Reflections on Living Abroad in Japan for a Long Time (Comparison of Life in Japan With Life in America) | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

Reflections on Living Abroad in Japan for a Long Time (Comparison of Life in Japan With Life in America)

By Daniel Gilbert Jan 20, 2019

Having just received eijuuken (permanent residency) in Japan after living here for approaching 13 years of my life, I’ve been thinking about life abroad. I’d like to talk about some of the generalities of living abroad, and then, based on my own experiences of having lived in Japan for a long time, a comparison of Japan with America.



Life Abroad

In general, I think living in a foreign country for several years when you are young and can afford to do so is a wonderful experience. If I were in charge of an American university, I would make studying abroad in a non-English speaking country a requirement for graduation. The benefits are innumerable. You will learn a foreign language (to a certain degree), you will meet many people, and you will, as much of a cliché as this sounds, broaden your horizons. The main benefit of living abroad, however, is that the experience usually teaches you how much you love and appreciate your own country. When living abroad for the first year or two, everything is wonderful, and most people have a very romantic view of their new country. Please wait. At about two years (in my experience), most people get over this romance period and start to view life in this new country with some objectivity. For example, all of my western foreign friends in Japan have long gone back to their countries, with some returning to Japan after several years in their home countries, indicating a pretty strong ambivalence with life in either country. Also, all of my Japanese friends from college have all returned to Japan (about 15 people), with the exception of one who still currently lives in America, though she has returned and lived in Japan for several years and she told me several days ago she is getting ready to come back to Japan for good. I happen to be the exception to this general rule, as I came to Japan when I was 22, and I still live here, and I have only been back to America, my country of birth, for two weeks at the longest over the last 13 years. Also, please do not fall into the cynical attitude that defines many foreigners (especially here in Japan). At about the two-year mark, many foreigners start to notice things they dislike about their adopted country and then fall into a very (I think destructive) cycle of simply resenting the country. I think once you reach this point, it is much better to make moves and go home rather than continue living in a country you do not enjoy living in. Or, I think you should realize that countries are different, accept said difference, and make peace with them.


In the current article, after long reflection, I’d like to discuss some of the things that I think Japan does better than America and that has kept me here so long (along with a few things America does better, in the spirit of being objective and all that).


Five Things Japan Does Better than America


There really is no comparison here. Japanese cuisine, aside from being far more numerous in its variety than America (and also much healthier) food, the ethnic varieties of food here are also much greater. As anecdotal evidence, all of my American friends who come to Japan lose weight even when eating ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING during their stay in Japan. The food is just so much better. I remember, by way of anecdote, one day when I was in college, and I was hanging out with a bunch of Japanese friends, all of whom at that point had lived in America for about two years. I asked them, “having lived here for several years, what about America do you dislike”? In unison, they all (almost) screamed “the food”! Until coming to Japan, I didn’t understand this sentiment, but now, I really do.


Drinking Culture

Once again, hands down, Japan wins here, too. Bars have no last calls, there are no open container laws, the public intoxication laws are so lax as for all practical purposes to be nonexistent, you can still smoke in bars and restaurants here….for a semi-professional drinker, this country is very hard to beat. On the flipside, American bars close at a certain point, if you don’t live in NYC, you have to deal with drunk driving, expensive taxi or uber rides, ridiculous open container laws and public intoxication laws….No thanks.



This country is so unbelievably safe to the average American as to be unimaginable. There is no street crime to speak of. Your chance of running into a robbery or mugger is so infinitesimal as to be nonexistent. This feeling of safety really can’t be overstated: the knowledge that, at any time, you can simply roam the streets, without fear of crime, is truly liberating. Try that in my hometown of Baltimore Maryland. Let me rephrase this: Baltimore Maryland is a city of roughly 620,000 souls, which by Japanese standards, is not a very big town. Despite this, Baltimore clocks 300 murders a year, which comes to roughly one per day! This is not only dangerous by western standards, but this is also dangerous and in fact far more dangerous, than some putative third world countries.


Customer Service

In English, we say (or used to say) that the “customer is always right.” In Japanese, they say “the customer is God” (お客様は神様です). In a sense, this is true. The casual attitude and rudeness you encounter in the west are inconceivable in Japan. This also applies to dealing with government officials. In the west, most notably the Department of Motor Vehicles in America, the level of rudeness public officials will get away is astounding. Having said that, however, see the below comments about what America does better concerning customer service.



One of the things I really dislike about America is its current political climate, where everyone dislikes everyone and where the political division is so absolutely divided that the country itself seems divided. What a breath of fresh air Japan provides, where almost no one discusses politics. This may seem like a trivial point, but it is not. You don’t have to worry about politically discordant conversations during Thanksgiving Dinner as you do in America. You can read about the craziness happening in America, but here, no one really cares or even wants to discuss politics. For me, this is a huge benefit.


Five Things America Does Better

As I mentioned above, in the spirit of objectivity, I will mention a few things America does better than Japan. Having lived 22 years of my life in America and the subsequent 13 in Japan, I feel confident in providing this following objective comparison, and also, I think this objectivity supports my abovementioned hypothesis that living in a foreign country will teach you a lot about how much you like your own country (granted, this is based on my memories of America, so this may be a bit outdated).



Not only does America beat Japan on this note, I think it beats most countries, too. The houses and apartments are huge, and they are so well insulated that if you have spent 13 winters and summers in Japan, where the places are not insulated nearly as well as those in America, you will definitely understand this sentiment. I love Japan and I think there are certain things about housing in Japan that beat America (for example, the ability to find affordable housing in central Tokyo), but when it comes to size and insulation, my God does America win on this note. Even Prices in certain places!

When it comes to almost everything (clothes, groceries, etc), America is cheaper than Japan. Japan is, with a higher tax rate and pretty protectionist policies, a fairly expensive country. America wins here, got to say. Just to cite on example, a few years ago when I was visiting my family, I went to a grocery store and was astonished at how cheap fresh fruit is. A whole watermelon for five bucks???? A whole watermelon costs like 2000 JPY.


Customer Service (Flexibility)

While Japan wins when it comes to the level of politeness concerning customer service, when it comes to flexibility, America wins hands down. Allow me to regale you with an anecdote. A friend of mine loved McDonald’s chicken nuggets, but he loved dipping them in barbeque sauce. To each his own. One day, we went to a local McDonalds here in Tokyo, and after ordering his chicken McNuggets, he asked for some barbeque sauce instead of the normally-provided ketchup. The clerk told him this was not possible. My friend insisted, and even offered to pay extra money to receive the barbeque sauce; this was also denied. After insisting further, the clerk consulted the store manager who, after long consideration, came over to…deny my friend’s request. This is more of an indictment of how most things in Japan are done strictly by the book. While the customer service in Japan is polite, it is also done STRICTLY by the book, and there is thus a lack of flexibility. At an American McDonalds, though the customer service might have been less polite, his request would have been flexibly handled (“huh? You want barbeque sauce, huh? Okay, here you go.”).


Pills and capsules in a medical vial


Anyone who says people are all the same and we are all one and the same is full of it and has obviously never taken Japanese medicine. Western people and Japanese people are not only different in terms of language but are different people genetically, and medicine and the effects thereof reflect this unpalatable reality. Japanese medicine does not work well for western people; I’ve tried all of them. Cold medicine doesn’t work. Laxatives don’t work. Sleep medicine doesn’t work. Pain medication is a joke in Japan. American cold medicine, having tried some for the first time in years last year, is AMAZING. The normal, over-the-counter cold medicine in America knocked me on my butt. I couldn’t believe how well it worked. Laxatives in America make you clear your schedule and make it scary to even leave the house. Pain medication in America is actually too strong, and from what I’ve heard, there is some kind of oxy crisis in the Rust Belt over there where an entire cohort of Americans is killing itself with this synthetic heroin. Antibiotics are the only Japanese medicine that reliably works (at least for me) (also, I had major surgery last year here, and I can attest that anesthesia also works just fine)). Although deodorant is not medicine per se, the same applies here too. Japanese deodorant is just not made for western man, and American deodorant is the one thing I stock up on when I do make my trips home.



America wins hands down here too. Japanese television, though not as bad as many foreigners say it is (there are some quite interesting variety shows, documentaries, and other such shows in Japan), does not hold a candle to American television. I actually stopped, for the most part, watching television when I left America in 2006, but from what little I have seen since then, and from what I have heard, American television has absolutely set the bar in recent years. Although I haven’t seen shows such as Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Walking Dead, The Ozarks, Breaking Bad, Narcos etc, I actually know a lot of Japanese people who HAVE seen these shows, and judging from that, and from the number of Americans who regularly watch (or binge watch, as seems to be the case) these shows, it seems safe to say there has been a television revolution in America.


Living abroad is a great experience. For most people, two or three years are about the limit. I think that living abroad will allow you to appreciate other cultures, but more than anything, I think this experience will allow you to truly understand how great your own country is.

Daniel Gilbert