Preparing for the Challenges of Life in Rural Japan
Living in Japan can be a unique and exciting experience. But it can also come with its own set of challenges.
Moving to a foreign country is difficult on it’s own, an the challenges of living in rural Japan can be even more pronounced. So let’s talk about the tough stuff, particularly from the perspective of a foreigner.
One of the biggest challenges that people may face when living in rural Japan is the language barrier. While it is possible to get by with just basic Japanese knowledge, living in rural areas can present additional challenges.
Many people in these areas may not speak English or any other foreign language. This can make it difficult to communicate with others, including about high-stress topics such as medical issues or legal matters. Additionally, regional dialects and unique accents can make understanding Japanese even more challenging.
The Japanese language is considered a Category IV language according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) language proficiency ratings. This means that it is a challenging language for English speakers to learn. Their description literally says Japanese is a “Super-hard language… exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.” It may require approximately 88 weeks or 2200 class hours to reach a professional working proficiency level.
This is due to the complex writing system, multiple levels of politeness, and unique grammatical structures. It requires dedication and consistent practice, for English speakers to become proficient in Japanese.
The seemingly endless supply of Google Translate Follies may seem like an opportunity to interject joy in your everyday. But it gets old.
Learning the language itself is a major undertaking. And the lack of language competency can lead to immense frustration. Daily mistakes all add up.
This might be misunderstanding a closed road sign or being unable to understand important paperwork by one’s self. There is isolation in being unable to have meaningful, nuanced conversations.
The language challenge can snowball, causing more extraneous issues.
Limited Access to Goods and Services
Another challenge of living in rural Japan is limited access to goods and services. While larger cities in Japan have a wide variety of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options, rural areas are different. This can be particularly challenging for foreigners who are used to having access to a wider range of conveniences. For example, finding specialty ingredients for cooking or certain types of international cuisine may be difficult or impossible.
This was one of the first things I noticed upon moving to rural Japan. I can be a bit particular when it comes to what products I like to use. As there are no boutiques or more specialty stores in my area. Options for things like shampoo or deodorant at the local supermarket aren’t my taste. While online shopping at amazon.jp and Rakuten are possible, the products are more limited and the shipping fees are generally higher.
Transportation can also be one of the challenges of living in rural Japan. While the country has an extensive and reliable public transportation system, many rural areas may not have as many options. For example, there may be limited bus or train services, and taxis can be expensive. Owning a car may be necessary in order to get around.
But driving in Japan can be intimidating for foreigners due to differing traffic laws and regulations. In the grand scheme of things, getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road can be straight-forward. Learning the entire Japanese language in order to understand traffic signs is a heavier challenge.
There are agreements between Japan and some countries/states that allow foreigners to obtain a drivers license without re-testing. If you live outside of one of these areas, the testing processes can be cumbersome. People often opt to take multiple attempts at driving the practice route. Some driving centers have limited scheduling availability or a first-come-first-serve system. The drivers license application and interview requires paperwork, time, and a generous fee.
While used cars in Japan are often clean and affordable, finding and obtaining a car is a bit more challenging. It can require the assistance of a translator. You might not be able to test-drive a used car or see a history report. Acquisition may require getting a residence status certificate from the town office, providing proof of parking, and transferring bank funds.
Living in a rural area can also lead to social isolation. In smaller communities, there may be limited opportunities to meet new people. This is especially pronounced for foreigners who may not be able to speak Japanese fluently. Rural areas in Japan may have more traditional values and customs that can be difficult for outsiders to understand. This makes the isolation even more pronounced.
Moving from urban to rural areas in Japan can be challenging, even for Japanese natives. Rural areas place a high value on teamwork, as it is essential for the survival of small communities. Additionally, the social system in these areas is organized by age and gender. This can lead to a sense of obligation for younger people to fulfill favors and requests. As rural populations continue to age, this dynamic can become even more burdensome for young people.
English counseling, therapy and mental health support is harder to come by. Counseling from Japanese people may “miss the mark” on the techniques used in western practices. The value system that advice is built on is completely different. Unfortunately, in times of crisis, useful help might not be easy to find.
If you are in Japan and in crisis, please check the TELL website for resources.
Japanese Countryside Housing
Finding suitable housing can also be a challenge when living in rural Japan. While housing is generally plentiful and affordable, it can be difficult to find accommodations that meet Western preferences. Many older homes in rural areas may not have modern amenities, such as central heating and air conditioning. They may be less well-insulated. In fact, you can bet that there might be no insulation at all. Additionally, it can be difficult to find rental properties that allow pets. It may be completely impossible to find properties accessible to people with mobility disabilities.
There will be many adjustments to get used to in Japanese homes. This might include extreme coldness in winter, old-fashioned plumbing, and an *exciting* (read: sarcasm!) variety of insects that may be large, frightening, poisonous and cause property damage. Yee!!!
Finally, cultural differences can be a significant challenge when living in rural Japan. Foreigners may find it difficult to navigate social situations and customs that are unfamiliar to them, and that is just the beginning. Japanese culture has a strong emphasis on group harmony. While this sounds nice, it at times can come at the expense of the comfort and safety of the individual. Foreigners coming from a country that values individualization, such as the USA, may find this realization shocking and disturbing.
Straight-forward customs like gift-giving are an important part of Japanese culture. Additionally, some rural areas in Japan may have more traditional customs and values. These may clash with Western values and expectations. The approach to discipline, roles of women, and general style of thinking can be puzzling. Regarding the disappointment many foreigners experience, it’s not usually a question of if, but a question of when.
There is a happiness rollercoaster curve to the culture shock and adjustment phases when moving to a new country. After immediate elation, many people experience a severe and obvious dip in overall happiness and satisfaction. This is usually when someone will choose to head back to their home country. They choose to be back in a place surrounded by friends, family, and where they can manage their lives independently.
Those who stick it out may not agree with everything they see or hear. But there is a general acceptance of the way things are. Long-term residents usually agree that there are challenges anywhere one decides to live. They simply prefer that place to be Japan, and they have meaningful personal reasons to support that realization.
Challenges of Living in Rural Japan: Worth It?
Living in the Japanese countryside can be a rewarding and enriching experience. But it can also come with its own set of challenges. From the language barrier to limited access to goods and services, transportation difficulties, social isolation, housing issues, and cultural differences. There are many factors that people need to consider before making the move. Those determined to make things work will find their way through it all. The wise will anticipate a fair serving of mistakes and challenges along the way.