is really tough, I hear, and it seems like you’re experiencing it. Thanks for listing these points, they’re very well thought out and as someone still in Japan I found myself agreeing with some points.

  2. That’s a really interesting comparison. I’ve never lived in either, of course, so I just wish you luck with all the adjustments. But I do think the ‘civilised’ west has a lot to learn.

  3. Oh dear, I hope you feel a bit more settled soon. It sounds a trying time – and I’m fairly sure someone coming back to the UK would feel similar. And as for someone trying to immigrate here in the current political climate – God help them. You have Trudeau, we have clowns on all sides (UK govt – exempting Scottish govt!) Sending good wishes.

    • Yeah, things seem rough for you guys over there. Good luck wading through it. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be the calamity that is being predicted. 😦

  4. After several weeks of religiously following the rental market in BC, I’m with you absolutely on the living thing. It’s insane to me that anything under $1,200 is “suitable for only one person.” >.<

    ….get your degree as quickly as you can. Let's move back to Japan. 😛

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