I moved to Japan straight after university. Here’s what I wished I knew.

TWS: This is a guest contribution. We have not moved to Japan. (Though that would be very cool)

I was with my parents and I remember clearly our first dinner in Ginza, one of the most expensive districts in Tokyo. I remember the crisp wintry air on the beautifully lit street in December, wondering how it would be like to live here, the beautiful city of Tokyo, with its wonderful people and pretty clothes.

Today, that dream is no longer a dream.

I moved to Japan in 2013 on the JET Programme, a programme sponsored by the Japanese government. I was sent to Toyohashi, a city of 370,000 people in the middle of Japan and worked in the local city hall as the Coordinator of International Relations, doing everything related to internationalisation, from translation and interpretation, to organising English classes for high school students. 

Today, about 8 years, 3 jobs and 3 cities later, I live in Kanagawa, a prefecture located next to Tokyo, working for the Japan office of a multinational company.

The younger me did not fully comprehend the obstacles I would face as a young, single foreigner working in Japan. Here’s what I wish I knew, and what you should understand before you think of moving there.

The Japanese you actually use in Japan is very different 

When I started out working in Japan, I considered myself to be a somewhat fluent speaker in Japanese after years of learning the language. Sure, I needed practise in using the language but it should not be too hard, right? 

The truth is, working in business Japanese is a completely different monster altogether. I had to put in double the effort to learn and understand the language as well as working culture from scratch. Simple tasks like sending business emails, and Japanese business etiquette like bowing, seating arrangements in meetings, exchanging of name cards were completely new to me. I had to learn either by imitating my superiors, or by doing “research” online. 

My top search keywords on Google at work were “Japanese business email templates” or “how to answer the phone at work”. These simple tasks would have come naturally to me in my native English but were difficult to navigate in a foreign language. It was highly stressful. I had no choice but to adapt, or I risked offending my bosses or worse, our clients.

Manage your expectations when it comes to career progression

As the third biggest economy in the world with severe labour shortages, I thought career progressions in Japan would come easily. I also thought my salary potential in Japan would be the same, if not better, as the average in Singapore. 

Unfortunately, I was wrong on both fronts. 

Thanks to the infamous lifetime employment system and hierarchical structure in Japanese companies, I was given responsibilities, evaluated and compensated solely based on my age and duration in the company.

That means that unlike in Singapore where mid-career hires in Singapore are expected to hit the road running from Day 1, in Japan you won’t be given such opportunities – which would in turn, affect career progression.

By the end of my second job, I had little to put on my resume that was worth mentioning. 

While the lifetime employment is starting to disappear, I could not wait for change. Instead, I put my multilingual skills (English, Mandarin, Japanese) to good use. Some examples where being a polyglot helped immensely:

– I had a gig where I helped foreign residents settle down in Japan.
– Liaising with people from other countries to launch Japanese franchises
– Helping a Singaporean company launch in Japan 

Currently, I work for a global organization in Japan, helping to streamline organization-wide programs for a rapidly growing tech company. 

If I had pursued the traditional path of the Japanese ‘salaryman’, this would not have happened. 

Instead, I had to figure out my strengths as a Singaporean to find opportunities that the locals could not leverage.  

You might be disappointed by the money

If you are looking to become rich fast, living and working in Japan as an employee will disappoint you.

As mentioned earlier, progression is slow, with the expectation that you will be remunerated accordingly as you progress through the company throughout your lifetime. Wages have also been stagnant for a long, long time in Japan. 

My pay in Japan was much lower than my peers in Singapore. I watched them steadily ascend the corporate ladder in Singapore, while I watched on, overworked and frustrated.

In recent years, salaries – especially starting salaries – have gone up quite a bit in Singapore, as compared to Japan.

Taxes, taxes, taxes 

Many Singaporeans take for granted the low income tax rates we have. You might be shocked to learn that I have to pay anything from 25% onwards on what I earn annually.

The taxes I pay include income tax, municipal tax, prefectural tax, and social security such as health insurance, and pension.

Did I mention that you will also get taxed for any income generated outside of Japan after living here for 5 years? If you have investments, or real estate, or a side hustle outside of Japan, you will also be taxed on the income based on these assets.

Here’s a snapshot of my finances :

For the first four years of my life in Japan, I was paid approximately USD$40,000 (S$50,000) a year.

From that 40k, I spent around 25% of it on taxes, and an additional 30 – 40% on rent and household expenses.

The rest of my salary was spent on hanging out with friends and other social events, which was very important to me at that time and was critical in making sure that I was mentally healthy. Being alone overseas is hard.

I was not struggling financially, but I certainly could not afford the regular trips to Europe or the US that my peers were doing at that time. My emergency fund? I only achieved it about 2-3 years ago! 

I have also started to realise that starting investments in Japan is not as easy as in Singapore. 

For starters, there is the mental barrier of operating in a completely different language. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of reading financial and technical terms in Japanese. 

I have read that traditional advisors have a minimum account sum of at least 500k USD, which makes it completely out of reach for someone like me, and until recently, I had not heard of robo-advisors in Japan. 

I started an account in a robo-advisor in Singapore instead, sending home an amount of money every month to invest. There’s a huge cost with exchange rates, but this is the easiest way for me to invest for now.

Being an outsider or ‘gaijin’

One of the most difficult things about working in Japan is the social aspect. The first few years were the hardest.

When I first arrived, I had no peers or friends who lived near my little city that I could hang out with outside of work. While my coworkers were willing to help out whenever they could, they had their own families and circle of friends.

I did not want them to feel obliged to hang out with me even on their off days. Most of the recreational spots in the city were accessible only by car.  At that point, I could not drive in Japan nor afford to own a car. 

Being an outsider anywhere is always difficult, and it was definitely harder since I was on my own in Japan. For the first few months, I spent most time after work and on weekends at home alone. It was the first time in my life that I craved human interactions and I felt very lonely.

Here’s another interesting phenomenon: In Japan, even if you go for a nomikai (social drinking sessions) and have a heartfelt chat, it’s very normal to go to work the next day with everyone acting as if the nomikai never happened. 

I had to build my social circle from scratch. Thankfully, I found other Singaporeans JETs, and actively participated in social activities organised in neighbouring prefectures.

Will I recommend working in Japan?

Reading this article, you might get the feeling that I regretted my decision. This cannot be further from the truth (if not why still work here amirite). 

Being thrown into the deep end with few support systems made me resourceful and independent; if you throw me into another city, I’m more than confident of surviving there. 

Yes, interacting with many people vastly different from me was uncomfortable at first. But it has also taught me to be empathetic and adaptable. The friends I’ve made, both Japanese and international, have made me feel more confident and open-minded. 

Finally, living outside of Singapore has helped me examine Singapore more critically.  In some ways, it even helped me appreciate some aspects of my home country better.  

TL;DR, If you want to move to Japan, understand the trade-offs you’re making before taking the leap. Truth is, living in a foreign country, far away from home will always have its challenges.

As the saying goes: A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor someone perfected without trials.

Stay Woke, salaryman.

If you are interested in this writer’s experience living in Japan (or mundane daily things) she writes a bi-weekly newsletter, <Letters from +81>, that you can sign up for here.

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