The Foreign Rational

The world as seen through the eyes of a life-long nomad

So far, I’ve lived for at least a year in half a dozen cities and traveled to many more. There is no place I love quite as much as Tokyo. I couldn’t see myself living anywhere else. 

That being said, the Tokyo lifestyle isn’t for everyone. There are some pretty big cons that those thinking of moving here should keep in mind. 

While you can experience many of the upsides for yourself by coming over as a tourist, Tokyo’s downsides get you over time. I’m in my sixth year of living here and I’m sure there are many issues I have yet to experience, so let me preface this piece by saying for context that I’m a white male of European origin, currently unmarried, no children, holding a Master’s degree from a good university and working on a middle-class income. I speak fluent Japanese but am by no means a native speaker.

As in pretty much every city in the world, your living experience will depend heavily on your ethnicity, income level and linguistic abilities. 

A lot of other foreign Tokyo residents have already covered this topic in depth, but they tend to focus on a lot of work-related issues, like crowded trains and long work hours. These are generally true for a lot of the Japanese population, but don’t necessarily fit my life experience, nor those of my foreign friends—especially during the pandemic. I’d rather focus on more societal issues. 

Tokyo, we need to talk. 

 1. If it’s good, it’s crowded

A lot of you surely already know about Tokyo’s notoriously crowded commuter trains, but they’ve never been a big part of my daily life. My company has flexible work hours and my line isn’t among the worst offenders. 

However, the crowding problem in Tokyo goes far beyond trains. The assumption for anything happening in the city is that if it’s any good, it’s going to be crowded. Walk down any street downtown and it won’t be long before you spot a line of people in front of, well, pretty much anything. I’ve seen Tokyoites queuing for restaurants, attractions, art galleries, sweets, store openings, events, a popcorn stand, a deep-fried meat stand, and to try out new games at the arcade. 

The Japanese are on par with the British when it comes to the art of waiting in line. 

The crowding problem isn’t just about indoor spaces either. Shopping arcades and parks are consistently under siege. If you want to escape out into nature, any place that’s easily accessible will be flooded with people. Finding a quiet space is like playing a game of chicken with the greater Tokyo area’s 40 million inhabitants. 

Are you willing to pay more and go further than everyone else? 

The place you’re most likely to find respite is your apartment. Yet the Japanese have a complicated relationship with their living space. 

 2. Apartments are very utilitarian

I pay the equivalent of about $1500 a month for a nice 40-square-meter apartment in an elegant Tokyo suburb. People say the cost of living in my home country of Switzerland is expensive, but when it comes to real estate, Tokyo is just as bad. 

My apartment is lovely and very functional. The Japanese are great at building livable spaces. There’s no mold, no strange drafts, no nearby construction, and I’ve only ever spotted one cockroach in the shower. That’s what a high rent will get you. 

On the flip side, the base material for my apartment building is wood. The walls are so thin I can hear my neighbors snore. The whole flat shakes whenever a truck drives by my window. I can follow the conversation of passers by as if I were on the street with them. In other words, I’m constantly reminded that I’m living in the middle of a crowded metropolis. 

It’s no surprise therefore that culturally, Japanese people tend to see their apartment as a place for silent relaxation—not particularly suited for remote work. In most apartments, instruments and pets are banned. Neighbors will complain to the landlord if you have loud guests over. 

While I can hear the other tenants, I rarely ever do, which suggests they treat their flats like a temple. I most certainly don’t. Forgive me neighbors, for I have sinned. 

That doesn’t mean all apartments in Tokyo are that expensive. Again, it’s a matter of trade-offs. How close do you want to be to the station? Do you want a flat with charm? Do you want proper amenities—as some apartments come without a stove, or with a traditional Japanese-style toilet? 

As a general standard, most people I know either live with less than 30 square meters per person, or they’re out in the countryside. 

3. Making close Japanese friends is a struggle

Although precisely because it’s such a struggle, making foreign friends is surprisingly easy! 

Most single Tokyoites are hard working, leading regimented lives where their main social activity is to go drinking with their colleagues or college friends. 

Even among Tokyoites, it’s hard to make lasting friendships outside the workplace. After university, people rarely go out with the goal of meeting other people. The best way to make friends is to find common activities like team sports, or to become a regular at a bar and build up relationships over time. Another technique I recommend for those under 30 is to live for a while in a share house that has both foreign and Japanese residents. Some of the best Japanese friends I have were the ones I used to live with. 

As I mentioned in my article on dating, a lot of Japanese people are very friendly to foreigners, but that friendliness rarely crosses the threshold into intimacy. I’ve had many instances of people coming to talk to me out of the blue to ask where I’m from or compliment me on my Japanese, but that’s where the curiosity stops. 

According to friendship expert Shasta Nelson, you make friends by accumulating positive interactions and gradually increasing vulnerability over time. In Japan, vulnerability is the problem. People aren’t used to opening up to one another. They even have different terms to distinguish the face you present to people, known as tatemae (建前), and your actual thoughts, known as honne (本音). 

The only way I’ve found to break the tatemae barrier is to experience intimate situations, like living together in a sharehouse, or going on a business trip to a foreign city together. Getting drunk can do the trick as well, but don’t underestimate the power of tatemae. If you can multiply those vulnerable situations, turn them into positive interactions, and experience them consistently over a long period of time, you may make some Japanese friends. 

Just don’t expect instant honne

4. Finding a decent job can crush your soul

The work situation in Tokyo is complicated. There are plenty of jobs to go around, but all jobs aren’t created equal. While many engineers can thrive making high salaries for big foreign tech companies, the job market for the rest of us is a tale of luck and sacrifice. 

I once had the opportunity to interview a Japanese entrepreneur who specialized in bringing foreign talent to Japan. Given Japan’s aging population, there’s reason to believe the country will rely more heavily on foreign workers in the future. However, he made it very clear that those foreign workers would predominantly come from less wealthy countries. 

According to him, if you’re like me and come from a place that has a higher average salary than Tokyo, you have to be obsessed with Japan to want to work here

Most of my non-engineer foreign acquaintances have taken one of three career paths. The first is teaching English, which is so common that some Japanese people assume all white people in Japan are English teachers. The revenue can be pretty decent ($15-$20/hour), but it’s a grind. 

I taught English while studying Japanese and it felt like working on a factory line. You teach eight to ten students a day in 40-minute shifts with a five-minute break in between. You get an hour-long lunch break. If there are no students to teach, you wait there, unpaid. The rooms are dreary and half the students are forced by their company to take lessons, so they clearly don’t want to be there. Most teachers are under-trained and the teaching material is standardized to tedium. A majority of English teachers quit after at most a few years, or find a way to go freelance. 

The next path is the foreign company, known in Japan as gaishikei (外資系). They usually have good work conditions and benefits, as well as a decent pay. On the flip side, if your goal is to use Japanese, you’re in the wrong place. Also, when job hunting, you have to ask yourself what value you’re bringing to these companies. A lot of them will send in foreign staff from overseas, but only hire locals in Tokyo. 

If you go on LinkedIn and search job openings for any top company with a Tokyo office, you’ll notice that all of them are looking for bilingual communications specialists. A lot of very attractive job offers sit there unfilled for months on end. The reason is that what they mean by bilingual is native Japanese and fluent English, since the position is to localize the company’s global message for the Japanese market. If you weren’t schooled in Japanese, these jobs aren’t for you. Unless you’re an engineer, even if you have an N1 level of Japanese, these companies are unlikely to hire you. If they do, it will often be as a recruiter in charge of helping them find engineers. 

Finally, there are the Japanese companies. Working conditions in most Japanese companies are notoriously bad. Salaries are not competitive compared to other developed countries. There’s a strong culture of overtime. When it comes to promotions, the highest you’ll ever get is the foreigner in charge of all the other foreigners. Miscommunication and an invisible barrier between you and your Japanese colleagues can weigh on your mental health. 

I work for a Japanese company and the first couple of years were hard. Much harder than working in my home country. Only now, in my third year, am I starting to feel comfortable—and part of that probably has to do with me working full remote. 

If you’re planning on working in Tokyo, try to be realistic in your expectations. The city could have become Asia’s biggest hub for international workers, but it didn’t, and never will. Japan doesn’t take advantage of its positive international image to create a positive work environment for foreign workers. Instead, the wonders of the city are used to lure workers into underpaid jobs without a clear career path. 

Those who aren’t satisfied start their own businesses, wiggle their way into foreign companies, or go home. 

5. Harmony always comes first

A lot of foreigners—myself included—are amazed at how a city the size of Tokyo can be so clean, have such low crime rates, and appear so friendly. 

The reason is harmony. The concept of harmony is so deeply engraved into Japanese culture and education that the Chinese character for “harmony” (和) can also be used to mean “Japanese” (for example 和風, wafu, Japanese-style). 

Striving for harmony at all costs leads to a society with a magnificent exterior held together by very strong internal social pressure. The effects are too complex to detail in this piece, but imagine what it would be like being a teenager or a young adult in a society in which conformity is the chief virtue. 

Harmony becomes an issue for foreigners when it takes precedence over fairness. The default reaction to xenophobic incidents isn’t to do anything, but to shrug, blame it on the individual and move on as if nothing happened

For example, housing discrimination in Tokyo is rampant. Here’s an example of an email I received from a real estate agency when I asked to visit one of their apartments. 

These reactions are common. There isn’t any real attempt to change hearts and minds in favor of a more inclusive society. Let people be who they are, as long as their bias is against a minority and doesn’t disrupt general harmony. 

Racism and sexism are also major issues in Japan, but as a white guy I’m not in a good position to talk about them. I’ve experienced a lot of minor incidents—like being ignored by service staff—but they were mostly manageable. Where I start feeling a psychological toll is knowing that if a major incident happens, nobody will listen. Nobody will care. Nobody will try to fix it. We saw it during the coronavirus lockdown, when the Japanese government denied foreign residents the right to return to their families and properties. 

To get something done I would have to disturb the harmony, but then I would be seen as the bad guy for overreacting and bothering others. 

Such is the pressure of harmony. The polished veneer of social cohesion makes it easy to ignore any rot within. 

Despite these five points, Tokyo is where I want to be. I’ve met extraordinary people, forged great friendships, and matured as an individual. While life could be better, for me personally, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Tokyo, I love you, but from time to time, we need to talk. 


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