First of all, let me just say that I love Japan. This has been a fantastic experience, the people here are so nice, and I've learned a lot. On this page, I'm going to try to try describe, as accurately as possible, what life is like here for gaijin such as myself.
First of all, if you don't have an adventurous personality or are extremely shy or self-consious, this is not a good place for you. Foreigners stick out like sore thumbs in Japan. This is simotaneously unnerving and liberating. You can do whatever you like, because people are going to stare at you no matter what. However, the downside is that after awhile you'll start constantly worrying about your appearance. Being a gaijin, you'll also usually get one of two reactions; people are either delighted to meet you and practice English with you, or they'll ignore you completely. It's been about 50/50 for me. They do tend to judge on appearance first, so if you're a fan of body piercing, tattoos or bright hair dye, you'll have a rough time here.
Make friends before you go; the internet is great for meeting people, and your friends will help you with everything.
Be prepared to try everything. You'll be able to try lots of great food, see amazing sites and meet wonderful people. But if you don't like change, this is not the place for you. For an American, this is the ultimate culture-shock.
Getting a job:
Internet is the way to go. There are a lot of great sites...try jobinjapan.com or gaijinpot.com. It's easy to send resumes that way, and there are tons of jobs. Do keep in mind, though, you must have at least a bachelors degree, or you cannot be hired. No exceptions that I'm aware of.
Don't be afraid to teach kids! I was at first, but now, I love teaching them. They're so fun, and they bond quickly with their teachers. Once they're "your" kids, when one of them hands you a handful of dried squid bits, you'll eat it, because hey, it was a gift from them and they're worth it.
If you don't know Japanese, learn it. Learn it now. Be able to at least ask for directions, buy things in a store, ask for food, and read Hiragana and Katakana. Any Kanji you learn will help. They say you don't need to speak Japanese to work here, but frankly, that's bullshit. If you don't know the basics, you'll have a panic attack the first time you enter a train station. I've met foreigners here--siteseers--who were sitting on the floor crying because they were so lost and couldn't ask for help. I recommend at least one year of study, more if you can.
Of course, you'll never know how to say everything you want, for instance, I wish I could say, "Madam, if you don't stop poking me with that umbrella, I'm going to shove it up your ass and open it." Rude, but useful and highly American. Although then again, it's probably good I don't know how to say that...
An interesting side note: you'll learn that "wakarimashita" means "I understand." However, in Japan, it means, I understand, agree and will comply. Not like English, where it means, I heard you, but.... I've been burned by this a couple of times, so be careful!
Is Gender an Issue?
In a word, yep. I speak from a female perspective, so I don't know what it's like for men. But, if you're a woman, expect these things:
*It's expected that women make better teachers, particularly for children. Sometimes, schools will only hire women, so finding a job will be easier for you.
*You will be hit on like never before. I've had people make passes at me from junior high boys to elderly men. And if you're in a bar, sometimes the drunk men become a bit...grabby. Be prepared, or avoid bars. Drunk behavior is tolerated here, far more than in America.
*If you can't cook, learn how. At any function, all the women are expected to help cook, and the men are expected to stay out of the way. Helping in the kitchen will help bond you to the other women and you'll make a lot of good friends, so take the opportunity. Incidentally, when I asked why it was done this way, my friends replied, "Men are incompetant and just get in the way. Women are the only ones who know what they're doing." I've heard this several times, so, there you are.
*It's getting better, but men and women are still unequal here. It isn't usually an issue for foreigners, but you'll hear your friends talk about it a lot, usually with a touch of envy...
Japan is not exactly the fashion capitol of the world; pretty much anything goes. Dressed for work, Japanese people look great, but casual wear... The guys usually look okay, although I've seen a few who apparently couldn't decide what shirt to wear, so they wear all of them at the same time. And the women...well, most look all right, but a trend lately is for girls to wear skirts over jeans which, I'm sorry, but looks really silly. On the train, I saw two college age girls wearing jeans, frilly skirts, Disney printed sweatshirts, ski hats with pom-poms and Tammy-Faye style eye makeup. I'm sure they thought they looked cool. I just about died trying not to laugh.
So, pretty much, if your clothes match, you're good to go. Keep in mind, they don't do much for current American Britney Spears-style clothes, and if you dress like a slut, your chances of getting leared at/felt up are much higher. You've been warned.
More will come as I think of it...
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