Advice for working in Japan
January 28, 2008 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm moving to Japan to work for a year - what should I do to prepare?

I'm a Canadian university student (female, if it might matter) who's just been accepted as a co-op student in a biotech lab for a year, leaving this May. As far as I can tell, the lab is located in the tiny town (pop. 12k) of Ichikai, Tochigi prefecture. I've never been away from home for more than a month (so non-Japan-specific, moving-away advice would be awesome as well), and I've only been to Japan in the capacity of a tourist, so I really have no idea what to be ready for or how to prepare. Please give me your advice!

I'm thinking of things like, "make sure to bring a plug adapter if you have 3-pronged plugs", "the address system is really confusing, so make sure you learn how it works beforehand to avoid getting lost", "you're expected not to leave earlier than your boss, and he's not expected to leave earlier than his boss, etc., so don't plan on getting home earlier than 8pm" or even "definitely don't leave without having visited [magnificent place of interest nearby]", although really, anything you have to say would be very much appreciated. Room and board are provided, so that isn't as much of a concern. Thanks in advance for helping out a young and overanxious traveller!
posted by Arasithil to Travel & Transportation around Japan (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Pack a year's supply of antiperspirant if you use it. Deodorant in Japan is notoriously weak.

I've also heard that if you wear above a US women's size 8-10, clothes are difficult to find, so pack your wardrobe accordingly.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head, but I've known a couple people who've lived in Japan so I can ask them if you'd like.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:13 AM on January 28, 2008

Be prepared for homesickness. It can make tiny things seem nearly insurmountable. You might do well to find another foreigner to commiserate with. If you aren't fluent in Japanese, understand that being in a situation where you understand nearly nothing is disorienting and scary. If you are a Caucasian girl in a tiny town, you may be very conspicuous. Drunk old men may hit on you. It is a strange mix of curiosity and xenophobia. I never particularly felt unsafe, however, especially during the day, so I would suggest exploring as much as you can. Look for police stations and police boxes (koban-交番), as they'll often be the be the best place to get directions back home.

Otherwise, please please travel. You should be able to take trains everywhere, and it will be a lot more dense than you probably expect, even out in your tiny town. Go to Tokyo or anywhere else you can think of.

If you don't know Japanese, learn some. If you do, learn more. Don't be afraid to try to speak in Japanese, or else you'll never improve. Find some hobby to do, so that you can get involved in some group in a social sense. Take up a traditional instrument (koto), sport (archery), or hobby.
posted by that girl at 11:42 AM on January 28, 2008

There are stuff over there to get you through the year. I don't see a need for you to pack pack a year's supply of deodorant. If you're taller than 5'6" and have larger than 7.5 female shoe size, I'd pack some clothes and shoes that you'll wear, but only thin you need to do is have an open mind to try everything Japan has to offer as long as it's not against your principles and beliefs.

A friend of mine who spent a year in Japan teaching said people will stare at you so be prepared to be the center of attention and lots of Japanese men paying attention to you.

Have fun!
posted by notsogirliegal at 3:42 PM on January 28, 2008

Pack a year's supply of antiperspirant if you use it. Deodorant in Japan is notoriously weak

True (and antipersirant was the main thing I brought back from the US) but the Foreign Buyer's Club has got you covered these days.

Tochigi is going to be c-o-l-d in the Winter, so pack a "winter box" of stuff that will be kicked-off sea mail to you timed to arrive in the Fall.

Don't be scared of the 2000+ kanji. They seem overwhelming at first but 1/3 of them are rather simple to learn, another 1/3 are more-or-less understandable combinations of those, and the rest you'll either learn with exposure or not, and if not they weren't that important anyway. Shoot for studying 40 kanji per week, that's just 10 a night. They kanji are rather portable to Chinese, which will open up that important horizon to you. Plus they're a fun puzzle in and of themselves.

Language-wise, you'll find your coworkers' English skills pretty good at written comprehension (listening is usually a lot harder for them) and pretty bad at speaking unless they've gone to a good school. There are MANY, MANY loan-words in Japanese that are mogrified English, especially in the sciences, so learning how to "katana-ify" [these loan words are uniformly transfored into the katakana script] your native English is a useful language skill to grok.

Read the JET Programme teacher's blog at

She lived a similar life to you out in the inaka not too long ago.
posted by panamax at 3:50 PM on January 28, 2008

I spent six months in a neuroscience lab in rural japan... from my experience, you should be prepared never to know exactly what's going on. Your japanese colleagues will most likely speak decent english, but only around you. They'll probably be extremely polite, but not always in a way that helps: getting direct answers is difficult. The work ethic is either amazing or insane - if you're in a big lab, you can reliably expect someone to be there at practically any hour (The first weekend I was working there, I went to the lab at 2:00am on a Saturday night, hoping for a private chat with the gf... there was still someone working, and as I waited for them to leave, two more people showed up...). Depending on how westernized the lab is, there may be more or less top-down control - in any case your status as an individual will probably be secondary to your status as part of the group. I've heard horror stories from japanese grad students about professors stealing work and publishing it themselves. Underscore the homesickness. If there aren't any other western-types, be prepared to spend a lot of time by yourself (everyone else will likely be working). There won't be much to do in a town that small (the europeans that worked in my building amused themselves by keeping track of the remodeling being done at the nearby Jusco), so try to plan outings as often as possible to maintain your sanity.
posted by logicpunk at 4:19 PM on January 28, 2008

First forget this one "you're expected not to leave earlier than your boss, and he's not expected to leave earlier than his boss, etc., so don't plan on getting home earlier than 8pm". it may have been true in the past but is not (in my daily experience) so true now, but does depend on the company culture.
Check out the town's website to give you a feel for the place.
As it is southern Tochigi, Tokyo is not far, you can take the shinkansen from Utsonomiya, a fairly large city for when you need a Starbucks fix or buy clothes from GAP (the sizes are the same but just more of the smaller sizes, Japanese people aren't that small!) etc.. Tochigi city is a good place to visit as is Nikko and the Toshogu shrine. Go to Mito in Ibaraki (the neighbouring prefecture towards Tokyo) to have a look at the sea.
Getting around is OK as there are trains, buses etc. that are not expensive, but ALWAYS make sure you know the time of the last bus, train home.
Another good place to go is Mashiko ( a fairly famous pottery town) where there is a pottery fair twice a year, it's got a few good cafes and shops.
Be prepared for a lot of questions like 'Do you eat raw fish in Canada' etc. comparing Japan and Canada. Learn as much basic Japanese as you feel able to before you go and pick up more when you get here. Bring some small cheap but typical things from your home area/Canada especially candy/cookies and your co-workers will love you. Above all don't stress! and enjoy your year in Japan!
posted by AndyM825 at 4:49 PM on January 28, 2008

Be prepared to be complimented on your Japanese, even if the only thing you've said is konnichiwa. And your chopstick skills will be marvelled at, or if you're not eating when you meet someone, a popular question is whether you can use them, or eat sashimi, or what your favorite Japanese food is. You'll be ask lots of questions about your impressions of Japan, and maybe a few token ones about the famous things in your home country.

Don't try to change anything - if you see something in the workplace that needs fixing, or could do with improvement. It won't go done well at all, and it'll just be frustrating. Go with the flow, and if anyone says something you disagree with, just smile and say, 'Oh, is that right?' politely. ('Ah, sou desu ka' in Japanese.)

Learn to read as much as you can, it's really helped me feel more in control, and like I have a clue as to what's going on around me, compared to other gaijin I know.
posted by Sar at 6:38 PM on January 28, 2008

I'd like to reiterate the deodorant point. It's not impossible to buy (see panamax's "Foreign Buyer's Club" link), but it's still something that you'd have to buy online, and it just seems much easier to bring it along. Japanese deodorant exists but it barely works.

For Western books, check your local big bookstore. The prices are high, but they're nowhere as expensive as they used to be (I don't know when you visited, but if it was a long time ago, you may have the wrong impression about book prices). If you can't find the books at your local big bookstore, buy your books from The prices are far higher than, but's international shipping will kill you.

Remember two things about loan words (I see people who speak Japanese fine who mess this up constantly): They don't necessarily mean the same thing they do in English, and that's fine. Don't try to use them "correctly" to show people the right meaning. Also, remember that even though they're English, they MUST be pronounced the Japanese way, or people will have a hard time understanding you. If you want to eat steak, don't say "Watashi wa steak ga tabetai", say "Watashi wa sute-ki ga tabetai". That sort of thing. It's not English, it's Japanese that came from English.

Get a cell phone. Life without one is unnecessarily inconvenient. There are three major carriers in Japan: NTT (DoCoMo), KDDI (Au), and Softbank. I'd especially recommend an AU cell phone, because they have built in GPS and navigation systems. If you can figure out how to use it, it can be an absolute absolute lifesaver.

Remember that DVD and video game regions are different. If you're bringing DVDs, you'll need to bring your own player. If you buy/rent DVDs here (in Japan), you need a Japanese region player.

If you're fine with watching DVDs on your computer, get software called "AnyDVD". It removes DVD regioning, so you can watch a DVD from any region on your computer.

If you have folks in Canada (parents/friends) who would be willing to send you stuff, give them a chunk of money before you go to cover their delivery expenses. Later, if you ask them to send you some DVD or t-shirt or whatever, it will feel like less of an imposition.

Study Japanese.

If you need to bring any gifts from Canada, bring food. The first time I came to Japan I agonized over what gifts to bring, ending up with coffee table photo books and the like. It was unnecessary worry. Pecan chocolates would have done just fine.

Keep in mind that Japan does not use personal cheques. If you try to use one, people will look at you like you're using Monopoly money. There's also a $20 or so handling fee for cheques. So if you want someone in Canada to pay you for something (you sell something in a net auction, your brother pays you to buy him some crazy toy, etc.), ask for them to get a "postal giro". They will almost certainly not know what that means, but just tell them "Look, go to the post office there in Coquitlam and ask them for a postal giro. They'll know what it is and how to handle it". When you receive the postal giro, just take it to a Japanese post office and they'll give you the money.
posted by Bugbread at 6:45 PM on January 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd like to agree with Sar: you're only going to be here a short time, so fighting to change things in the lab will probably fail and be incredibly stressful. Probably more stressful than just going with the flow. Of course, make suggestions for changes, but if there's resistance, don't fight. If you're going to be here longer, then fighting is worth it, but since you'll only be here for 1 year, it isn't worth it, and you will probably be in the wrong for the first few months anyway.

Also, people have mentioned "be prepared for dumb questions", but let me add: be prepared for INCREDIBLE question repetition. Everyone will ask you the same damn questions. Keep in mind that, even though it's the 100th time you've answered "Do you like sushi", the person asking you is different each time, and the person asking you right now is asking for the first time. It may be annoying, but it's not their fault.
posted by Bugbread at 6:50 PM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, for cell phones, if you qualify as a student, you get a half price discount with AU.

And get used to carrying largish quantities of cash around, ATM hours are still quite short, and places that take credit cards are the exception rather than the rule. If you get a Japanese bank account, I recommend going with the Post Office rather than a local bank, better for getting cash out when travelling.
posted by Sar at 9:57 PM on January 28, 2008

Some of these were above but if I wrote them again it's cause they bear repeating:

* toiletries: not just deodorant, but people don't buy shampoo, soap, etc., by smell like they do in the US. bring your own or have a buddy come visit. As a result, you can't smell them before buying and they all smell like soap, not mango, eucalyptus, or whatever. boooring.
* toiletries II: have you ever tried to buy a tampon in Japan? They're kinda hard to find (I'm in that next-prefecture-over), especially if you want a specific brand.
* phones: au: best English language support for phones, from what I've been told. And it's still not that much support.
* money: carry large amounts of cash.
* transportation: in Tochigi, you *might* want or look into car, even for a year. Used cars are dirt cheap in Japan and aren't as risky to buy. I'm an American, and in moving to Japan bought my first car ever because I live in one of those new flat spread-out places.
* money: you can use online-only banks like this one from Sony which, for example with this one, offer free ATM use 24/7 and free online banking. The compromise is they don't have physical bank branches, and you'd need someone's help to get it set up (Japanese only).
* clothing: repeating everything about being larger or having big feet being difficult. Tall I haven't seen as much a problem in.
* shopping: for all those things you forgot to buy, there are CostCo here, and they import all the big box brands and goods, apparently. Sounds like a mythical fairyland to me, but that's what they do.
* people: fwiw, i leave earlier than my boss, and I work in a company. But no, this isn't possible in all places. I've never been stared at or hit on by a really drunk guy. The comment about written vs. spoken/listening skills in English is spot-on. Yes, people will compliment you on whatever awful things you say and that you can use chopsticks even if it's just to spear a dumpling. If you can eat sushi or natto (Mito is famous for it!), someone may faint.
* media: if you're in Tochigi, I don't think you'll have much for big box bookstores. Even where I live (200K, large international population), the English selection is limited. is your friend, usually delivers in 2 days, and has good prices and a (mostly) English language interface.
* language: definitely learn as much as possible, but *at least* make it through the katakana so you can sound out words that are probably familiar to you (mainly English loan words), which should give you *some* options on any menu or other signs, enough to get a miniscule clue of what's going on.
* weather: varies a lot by location, but if you are a Canadian you're not going to have aaannny challenge with the winters here. I'm a Minnesotan and the "wow, it's cold today" "yeah, sure is cold." "yep it's too cold this time of year" conversation has me forcibly preventing my eyes from rolling. It may be too hot, humid, and gross for you in the summer though.
* travel: definitely see other places around here! some good recommendations above for your nearby area were given. I use couchsurfing a lot. I think one of the nice things about Japan is that every podunk town has some little attraction, it seems, so you can have fun anywhere for at least an afternoon.

Also feel free to drop me a note when you're coming here.
And bugbread, if I ever meet you, please show me how to use the gps in my phone!
posted by whatzit at 4:03 AM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

And if you're spending weekends or anything in Tokyo (any of you) I highly highly HIGHLY recommend this city atlas with maps of all the big neighborhoods and most of the areas in the middle. Absolutely priceless for walking around without wanting to kill yourself over addresses and asking directions. All subway stations and exits labelled, all blocks labelled/numbered, big buildings (used for giving directions as landmarks) also labelled. Any day I go to Tokyo this book is coming with me. And it's cheap and lightweight.
posted by whatzit at 4:09 AM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Thanks very much for all the answers so far, everyone - they've been great (especially the cell phone and bank info, which I was completely clueless about)! I'm feeling a lot better about what to be ready for once I get there (though I'm sure it will blow me away nevertheless).
posted by Arasithil at 8:22 PM on January 29, 2008

please show me how to use the gps in my phone!

whatzit, I can't tell if you're kidding or if you're serious about this, but if you own an "au" phone, the "apuri " (appli(-cation)?) button takes you to the screen where you can select "EZ Nabiwoku (Naviwalk)," which is the GPS system bugbread is probably talking about. You have to pay a monthly fee (315 yen a month for unlimited access, 210 yen for full access) to use all of their features, but I'm sure someone at the au shop can help you with this. But I don't know if they offer an English interface, so you might have to at least be able to read place names in Japanese to really be able to benefit from this.
posted by misozaki at 3:17 AM on January 30, 2008

No, I was absolutely serious. I already pay for the GPS but have never gotten around to learning how. Paying per packet on internet always makes me a little hesitant to putz around on the phone so much. No, there's no English language interface for the GPS, I know, and there definitely isn't an English language interface for the au stores near me. But it's all good, I read better than I speak. How ridiculous. I will try this out.
posted by whatzit at 5:24 AM on January 30, 2008

Whatzit: According to this page, if you were to use the EZ Naviwalk to search for a destination and then have it navigate you 500 meters to said location, the cost would be 55 yen. Personally, I have one of the "all-you-can-use" option plans, so I can do as much packety stuff as I want for 4200 yen.
posted by Bugbread at 1:39 PM on January 30, 2008

Hi! I was searching for these kinds of AskMe threads about eight months ago before I moved to Japan myself.

First of all, living out in the sticks has its upsides. Though people might be a little perplexed at having to deal with a foreigner, they aren't nearly as jaded and fed up with it as city-folk seem to be. Though I have encountered some prejudice, by far people have been generous and accommodating in my little town in the middle of nowhere. And you're in Tochigi, which appears to have some great ONSEN (hot springs)! Congratulations! Onsen are hands down one of the best things in Japan.

Unless you have Japanese ancestry (or maybe even if you do), yeah, expect to be stared at. I'm a Caucasian female from the U.S., and it took me awhile to get used to it. Now I ignore it except when it's from cute little kids, because seriously, Japanese kids are the cutest children in the world.

As has been mentioned, make a solid effort at learning Japanese. This has been by far my biggest issue (and to almost every other foreigner I know) with living here: before I came, literally everyone was telling me Japan was so great because everyone speaks English. Yes, most everyone has had at least three years of English in junior high, but that does NOT equate with fluency (just like my four years of high school French could barely get me through buying a croissant in Paris). Even if people do know some English, you will be hard pressed to get it out of them, as it seems most people don't want to "look stupid" by making mistakes.

I have tried about three different textbooks, and this is the one I've stuck with the longest. You might be tempted to just do the grammar chapters and forget about the writing chapters (as I was for a few months), but it is really worthwhile to do them at the same time. It is really frustrating to suddenly be completely illiterate in a foreign country, and even just recognizing some things will help you get a grip on feeling so out of place. If you can, buy the first textbook and start now. As has already been suggested, start with katakana, which is the easiest of the three writing systems to master. Next do hiragana, and then take a deep breath and try for at least basic kanji. Some people will tell you Japanese is easy, and some people will tell you its really difficult, but just do your best and try. Even if you aren't a language person, knowing some will help you immensely in your day to day life.

And yeah, I have my mom ship me tampons. I frequent the neighborhood Yac's (which stands for Young and Clean, by the way) drugstore and I don't think I've even ever seen a box of them. If you are much for reading, definitely check out anything by Haruki Murakami.

Some general moving-away advice: Go through your closet and mentally note what you want to bring. Then cut that in half. Even in a tiny town you will be close enough to a bigger place by train, and it is much more fun to bring home clothes from Japan. Of course, if you wear larger sized clothing you might want to be slightly more cautious about this... but stores like the ubiquitous Uni Qlo seem to have a wide range of sizes. That said, not much in Japan seems to be super cheap, but this might be a good time to experience living simpler with less stuff.

Most of all, be excited and have fun! Japan is an incredibly safe, bizarre and interesting place to live. Good luck!
posted by liverbisque at 6:22 AM on February 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

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