Inaka Lifestyle

The Challenges of Living in Rural Japan

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Preparing for the Challenges of Life in Rural Japan

Living in Japan can be an exciting experience. But it can also come with its own set of unique challenges.

Moving to a foreign country is difficult on its own, and 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.

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Language Barrier

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 aSuper-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 traffic signs 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 interpersonal issues that may be damaging to one’s reputation and quality of life.

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 ingredients for international cuisine may be 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

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 are expensive. Owning a car may be necessary to get around. I live in Shikoku, the only main island with no access to the shinkansen (bullet train).

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 straightforward. Learning the entire Japanese language to understand traffic signs is a heavier challenge.

There are agreements between Japan and some countries/states that allow foreigners to obtain a driver’s license without re-testing. If you live outside of one of these areas, the driver testing processes are cumbersome and expensive. People often opt to take multiple practice driving tests. Some driving centers have limited scheduling availability or a first-come-first-serve system. The driver’s license application and interview require 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. The acquisition may require getting a residence status certificate from the town office, providing proof of parking capability, and transferring bank funds.

Mental Health

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 are hard to come by. Counseling from Japanese people may “miss the mark” on the techniques and perspectives 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 available.

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. You can bet that there might be no insulation at all. Additionally, it can be difficult to find rental properties that allow pets or… *ahem*… foreigners. 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!!!

Cultural Differences

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, and 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 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.

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