LIving and working in Japan

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 2 Jun 1994 17:15:23 JST

The following are some first thoughts to get the ball rolling. Your
questions will keep it moving.

What is it like living and working in Japan? As elsewhere in the world
it depends on who you are, how well you're connected, how much time
and effort you are willing to commit. One friend describes the foreign
community in Tokyo as like a sugar-coated donut.

The expats, whose breadwinners are typically executives dispatched to
Japan by their companies, live in the sugar frosting. They have nice
homes or apartments in fancy, gaijin-ghetto neighborhoods. Their
companies pay for the homes, the international schools for the kids, the
club memberships and other amenties they enjoy. The downside for the
breadwinners is the frustrations encountered in trying do business in
an unfamiliar environment where everything seems to take much,
much longer than they ever expected, and the risk0t $@T (J
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their spouses, the typical problem is feeling isolated, helpless and
useless. Tensions on both sides frequently cause marriage and family

The independents are people in the body of the donut. They came to
Japan on their own, as students, programmers, English-teachers, etc.,
stayed on and either found work or started businesses of their own.
Typically they live in Japanese neighborhoods and Japanese-style
housing. They speak the language and are street smart. Recurrent
issues are, "Will I ever move back home?" "What'll I do as I get older
and medical care becomes a more pressing issues?" If they have
children what to do about education can be a heavy question. Sending
the kids to Japanese schools is cheap but hazing does occur, adjustment
can be difficult, and, when one spouse is Japanese the other may feel
increasingly isolated as his or her children can't or won't speak
anything but Japanese. The international schools are good, but the
current and rising price is around US$15,000 a year per kid enrolled.

Illegal immigrants, mostly from South and Southeast Asia or the
Middle East, are in the hole, cut off from the legal, social and medical
support systems that make life more comfortable for the expats and
independents. Exposed to racism and exploitation, when the find work
it's usually doing something that Japanese find too dangerous, dirty or
degrading to do themselves.

Some months back _Tokyo Journal_ offered a more complex
classification with five categories. Living an even sweeter life than the
expats are the "gaijin talents," celebrities who appear regularly on
Japanese TV. All speak fluent Japanese, and, an odd but interesting
historical fact, the typical white male examples came to Japan as
Mormon missionaries. The independents are divided into two
categories: The "Guppies," (gaijin upwardly mobile professionals) have,
in some sense, made it. The "Raw Gaijin" are, as their name implies,
greenhorns who are still in the process of trying to find a niche.

Neither a "Talent" nor an "Expat," I myself belong to the Guppie group.
I was lucky enough to come to Japan with a solid start on speaking and
reading Japanese; I was luckier still to come in 1980 with Japan well-
launched on high growth and to come with names to call provided by a
friend who had worked in advertising here. Now there has been an
explosion in the number of Japanese-capable foreigners, the economy is
in rececession, and jobs are a lot harder to find.

I don't want to say it's impossible. Gaijin are still making it here. But if
you're planning to take the plunge and aren't going to come as an
expat, you need to think seriously about

(1) LANGUAGE: An intensive program in the States or Australia is
probably a cheaper way to get started in Japanese than coming here
with none.

(2)PRICES: Yes, they are brutally high. Unless you have deep pockets,
your standard of living is going to take a hard hit.

(3)TIME: If you come as an raw gaijin, you will want to start
networking fast. It may come as a shock that it will probably take
between three and four years before you're taken seriously. Japan is a
place where people come and go all the time, and the locals (guppies
and Japanese both) are wary of investing too heavily in newcomers
who, more often than not, soon disappear.

Breaking off at this point sounds really gloomy
. There are lots of
good things about living and working in Japan...Ask and I will try to

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)