I have lived in Japan for a little over two years now and I’ve been meaning to get to this discussion for a while now. There are a number of things about Japan that some Americans might be surprised about. Granted, some of this stuff is stuff that applies to much of the world, but still, given the fact that most people grow up in the general area, or at least country, where they were raised, it would still be a bit of a surprise.
I’ll start with this one since it is the one that confused me the most at start. ATMs in Japan close at about 6pm in the evening on weekdays, 5pm on Saturdays and 3pm or 4pm on Sundays. Some ATMs do stay open until as late as 9pm, mostly around the train stations, but for the most part ATMs close early. This is true of all ATMs, even those in 24 hour businesses like most 7-11s. In addition, on some national holidays, ATMs will be closed all day for several days, as will the banks.
You should keep this in mind when you come to Japan whether to live and work or as a tourist. The last thing you want to do is get caught somewhere with no cash because you waited until after the ATMs closed to try to get some.
In addition, if you’re using an American check card, you need to be aware of which stores you can receive funds from. 7-11 ATMs will accept American check cards, assuming they are backed by a major credit card company, but will only give you money in 10,000\ amounts, which is approximately equal to $100. The best bet for ATMs to access your American accounts is the Post Office ATMs. There you can get money in amounts of 1000\ which is roughly equal to $10 and thus about the same as an American ATM.
Of course, if you have Japanese bank account then any ATM is fine, though using ATMs other than your bank will result in a fee, just like in the States.
This is something I’ve been told is characteristic of a lot of old world cities such as are in Europe or Asia. The basic theory is that most of these streets and roads were developed with foot traffic and horses in mind rather than cars. Whatever the cause, you will find two way streets in Japan where one compact car covers almost two-thirds of the width of a road and it is barely passable for the rare American SUV you see getting driven around town.
If you’re here as a tourist this isn’t going to be too bad, since you’ll be walking or using public transportation quite often. But if you’re here to live and work, or you’ve rented a car for some reason, you’ll end up finding yourself waiting for the road ahead of you to clear of oncoming traffic before you turn onto it yourself.
The highways and larger streets generally don’t suffer from this, but it’s pretty endemic in the residential streets. There is one two-way street often used as a corner cutter in my neighborhood that is barely large enough for a single compact car, to indicate an extreme version of this.
I’ll include this because it is a major difference, but it’s not going to be the most surprising thing in the world. Lots of countries drive on the left hand side rather than the right hand side. More surprising might be the fact that you are not allowed to turn left on red lights as you are in some states in the US. There might even be a curving side road that seems to circumvent the traffic light, such as our turn-offs and turn-arounds in the States, but you are not allowed to take that turn if the light does not show green.
Speed limits are much lower in Japan than they are in America. Highway speeds in Japan are about 50 kph, which is about 31 mph. Residential streets have speed limits as low as 20 kph, which is about 12 mph. There are, of course people speeding in these cases, but even on the highway it is rare to get over 60 kph (37 mph). Also be aware of the fact that the roads are narrow and often have a lot of curves, so even going the speed limit can be dangerous in some parts of a city. You might often have to pull over to allow other drivers to pass by you before you can advance.
Sidewalks are also uncommon in parts of Japan, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for pedestrians. This is another reason to travel at a low speed, especially in residential neighborhoods. As pedestrians, you’ll have to keep aware of the traffic around you.
While we’re talking driving, might as well get this done with. If you come to Japan with your International Driver’s License, that will be good for a full year. This is actually very lenient compared to the length of time American States give foreigners to earn a local driver’s license. That said, Americans have perhaps the most onerous tasks in front of them in order to get a Japanese Driver’s License.
This is partially because of the fact that as Americans, we don’t have a federal issued Driver’s License. Each of our States issues its own Driver’s Licenses. In order to establish a straight conversion, Japan would have to negotiate with all 50 States and probably each of the various territories. Instead of doing that, Japan took the more sensible route of requiring Americans to pass a driver’s test in order to get a license.
There are a number of places where you can go to learn about taking a test and it is different in different prefectures, but I’ll give some basic commentary here. Some of the stuff they will expect you to do on the driving test will send a shiver up your spine because it feels like violating a lot of American driving safety procedures. Among them is the fact that you will have a stretch where you are expected to get up to highway speeds rather quickly and then come to an almost complete stop quite soon after. You can fail because of a single mistake even if everything else you do is perfect. The instructors are also under no obligation to tell you why you failed if you do fail.
When you do go to do the Driver’s License test, make sure to where good clothes. This might seem counter-intuitive to an American who might feel that something like a Driver’s License test is something you should dress comfortably for, but it is much better to dress in a business-like and dignified manner. The inspectors are much more likely to take your side in matters if you appear in a suit and tie.
Finally, make sure to schedule your driver’s test six months or more before your international or current license runs out. The test can be murder and it might take you several tries before you pass. This is much easier if you are operating on a current driver’s license than if your license expires within a week or two of the first attempt.
Cash Society and the Value of Coins
You’ll want to carry cash with you most of the time. A lot of places do accept credit cards, but it is much easier to pay for everything by cash. American credit cards, in specific, aren’t accepted in a lot of places. 7-11, Yokubenimasu and Seiyu accept American credit cards. This is most likely because the Yokubenimasu supermarkets are owned by 7-11 and Seiyu is the Japanese branch of the Walmart company. I asked about credit cards at McDonald’s and I don’t think they accept them.
Another issue with American credit cards over here is that Japanese banks and American banks do not agree with the methods they other institute uses. This can result in a lot of odd things. I’ve had credit/debit expenditures double, appear and disappear from my American account before. The doubled charges eventually go away and leave you with your proper amount, but in the meantime, you show less money than you have. The more dangerous situation is when charges are delayed so that it looks like you have more money than you actually do. Regardless, using an ATM to withdraw cash does not seems to create the same chaos which is just another reason to make sure you have you have cash on hand.
As to cash, the lowest paper denomination is 1000\ which is very close to $10. The best equivalents to $1 and $5 denominations are both coins. This is something that you should not overlook as a minor difference. In America, all of our coins are pocket money. We tend to think of it as stuff that can be relatively safe tossed out on a whim such as for an impulse buy or vending machines. Think of how often you use a quarter or put together some dimes to grab something just so you can get rid of some coins from your pocket. Now apply that way of thinking to one and five dollar bills. You can end up going through a fairly significant amount of money without even realizing it.
Police cars drive around with their lights flashing all the time. This does not mean that they are in pursuit of someone or else heading somewhere on an emergency call. They just always seem to flash their lights. As a driver from America, this was unnerving the first few weeks since usually seeing flashing police lights in the review mirror means you’re about to be pulled over. It’s just humdrum normal over here. I haven’t yet been pulled over, though now I wonder if I’ll end up driving in the US at some point and dismissing the flashing lights in the rear-view because “it’s normal.”
Also, neighborhoods have small buildings with an office sized for two to four officers spread fairly liberally through the urban areas. They also have the patrolling cops that we’re familiar with in the States, but these police kobans make a good place to go when you need information or help for some reason. The officers are very polite and helpful, and the one time I went into a koban, there was a mat showing a variety of common troubles with English descriptions.
That said, I've been warned to keep my relevant ID, whether it’s a passport or an alien resident identification card, on me at all times. Japanese police have the authority to stop and question you just because. It has never happened to me, but, just in case, be sure to be able to prove who you are and that you are present legally.
Businesses Close Early and Open Late
The local supermarkets close at about 9:00pm or 9:30pm. Some of the gas stations close at around 6:00pm. 24 hour businesses do exist. 7-11 is open 24 hours, though their supermarkets are not. Seiyu is open 24-hours, which isn’t surprising given they’re owned by Walmart. McDonald’s free-standing restaurants are often 24-hours and I have seen one gas station that has a 24 hour service time.
By the same token, if a business does not stay open 24 hours, you can expect to open late as well. Do not expect supermarkets or the post office to open before 9:30am, for instance. This is likewise to the ATMs at those locations. If you need to purchase something for the early morning, you’ll be limited to convenience stores, which can be expensive. If you have a 24 hour store such as a Seiyu, that is also an option, though they are a Walmart company.
Gas Stations and Convenience Stores
Convenience stores (konbini) and gas stations (gasoline stands) are not the same thing in Japan. If you need gas, you will stop at a gasoline stand, so far all the ones I’ve found are full-service stores where you tell them how much gas you want and they fill it up and wipe your windows. Then they will guide you off the property, looking out into the street to make sure it is safe for you to go onto the road. I have heard that there are self-service gasoline stands in the Date-Fukushima region, but I have not yet encountered them.
Convenience stores are pretty much like you’d expect for convenience stores in America except for the fact that they don’t have gasoline pumps. There’s snacks, drinks, office supplies, health products, toys and so on. Convenience store prices are significantly higher than those of supermarket prices. This is even true between the prices of Yokubenimasu and 7-11, which are even owned by the same company. If possible, you’ll want to avoid purchasing food at these places, but sometimes it’s just not feasible to get to one of the supermarkets.
Supermarket Bags and Baskets
When I first arrived in Fukushima, the older man that was showing us around told myself and another teacher that it was okay to take a basket from the local supermarket as long as you returned it later. The supermarket later corrected me on this misconception. They do not like you walking off with their baskets.
When you get to the cash register in a Japanese supermarket, whether it is self-service or a manned station, you will have the option to either purchase shopping bags at 3\ a piece or use your own bags or baskets. Yokubenimasu sells baskets for 300\ to its shoppers which can be used to carry your purchases home as well. Given that they are fit for other purposes as well, I have three of these baskets. I occasionally purchase bags because I reuse them for my lunches or else I bring a basket with me. The sold baskets are of a different color than the store baskets. In Yokubenimasu, the store baskets are dark-grey or dark-green while the customer baskets are pink.
To be polite, do not bag your purchases at the cash register. The cashier will give you the bags you request or you can pull them off the hooks at a self-service station. Then take the basket and the bags off to the counters nearby which exist for the purpose of giving customers a place to put their groceries into their bags and leave the space at the cashier open for the next person.
When it comes to public transportation, avoid taxis unless you absolutely have to take one. Taxis are very expensive in Japan and it can easily cost you 5000\(~$50) to take a 20-30 minute trip. Busses and trains are much more reasonable.
When reading prices in Japan, you’ll often note two amounts on the listing. The higher of these two amounts is what you will actually be paying as a result of sales-tax. Yes, unlike in America, sales-tax is listed on the price tags of most products in Japan. This is very convenient for the purposes of tracking your spending since you do not have to perform the extra calculation of multiplying by 0.08 (or whatever amount is appropriate to your state and city) and then adding that to the cost.
The bit about taking your shoes off before you go inside a building is well known in America, but it is a bit more extensive than you might think. For houses and apartments, this is obvious. Not so obvious the fact that some businesses also require this. If you are here on vacation you might run into this at some restaurants, which will ask you to remove your shoes before entering, or at some health clinics. Supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants like Denny’s and McDonald’s don’t make this a concern.
Shoes are also something to be aware of if you work at a school. Faculty and students at Japanese schools have one pair of shoes for outside and one pair for inside. The inside shoes range from slippers to sneakers. If you don’t have indoor shoes on hand, most schools provide pairs of slippers to wear. However, if you have big feet like I do, these slippers are likely to fit poorly and be rather uncomfortable.
Make it a habit to check around the entrances of businesses and other buildings to see if there are racks to hold shoes. If so, then you’ll be expected to remove your shoes before entering. For those with big feet, you might think about carrying around some slippers if you’re going to be here on vacation. Most of the places I’ve found didn’t have a problem with me bringing my own indoor shoes.
If you order food from a place for delivery then you might receive some dishes like plates and the like. You are expected to return these dishes and utensils to the restaurant. If you have a pizza delivery place in the area and you use that, it won’t be a problem. But if you order from most other restaurants, yes, the restaurant will expect you to make the trip out to return their things. Most of the time I’ve done delivery has been at work, where the plates and dishes are collected and returned by the maintenance man, so I haven’t had to deal with this yet.
Japan does not tip. Employees do not take tips for anything. I’m not sure whether or not it would be considered offensive to offer a tip or not, but simply don’t do it. Restaurants, full-service gas stations, hotels….There are no tips given anywhere in Japanese culture. This may feel strange to you if you’re used to certain positions being tipped as we are in America. After all, in America, a server gets almost all of their income day in and day out from tips while their paycheck usually only pays for their taxes. Not tipping in America is a horrible thing to do since you’re essentially not paying for your server’s service, but in Japan, there is no such thing as a tipped position.
I am limited to working to a maximum of 29.5 hours a week. My company and the Board of Education I work at get around this somewhat by scheduling me breaks in the middle of the day that don’t count toward those hours. I use those breaks to do more work, so I’m going a bit over the 29.5 hours. Simply put, however, you are not allowed to work as many hours as most of the rest of the country do on average. I do not know if this limit is from the law or from my company, but it is listed in my contract.
On another note, to an American eye, certain contracts appear to be a monthly salary with a reduction in pay on the two months with major vacation time. In America a monthly salary is paid to you regardless of how many hours or days you actually worked. Granted, taking time off for illness or vacation could result in you losing pay if you go over your allotted days, but you will not lose pay from a monthly contract due to mandatory days off such as national holidays when your business is closed. In reality, my contract is a daily salary and if there is significantly long holiday period I potentially lose money for it.
The apparent reduction in salary on August and December actually seems to work as a buffer in this case, preventing you from getting paid so little that you can’t make your expenses on that month. As a result, I end up with small paychecks in October (two months after August and summer vacation), February (two months after December and winter vacation), May and June (two months after the 2 week period between school years which branches over March and April).
That said, this is not hidden at all. There is no trickery involved. The payment scale is actually stated out in the contract as being based on days and hours worked. However, it is stated as a monthly total and so there is a bit of confusion involved if you don’t pay attention. The pay is still quite good, at least compared to the living expenses in Fukushima.
Some Things about Japanese Schools
Japanese schools do not have a janitorial staff. There will be a maintenance person for some things, but by and large all of the cleaning is done by the students and faculty. Either at lunch or at the end of the day, everyone will set out to clean an assigned area of the school. If you are teaching in Japan, it is best that you take part in these cleaning times as much as possible.
Elementary and middle school teachers and principals do not remain in the same school for their entire careers. It has been explained to me that teachers will often be transferred to a new school after about six years. As such, if you are teaching in Japan, you will fairly often see new teachers coming in and old teachers going out.
Big Windows and Loud Sirens
This is mostly directed at people from the Midwest, since it looks like big windows are a thing in schools further out on the edges of America. A lot of us from Texas or similar central states are used to schools which are designed with thick, concrete walls and where there are often no windows at all looking out on the surrounding environment. There’ve been jokes that some of the same architects for Texas schools also design prisons. The reason for this is quite simple and can be explained in two words: Tornado Alley. A lot of schools and other public buildings in the Midwest are built to withstand high wind forces and minimize the number of windows which can be turned into shrapnel in the face of a tornado.
In contrast, Japanese schools have huge windows. Virtually the entire outer wall of most classrooms is made up of windows that take up half the space of that wall. It is very pretty and convenient for when the weather gets hot and you want to open a few dozen windows.
In addition to this, in places with a lot of farms they apparently use what sounds a bit like an air raid siren to announce that it is time for lunch break to all the farm workers in an area. Given that similar sounding sirens have been used for tornado warnings in the past, it can be a bit jarring the first time you hear it and don’t know what it is. I must admit that I don’t know if that siren is standard throughout Japan or not. It is not used in the region of the schools that I currently teach at.
You can find some amount of American brands and foods all over the place. Coca-Cola is everywhere, as are a number of the potato chip brands, oreos and such like that. Taco and Chili flavor pouches can be found at Lion Dor or Jupiter News (which is more expensive). Seiyu is Walmart owned and Yokubenimasu is 7-11 owned, so they have a number of American brands available. For a lot of things like chocolate mints, Dr. Pepper, root beer, tortillas and other such items, you’ll want to go to Jupiter News or some other foreign foods importer specialist. However, that will be expensive. A pack of 12 large tortillas at Jupiter News costs almost 800\ (~$8), and a can of Dr. Pepper costs between 110\ and 140\(~$1.10 to $1.40). A can of Campbell’s soup or Hormel chili will cost around 450\ (~$4.50). As such, save that as an occasional treat or for special occasions.
If you are coming over here for vacation, do not expect to catch any new American movies while you are here. Big Hollywood movies open in Japan on average one to three months after they open in the rest of the world. I am not joking here. When the Avengers came out, it hit the Philippines, Korea, Australia and the States all at roughly the same time, but it did not come to Japan until two or three months later. There are other countries that have their releases around the same time, but almost none open later than Japan. Check the IMdb release times if you’re curious.
That said, there are plenty of good Japanese movies to catch and if you’re in Japan you should probably want to catch a Japanese movie rather than an American one. Of course, if you have trouble with following a Japanese language movie, you can always look for a run of an American movie as something to do. Just realize that most American movies will have either a dubbed or subtitled format. If the Japanese language isn’t something you can follow easily, you’ll want dubbed, which is usually 2D and has one or two showings late in the day.
If you come during late-Spring to early-Autumn, you’ll find that there are spiders almost literally everywhere. This seems especially true out here in the more rural areas of the country. My information suggests that Japan has no native-born dangerous spiders so, other than just being really creepy and sometimes quite large, they don’t create too much of an issue.