Exchange Students to Japan Warn: Japan Isn’t Like Anime

Exchange Students to Japan Warn: Japan Isn’t Like Anime

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Japan - Anime vs Reality
Pictures: Canva; metamorworks / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A Japanese reporter asked exchange students what they thought about life in Japan. Their answers, she says, are sobering - and people in Japan should take them to heart.

Japan’s not just a popular tourist destination. More people are moving here than ever. Many students, influenced by depictions of Japan in anime and popular culture, also decide to spend a year or more experiencing what it’s like to live here. However, a recent article by a Japanese author says that some students are taken aback when they realize the reality of living in Japan doesn’t match the fantasy depicted in anime and manga.

“There’s no love [in Japan]”

Tokyo crowds

The piece comes by way of Business Insider Japan’s Belgium editor, Amemiya Momoko. (Unfortunately, BI apparently has yet to translate Amemiya’s excellent article into English.) Amemiya, who is herself currently attending graduate school at the Louvain School of Business Management in Belgium, had an opportunity to speak with foreign exchange students in Japan at the One Young World forum in Nagasaki.

Amemiya says that at first, the students she talked to, knowing she was Japanese, heaped nothing but praise on Japan. However, as she got to know them better, they confessed that things weren’t as rosy as they’d hoped they would be.

“It’s not like anime,” said one student from Europe. “There’s no love in modern Japanese society.”

“My home country wasn’t as convenient as Japan but there was plenty of love in our conversations. It feels like Japanese people have forgotten the love depicted in anime.” (Ah, to be young and hopelessly naive again…)

Others voiced frustrations over the language barrier and how, even when they communicate in Japanese – e.g., at city hall – Japanese people express irritation at them for taking so long to speak. Still others said that it’s hard to get anything other than extremely low-paying jobs without strong Japanese skills.

One Asian foreign exchange student lamented that, even if you know Japanese, it’s hard to get to know people on a deep level. “I have Japanese friends I eat and drink with but our conversations are all shallow. Japanese people are very polite but they don’t differentiate themselves by making their own opinions known, which makes communication hard. That’s led me to feel more and more alone.”


The challenges of living in Japan

More people are moving to Japan than ever. Some 2,939,000 foreign residents lived here in 2023 – an almost 5% spike from the previous year. The majority come from other Asian countries, with others coming from Brazil (with whom Japan has a long and deep intercultural relationship), the US, and elsewhere.

While most foreign residents whom I know love living here, it isn’t without its challenges. I wrote recently about how many foreigners – around 40% or more, according to surveys – experience some form of housing discrimination. Sometimes, this is simply because landlords are “risk averse” and fear foreigners will cut out on their leases. But sometimes, it’s because neither the landlord nor the neighbors want non-Japanese people living in the area.

Your experience in Japan can also differ greatly depending on who you are. As one of our authors has written before, Japan has a bias towards “whiteness” that can make living here a difficult or even painful experience for Black residents. Housing discrimination also tends to be more blatant against Chinese and Korean nationals.

“Read the room!”

To get a sense of how these students’ experiences jibed with the experiences of others, we asked UJ readers on our X account what challenges they faced living in Japan.

By far, the biggest challenges were around communication – particularly the high contextuality of Japanese conversations and the expectation that people will “read the room.”

“‘Maybe’ or ‘Sure’ being code for ‘no’ was something I had to keep reminding myself of the first year,” one reader remarked.

Others reiterated that they have had a hard time with official communications (which are often in very formal Japanese) and with making deep connections here.

Other common themes include:

  • Cooking. “You want something to eat? Get a ready meal as your kitchen is tiny and basic ingredients are expensive.” It’s hard to find specialized food, such as foreign imports or options for a vegan diet, even in a major city like Tokyo.
  • Garbage disposal. The garbage sorting rules can be complicated – and, especially in small towns, your neighbors will get on your case for not following them. “I found my town was hyper-focused on me even to report to my job that I did my trash wrong,” one person remarked.
  • Bureaucracy and technology. Japan isn’t as technologically advanced as some make it out to be, with systems like online banking a good decade or more behind other countries. Bureaucratic procedures are often convoluted and there are few online options. Westerners with middle names often find they’re constantly locked in battles with their banks or cell phone companies. (Few electronic systems here accommodate them.)
  • Weather. Many from more temperate climates were unprepared for how miserable cities like Tokyo and Osaka can be in the summer.

“‘Gaijin’ makes me feel like I don’t belong here”

Picture: kotoru / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Amemiya’s article contrasts these students’ experiences with her own experience as a foreign resident of Belgium. She relates that, even when she participated in exercise classes when she didn’t have a great grasp of French, instructors made a point of saying the same instructions in English so she could follow along.

“I’ve never felt anyone’s asked me ‘where are you from’ in a negative way,” Amemiya writes.

By contrast, one exchange student said, “When I board the train, I feel like people are shocked and look at me like an alien – even though I’m a human being, just like them.”

The student also commented on the word gaijin, an Edo-era term for outsiders that many regard as pejorative or a slur. “When I hear gaijin, it makes me feel like I don’t belong here.”

“Exchange students speak with joy about how safe Japan is and how it puts them at ease,” Amemiya says. “But we should look beyond the numbers of students coming here and pay better attention to their lived experience.”

Preparing to live in Japan

To balance this out, plenty of people have a great experience living in Japan. (I’d rate mine as positive, even though I’ve faced some of the same challenges with making deep connections that others have.) Conversely, Amemiya’s positive experience in Belgium isn’t necessarily universal for all European immigrants, some of whom deal with prejudice and systemic racism.

As someone who lives in Japan and loves it here, I don’t want to discourage anyone from moving to the country. With its rich culture and arts, wonderful people, convenient living, and relative safety, living here is a treat – whether you live in a vibrant cityscape or the quiet countryside.

However, you should prepare yourself and understand that it’s not gonna be anything like your fave high school anime. Moving to a new place even within the same country is a challenge. Moving someplace with a different culture and language is putting it on hard mode.

Even if you’re only coming to Japan for a year, prepare yourself. Study the language yes. But also educate yourself on all the little differences. Being prepared could make the difference between a jarring experience and an unforgettable one.

Meanwhile, as Amemiya argues, people in Japan should understand more about the struggles that both exchange students and foreign residents face fitting in. Some analyses indicate that, by 2067, Japan’s foreigner population will exceed 10%. Despite this increase, attitudes towards foreigners in Japan remain mixed. That seems mostly because many people say they have little opportunity to meet and interact with non-Japanese residents. Increasing such opportunities could go a long way toward increasing mutual understanding and breaking down barriers.

Like it or not, foreigners are fated to become a larger part of Japan’s society. The question is, will that society welcome them with open arms – or closed doors?

What to read next


「アニメで憧れた日本じゃなかった」留学生たちが直面する現実. Business Insider Japan

令和5年6月末現在における在留外国人数について. Japan Immigration Services Agency

日本の将来推計人口(令和5年推計). National Institute of Population and Social Security Research

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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