Life as a researcher in Japan

By Claudio Feliciani

Italian version

Life in Japan

Beyond the aspects related to the working environment and the research world one should be reminded that as a researcher in Japan you will have to live in a very particular country, with traditions and customs often very different from Italy (and generally from Europe and western countries).

This section aims at providing some suggestions and practical information regarding the daily life in Japan to people who intend to live and work in Japan. Needless to say, we should also remind that information given here are very general and each experience is different depending on the place one is leaving and the people one has around.

As a premise it is important to remind that collecting information before starting can help avoiding unwanted surprises. People who had difficulties getting used to life in Japan are not few and even those who had lived in several countries may find Japan a different reality from the places they have visited before. In large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, it is relatively easy to find foreigners including Italians and those who may have problems getting used they can rely on a niche of familiar people. But in other cities, maybe likewise large but less international, it may be difficult finding foreigners (and westerns in particular) thus making the initial approach more abrupt. 

When getting information before the departure it is important to pay attention to the sources. Animated movies and Japanese comics do not represent the reality of life in Japan (sometimes actually the opposite) and may lead to a wrong image. Besides being without doubt part of the Japanese culture and may help knowing the country, it should be reminded that they lie far away from reality. Social networks and internet are full of misleading content and tend to privilege news/information having a strong impact, often not corresponding to the daily life but reflecting only particularities unknown to the general public. 

There are several books and movies talking about life in Japan while recounting stories where the main characters are based in the far east. Often also very old books may become useful, since several aspects of the Japanese traditional life are still rooted in the present (although probably less visible in a first instance).

Learning Japanese

Learning the Japanese language is without a doubt fundamental before the departure and it is strongly suggested to those who have the possibility and/or the time to do so. Even in large cities like Tokyo people who speak (well) English are relatively few and even in the research field, many people do not speak English (but may be able to write it). An accelerated course in Japanese language may be sufficient to feel less disoriented when arriving and can represent a solid starting point to deepen the knowledge after having settled down.

We also want to remind that although the Japanese language is difficult in the reading/writing, it tends to be relatively easy at the spoken level. Thanks to the easy grammar (no plural and only two verb tenses for example) and the limited number of topics tackled during daily conversations (usually weather, food and travel) it is possible to be able to handle most of the situations in a short time. 

Before the departure (or shortly after the arrival) it could be useful to learn the main social rules and the local etiquette. A normal travel guidebook for tourists usually contains what could be sufficient for the beginning and the remaining part can be quickly assimilated on site. Bows, shoes and business cards are the classic things which may turn useful to make a good impression on Japanese colleagues and friends.

Living costs and how to find an apartment

Another important aspect which must be also considered concerns the living costs in Japan. Although salaries are generally higher than Italy, it may be better to not get overly impressed as the living costs are also higher. Rents are particularly expensive in large cities and/or one may have to consider living in small apartments to limit the costs. Imported food also tend to be relatively expensive although some sort of food is now found almost everywhere (like pasta and the various sauces). Vegetarians and vegans may find particularly difficult to find meals without traces of meat in restaurants, but a large variety of fruits and vegetables are available in supermarkets.

Concerning apartments, we must highlight that the Japanese system is very different from the Italian one. Finding an apartment in a “direct” way is almost impossible and most of the people go through a real estate agency. Real estate agencies have relatively high initial costs, usually 2-3 months of rent and only a minimal part of this amount will be refunded at the end of the contract. Most of the paid amount remains to the real estate agency as a consulting service. Japanese apartments are also typically provided without furniture. Burner, fridge, oven and washing machine have to be paid separately and are not contained in the apartment.

For those who intend to stay in Japan for a short time a shared house or fully furnished apartments (more expensive that “standard” ones) could be a valid alternative. Always considering apartments we should warn that there are restrictions for foreigners. Although real reasons are usually concealed, contractual conditions and knowledge of the Japanese language can have an influence on the number of apartments available for selection. Universities sometimes can act as intermediates allowing to overcome certain restrictions and it may be useful to collect information on the existence of such a service within the selected institution.

Cultural aspects

Finally, a general suggestion regarding the communication. Japanese tend to be indirect and vague in their way of communicating due to cultural reasons related to the history of their country. Although being direct may be seen as “vulgar” or “rude” when it comes to important matters like working contract or visa, it may be better to insist for a confirm and finish up for being rude rather than having unwished surprises later. With a better knowledge of the Japanese language and many years of experience in the country, the expectations of the Japanese toward the local culture grow, but several exceptions are usually allowed for foreigners just arrived.

To conclude, it should be remarked that Japan is a very safe and organized country with reliable institutions and people willing to help if somebody is having troubles. Although there could be some difficulties in getting used, one can nonetheless come light-heartedly and learn with time to discover this mysterious and fascinating country.

Contemporary Japanese Culture”

Suggested reading: Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno, “The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture”.