Today, we present five phases Western expats go through, from arriving fresh off the boat to thinking about retirement, when living in Japan.

0–3 years

Congratulations, you’ve arrived in Japan! You’ve been waiting for this for sooo long. You’re fresh out of college, off on your own, making it, probably ensconced in a full scholarship from the Japanese government (Working visa, check! Job, check! Housing, check! Health insurance, check!), a university program (ditto) or the military (ditto, plus benefits). It’s as if you’ve won the lottery: life is a party, and your Japanese colleagues are the ones encouraging it. Life in Japan lives up to all your expectations, and more: everyone is so nice, so polite, so clean, so well-dressed! The society is urbane, educated and honest, all while drinking way too much.

▼Japan is so much fun!


So enamored are you of this lifestyle that you want to be Japanese, speak Japanese and be around Japanese people. Besides, you’re enjoying being in the limelight. People treat you as if you are special because you are foreign, exotic (imagine that), and fun to be around!

You compare this culture to your own and frankly, you’re a bit embarrassed. You slowly start questioning, and rejecting, your own culture in favor of the Japanese way and after a while you don’t care to be around those insolent foreigners.

The first few years in Japan are often referred to as the honeymoon period because everything is new, exciting and your eyes are opened to a different way of life.

3–5 years

You’ve made the commitment to stay in Japan longer by either extending your contract or finding a different job (Working visa, check! Job, check! Housing, check! Health insurance, check! Housing allowance, check! Transportation allowance, check! Bonus, check!). You speak Japanese, you work hard. You fall in love with a Japanese person and maybe get married. You’re starting to notice that even though you’re treated very well by the Japanese, you’re also treated differently, and this is starting to bother you.

▼ Hmm, are those real kitty cuddles, or is it just tatemae?


You’ve probably dabbled a bit in Japanese culture, especially one of the Martial Arts. You have good Japan days and bad ones and you’ve started questioning some aspects of Japanese culture. You’re feeling a keen sense of discrimination behind the facade of contrived smiles. But, hey, your first child is on the way and everyone is happy, including you! Even so, you still harbor doubts and you have confabs with other foreigners, even some of those officious ones, and find out they’ve had similar, unsettling, experiences. The honeymoon is over.

5–10 years

By now you’ve probably assimilated and fall somewhere between your two diametrical cultures, seeing the ups and downs of both. You’ve got a good handle on the language  The discrimination thing still bothers you, but you’ve come to terms with it. You’ve got one or two children in Japanese schools now (they start kindergarten at the age of three here!) but you’re not happy with the Japanese education system and its perfunctory ways. As a mother of an elementary school student, you really don’t have time to be a homemaker and hand-sew bags for your child according to school regulations, nor make cute obento lunchboxes every day so that your child feels extra-special, nor do you feel like complying with any of the other school directives (few of which make any sense, by the way). After all, you have a career too.

“You know, we could just leave!”


If you’re male, you’re getting tired of the grind of working long hours, lack of family time and if you teach (which, if you’re an English speaker in Japan, you very likely do), regretting that you’re spending more time with other people’s children than your own. The draw of your native country is very powerful now. You’ve been contemplating the move for some time now, and the prospect of your kids growing up in a more open society galvanizes you to initiate that move back to your native country. Some of these families will move back to Japan within a year or two because they just couldn’t adjust. Others will have a period of moving back and forth between two countries over the years before settling on one apposite to their circumstances.

10–20 years (if you’re still here!)

You probably deserve some kind of medal for still being in Japan, whether you’ve gone home for a while and come back or not. By now, your kids have grown and they’ve turned out to be pretty damn good adults, even after being subject to that extremely restrictive Japanese education system and its chastening measures. You’ve produced bilingual children who have the advantage of understanding both cultures better than their own parents. Now it’s your time to be the foreigner who embarrasses your kids with your less than oblique Western ways!

You’ve put in the hard yards at work but you’re pretty sure you have it better than a lot of your friends back home. You have a good job, and you’re comfortable—admit it, you’re coasting.


You’re good at picking and choosing what to get angry about and many things that bothered you previously don’t even show up on the radar anymore. You’ve become more objective after watching your own country commit the a few of the sins you so egregiously accused Japan of. You’ve decided that there are no answers when it comes to the interminable discussions of Japan (immigration, discrimination, nationalism, etc).

By now, you’re a completely different person and you realize Japan has been a big part of that metamorphosis. The previous benighted you is no longer as self-righteous and you’re far more accepting of other viewpoints. You also have the perspicacity to admit that it’s the very fact that Japan is such a closed society that makes it so nice to be a foreigner living here. It’s a double-edged samurai sword but you’ve learned to accept the good and ignore the bad. After watching your own country degenerate (which is a universal feeling, but probably a myth) you can understand the Japanese sanctity of harmony and how at least it produces an admirable society that works.

You realize you fit into that category of foreigner living in Japan called “lifer.”

20+ years

Life is still good and not only that, you’re at the apotheosis of your working and intellectual life and you’re starting to think about your retirement.


You may still be married to that Japanese person, but even if you aren’t, you’re probably still living here because, all in all, Japan is a pretty good place to be. At this point, it’s too hard to leave anyway. First of all, you’d miss the food too much. Second, if you went back home, who’d hire you? And can you really call it home anymore? All your childhood friends have moved away, and some key family members have passed on. You still have a passport from your home country but you probably don’t maintain a residence, which precludes you from doing very much in your home country such as getting a loan (to buy a house or business) or even just to get a driver’s license. The only thing you can still do there is vote and pay taxes.

You’re likely getting itchy feet by now too. Feeling you’ve gotten enough out of Japan you may move on to another country and culture on a part-time basis. You maintain a residence in Japan but spend a lot of your free time elsewhere: Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines or Bali because you’re ready to take on new challenges. That curiosity that deracinated you from your native country so early on and brought you to Japan is also what lures you somewhere else now. But you’re not ready to give up Japanese residence. Affordable health care and personal safety have become sacrosanct.

You pick up again on those Japanese cultural arts you were studying before, determined to get a certification this time. As you approach retirement, you consider writing a book or novel based on living in Japan. Or maybe a even chapbook of haiku poems.

But you’re adamant that you will never, ever play gateball.


If you live in Japan, what other phases have you gone through? Let us know in the comments section. We’d love to add them to our list!

Feature image Flickr (Moyan Brenn), all others © AmyChavez/RocketNews24