10 Things I Won’t Miss about Japan When I’m Gone

I’m not afraid to admit that Japan is a unique country with lots of good things going for it. But in my mind, Japan has far more going against it than for it. So much in fact that I decided to leave the country far sooner than I initially anticipated (a first for me since moving abroad back in 2009).

China was well worth two and half years of my life, Thailand was certainly worth three, yet Japan was barely even worth one and a half. But why? What made the country such an undesirable place for me to live?

To answer that very question, I’ve listed below the ten things I’m going to miss the least about Japan when I hop aboard a plane to greener pastures in the coming weeks:

1. A Live to Work Mentality

“In Japan work is more important than family and personal matters.” This is what my nitwit micro-manager of a boss actually had the nerve to tell a fellow teacher of mine. But looking back in hindsight, I realize she was actually telling the truth.

Three of the core principles that I believe every man should follow in regards to work are: work to live (or rather don’t live to work), work smart not hard, and don’t work hard to make other people rich (i.e. don’t be a wage slave). But apparently Japan never received that memo, as these three principles go against the very nature of the Japanese work mentality.

If you come as a foreigner to work in Japan, understand that your employer very much expects you to forfeit to them your heart and soul. You exist for them and them only. Anything less is unacceptable in their eyes. If they ask you to do extra unpaid overtime work, you do it and don’t ask questions (at least that’s what other Japanese would do).

Being a slave to one’s employer is what gives so very many Japanese people’s lives meaning, and I find that quite sad. Having lived and worked here, I now find it no surprise that so many Japanese people are prone to suicide. Japan is surely one of the only countries in the developed world where “death from overwork” stories are commonplace.

2. The Japanese Food Scene

Curry, Ramen, and Gyoza Meal
Japanese-style curry, ramen, and gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) – three of the most popular and widely available foods across Japan. Too bad none of them are very good…

Let me put this as bluntly as I can. Of seven years of living in Asia and traveling to countless countries across the continent, Japan has hands down the worst food scene of any Asian country I’ve ever seen. It’s even worse than that of the Philippines, a place that almost all Westerners can agree has pretty bad food.

But why you ask? Because the entire nation of Japan is under the control of mediocre and shitty restaurant franchises, the range of flavors in Japanese cuisine is incredibly narrow, the Japanese are largely adverse to strong and rich flavors, and it’s incredibly hard to find a reasonably priced meal of good value anywhere in the country.

I don’t know how many more times I can eat ramen, sushi, and bland barbecue meat and fish, as those foods make up 80% of the Japanese restaurant scene. I’m fed up with eating grossly disfigured and castrated “foreign” cuisine. I’m sick of paying $10-15 for child-sized meals, regardless of which restaurant I go to. I’m tired of leaving restaurants still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. I don’t know how many more times I can pay $5 for a bottled drink and a tiny snack at franchise convenience stores. And I’m sick of cooking the same few meals for lunch and dinner every day because there’s hardly anything good to eat at the supermarkets.

Every time I left Japan to travel in neighboring Asian countries, I ate my ass off like a prisoner released back into the real world after a 10-year hiatus. Thinking of the Thai food scene, where food is flavorful and full of “kick,” makes me drool. Thinking of the Chinese and Mongolian food scenes, where one can eat hearty meat-filled bowls of la mian (ramen) for only $1-2, makes me feel envious. Those bowls are half the size in Japan, the broth is bland, and the price is 3-5 times higher.

There’s lots of good food out there in Asia, but hardly any of it’s in Japan. I love sushi and sashimi as much as the next guy, but they get tiring. Why Japanese cuisine is renowned the world over is beyond me. I find it way overrated, overpriced, and underwhelming. And this is coming from one of the world’s most open-minded eaters.

3. A Sky-high Cost of Living

Macro of the 10,000 Yen Note
The 10,000 yen note (about US$100) – it can take you very far in most of Asia. Well except in Japan, of course.

When I very first moved to Japan in July 2015, I naively thought the country wasn’t as expensive as it’s often made out to be. But it was only a matter of time before reality caught back up with me and slapped me right in the face.

Oh my! Where do I begin? Tiny, unsatisfying meals starting at $10 and up (see number two above), shoebox-sized apartments resembling a prison cell for $500 a month and up, exorbitant highway tolls that cost $10 and up just to go from one town to the next, shitty pint-sized hotel “rooms” for $50 a night and up, and small bottles of ubiquitous domestic beer for $5 and up at local hole-in-the-wall bars.

You might’ve thought I was talking about Tokyo, but actually these are the prices I pay here in Kamisu, an unnoteworthy and off-the-grid industrial town located in a rural part of Japan two hours east of Tokyo. It seems like no matter where I go in Japan, one thing is certain – prices will be sky high. My shitty little town is just as expensive as Tokyo, and that’s no exaggeration. I only save money here because there’s absolutely nothing for a foreigner to do here. There’s no value here.

4. Awkward Japanese People

Japanese Woman Plays a Gambling Arcade Game
Surgical mask-wearing, socially awkward, and frail people like the woman pictured here are abundant in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japan has a long history of being an isolationist country. All it takes is one look at all the awkward ass people here to realize that. Though to truly understand how awkward so many Japanese people are, you have to live here. Words just can’t do justice.

I can’t stand how people here always wear surgical face masks for the silliest of reasons. I can’t stand how rigid, uptight, and snoodish so many people are here.  I can’t stand how everything gets slowed down to a crawl in the country because no one has the backbone to make the first move in everyday social situations. I can’t stand how people here face downwards (especially women) and completely avoid making eye contact with strangers. I can’t stand how over-the-top and fake people’s politeness is here. I’m sick of seeing the “plastic” Japanese smile. I can’t stand how robotic and “scripted” service is in this country.

Never have I been in a country with as uncomfortable a social vibe as that of Japan. The Japanese strongly prefer to only communicate with and form relationships with other Japanese, and it’s no wonder why. I guess social freaks only feel comfortable communicating with other social freaks, huh? I feel like I’m living in a country full of malfunctioning androids.

5. A Socially Hollow Country

Anime Museum in Kamisu, Ibaraki
This is the perfect image portraying how I feel when I think of my social life in Japan.

As a result of all this awkwardness, Japan also feels very socially hollow, lonely, and depressing.

In Japan, the preservation of “wa” (socially harmony) is of utmost importance, so everyone goes out of their way not to “upset” others. People don’t want to engage with one another, especially complete strangers, as they don’t want to accidentally upset or offend one another. Making simple small talk with those you don’t know well is considered invasive and impolite. As a result, there’s a strong “mind your own business” social atmosphere here that rears its ugly head in all social interactions.

I also can’t for the life of me figure out how to form any meaningful relationships with Japanese people. I’ve met many Japanese people over the years both inside and outside of Japan, but no matter how hard I try to make a connection, I always fall short. They have ice shields up that I find hard to break through without the help of alcohol. China was a cakewalk in comparison, where so many people have an unquenchable thirst for all things Western. All I had to do was step outside, and people would wanna engage with me. Yet here in Japan nobody seems to care about foreigners or the outside world, so it’s hard to make any connection.

I’ve met plenty of other foreigners who’ve lived in the country for years, sometimes even decades, yet they still don’t have any close Japanese friends. Romance sure, but not friendship. They may think they do, but I can see with my very own eyes that they don’t. Rather they merely have distance acquaintances whom they met through their everyday life.

I came to Japan with no Japanese friends, and I’ll be leaving Japan with no Japanese friends. You can’t say I didn’t try, because I did. This was surely the loneliest year and a half I’ve ever spent in Asia.

6. The Land of a Million Rules

Just go from any other Asian country directly to Japan and see how quickly the atmosphere changes from carefree to uptight.

Did I speak too loudly? Did I hand my cash to that person the wrong way? Was I not supposed to throw my trash away in that particular trash can? Did I walk out in front of that person too quickly? Should I not have crossed my arms in front of my boss? Was I talking too loudly to my friend on the subway? Was I supposed to wear special slippers when I entered the bathroom? Were my polo shirt and slacks considered “too casual” for that after-work get together? Did I not stand at the door long enough after that customer left our school?

It seems like no matter what I’m doing in Japan, I might be breaking some obscure rule. I can never relax nor let my social guard down. I’m always walking on eggshells. I think my Chinese wife said it best: “Japan feels like living with your parents – they’re always monitoring your behavior, correcting what you do wrong, and making you do lots of chores.”

Japan may be very political free, but it feels like the most oppressing country in the world in regards to expectations of one’s behavior in public. I now understand why so many Japanese people lock themselves away from society by becoming recluses in their homes.

Before ever relocating to Japan, ask yourself this deep philosophical question: is personal freedom important to me? Because you’re not going to have any when you live here.

7. Year-round Shitty Weather

Empty Rice Paddy in Rural Ibaraki Prefecture
This is what a typical day in rural Ibaraki prefecture looks like. Beautiful, eh?

We always hear about how crappy the weather is in the UK, but why do we not hear more about the crappy weather in Japan? The country is home to some of the worst weather in all of Asia after all.

The weather here in Kanto excels at always keeping my spirit lows. In the winter it’s cold, windy, and rainy. Most of spring is just a light extension of the winter – cool, overcast, and greatly lacking in sunshine. The summer is hot and incredibly humid, making the weather feel much hotter than it really is. There are also plenty of dreary downpours that last entire days, preventing you from enjoying summer trips too much. And finally the autumn is also somewhat chilly and grey, but it’s probably the most balanced season (too bad it feels so short, though).

So to sum that all up, the weather downright sucks 3/5 of the year, and it’s just acceptable the other 2/5. A huge lack of sunshine, too much drizzly rain, and a lack of any truly characteristic weather are the nails in Japan’s weather coffin for me. No thanks. Give me Southeast Asia’s intense heat and tropical storms any day. Japan taught me that sunshine (or lack of) can really impact one’s mood.

8. Expats in Japan (And Japan’s Million Apologists)

Westerner Holds a Plate of Dango
Foreigners obsessed with all things Japanese tend to have a really narrow and skewed view of what the country is actually like.

I’ve never seen an expat scene with as many pathetic, frail, emasculated, nerdy, and socially awkward types as the one here in Japan. Sure, Asia tends to attract a lot of oddballs and losers, but Japan seems to attract way too many anime-obsessed basement-dweller types from the West.

Japan also attracts a lot of Westerners who come to Japan merely to experience Japan, not Asia as a whole. When I tell these types about my trips and experiences to nearby Asian countries like Mongolia, China, South Korea, and Thailand, they look at me like a deer in headlights. They would never dream of going to these “dangerous” countries. They only like safe Japan, not dangerous Asia.

And that leads me to another point. Say something bad about China or Thailand (especially China), and everybody from the West is all ears to hear about what terrible places these countries are. Kick those countries while they’re down, right? But say something bad about Japan, and all these keyboard warriors and newbies in Japan come out of the shadows to protect the country of their fantasies. It hurts their little hearts to know that everyday life in their beloved dream country isn’t anything like it’s portrayed in the anime, manga, or wild Japanese TV shows they’ve seen back in the West. Japanese media tends to be over-the-top and overly fantasized because Japanese people need an escape from the monotony and misery of their everyday lives. They need to be placated.

Yet by speaking negatively about Japan, you’re bursting these Western weaboos fantasy bubbles, so they’ll do everything they can to avoid the harsh truth and to make sure that Japan is kept high on that fantasy pedestal. Just ask Ryan Boundless, a YouTuber who doesn’t always have the nicest things to say about the country. He has to deal with these apologists left, right, and center.

9. A Nation of Spineless Men

Young Japanese Man Plays an Arcade Game
Modern Japanese men spend too much time here and not enough time bettering themselves.

No matter where I go in Japan, all I see around me is a bunch of neutered and feminized men. They’re addicted to their vices – cigarettes, alcohol, pachinko, video games, porn, sex toys, and prostitutes. They’re overly soft and anything but forward. They eat like pigeons (and I’ve never met someone who was physically strong yet ate so little). They’re scared of a little spice and strong flavors. They avoid taking risks like the plague. They have a tendency to become hermits who lock themselves away from the harsh realities of the real world. They almost never engage in masculine bodybuilding activities like weightlifting. They try to win women over with their wealth and status, rather than with their charm, looks, and character. What more do I need to say? The men here are quite a pathetic bunch.

I’ve heard theories that Japan lost its edge after all the sanctions brought against the country as punishment for the crimes it committed during World War II. Japan used to be a nation of strong and conquering men, but these sanctions metaphorically castrated the country. What we see now decades later is a nation of complacent men, and women too as a result, who’ll go out of their way to avoid “rocking the boat.” The protests that happen in places like Thailand, Cambodia, and even the United States will never happen in modern day Japan, as the Japanese are the ultimate complacent slaves to their controlling corporate masters.

Men don’t like to see weakness in other men, so the huge lack of testosterone in this country makes me nod my head in disappointment. I wish I could use a time machine to take a look at the men of Japan from 100 years ago. There must be no resemblance between them and the Japanese men of today. Hyper-safe and sanitized societies like that of modern-day Japan create weak, ball-less men.

10. Dull Culture

This is a pretty cool street scene from Choshi, a small seaside town on the eastern edge of Japan. Too bad I only saw this once over the span of a year and a half in the country.

I still remember how underwhelmed I felt the first time I arrived in Japan. It was nothing like my first visits to China or Thailand. When I initially arrived here in Kamisu, I remember thinking it looked like a bland and generic mid-American town. All I saw around me was franchise restaurants, big box stores, boxy Japanese cars, and nerdy people. Nothing really felt uniquely Japanese, nor did I see anything of real cultural value. Rather what I saw before me was yet another overly developed country that prioritized modernization and corporate power at the expense of culture and national identity.

Months later when I finally went to Tokyo for the first time, I was expecting a futuristic and sensory overload city, yet what did I see before my eyes? All the streets felt residential and eerily quiet and devoid of people. The main avenues and subway stations were all filled with surgical mask and black suit-wearing zombie people marching to work with the most depressing body language I’ve ever seen. There was no characteristic street life or gritty wet markets like in the rest of Asia. Every district was the exact spitting image of all the others.

When I went to the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, I couldn’t help but wonder: where was the palace? In Southeast Asia, palaces are colorful and vibrant structures with elaborate and flashy decorations. Yet all I saw in front of me in Tokyo was a generic, faceless building.

In Roppongi, one of Japan’s most famous nightlife districts popular with Westerners, all I saw was the same kind of bars I saw everywhere else in Tokyo. It didn’t have any of the distinct, fun, or edgy style like those of Khaosan Road in Bangkok, Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon, or Itaewon in Seoul. So why does everyone love Tokyo so much? Have they even seen the rest of Asia?

Sure, there’s culture in Japan, particularly in cities like Kyoto. But you have to find the culture, as it’s hidden away in places like theaters or reserved for seasonal festivals only. The culture most certainly doesn’t find you as it so often does in the rest of Asia. Streets are dull in Japan. Anyone who thinks Japan is this cultural Mecca as it’s so often portrayed to be, clearly hasn’t traveled to the rest of Asia. Japan feels overly sanitized, developed in all the wrong ways, grey and drab, and culturally unengaging. Even as a travel photographer I struggle to find anything worth taking a picture of. That alone speaks volumes.

Conclusion

It’s quite clear to me now that the Japan I had envisioned my whole life and the Japan of reality are two totally different places. Just because a country manufactures and exports a lot of the products and media we like to consume in our everyday lives doesn’t also mean it’s a great place to live full of wonderful people.

Nevertheless, Japan clearly appeals to a particular kind of Westerner, and that kind of Westerner certainly isn’t me. I anticipated that Japan would be one of the coolest and most interesting Asian countries for me to ever live in, yet my experiences in the country were anything but cool or interesting. Perhaps that’s was why I’m so disappointed with the country – my expectations were way too high and out of sync with reality. But how could I not have had such high expectations when everyone and their mother holds the country in such high regard?

Of course there are still some things I’m gonna miss about Japan when I’m gone, but I can safely say I’ll have zero regrets when I leave here a couple weeks later. The weird robotic people, the expensive and subpar food, the ruthless work culture, the high cost of living, and the lack of vibrant culture are the biggest nails in Japan’s coffin for me. In a nutshell, Japan has too many of the things I hate about America, and too few of the things I love about Asia. I’m ready to end this bleek chapter of my life and start the next one.

Goodbye, Japan! I won’t be thinking about you!

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