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Interview with Chris – an expat gone local in Japan

Updated 23 May 2011

Chris Carr - expat in FukushimaChristopher Carr lives in Fukushima, Japan and feels his expatriate lifestyle provides him with unique insights into American society and politics. Chris works to varying degrees as an English teacher, technical writer, translator, web designer, journalist, photographer, copywriter, anthropologist, professional gambler, private investor, armchair philosopher, and drugstore scientist, and he is totally undistinguished in all of these fields. 

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

About Christopher

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Like a lot of writers and expats, I was born and raised outside Boston.   

Q: Where are you living now?
A: I was living in Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, up until the recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown; I’ve been exiled at home since.

Q: How long have you lived in Fukushima?
A: I’ve lived in Fukushima for almost five years.

Q: Did you move with a spouse or children?

A: No, but I met my wife in Fukushima City, and we have three children.

Q: Why did you move to Japan; what do you do?
A: After I graduated from college, I wanted to be an academic economist, so I applied for a Fulbright fellowship in Tanzania to study the policy underpinning that country’s successful safari tourism market. I was not selected for that fellowship, so I instead made plans to move to Japan, work as an English teacher for a year with a big English school called Nova, and use the ensuing shallow knowledge of the Japanese language and culture to leverage some Master of the Universe Asian financial markets position. 

After Nova scandalously collapsed, I found myself wanting to stay and explore what lay under the surface of Japan’s banal exterior. After a year and a half working for a small company providing various services in English, I went freelance in order to spend more time with my family: now I spend my working hours writing, translating, teaching private students, and advising individuals and businesses from all walks of life. During my free time, I pursue freelance writing opportunities in more creative fields. The Wall Street that emerged from the 2008 recession was less attractive to me than the finance sector was before I moved to Japan, so I’m planning on applying to medical schools in a few years and giving my life to science.

About Fukushima

Q: What do you enjoy most about Fukushima? How’s the quality of life?
A: Fukushima City is kind of a secret. It goes unmentioned in all the McGuides, but it’s surrounded by big, beautiful mountains, copious volcanism and all the accoutrements that go with that (onsen resorts, ski fields, hiking and camping, mushroom husbandry, etc.), plus Fukushima City is famous for local produce like peaches, Asian pears, spinach, apples, and big, beautiful grapes. There are no tourist attractions, so for the solitude-loving expat, Fukushima remains a great place to live since it’s a terrible place to visit. 

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Fukushima is a good place for a quiet life, but there aren’t many opportunities to set the world on fire, so I guess what I miss the most about America is the fermentation of youthful, creative energy that only big, exciting American cities can provide.

Q: Describe an ideal way to spend a weekend in Fukushima?
A: Go home on Friday night and relax, get up early on Saturday, spend all day skiing or hiking, go back to the city, have a huge meal, relax for an hour, go out to various restaurants, bars, and karaoke boxes until dawn, spend Sunday watching movies.

About living in Japan

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Fukushima as an expat?
A: Fukushima (and most cities in Japan) doesn’t have any suburbs, which is great because I can’t stand the wishy-washy-ness. My family lives with my wife’s parents on the knife’s-edge of the city: on one side of our house is a train station and several shops; on the other side, rice fields, vineyards, and orchards stretch to smoking, snow-capped Mt. Azuma in the distance.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?
A: Japanese apartments are generally small, cold, and aesthetically revolting. I’ve opted instead over the years to live in old, traditional, Japanese-style houses. The Japanese don’t like them because they’re old and Japanese. This makes the rent cheap to boot. The last place I lived before moving in with my wife’s parents was a gorgeous, old Japanese house with a ton of space, tatami floors, and paper windows right next to the train station. I don’t think I’ll ever find a living space with a better value.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Japan compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Living in Japan costs about the same as living in the States (although the States has been getting more expensive lately). Fresh produce is generally cheaper (and better tasting) in Fukushima than elsewhere since it’s almost all brought in from the countryside around the city instead of imported from banana republics and over-marketed by politically connected plutocrats. Of course, this will all change since Fukushima’s farms have been bathing in radiation for the last couple of months, and it’s destined to affect the agricultural sector even though there has been no official evacuation.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: I have foreign and Japanese friends. Fukushima City is big enough that you can keep meeting a lot of new people here, but it’s small enough that you will run into the same people on a fairly frequent basis.  

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: At first, I naturally fell into hanging out with co-workers, and I generally kept that group of friends while continuing to meet new people by virtue of rigorously going out. 

About working in Japan

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Japan?
A: Japan’s bureaucracy suffers from the same incompetence and lack of common sense that America’s bureaucracy does. I’d say in terms of being stereotypically “bureaucratic”, Japan is much worse; that being said, the process of getting or renewing a visa/permit is relatively easy and streamlined if one follows exactly the proper procedure (which can be learned from a nearby international centre). Additionally, usually employers take care of all the paperwork, which the Japanese are exceptionally good at since learning to file paperwork properly is the basis of their school system. 

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?
A: After Nova (my first company) collapsed, there was a huge shortage of English education and other services, so several people in my city started their own schools, which competed with each other in cutthroat fashion for a couple of years before finally taking relatively equal shares of the market. It seemed like things were starting to fall into stable equilibrium when the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown occurred, and most foreigners left the city. 

My family and I are in America for the time being, and I hear from business associates who have already gone back to Fukushima that it’s like the wild wild West now in terms of wide open and endless business opportunities for English teachers, writers, and translators.   

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: The Japanese have a reputation for working hard, and not all of this is undeserved, but there is a great deal of emphasis placed on maintaining the appearance of professionalism – proper grooming, smiling, tasteful attire, attention paid to elaborate systems of greetings, punctuality, the avoidance of garish ties – that actual professionalism is often overlooked. This results in a lot of people who look good while pretending to work hard when they’re really just putting on a performance and wasting everyone’s time. To perpetuate the cycle, these people build up reputations as good workers by obsessively rearranging the materials in their desk drawers, copying official documents, and vacuuming for twelve hours a day, six days a week, so they become managers and get to tell you what to do. 

On the other hand, Americans – both workers and managers – can’t wait for work to end so they can get on to what is really important: conspicuous consumption beyond their means. But American managers are good at detecting bullshit and unafraid to confront unproductive workers, so American companies tend to be (rather reluctantly) driven towards results. I’d say, in general, that the Japanese are at work for longer than Americans, but Americans work more efficiently, so total productivity comes out about the same in each country.

Another interesting element of the Japanese work culture is its connection with Japanese social culture. In America, I think people actually try to avoid socializing with co-workers, but in Japan, you’re seen as a poor team player for not getting totally wasted with your boss four nights a week. Feel free to embarrass yourself as well. Once the sake starts flowing, all judgment and jockeying for social standing go out the window. It’s actually a nice way to unwind after the tense formalities and endless micromanaging of a typical workday at a Japanese company, although it makes it fairly difficult to enjoy the fruits of your labour until retirement.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: My first company arranged everything going over, and then I did everything myself from there on out. Shipping in Japan is faster than shipping in the US, and it’s cheaper. This is one of the many advantages of an actual comprehensive system of infrastructure, although it’s more an effect of geography than anything else.  

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: We’ve lived with my wife’s parents since my first daughter was born, and I love living in the house where my wife grew up, with three generations under one roof.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?
A: It’s the only home they’ve ever known.

Q: What are the schools like in Japan? Any particular suggestions?
A: My two daughters are both too young for school, and my stepson goes to a Japanese elementary school nearby. I’ve written critically of the Japanese school system on my site, and a lot of this criticism derives from the experience of my stepson.

Q: How would you rate healthcare in Japan?
A: Japanese healthcare is excellent, and the Japanese are the world’s healthiest people, so hooray for socialism, I guess. Luckily, I’ve never had to undergo any major medical procedures in Japan, but basic services are cheap and easy to access. There are general and specialist clinics on every street corner and a generous public healthcare system, so there’s none of the lunacy we get in the States with people going to the emergency room for a cold or a skinned knee.  

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Learn the basics of the language as quickly as possible. A lot of volunteer groups offer free Japanese lessons for foreigners in Japan since there is a (necessary and proper) emphasis on assimilation here. Get in touch with the nearest international centre to learn about all sorts of amazing free services and social events for expats and Japanese alike. Figure out the trash system in your city. Everyone in your neighbourhood will hate you if you put out your garbage on the wrong day. Finally, there is a ton of information for expats on the internet. Look around.

– Interviewed June 2011

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