Osaka castle from a low angle

12 Things to Know Before Studying in Japan

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So you are planning to study abroad in Japan? Here is everything you should know before you go.

Let’s face it. Japan is not a normal country, it’s weird, unique and it never fails to surprise me. I have lived in Japan as a foreign student for 3 years, I study Japanese society and culture in school. But every day, this nation still manages to either cringe me out or make me sincerely admire them. 

The moment you arrive at the airport, you will feel like you have landed on a complete different world. At first it might fascinate you but trust me, that fascination won’t stay for a long time. 

Most of the time, it only stays until the end of  your honeymoon period. Once it’s gone, it will leave you feeling alone, different and naked in a foreign cultural ice bucket. 

That feeling, my friend, is called culture shock. 

I have gathered the list of things that hit me in the face so that it won’t hit you as hard as it did to me. 

1. Pigeon toed walk

You don’t have to be super observant to see the disproportion of Japanese women walking this way. 

Pigeon toed walk is walking with your feet inward, which is called uchimata in Japanese. 

It is common for foreigners to feel puzzled with this gesture, because we were raised to view this as a medical problem. 

To many Japanese people, however, walking pigeon-toed is the most feminine way to walk. It is considered way more elegant and delicate than walking with your feet turning outward. 

It is thought to be influenced by the Geisha when kimono was the popular clothing. 

Nowadays, even when kimono is not worn often anymore, it is considered kawaii to walk pigeon-toed because it shows a sense of vulnerability and inferiority from the opposite sex.

2. Japanese people forcing themselves to speak english to you because you look foreign

This might be cute at first but after a while you will start feeling annoyed and somewhat isolated. 

If you live in Japan as a foreigner, prepare to be treated like one. Even if you speak fluent Japanese, they would still try to speak in English to you. This is out of politeness, not to try to intimidate you. It’s just a Japanese thing.

There is a deep-rooted belief in the Japanese that foreigners can not speak their language fluently. If you ever hear them complimenting your Japanese “WOW 日本語上手ですね”, high chance is your Japanese is not good at all. 

Get used to being complimented like a God for just saying thank you in Japanese

3. Broken English

The use of English in Japan is so random and confusing. This often makes me laugh before I am reminded that “right, I’m in Japan”.

Funny English used in Japan

Sometimes you will see very bizarre cafe or shop names. 

Maybe because the shop owner wants something Western sounding and it turns out like this: 

A beauty salon in Japan named Fanny
Photo by Engrish in Japan

4. High tech toilets

In Japan, they use high-tech toilets which have functions to clean you out, seat heating and some can even make noises while you use the toilet so others won’t hear you. 

This literally makes my life so much easier. This is one of the things about Japan that I will always miss when I’m away.

High tech toilet in Japan with functions to spray water and make sound

This kind of toilets are everywhere, not only in the airport or expensive service, you can find these in the convenience stores or normal shops.

5. Everything animated

These are often warning or traffic signs in public to tell you to be careful or follow the rule.

This is how Japanese people tell you what to do without making you feel like they are telling you what to do. 

For example this is a Stop sign but it doesn’t feel like it’s screaming in my face like other Stop signs. This one makes me wanna just stop and adore it

Stop sign in Japan with a crocodile animation

Or this manual instruction for GameBoy. You don’t need to understand Japanese to know you’d better treat your GameBoy right.

I don’t even play games but I don’t want to hurt this GameBoy!

Manual instruction of Gamboy in Japanese

6. People wearing masks

One of the first things you might notice when arriving in Japan is how everyone around you is wearing masks.

Now this is not because they are all sick, even though some may actually be. Japanese people wear masks like it’s a culture. 

Some wear to be polite because they don’t want their germs to spread around (if they are sick). Some wear to protect themselves from the cold or the polens. And some wear just to cover their face. 

There are plenty of reasons why Japanese people wear masks all the time and it has gradually become a norm. At some point it kinda made me wanna wear a mask too.

7. Love hotels

Love hotel is a specific kind of hotel for lovers. They are everywhere but they don’t have a sign saying “Love Hotel”in the front, you just have to figure out by the look.

One way to detect Japanese Love hotels is they always have led lights and a weird English name. You can either stay overnight or for a few hours rest.

Pink led light sign of Love hotel

What’s special about Japanese Love hotels you ask? E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G

There is often no staff because they care about your privacy, you can literally use the hotel for days without seeing anyone. There will be hotel service through a little window, so nobody can see your and your lover’s face. 

There will be sex toys, vibrators, costumes, free porn available in the room (depends on the price of the hotel). Everything is designed for sex. You just have to be prepared to have the best sex of your life.

8. People sleeping everywhere

Get ready to see drunk Japanese (mostly) salary men sleeping on the street or on the train home.

You might also see everyone sleeping like babies on the train like that’s the most comfortable bed ever.

2 drunk salarymen sleeping in the train in Japan

This is probably one of the biggest problems about Japanese working environment. Japanese workers have to go drinking after work to bond with their colleagues and boss, which is not an option but a must. The result is them sleeping on the street or train home like this.

9. Overly friendly service

several Japanese welcoming cat
Image by Puck Milder

Japanese customer service is legendary and no doubt one of the best service in the whole world.

I was so surprised and happy during my first few months in Japan feeling so important and heard whenever I walk in a restaurant or even just a convenience store.

In the Japanese society, respect and hospitality have become a part of everyday life.

You will see people bowing all the time, either if you are a customer in their restaurant or they just bump into you at a crowded train station. You will hear Japanese staff welcoming you the moment you open the restaurant door. Police, train security or almost everyone would be willing to walk you to your destination if you are lost.

You will feel the smallest touch of care from Japanese service. I was overwhelmingly impressed by their thoughtfulness.

From a little basket on the floor in the cafes or restaurants, so your bags or jackets won’t touch the floor to taxi drivers wearing white gloves and opening the taxi door for you or the display of foods to make sure you know everything about the dish before you order.

A basket on the ground to put your bag into in a cafe
Image by Jeffery Ho

However, amazing as it is, I got overwhelmed after a few months. Because after a while, you will realise those smiles and bows are not actually sincere. That amazing customer service is not based on how well met the customers’ needs are but on the strict standard the Japanese set for themselves.

It is a must for Japanese staff to bow, apologise, speak in polite form (which makes the sentence drastically longer) and finish the whole procedure to the customers even if the customers are in the rush or don’t necessarily need the apology. Because skipping a bow or an apology is bad service.

Also, personally I feel really uncomfortable when they staff keeps bowing and apologising to me over something extremely small and unnecessary.

10. The distant interaction

Tokyo blurred picture of people walking by
Image by Seika

It is extremely common to feel lonely in Japan, especially if you are a foreigner. Japan itself is arguably one of the loneliest countries in the world. It is due to the way people interact, because politeness is extremely important, it leads to distance and insincerity.

Again, it’s about the strict standard Japanese people have set for themselves. Being vulnerable too early is in a relationship or friendship is not accepted. And the Japanese ‘s definition of “early” is literally so late. That is why it can take forever for a relationship or friendship to bloom.

I guess another factor is that Japanese people are often shy. Being a shy and distant person in Japan is greatly tolerated and accepted. You will probably be called weird and have no friends in other countries.

I used to see a couple who knew for sure they like each other but literally took a year to actually date. Or in a Japanese reality show (I don’t remember the name and detail but maybe it’s called Terrace House or something), it took them a whole season for 2 people who were clearly attracted to each other to kiss.

For that reason, it is really easy to feel isolated and disconnected when living in Japan.

11. Sex shops

This is one thing about Japan that confused me a lot. The Japanese might be shy and take forever to form a strong mental connection but they have a completely different mindset toward sex.

Sex shops are everywhere can you can pretty much find anything there. Every weirdest fetish you can think you, Japan’s got you.

Don’t worry though, they respect your privacy and so whatever you buy, you will pay through a tiny window, so that nobody sees you.

There is even porn display on small screens sticking on every shelf. Sex toys, sex dolls, porn DVD, hentai poster and even used panties with the panties owner’s face on it are all available.

12. Hentai and pornography in kombini

Seven eleven in Japan with a black car parked in the front
Image by Arga Aditya

I know Japan tolerates the weird and accepts every human’s sexual fetishes and fantasies through pornography. But I also know Japan is a very strict country when it comes to manner.

There are also lots of social restrictions such as you can’t drink or smoke until 20, you can’t use an umbrella while riding a bicycle and the weirdest rule is you can’t buy a sim card without your parents’ permission if you’re under 20.

But you can see displays of hentai and pornography everywhere in convenience stores despite your age. Japan has a tremendous number of convenience stores and in every store, there would be a section for pornography display without censorship. This is what I don’t understand and I don’t think I ever would.

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