This is perhaps one of the most thoughtful questions I’ve seen on Japan Guide’s forums, so I thought I would respond to it. But then I thought, why write for their site? So I’ll publish my response here instead. The question:
“For those of you who left your home country and now live in japan, how did you come to the decision to get up and leave everything and go to japan? Was it an easy decision for you?”
In my opinion, though, a person needs to have the right combination of ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ factors to make it long-term in Japan. If you’re lacking in either one of these you’ll likely find yourself having a hard time here.
‘Pulling’ is the one people generally think about more. This is your desire to go to Japan: things about Japanese culture, language, and customs that appeal to you. Do you like Japanese food, do you like bowing, do you like the way people are quiet and mind their own business; do you want to do those kinds of things yourself? Obviously you don’t have to like everything, but the more that you do the easier of a time you will have.
‘Pushing’ on the other hand fewer people tend to think about. This is your desire to leave your homeland; to “get up and leave everything.” Are there many things about your native culture that do not appeal to you? Do you feel like your personality exists far away from the average type for your country? Are there things your country and countrymen do that you feel you can not tolerate on moral grounds? Do you have extremely poor relations with your family? Do you feel that you are in danger if you continue to live in your country? Again, you don’t need to be able to answer “yes” to every one of these questions, but the stronger your desire to get away from where you are now, the easier you will be able to adapt to a new environment such as Japan.
Again, lacking either one will end in misery. If you mainly have ‘pulling’ factors but very weak ‘pushing’ ones, you will likely find yourself going through the typical phases of “culture shock.” You will have a lot of fun at first, because you really like Japanese things, but you will soon come to miss home. You will have a hard time staying in Japan long-term away from the family, food, and culture that you’ve grown up with. And when you encounter things in Japan that you feel are better back in your home country, your desire to return home will become all the stronger.
Upon returning home, you will likely find yourself pining for Japan after a while, for there are things that you truly love about Japan. But unless you are rich enough to be able to evenly divide your time between living in Japan and living in your home country, you will either have to live in Japan missing home or live in your home culture missing Japan. Most people of this type wind up doing the latter one because that’s where all their friends, family, and native language are; it is just so much easier to take as frequent trips as one can afford to Japan and consume all the Japanese things you can get your hands on back in your home country.
On the other hand, if you mainly have ‘pushing’ factors but weak ‘pulling’ ones your long-term prospects also look bleak. At first you might be glad to have escaped, to be away from all those bad things back home. But as time wears on and those memories start to fade and become more distant, your current life in Japan will more and more take center stage in your thoughts. But because there is little about Japanese culture that you find attractive, you will have a hard time being happy in your new environment. You will come to feel like an exile, wishing your home was just different enough that you could easily tolerate living there. When you have negative experiences in Japan, you will more and more come to view it as another country that you are unhappy living in.
If you are smart and fortunate, you will be able to move on to a third country to try your luck again. Maybe you will find a culture this time that you enjoy. Maybe there were Asian things that you liked but Japan didn’t turn out to be a good fit; maybe somewhere more exotic like China or Thailand will suit you. If you are less fortunate, you will likely find yourself in Japan for a long time, too afraid to return to all of your problems in your home country. Maybe one day, perhaps many years down the line, your negative experiences in Japan will pile up too high and you will find yourself on a plane home, to try again to put up with those things that you couldn’t put up with before. But maybe by then you or your home country will have changed enough that you don’t find it so difficult anymore.
Leaving your home country and culture to settle long-term in a completely foreign one is not an easy thing. You will struggle to learn all the language, customs, and cultural tidbits that all the natives around you know naturally. You will have difficult times. But a strong combination of those ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ factors will save you from despair. Your daily life will be filled with times that remind you how much you love Japan, and how much better it is here than back where you’re from. It will give you strength and you will be able to carry on, every day adapting more and more to your adopted homeland. Memories of your home country will fade, until perhaps only a vague conviction not to return remains. But those memories will be supplanted by the ones you have made in Japan. More and more you will come to resemble the natives, even if you’re never quite the same by virtue of your knowledge of a different kind of life that exists out there, a worse one. But you will be in the Japan you love, and away from the place you detest, and you will find that all of your wildest dreams have come true. And you will be happy.
So then, is it “an easy decision?” It should be. It’s not necessarily easily accomplished: just finding a job, securing a work visa, and scraping together enough money for a plane ticket will likely be huge problems. But your ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ factors should be so strong that the decision is an easy one. Many people will tell you that you should try visiting and, if possible, living for some months in Japan before you take the decision, but to me that just indicates that your factors are too weak to begin with. If you need to visit Japan to make sure that your ‘pushing’ factors are strong enough, that is, to make sure that you can live so far away from home, then that is a clear sign that your desire to leave everything behind is far too weak. Whether or not you made that Japan visit you will likely find yourself having a fun year or so in Japan before homesickness overwhelms you and you’re back in your home country for good. If you need to visit Japan to make sure that your ‘pulling’ factors are strong enough, that is, to make sure that you actually like it, then that is a clear sign that you are not well educated enough about Japan. In that case you don’t need to fly all that way to cure your ignorance, just start exposing yourself to all the Japanese things you can get your hands on. Watch Japanese TV, eat at Japanese restaurants, and read every book about Japan you can get your hands on. Of course, take it all with a grain of salt: life is not television, Japanese food abroad is a shadow of itself in its native land, and your experience will be different than every other person who has been to Japan and wrote a book about it. But if you find yourself liking what you see in Japanese TV, then there will be things you like about daily life in Japan; if you like Japanese food as you can get it in your home country, then you will love it in Japan; and if you can read about the worst experiences of people who have been to Japan and still think, “that’s not so bad, I can handle that,” then you will have inoculated yourself against unpleasant surprises.
Some people come here on a vacation and have a great time only to find that the experience of being a resident of Japan is different than that of being a tourist. People this naive are few and far between. Far more common are the people who have lived in Japan for a time as study-abroad students. These people gain a false confidence from having already lived in Japan, almost certainly having encountered a problem here or a negative experience there, that they feel they are able to handle anything Japan can throw at them. They are often shocked to find that trying to make a life in Japan is completely different than being a study-abroad student. Where they had school administrators silently handling everything behind the scenes for them, they now have to handle everything for themselves. Where they were able to skip class in order to nurse a hangover or go out and have a fun time, they are now expected to show up to work every day and on time. And where they had plenty of company from fellow foreigners to go out to karaoke or whatever every weekend (and most weekdays), they increasingly find themselves in the company of Japanese people or alone, their former friends either settling down or returning home themselves.
A visit to or stay in Japan can be great fun (in fact, it is almost sure to be), but if you’re basing your decision to reside long-term in Japan on such previous visits or short-term stays, you are sure to be disappointed. However, if you have both a burning desire to live in Japan as well as a burning desire to be rid of your “home,” then ignore everything else and come on over. You will be fine in Japan.