Why Do People Leave Japan?

Why do people leave Japan?  Why do those who are often obsessed with anything Japanese end up leaving their dream job and dream home?  These people spend their lives working towards the goal of living and working forever in Japan, only to give up that dream after having lived in Japan for only a couple of months or years.  Why is that?  Why does that happen? 


Recently, I have seen videos and read Facebook posts from those explaining why it is they have changed their mind.  Some were surprising to me, while others were not.  However, I did notice that their reasoning was all the same.  Every single person had the exact same reason for changing their minds.  I empathize with them.  All of those things they have explained, I have experienced at least once.  So I can easily understand why they would choose to leave.  On the other hand, I also feel that some of those reason are not fully comprehended and are often misunderstood.


The first reason that everyone always starts out with is being different or being gawked at because they are foreigners.  I understand that.  Being a blonde hair blue-eyed foreigner myself, I fully understand the uncomfortability of being stared at.  It can be disheartening to have it always happen day after day.  It becomes easier to toon it out over time, and if you constantly take the same commute route every day, the people will always see you and eventually get used to you always being there.  In my prefecture, no one really stares at me too much anymore because I always take the same commute route.  They expect me to be there.  I am often greeted by fellow commuters daily.  A few actually know my name.  The thing that still has me confused is how they avoid me when sitting.  They will always leave the seats beside me completely free.  They would rather stand, than sit next to me.  Apparently, I have a scary gaijin disease and it is rather contagious.  Oh no!!


I would like to follow-up this complaint with some advice to anyone else who wishes to travel or work in Japan.  The more you stand out, the more they are going to stare.  Of course there are obvious things about your appearance that you cannot hide/change and that is fine.  What I mean is to follow the culture.  People watch.  Try to match what other people are doing. They most often stare not because of your appearance, but because you are doing something outside their culture and it is making them uncomfortable.  They never will approach you about it because they figure you only speak English.  There was one person I knew who was from another country, who always did their own thing when on the train.  They would talk loudly to their friends, eat food on the train, take out a notebook and start sketching people sitting across from them, all of these things are not what Japanese do.  If you are not mindful to your surroundings and don’t accept that you are in an entirely different culture and country, then the staring will never stop.


Another thing they all complained about was racism and prejudice.  Yes, in Japan there is a lot of racism.  The more rural the area, the more racist people become.  On the other hand, the more urban the area, the more prejudice the people become.  People often confuse racism with prejudice and they are not the same.  Someone being prejudice is assuming that you only speak English so they refuse to assist you in stores.  That isn’t being racist.  That is just them being afraid of talking to you in English based on their past experience with other foreigners.  Someone kicking you out of their store right when you walk in because you are a foreigner is racist.  Someone giving you a fork instead of chopsticks is not being racist.  It is them trying to be kind but it comes off as prejudice sometimes.  Someone walking up to you and assaulting you just because you are a foreigner is racist.  Both of those things regularly happen in Japan.  How often they occur is based on your appearance and area.  In Gunma, I’d say both happens once a week.  When I was in Tokyo, racism rarely happened but there were plenty of prejudice people. 


My advice is to not make a big deal out of either instance.  You don’t know the intention behind the act.  They may very well be trying to help you but it came off wrong.  If you do get assaulted for racism, report it to the police as soon as it occurs.  The police are very rarely prejudice against foreigners when it comes to assaults.  They will help you.


Lack of food was another reason.  Or that food was expensive.  I see posts on Facebook all the time from people complaining about how much produce costs or how there is a lack of breakfast foods in Japan.  Well, yeah.  This is all true, but that is because you are still trying to eat food from your home country and not Japanese food.  My husband and I struggled financially a lot in the first year because we kept trying to eat Americanized foods.  Those are expensive here.  It wasn’t until I accepted that we live in Japan, and must start eating like the Japanese that I started to realize how cheap the food actually is.  We save hundreds of dollars on food a month because of this. 


My advice is to eat like a Japanese people and only splurge on your home country’s food once in a while, or have care packages sent to you.  It might be hard at first, but there are thousands of videos on YouTube for Japanese cooking, and hundreds of cookbooks in Japan that are written in English.  I know because I have some.  “But Jeny, Tomatoes are so expensive in Japan.”  Of course they are.  There are barely any recipes, if any, that call for tomatoes as an ingredient.  Carrots, on the other hand, are quite cheap, and are the size of my arm.  Almost every Japanese recipe includes carrots.  Bread is expensive in Japan, but that is because they just don’t eat it.  They will sometimes, but it is not called for in most of their recipes.  Once you start thinking like a Japanese person, you will see that the food really isn’t expensive at all.  I plan on making a video soon about some of the most easy Japanese meals that take minutes to make and cost less than 500 yen.


The next reason is the small space.  Well, duh.  It should be a no brainer that Japan is small and they have to cram 125 million people into a tiny space.  Of course the apartments are going to be small and not spacious.  I find this argument to be invalid because they should have known before coming here that your living space was going to be small.  There is no way around it.  If you want to live in a large place, you have to fork over a ton of money.  Most people can’t do that.  If you can’t handle small spaces, then don’t come to Japan.  Simple as that.  I can understand feeling cramped in your tiny space, but there are so many efficient ways of storing things to make your tiny apartment feel spacious.  There are thousands of videos and articles online for tips on how to do this.  There really is no excuse for complaining about space.  If you are one of those people who feel cramped in your tiny place, then I suggest you look into how to consolidate your items to make the most of your space so it doesn’t feel so cramped. 


Finances is another reason people leave Japan.  Everyone always says that Japan is an expensive country to live.  Maybe if you are living extravagantly and are only eating western styled foods.  Unless you work for an independent company, such as a combini, the company will subsidize your rent and even reimburse travel.  Every company my husband has worked for has reimbursed his travel.  When you stop thinking about cost of living in terms of dollars and start thinking about the cost of living in yen, you will see that there is virtually no difference between the cost of living in America and in Japan.  We live quite comfortably and are able to travel often. 


My advice is if you are struggling financially in Japan, maybe you should take a step back and really analyze your spending.  Where exactly is your money going?  What bills are you having to pay?  Is your salary sufficient enough to live off of?  Dave Ramsey has excellent financial advice, as well as many other websites and blogs.  Start using those resources to actively live more financially stable.  You will have to exercise self-control and maybe even a little will-power, but a struggle free life in Japan is very much possible.


The final reason that everyone always stated, and coincidentally always mentioned last, is work ethic.  Now, I cannot comment on other jobs that are not conglomerate or government jobs as I have never worked for them, but I will tell you what I know and have learned via interviews.


One thing everyone always says is that 5 minutes early is 10 minutes late.  This has never been the case for me.  Every Japanese person I have ever met, is either exactly on time or 5 minutes early.  No one arrives to anything early.  Even to work.  People arrive exactly on time, sometimes late, but never early.  I have arranged several meetings with my coworkers and other Japanese, and they always arrive exactly on time.  Every once in a while it is early, but only by like 2 minutes.  Only one person I know freaks out about getting to places on time when reservations are called for.  Such as a movie, a theatre, or some other performance.  He gets there an hour early.  He is extra ridiculous though because he has high anxiety.  Even other Japanese call him ridiculous.  To summarize, Japanese have no concept of “5 minutes early is 10 minutes late.”  That is something made up by westerners.


People also say that Japanese expect you to work extra hard and take on extra tasks.  I have heard over and over that workers cannot leave until the boss says they can leave.  Companies expect you to give 1010% in all you do and make your life revolve around your job.  On the surface, it very much appears this way, but this is just not true.  There are parts of that that are true, but only on an individual basis.  I have spoken to several people who work in 3 separate companies and job types, and all of them can confirm that this is untrue. 


Companies in Japan work on a rotational basis.  Meaning, you will never stay in one place for more than 10 years.  The average transfer rate is 5-10 years.  Unless you own the company or work for an independent business, you will never build tenure anywhere.  Any and all professions will transfer locations within the company.  Because the transfer rate is so high, this is why employees have their homes subsidized and why their travel expenses are always reimbursed.  The company knows that it is a major burden on their employees to be constantly moved around, so they offer all kinds of benefits to their employees to keep them working for the same company.  The higher up in rank you are with the company, the more benefits you receive.  Let’s say you are a factory worker, and want to move up to secretary.  If you over work, and produce high quality materials, your work will be recognized and a promotion will be granted.  I believe this is the reason that Japan has the stereotype of over working.  It has nothing to do with making work your life and more so to do with wanting to be recognized and promoted.  Unlike America, employees are promoted based on the quality of their work, not how popular they are with the boss.  I have always hated that about America.  It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, if you are not best friends with the boss, you will never see that promotion.


Are teachers in Japan required to participate in club activities?  Yes they are.  However, they are fully compensated for their over work.  They are typically rewarded in extra time off.  One teacher told me that he takes on as many extra tasks as possible so that by the time school vacations come around, he doesn’t have to worry about how many days off he has because he has more than enough days to take a super long summer vacation or winter vacation.  I get this too.  Whenever I over work, it is exchanged for time off at a later date to be used whenever I feel like it.


The overworking case is all individual.  There are people I work with who leave the second the clock strikes their ending time, and there are people who stay an extra 2 hours getting work done.  It is all up to the individual and how they manage their work.  My friend works for Toyota.  She entered as a factory worker, was promoted to secretary, and is now working in advertising.  During each promotion she was offered paid leave for 2-4 weeks in celebration of her promotion.  With each promotion she was also give an additional bonus and they paid for her to attend special training classes.  Her apartment is fully paid for and all her travel expenses are reimbursed.  Her end goal was to work in advertising so she most likely won’t work towards a promotion again, but before that, she was overworking every day and even on weekends.  She did this strictly because she wanted to get promoted as quickly as possible.  She didn’t need to do this, nor was she required to do this, it was a choice.  There are many many people who work overtime purely because they want to be recognized for their hard work and promoted.  It has absolutely nothing to do with being required to work more by the boss or company. 


This past month, I have been working 10 hours a day 5 days a week because of the speech contest.  For 12 days I had no days off.  It was straight working.  Did I have to do this?  No.  I could have easily refused to accept the extra work.  And just like I said before, they gave me extra time off in exchange for working more hours.  For foreigners especially, we have extra labor laws to protect us.  If anything is occurring with you in Japan that you feel is unjust, speak with a lawyer.  They LOVE the chance to get companies for mistreating foreigners.  Those are basically open and shut cases for them.  Unlike the US, the Japanese lawyers have a good reputation.



Sorry this post went longer than expected.  I wanted to share my opinion on the matter.  If you don’t agree with me, that is fine.  I would love to discuss it with you.  You can leave a comment, sign the guest book, or send me an email and we can discuss it further.  I can see why people would be uncomfortable with staying in Japan long term.  I get that, but these reasons that everyone is always giving are just excuses to me.  It means that they didn’t take the time to really learn and adapt to Japanese culture and life and are running away from the issues.  I have nothing against any of my friends who have left Japan and want to only visit.  I do believe that Japan is not for everyone.  Not everyone can handle drastic cultural change and I respect that, but don’t go around spreading lies and excuses just because it didn’t work out for you.  The way these people presented their reasons painted Japan with one color when really there are 100 sides.  There are some complaints I hear from foreigners currently in Japan that make me laugh to no end.  I will save that for another post.  For now, thanks for reading!