Living in Japan without speaking the native language comes with its challenges. Ashley Thompson is tackling them one at a time, and blogging about her experiences at Surviving in Japan (without much Japanese) . Originally from Seattle, Wash., Thompson moved to Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET Program more than two years ago. After she began to overcome various hurdles once she was in Japan, she wanted to share her findings and possibly correct a few preconceived notions about living in Japan. Her informative blog is the result. Living in Shizuoka Prefrecture and pursuing a career in writing and journalism, while blogging and doing additional freelance work on the side, she blogs about the basics — and then some, from downloading language-learning phone apps to finding the right feminine hygiene products. Even wizened Japan vets might find some tips about making life in Japan as comfortable as possible.
What was the inspiration to start this blog?
Japan was my first “living abroad” experience, so I did as much research as possible about the culture and everyday life before arriving. However, I soon found that some of the common knowledge about life in Japan was not entirely true. I also felt uncomfortable adjusting from being very independent to depending on others for the smallest of things, as my Japanese was still very basic at the time. So to be more independent I taught myself how to do basic daily activities, such as requesting a package redelivery online vs. over the phone, reading nutrition labels at the grocery store, learning how to locate a specific item, often online, and so on. Occasionally, when I shared my findings with others, they were surprised that there were more simple ways to accomplish everyday tasks or to know it was possible to find specific items.
After becoming very ill and immobile for six months last winter and left unable to work, I started writing seriously again and the idea to start a blog about living and “surviving” in Japan popped into my head one day. I wanted to share what I had learned, and continue to learn, with other expats and folks planning to live in Japan, and create an environment where others could also share their own experiences.
Have there been any topics that you’ve avoided for a particular reason?
Many topics just haven’t been written yet, though I have a long list! Others, such as pregnancy, or owning pets, for example, are situations that I have yet to experience and research. Eventually, my goal is for Surviving in Japan to include a wide range of helpful topics.
In your “how to” guides, you offer a lot of useful translations. How often do you ask for help in translations from your husband or friends?
I do all of the translations myself, typically using Japanese/English dictionaries, as most of the translations are words or simple phrases. In order to be more independent, I needed to quickly learn a lot of difficult kanji and vocabulary, which I often write about in blog posts. If the meaning of a particular word or kanji is ambiguous or unclear, then I ask my husband or a native speaker for clarification. With that said, my husband graciously offers a second set of eyes to catch mistakes I may have missed (but the same goes for English).
Sometimes I might ask a native speaker or other expats about specific products or experiences. For example, when I wrote the post “How much to give at a Japanese wedding,” I did a poll on Twitter and received helpful responses from Japanese and foreigners alike. One person was kind enough to send me a link to a Japanese wedding website with specifics about expected gift amounts that I translated, with help from my husband.
I noticed you have a couple of post about weddings in Japan, like “how to have a ‘cheap’ wedding in Japan”, “how much money to give at a Japanese wedding”, and “how to not make a fool of yourself at a Japanese wedding” Have you been to many weddings here in Japan? Any memorable faux pas?
The titles probably give away that I have most certainly made a few faux pas. Needless to say, they make life interesting and are great learning experiences. I haven’t attended many weddings in Japan, or even in the U.S. for that matter, but I’ve shared my embarrassing experiences on my blog for others to have a laugh and learn from.
Once, I used a plain envelope for the traditional monetary gift instead of a decorative one customary for weddings in Japan. I had no idea what kind of envelope to use and I did not want to give one more appropriate for a funeral or new addition to the family. Plain was safer, I thought at the time although the attendants, after smiling and thanking me profusely, stuffed my envelope under the pile where no one could see it (after I had walked away).
My husband and I got married in Japan, and in efforts to have a frugal wedding, learned a few amusing tips I wrote about in “how to have a ‘cheap’ wedding in Japan.”
What would you say would be the most stressful thing about living in Japan?
This isn’t true for everyone, but for me personally, visiting doctors and dentists. I wrote a post about this, actually, but I tend to have negative experiences at the doctor or dentist (both in Japan and the U.S.). Although in Japan, the language barrier and cultural differences cause a few more problems at times — though there are many exceptions and factors that play into this, such as location, gender, age, etc.
This is broad question, but do you think there are things that Japan (government, companies) could do differently to make it easier for foreigners to live here?
To preface this, I think foreigners should try and do what they can to make life easier, especially by learning Japanese. However, I’m sure most foreigners do try to learn Japanese, and find that it just takes time (myself included). I believe the government and organizations in Japan could offer more help by providing either a translator or an easier way for foreigners to communicate in important places like the immigration office and hospitals. Yes, there are some, but mostly in Tokyo and large urban areas.
Has your activity on Twitter influenced the blog in any way?
I am so glad I started using Twitter this year and highly recommend it for social networking. I believe my presence on Twitter has greatly increased my blog’s exposure and traffic, and I’ve also met a lot of great people and other expats living in Japan and around the world.
Since coming to Japan, what’s been one of your biggest finds?
There are many, but probably discovering that “real” deodorant exists here, as do tampons and toothpaste with fluoride — things like that.
Do you ever revise your posts based on info that you find later, or from the feedback of readers?
Yes. If I discover new information on a topic I have already blogged about then I revise with an update. Or if readers leave some thoughtful ideas in the comments I might add those in as well — but I encourage readers to check out the comments because many people have left some really good ideas or have shared their personal experience, which others may find helpful.
Do you follow other Japan-related bloggers? Any recommendations?
I follow so many blogs it is hard to keep track of them sometimes! There are far too many good ones to list here, and they are all unique and interesting in specific ways. You can find some of my favorites on a continually updated list of Japan-related blogs on Surviving in Japan, or Twitter (@survivingnjapan), where I often tweet interesting posts or articles of other bloggers. I also just recently started a new series featuring Japan-related bloggers who have experience living in Japan, titled “From the Sempai.”