Featured Life in Japan

A Singaporean Living in Japan – What It Is Like For Me

10 February 2016

Many people are curious about what it is like for a foreigner to live in Japan. However, depending on the type of foreigner you are, experiences will vary pretty greatly. I can only speak for my experiences as a Singaporean Chinese (although there are anecdotes of my Singaporean Indian friend included as well) living in Japan (Tokyo and Saitama).

I’ve been here for a couple of years now, and there are too many aspects of it for me to cover. I will probably leave out something that I will later kick myself for not including, but I’m going to attempt to tackle this topic anyway. Here goes!

You’re not Japanese?

As an Asian foreigner, the biggest advantage (in terms of blending in, not when looking for a teaching job) is that on first sight, no one will be able to tell I’m not Japanese. I easily look like one of them! This is extremely convenient because I don’t have to endure curious looks/stares that foreigners who look distinctly non-Japanese sometimes receive.

My Singaporean Indian friend, Mumu, went to a cosplay event once and the Japanese were asking if they could take photos WITH her! They were fawning over her eyelashes (so long! so thick!) and were generally just besotted by this exotic person in their midst.

So while I get to dodge things like open ogling/judgement, the cat is out of the bag the moment they see my name or if I speak extensively. When they realize I’m not Japanese, their first guess is that I’m Chinese (although Korean is coming up quite often this days). And ALL Chinese come from China, right? Technically, that is probably not entirely incorrect, but please just go along with me and say no for this case.

The instant I clear things up and say I’m from Singapore, almost 100% of the time, surprise will register on their face. And it may well be my imagination, but I feel that the mood shifts ever-so-slightly as they become much nicer and less guarded. Why? Probably because I’m one of the few Singaporeans they have met and they don’t have any particular impressions (negative or otherwise) of Singaporeans.

Singapore, though? Apparently everyone loves Singapore. Singapore is this wonderful country; rich, safe, modern, unbelievably beautiful, with streets so clean they sparkle, and a majestic, iconic building that wows the world over. Thank you Marina Bay Sands for coming into existence and placing us Singaporeans living in Japan in such good favor with the locals, although nobody ever knows its name and everyone calls it “the ship thing”.

Of course, no one (well, not unless they have visited Singapore before) actually KNOWS where exactly Singapore is (surprise! we are nowhere near China!), how tiny it is (Tokyo alone is three times the size of Singapore; Japan collectively? More than 500 times), and they are always shocked when I tell them it’s summer in Singapore all year round.

They think we have our own language (not entirely off the mark, because, Singlish, but still) and are flabbergasted to learn that we speak English in Singapore. And when I tell them we learn two languages in school from young, thus effectively making us bilingual? Minds blown. By the time their brains struggle around to the fact that I am speaking to them in THEIR language, they are pretty much incoherent from shock. Depending on my mood, I may or may not tell them I also speak two other dialects and also learning Korean. I usually do though, because their reactions are priceless, haha.

But yes, that is the typical Japanese I have met. They aren’t travellers; they don’t travel much domestically, and way lesser (if at all) overseas. I easily win any Japanese I’ve met in terms of traveling within Japan, and let’s not compare international travel. The result will just be tragic. On top of little travel, they generally also have little knowledge of other countries/cultures which may be why they are easily impressed by lil ‘ol me.

But you speak Japanese!

When people realize I’m a foreigner, I always get praised for how well I speak Japanese. Always. Even though all I may be uttering are simple sentences like “I’m from Singapore.” Some blogs I’ve read that are written by other foreigners living in Japan express distaste at being praised just for being able to speak a few simple Japanese words (when their Japanese level is in fact much more advanced), because they think that Japanese are being condescending and think “Oh my god! A non-Japanese is actually ABLE to pronounce a few words of our extremely complex and difficult language! She definitely deserves praise!”

But I personally don’t view it that way.

I feel that to the Japanese person who only knows one language, being able to speak a second language is an amazing accomplishment, something that they can only dream of. Thus, when they meet a foreigner who even bothers to make an attempt to speak Japanese, they are full of genuine praise for that person, and woven into that praise is admiration and envy that being able to speak another language is something they can only dream of. I think it’s something akin to the feeling of meeting a person who can play the piano with his feet. Well, if that is not incredulous enough for you, feel free to replace that with whatever it is that you find amazing, and that you could achieve if you set out to do it, but in the meantime is nothing more than a lofty aspiration.

Maybe it’s just my imagination or I’m being naive, but that is the kind of vibe I get from them when I hear their words of compliments. Which is why I’m always pleased to hear them, and always thank them with a smile. Yes, even if they’re praising me when all I’m saying is the super basic “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (pleased to make your acquaintance).

Expectations

Well, so far, the above is instances when I had the chance to have an extended conversation with the people I met. There are many times when all they can see in me is someone that resembles them in appearance. In those times, I feel that there are certain expectations, much different from those of a non-Japanese-looking-person.

To illustrate, let me bring up the golden example of this day many years ago when Fu and I were on holiday in Japan, and we were out with Mumu and her husband, M (also Indian). We had to ask for directions and my Japanese back then was very basic and Fu’s was non-existent, so we left it to M to do the asking because he’s extremely fluent in Japanese.

We stopped someone, and M did the asking. The guy promptly turned to Fu and me and fired off the directions in rapid Japanese. Then he looked at us expectantly, waiting for a reply or some sort of acknowledgement. I could only stare blankly at him while my brain reeled from the intense chunk of foreign words thrown at it as it struggled to hold on desperately to the few words it recognized and caught.

I didn’t even had the presence of mind to reply the guy, and could only look pleadingly at M to help us out, but he was shaking from trying to suppress his laughter -_- When M finally spoke to the guy in between chuckles, the guy actively avoided looking at M, and he faced Fu and I when he next spoke again. It’s like his brain cannot process that an Indian is speaking fluent Japanese to him!

So yes. Looking like a Japanese in Japan is a double-edged sword, where the downside is that I’m expected to speak like a Japanese too -_-

TL;DR

In general, I didn’t really have any particularly bad experiences living in Japan. Sometimes, I do get the feeling that I’m being slighted because I’m not Japanese though. However, part of it may purely be psychological and potentially stem from the fact that I’m always conscious that I’m not Japanese.

I consider myself to assimilate into the culture pretty well;  I separate my trash, I never talk on the phone on the trains, I keep to the left on escalators, I present my neighbors with gifts when I move in, I buy souvenirs even if I’m traveling within the country, to name a few. I respect their culture and follow their rules.

But even doing all that, I feel I might always remain an outsider and will never be “one of them” because… I’m not. Truth is, I don’t really feel like I fit in Singapore either. Perhaps I don’t really belong anywhere? But right now, I am happy and comfortable in Japan. It’s still the place where I want to be and it’s still exciting for me. I also have my loved ones with me, so that’s more than enough for me to call home :)

29 Comments

  • Reply Jaybee Cheung Jia Bao 10 February 2016 at 1:14 pm

    Hello, your writing helped me decide to visit japan a couple of months ago. Although i wasn’t able to visit many of your recommendations, I absolutely enjoyed the trip to the land of the rising sun!

    It’s very enjoyable to read your posts as you share both your living experiences and travel suggestions.

    You infused good and sufficient content and delivered them to us in a ‘light’ form, magically feels like I am literally there while reading your posts.

    Happy Lunar New Year, wish you and your loved ones good health!

    Jia Bao, Singapore.

    • Reply Rin 11 February 2016 at 7:09 pm

      Hello Jia Bao,

      I’m really happy you enjoyed your trip to Japan! And wow, my writing was the impetus to your decision to visit? I’m most flattered!

      Thank you for liking my posts! I don’t think I can ever adequately express how much appreciate when I receive a heartfelt message like that, but please know that receiving messages like that is one of my biggest rewards as well as motivation to continue writing :)

      Have a fantastic year of the monkey ahead too!

  • Reply Justine 10 February 2016 at 5:06 pm

    That’s how I felt when I was living in Japan as well. They may admire you and find you interesting (like a novelty?), but always an outsider (and really hard to make good close friends) – guess it all comes from Japan being mono-cultural and all.
    But it’s great you have a place you call home :) that’s what matters anyway :D

    • Reply Rin 11 February 2016 at 7:14 pm

      Hi Justine,

      Yeah, I absolutely agree with you. In the first place, it’s already difficult to make good friends after leaving school, but this brings the difficulty a notch higher. And yep, that’s what’s most important, isn’t it? :)

  • Reply Reven Teo 15 June 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Hi Rin,

    I am from Singapore as well, I would like to be like you, moving to a whole new environment.
    But I do not have a degree. can you advise me what can i do?
    how can I get a decent job over there?
    i can stay with my friend at Kyoto for the time being. I probably need a job thats all :)

    • Reply Rin 15 June 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Hi Reven,

      As far as I know, having a degree is a prerequisite for visas here. You may want to check and confirm that. If that is the case, if you want a work visa, I don’t really have any other advice apart from getting a degree.

      Other possible ways to get a visa is starting a business here (of course, it is a complicated process and requires startup capital), but I think the degree rule does not apply in this case (again, please research and confirm for yourself).

      Good luck!

  • Reply Arianne 9 July 2016 at 10:21 pm

    Hi!:) Thank you so much for the post! I want to live in Japan when I grow up too, and I’m now learning Japanese to try^^” May I ask, what standard of Japanese is required to live in Japan? Also, what are our chances of getting a job if we study overseas in, let’s say, America or Britain, and then head to Japan to look for a job? Also, was it lonely when you first went to live in Japan?>< Sorry for asking so much! I really, really want to live in Japan next time^^" Thank you!!^-^

    • Reply Rin 11 July 2016 at 1:26 am

      Hi Arianne, no worries, I’ll try to answer the best I can!

      Well, the better your Japanese, the easier things will be for you. But for simple daily life, you get can by with conversational level. I know people who lived in Japan without being able to speak or read Japanese at all, but as you can imagine, it’s quite a challenge since they can’t even tell salt from sugar in the supermarket, etc. There are times when a higher level is required (when dealing with things like tax, pension, etc) and it definitely helps a lot if you can read Japanese well (the Japanese love their paperwork!)

      I think it really depends on what kind of job you’re looking for, so I can’t really say. But what I can tell you is that the current bare minimum is that a 4-year degree is required for visa application.

      Hmm, again, I think this depends on the individual. I naturally do quite well in my own company (lol) and it was basically a giant exciting adventure living in Japan (and still is!) so I rarely feel lonely. Oh, and my then-boyfriend, now-husband came to Japan together with me back then, so I think my situation might be different from others who live overseas alone.

      I always believe that if you really want it, you can make it happen. I did it, and you can too :)

      勉強頑張ってね!

  • Reply Arianne 12 July 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Hi! Thank you so much!^-^

    Alright! I’ll work hard on my Japanese and brush it up to as high a level as I can!^^ And one day I’ll join you in Japan too haha!^^ I think I’ll love it as much as you do, whether I’m alone or not:) どうもありがとうございました、私は絶対に頑張ります~!^^

  • Reply Chun Kiat 20 July 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Hi Rin, thank you for your wonderful blog! I can’t stop reading your posts! :)

    I just graduated from NUS, and will be moving to Tokyo (actually Kawasaki to be more specific) next month and who knows how long I will be there. I was just randomly looking at conversion of driving licence and chanced upon your blog, thank you for that!

    I also introduced your blog to “our bunch of Singaporeans” going to work/working in Japan this year because I think it is very informative for everyone. Hope that there will be an opportunity to meet you and your husband :D

    • Reply Rin 21 July 2016 at 12:40 pm

      Hi Chun Kiat,

      Thank YOU! And it’s nice to meet someone else like me. When I start, I can’t seem to stop reading my posts either hahahaha.

      Not sure if you saw this post, but it will probably be helpful. Your test location will likely not be Fuchu since your address is in Kawasaki, but apart from the test route, I believe everything is the same. Good luck!

      Thanks for spreading the word! I’m really happy you found it useful :) Have a smooth move to Japan! I’m sure you’ll enjoy your stay :D

  • Reply Rachel 13 October 2016 at 10:55 pm

    Dear Rin,

    I suddenly came upon your lovely blog tonight, and it has me feeling natsukashii! I’m in the opposite situation from you: Singaporean who was pretty much settled in Japan, but ended up leaving. I chose to leave for personal reasons, but I do sorely miss the country I once considered “home.” Seeing your beautiful photos, reading your thoughts that ring so familiar (I believed I’d grow old in Japan, but I never thought I’d ever be anything but an outsider, no matter how many years I lived there), the emotions your blog evokes are bittersweet…but sweet all the same. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

    • Reply Rin 14 October 2016 at 3:22 pm

      Dear Rachel,

      Thank you for commenting. It always humbles me to know that my writing touches someone else. Even though you’re no longer living in Japan, I’m sure all the lovely memories and experiences you had here will stay with you for a long time to come :)

  • Reply Naz 17 December 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Hi Rin,
    I came across your blog while looking for places of interest to see for my 2017 Japan trip. Looking forward to visiting the places you have suggested. I enjoy reading about your experiences in Japan. Being a Singaporean living in a foreign country myself, I revel in reading about my fellow Singaporeans’ ‘home away from home’ experiences as it enables me to gain perspective on how others deal with moving beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone.

    Wishing you and family a Merry Christmas

    Naz :)

    • Reply Rin 20 December 2016 at 12:53 am

      Hello Naz, thanks for reading and commenting! I hope my posts help you in planning your trip to Japan :) Yeah, it’s always interesting to learn about a different culture, whether through reading or personally experiencing it! Which country are you living in, if you don’t mind me asking?

      Happy holidays to you and your family too :)

      • Reply Naz 20 December 2016 at 8:53 am

        Ohayō gozaimasu Rin.
        I’m in Australia (Adelaide). Getting all excited just thinking about my trip which is still months away. I’m thinking of doing an autumn/winter trip (love the cold). How do you celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in Japan?

        Naz :)

        • Reply Rin 25 December 2016 at 12:16 am

          Autumn is beautiful! But if you love the cold, then winter will be even better for you. We celebrate Christmas the Japanese way – with Christmas cake and fried chicken! Haha. As for new year, this post might interest you ;)

          Happy Christmas!

  • Reply Venus 25 December 2016 at 10:50 pm

    Hi Rin,

    Thanks for your posts!! V informative.

    I have went Japan more than 5 times and I still loved Japan. Always hate the idea of coming back esp at the airport… :_( Thinking of settling there for good.

    Just touched down from narita today. So sad.

    Any tips or recommendations?

    Oh yea, btw I just took my jlpt and will be taking for N3 next round.

    • Reply Rin 27 December 2016 at 12:07 am

      Hi Venus,
      Glad to hear that my posts are useful :)
      Not sure what tips/recommendations you are referring to though.
      Good luck for N3!

  • Reply Kay Tan 23 January 2017 at 4:14 pm

    Hi Rin,
    Amazing post! Stumbled across your post when i was browsing the internet on what it is like for Singaporeans to live abroad in Japan. Is it okay if i ask you a few questions ?
    1) Is the work life balance in Japan really that bad as people make it up to be? Or does it depend on the nature of the company you are working for? (foreign/Japanese)
    2) Do you know of any Singaporeans that came from SMU/NUS/NTU that is currently working and staying in Japan too? If so how are they coping with life there?
    3) Where would you recommend for me to start learning Japanese?

    Thanks a bunch and i wish you the best there! Cheers :-)

    • Reply Rin 25 January 2017 at 7:00 pm

      Hi Kay,
      Thanks for reading :)

      Regarding your questions:
      1) It really depends on the company. There’s no guarantee it will be awesome just because it’s a foreign company, and vice versa. The best way to know is ask around about that particular company (in Japan).

      2) Sure, I know many who graduated from a Singapore university and working/worked in Japan. I would say the main challenge is the language, and after that, adapting to the culture. They roughly knew what they were getting into, so they had sufficient mental preparation. For everything else, they had the adventurous spirit to bring them through ;)

      3) If you can, start with a language school to build the foundation. If not, there are many free/affordable resources online to learn the language.

      Good luck!

  • Reply Jeanie Yap 3 February 2017 at 1:55 pm

    Hello, I would like to know is it difficult to find a job for Singaporeans in Japan?

    • Reply Rin 4 February 2017 at 12:09 am

      It really depends on what kind of job and what kind of skills the person has.

  • Reply Grace 26 February 2017 at 11:14 am

    I love your blog! I’m Singaporean and somehow I feel like I never fit in either. My dream is of cos to one day be able to stay in Japan as well. For now, I’m just enjoying my stays in Japan every time I go on a vacation!

    • Reply Rin 1 March 2017 at 7:16 pm

      Hi Grace, thank you for reading! I hope you’ll be able to realize your dream one day. Till then, enjoy your trips to Japan :)

  • Reply Adabel tan 17 April 2017 at 4:10 pm

    Hi, I’m thinking of moving to Japan to work for an experience say about 6 – 12months. But I only have a nitec cert and planning to take up the language course here in sg before going. Do you think there will be a spot for me there? Perhaps at a cafe. Any thing that I should research or plan Abt making my stay there?

    Can please drop me an email about this?

  • Reply Sunny 24 May 2017 at 10:38 am

    “I keep to the left on escalators”
    Remember it’s right in Osaka…
    (Ok now I really need to get to do some work. Ok maybe lunch first.)

    • Reply Rin 24 May 2017 at 11:28 pm

      Of course I do ;)

  • Reply KS 18 July 2017 at 6:50 pm

    Maximum pension withdrawal is 36 months. Free monthly pension payments which you can not recover?

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