Learning Unspoken Rules In Japan


Tell us more about yourself and what you are doing in Japan

I am a 23-year-old Singaporean who studied in Japan from April 2012 – March 2016. I graduated with a BA in International Studies from Kwansei Gakuin University.

Were there difficulties you faced learning Japanese language?

At first it was difficult to make out what was being said because the Japanese, especially in Kansai, tend to speak very fast. Also being unfamiliar with the language (only basic ‘travel phrases’ and hiragana/katakana knowledge when first arriving in Japan) did not help when having to deal with all the paperwork when moving in and opening a bank account etc. But thanks to being able to identify kanji due to knowing Mandarin Chinese, it made picking up the language a lot easier.

Being afraid to speak and practice was probably the biggest obstacle because once you realise people were ok if you made mistakes, it got easier to converse.

Why did you choose to study in Japan?

I like Japanese culture and the country since it was not too big of a stretch from my own so it would be easy enough to adapt to and homesickness could be minimalized. Having a scholarship also helped as I did not have to worry so much about the financial burden of studying abroad.

What is the best thing about living in Japan?

The cultural immersion and exchanges with not just the Japanese but people all over the world, and observing how they adapt to life there. In addition, the independence was a good way to prepare myself and break out of the bubble of always having parents to rely on.

Did you find any difficulties living in Japan?

It was more difficult to make friends with Japanese people than I first anticipated due to all the levels of formality or all the subtle social cues and mannerisms that I was not privy to, and even now am still confused by.

I joined a club in university while my Japanese was still very basic and it was difficult for me to make friends due to the language barrier and also because I didn't know all the things you had to do in a club that everyone else already knew. I struggled with it and ended up quitting because it took up too much time, was really expensive and my inability to communicate meant I was quickly left behind and left out. I do still encourage foreign students to join clubs or circles but only if your Japanese is good enough to communicate well. 


Many students outside my faculty in university disliked English and therefore refused to use it, so club activities were 100% in Japanese. 

Learning all the societal norms so as not to commit taboo also took a while, plus when you don't look obviously foreign you can't play the 'Gaijin Card' and pretend you didn't know to take your shoes off, or not to act a certain way. For example, at a concert in a livehouse in Japan, you queue in the audience and stay at your spot to reserve it, but a foreigner who came in late just pushed past us and stood in front much to the shock of the Japanese people who ended up not saying anything even though they were upset. 

The Japanese tend to be very non confrontational so you need to read between the lines or heavily rely on context when communicating which can be difficult or lead to overthinking. When turning down an invitation one can say "yotei ga hairisou" or "I think I will become busy" to mean that you won't be able to attend probably because you don't want to but it isn't nice to directly say so. So when friends cancelled plans with this, or some other excuse, you wonder if they really are busy or just don't want to hang out with you. 

Advice for foreigners going to work in Japan

Have an open mind, read up beforehand especially if coming from a very different culture. Learn Japanese as much as possible before going to Japan and keep practicing when there.

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