What I’ve learned from living in Japan

I’ve been back in the UK about seven months now and, what with the rapid approach of the end of the year, it seems appropriate to reflect a little on my time in Japan. Also, I’ve been invited to participate in Whoa… I’m in Japan‘s blog carnival which is looking at the question “What Have You Learned by Living Abroad?“.

I lived in Japan for three years and, naturally, I learned a lot in that time. Of course, I learned some Japanese, and I learned heaps about Japanese culture and traditions. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to living in Japan was the idea that I could learn something new every day.

Like many gaijin (foreigners) before me, I thought Japan seemed like the perfect place to learn about myself. That sounds like a terrible cliché, doesn’t it? Running away to a foreign land in order to find myself. Of course, “finding myself” wasn’t my only purpose in Japan. I was there to teach English, and that took up the majority of my time.

But it was through teaching English that I learned the most important lesson. Every day I faced two main challenges:

1) The Japanese business style

2) English as a second language

The Japanese business style is very different from the way I had worked in the UK before. Assertiveness wasn’t really acceptable, and I learned to keep my mouth shut and get on with things a lot more than I ever had before. I also learned to show respect to my colleagues and seniors a lot more than I had done in the UK. There were formal phrases to use, and certain manners like bowing which I needed to follow.

The challenge of English as a second language is that it changes the way you speak, and it changes the way you listen. I spent most of my time speaking to people whose first language wasn’t English, so I learned to slow down and listen more. You have to listen for the key information, and you have to speak in a way which doesn’t intimidate the learner.

This combination of toning down my assertiveness, showing more respect, listening more carefully and choosing my words more cautiously affected who I was and taught me about who I am. I used to be someone who challenged everything and did all that I could to stand out from the crowd. I wouldn’t have said I was a loud person, but I was certainly chatty and liked to express my opinions. In Japan, I learned to become someone who sits back, listens, and is comfortable with who they are. I still express my own opinions and feelings, but I do so in a less direct, more thought-out way.

Basically, living in Japan taught me to slow down. When I came back to the UK I was shocked by how often I would hear people speaking over each other and not listening to a word the other person was saying.

The challenge I face now is to not go back to my old ways – even if that sometimes means I have to stop the person I’m with and just ask them to slow down with me.

For more information about Whoa… I’m in Japan‘s blog carnival, please click here. I can’t wait to hear what all the other people learned from living abroad!

7 thoughts on “What I’ve learned from living in Japan

  1. Thanks for taking part in the blog carnival! That’s a really interesting post, because often I find in the foreign community the idea of being “submissive” or simply not assertive is a bad thing. What would you say has been the biggest benefit of slowing down, as you put it?


    • I think it’s just made me a better person. I listen more to what other people have to say, and I try to think about situations from everyone’s point of view. I think I’m a bit more creative in my approach to difficult situations now. 😉


  2. Funny that you’ve mentioned how people in Britain speak over each other and don’t stop to listen. I remember my first experience in South America and how flabbergasted I was with what came across as pure rudeness: people never seem to listen to the other end of the conversation! Of course, after you get to know local behaviour better you come to terms with this cultural difference.


    • I guess what surprised me was that I had never noticed how people behaved in the UK before – despite having lived there all my life before going to Japan. It takes a little adjustment to come back to it. 😉


  3. Pingback: What Have You Learned by Living Abroad? | Whoa...I'm in Japan?

  4. Really like this post, you write very nicely about the way you need to reconsider your actions as a foreigner in Japan. I always felt that intuition became an aid sometimes to listening and communication between people speaking different languages. Did you find you could communicate somethings without language getting in the way? I always found it interesting…


    • Thank you for stopping by, Joseph, and leaving such a nice comment.

      Yes, my Japanese was never good enough, but I always found that I could communicate just fine. Somehow it was always possible to communicate with a mixture of English, Japanese and gestures. And even when I found myself with an old Japanese lady who couldn’t speak any English at all, we still found a way. 😉


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