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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 9: So You Want to be an Expatriate

One of the more common reactions I get from people newly learning that I’ve lived in Japan is “I wish I could do something like that.” It’s actually not all that hard; all you need is a bachelor’s degree, some patience during the application process, a few thousand dollars to get you over there and set up before your first paycheck, and the will to move a few thousand miles away from your previous life. For the majority of the people I know, only the last of those is a real obstacle.

Assuming that you’ve got all four of those things, you can find yourself in Japan within weeks of deciding to go. You’re probably expecting certain differences from life elsewhere in the world–if you’re like me, odd surprises are one of the reasons you’re moving there–and if you’ve done your research you’re not going to run into any really difficult surprises. However, some aspects of life caught me by surprise; they aren’t well-documented in the guidebooks because they’re the sort of thing that few tourists will encounter.

There exist small concrete cul-de-sacs scattered through the local neighborhoods; these are trash collection points. In the interest of civic beauty, it is discouraged to put trash into these before sundown. Tax-supported garbagemen remove trash from these most mornings around sunrise; each day is for a particular type of trash. There is a day for burnable trash, and a day for non-burnable. There is a day for plastic recyclables, a day for metal recyclables, and a day for paper recyclables. Twice a month there is a day for trash containing toxic components, like most consumer electronics; once a month there is a day for large trash, meaning anything larger than a trash bag of maybe 15 gallons of capacity. Any trash of the wrong type on a given day is left there by the garbagemen, in the expectation that you will reclaim it and put it back on the correct day.

I suspect that the complexity of the garbage system is the reason that there are almost no public trash bins anywhere in Japan. Depending on where you are, there may or may not be a three-in-one sorted trash can on the platform of a train station, but elsewhere they just don’t exist. There may or may not be a can-recycle-bin at a vending-machine cluster, but if you buy a snack of any sort, expect to carry all the packaging home with you.

No matter what you buy in Japan, there will be packaging. Typical canned drinks come in steel cans which easily supported my weight; an American trying to crush one against his forehead would likely knock himself out. A boxed curry dinner from a convenience store will have the plastic container to eat it out of, an internal plastic strip to separate the curry from the rice before eating, and another plastic strip to separate the garnish. This entire thing is lidded and shrinkwrapped, and before you take it home the clerk will double-bag it. Even fruit in the grocery store have individual anti-bruising styrofoam pads wrapped around them.

When you purchase your items, the only plastic involved is in the packaging, as you will almost certainly be paying with paper money. Japan’s economy is heavily cash-based; outside the big cities, it’s rare to find a merchant who accepts credit cards. Those who do typically push the credit-card processing fee directly to the consumer. I am told that checks do exist in the Japanese banking system, but I never saw one. When I needed to pay a bill, I would take the bar-coded bill and the appropriate amount of money to a convenience store, where they would process the bill. When I was paid each month, it was with an envelope full of cash, which I then took to the post office to deposit in my account.

The post office runs the largest bank in Japan. My entire life in America, access to my bank account was mediated through a mag-striped plastic card. Not so in Japan! There, you’re given a paper book. To process a transaction at an ATM, you insert the entire book, opened to the current page. As you insert or withdraw cash, the machine prints out the transactions as they are processed; the means by which you access your money is also the statement of transactions. It’s a pretty clever system; I just wish there had been some sort of PIN required so that I might have had some protection had I ever lost that book.

It actually took me a few months before I ever established a bank account in Japan, though. This was partly because at first I didn’t really have enough cash on hand for it to matter, but also because it took a while for me to procure a means by which to authenticate myself. This went beyond having my passport handy; I also had to finalize my working visa. Once that was finished, only days before the 90-day tourist visa would have expired, I had to set about acquiring an inkan.

Handwritten signatures as a measure of personal authentication never took off in Japan. Instead, they use personal seals, or inkan. Foreigners can sometimes get away without them–I was permitted to sign for receipt of packages from the shipping company before I had mine–but for official and governmental documents, they are the only allowable means to document personal authentication. In other words, they’re necessary before you can get a bank account, before you can enter any sort of contract; I know they’re necessary for people to get married, and I suspect they’re required to acquire a lease. Fortunately, they’re not that difficult to acquire; all it took was a trip to the local photography shop, an order form, and a bit less than a hundred dollars, and two weeks later mine had come in.

Why do you go to the photography shop to get an inkan? I have no idea. Finding odd instances of misaligned expectations is the rule there instead of the exception. For some things, like this one, there’s no recourse to sort things out except to ask someone where on earth you get your seal made. Other things kind of fall into place in bits and pieces. Some things feel extremely natural: there was a small dry cleaner’s down the road from me, which cleaned and pressed all my work clothes for about $20 a week. The shopkeeper was one of the few people I met in Japan who seemed to have no comprehension English whatsoever, but the ritual was so familiar to both of us that it proceeded smoothly anyway: I would come in each Friday with that week’s used clothes, she would hand me the previous week’s clothing and ring it up, and I would pay and leave.

There’s no way I could run down all the little miscellaneous oddities that I encountered while I stayed there; I doubt I even remember the majority at this point. What I can say is that they made living there a wonderful experience. I liked Japan not only for the individual differences, but for the sheer fact that there were so many of them. Daily life was a matter of exploration, discovery, and adaptation. I suppose that with sufficient time in the country, that may have eventually ceased to be the case, but as things stand, that constant pressure to learn and evolve was exactly what I wanted and one of the reasons I look back at Japan with such fondness.

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Comment by moonplanet
2008-01-03 05:52:07

Is that your name on the inkan? “Good speed”? Or does your name sound like those words?

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-03 06:53:53

Yup. Just take out the space and you’ve got my surname.

Comment by onesweetgirl
2008-01-04 19:20:38

I never got a hanko and I had a bank account. They even let me complete a wire transfer from UFJ to my US bank account by signing in the little circle.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-04 19:45:17

Weird; none of the banks in my town were willing to do that for me. I guess this is a case where mileage is being demonstrated to vary.


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