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Interview with Ashley – an American living in Japan

Updated 3 Aug 2010

Ashley Thompson pictureBorn and raised in Seattle, USA, Ashley Thompson crossed the ocean to Japan two years ago. After a year and a half teaching English full-time to high school students, she currently spends her time writing, blogging, learning Japanese and experiencing the culture first-hand (with some occasional English teaching thrown in). She also enjoys playing in the great outdoors and beautiful Japanese nature with her husband, David.

Read more in the Expat Arrivals Japan country guide or read more expat experiences in Japan.

About Ashley

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: The greater area of Seattle, Washington, USA.

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Shimada, Shizuoka, Japan

Q: How long have you lived in Japan?
A: One year in Shimada city, and one year in Fukuroi, another city in Shizuoka.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I came to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program and taught English to high school students for a year and a half. Now I write, blog, and teach English part-time – my husband teaches full-time.

About living in Shimada

Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city? How’s the quality of life?
A: Shimada is a nice size, not too big, not too small, and my husband and I live between rice and tea fields, so it feels more secluded than it actually is. The nearest train station is only a 15-minute walk from our home, and we can easily access a large city within 30 minutes, or Tokyo in an hour and a half.

I love that we have a lot of hiking and recreational activities around us, and the beach isn’t too far away either! I’d say our quality of life is high when compared to that of the US.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: What I miss most about the States, particularly Seattle and the Northwest, is the ease of finding organic and natural products. Though they are available here in Japan and becoming easier to find all the time, they still require quite a bit of time and effort to locate.

Q: Is Shimada safe?
A: Japan is considered a very safe country, and particularly more so outside of large cities. I’m much less concerned about walking or biking at night alone here than in the US – but even so, it’s still good to be cautious!

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?
A: As my husband currently teaches with the JET Program, our accommodation was pre-arranged. Housing is typically pre-assigned to new JET participants, and we were fortunate to be placed in new and modern teacher’s housing. Some people end up in old, rundown apartments – the situation varies greatly.

There are a variety of options to choose from though, if choosing your own accommodation. Japanese language ability is often required to locate housing unless an employer or friend assists with the process. I’ve also heard of companies in Tokyo and other populated areas that offer housing location services to foreigners.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Japan compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Japan is considered to be an expensive country to live in, and this is true. However, there are plenty of ways to live comfortably without a large salary. My costs in Japan are usually similar to those in Seattle – although organic and natural products are often more expensive in Japan. Some fruit and vegetables are less expensive as they are grown locally, but that also means some vegetables aren’t available that I might find in the US.

Our housing is currently subsidised, but when we leave JET, we will most likely have to pay unsubsidised rent. At first glance, housing costs may appear to be cheaper, but that’s usually because the living space is smaller than the average in the US. The closer you live to a large metropolis like Tokyo, the more expensive housing is.

I find utilities to cost about the same as well – although this also varies by location.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: I don’t mix with other expats very often – as I try to create and build relationships with the locals. (Twitter is also useful for this in Japan!) People are generally friendly and curious to talk to foreigners. While many Japanese people may know some English, it’s not always enough to converse. Knowing Japanese, even a little, will aid relationships with locals much more.

There are a variety of networks for expats in Japan, primarily in large cities but in other areas as well. JET participants regularly get together in their local areas, along with other private English teachers. It’s usually not too difficult to find fellow foreigners.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: For me, it was easy, but the relationships (with Japanese folks) came to me with little effort. I’m happy to have met many wonderful people of all ages since coming to Japan and see how those relationships have developed. My Japanese was quite basic to begin with, and I was still able to make good friends.

About working in Japan

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: I came with the JET Program, so my work visa was arranged for me. Generally, if you have a guaranteed (usually full-time) job in Japan, then the company or organisation will sponsor your work visa.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?
A: The easiest way for foreigners to find a job in Japan is by teaching English. There are other options, though the majority of these require Japanese language ability.

As for the economy, Japan is struggling to provide jobs for their own college graduates.

Q: How does the work culture in Japan differ from home?
A: Japanese work culture is quite different from American work culture. Of course, the specifics may vary depending on the type of job and situation. A few things to keep in mind:

  • It’s common practice to work late, as employees often stay longer than their bosses, whether they have work still to complete or not, and even if they have families with small children. Foreigners don’t necessarily have to abide by this, but your actions in the workplace do influence how co-workers perceive you. As a teacher at a high school, I usually left at the normal time, which seemed to be fine; other (Japanese) teachers often stayed two or three hours later than the normal time.

  • Positive feedback is typically rare. If feedback is given at all, it is often negative (and only occasionally constructive).

  • Dealing with problems directly is rare. If someone has an issue with you, they will most likely take it up with a superior, who will then discuss it with you. Maintaining harmony in the workplace and society is so important in Japan that instead of confronting a problem directly, they feel it is best to simply ignore it or deal with it in a roundabout way.

Q: What are the schools like? Any particular suggestions?
A: Though I don’t have children (yet!), I have worked in public schools in Japan. Junior high and high school keep students busy from early morning until late at night, including commuting time, instruction time, extra-curricular activities and study time. Most public education curriculum is assessment-based, with classroom instruction consisting primarily of lectures. Students are tested regularly, and as a result, often study for exams at school and home. Many schools have extra exams or special classes on weekends.

Extra-curricular activities are required of every student. Students can usually choose the activity they’d like to do, but then they must do that activity for the remainder of their high school or junior high days, all year long. Seniors quit their activity two terms before graduating to focus on studying for the infamous college entrance exams.

Elementary schools are much more relaxed, though I haven’t worked extensively in them. My husband and I have discussed how we might educate our children if we are still in Japan, and we agree that public high school would not be a good option – as it is very stressful for students (and teachers). Junior high is possible, but we are most open to elementary schools.

Private and international schools also exist around Japan. Many children of expat families attend international schools.

Q: How would you rate healthcare in Japan?
A: If using National Health Insurance, healthcare is cheap and affordable (as opposed to the US, where I couldn’t get health insurance as a young adult). Wait times are often long, but this depends on where you visit. Hospital wait times are longer than specialist doctors, as most people often go to the hospital first for any kind of problem. The quality of care is typical of any developed country, although some practices may be slightly different than what you are accustomed to in your home country.

I know many people who have had great experiences with doctors in Japan, but I’ve generally had more bad experiences than good ones, particularly with male doctors. Questioning doctors here often offends them, and they may become upset or angry with you (thus, less likely to help you out). Generally, the Japanese accept everything the doctor says and don’t ask questions. However, some doctors are very willing to answer questions, so it depends. In my experience, women are often much more cooperative than men, although finding a female doctor (outside of large cities) can be challenging.

Finding doctors that speak English can be difficult, although most cities have information or a list of English-speaking doctors, as do other expats in the area.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: As with any foreign culture, being open and flexible is so important. When something frustrates you, remind yourself that the customs and culture are just different from what you know. Feel free to compare and contrast, but try not to complain – accept the differences. Be prepared to make a lot of mistakes, and laugh at yourself. Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, even if they sound a little crazy. Japan is a great country to live in and explore – enjoy the experience!

– Interviewed August 2010

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