Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Tokyo, etc.
I’m English, having grown up in a small village in the north of the country and arrived in Japan expecting to stay two to three years. That was in 1991 and I haven’t quite gotten around to leaving yet. Over twenty years later I’m married to the Japanese girl I met on 17 December 1993 (yes, I do remember) and have a bilingual teenage son who thinks it’s normal to speak two languages and read and write four alphabets.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
My blog arose from a book I was writing (The Beginner’s Guide to Japan) two years ago about life as a newcomer. People kept asking more and more questions about “why is this?” or “how does that work?” and at some point I had to stop and publish the book itself. Three books later and I’m still being asked wonderful questions about the country and the culture. The blog is the perfect way to be able to respond in real time to questions or thoughts and it’s actually very enjoyable to write. Two hundred plus posts later and there seems to be more and more to talk about every day.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
The entry I probably enjoyed writing the most relates to the forests around Karuizawa in central Japan. It’s titled “The Ghosts of Norwegian Wood” and leads the reader through an inspiring though tragic story dating back to 1980.
I deliberately avoid subjectively controversial entries, as the objective is to introduce aspects of Japan rather than debate the rights and wrongs, covering everything from how to prepare for an earthquake to why green traffic lights are called blue.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Tokyo differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Japan is different. There are few wrongs and rights in life but Japan is just plain different. I arrived in an office in need of an English speaker and that should have indicated to me there were no English speakers there. Six weeks after being offered the role I was on the ground with zero language skills but a lot of enthusiasm. Being the first foreigner in the office I was also an interesting learning curve for my colleagues who were always kind, gracious and supportive. The first six months were difficult but when I was given the advice to change myself rather than try to change Japan, life became a lot more straightforward.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Tokyo? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
Definitely not! No one can really prepare you for the differences whether it relates to not being able to read the labels on a microwave or communicate with the staff in a supermarket. Culture courses, language training and learning to read katakana may have helped but being open-minded and willing to learn are as important in Japan as anywhere else.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
I have many, many stories along these lines. For example, discussing the issue of whale hunting with my assistant one day I asked the question “What will you tell your grandchildren when all the whales are gone”. She looked at me with a straight face and replied “They were tasty”.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Tokyo?
- Set realistic language targets, you’re not going to be working in Japanese in two years or reading the two thousand kanji required for a daily newspaper. But life is easier if you can order pizza by telephone and direct taxis;
- Be prepared to adjust; Japan is neither right nor wrong but just different. When you don’t understand take a step back and ask again;
- Learn to use chopsticks, don’t worry about bowing, always have your business cards close to hand and learn to remember you’re the foreigner now.
How is the expat community in Tokyo? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The expat community in Tokyo is strong and vibrant and very easy to connect with at all levels. TAC is the usual starting point but schools, clubs and societies make meeting new people very simple. However, outside Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka things change very quickly. The foreign community is much thinner on the ground and support services often few and far between.
How would you summarize your expat life in Tokyo in a single, catchy sentence?
Tokyo remains the best-kept secret on the expat planet and I, personally, am lucky to have stumbled across it all those years ago.