Japan: Better or Worse?

People like to ask deceptively simple seeming questions, and expect simple answers.  In reality, though, just because a question sounds simple, doesn't mean the answer will be.  "What is the meaning of life?" is the classic example.  Even if the answer was simple, in many cases, it's more important to know how to interpret that answer, and understand the process behind finding it.  

People often ask "Is Japan better than Country X?"
The answer depends on what one considers "better".  First of all, "better" can mean a lot of things - better for what?  Investment? vacation? living?  We'll assume living here - but there are still many factors to consider when living somewhere, and priorities will differ depending on the person.

Crime is very low in Japan compared to most countries, and this is achieved without resorting to a police state mentality.  Most people follow the law most of the time simply because it's the right thing to do.  Violent crime in particular is very low.  

Environment, Geography & Geology
Despite Japan's relatively small size, it spans a wide range of temperatures, though most areas have four seasons.  Tsunamis and earthquakes are a fact of life that you have to be prepared to live with.  On the other hand, the environment is very clean.  This includes the air, the water, and the streets.  Environmental regulations are very strict, and people in general strive to be "eco" (green).  

Japanese society is very different from that of many other Asian countries, and yet also very different than most Western societies.  People are less out-spoken, more polite, tend to follow rules and support the community, more risk adverse, and in some ways relatively conservative.  Religion in general is not popular, and often times people may be "conservative" in appearance while being quite liberal in action.  (Japan's large adult entertainment industry and the prevalence of "love hotels" demonstrates this fact well).  Since Japanese people "vent" less, many build up more stress, which may be one of the reasons why Japan has a high suicide rate.

Work Environment
Office work is the most common type of work now, although there are of course miscellaneous retail and manufacturing jobs as well.  The start-up environment is not as healthy as in the US and some other countries, so more people prefer to work for large famous companies.  The traditional system is that young people are hired fresh out of college at a relatively low pay, and stay at the same company until retirement.  Typically, their pay increases slightly each year, and many allowances were added to the base pay depending on family events, etc.  Recently, this pay for seniority system is starting to give way to a pay-for-performance system, and allowances are starting to give way to a value based salary - but a hybrid approach will coexist for some time.  Japan had few holidays and long working hours compared to Europe.

Japan has one of the best developed rail systems in the world, such that many people living in the cities don't have any desire to own a car.  There are competing train companies covering most cities.  The trains run often, are clean and convenient.  Most of the trains do not, however, run 24 hours.  Driving a car to work is not allowed by most companies in many locations for insurance reasons.  In the country-side, cars are more popular.  Cars in Japan are an expensive proposition in general, but particularly in the cities.  You must purchase a parking spot before you will be allowed to purchase a car.  Getting a license is also major ordeal which can take months and can cost a great deal of money.  Gasoline is also much more pricey than in other countries.  Bicycles are popular for short trips in both the city and country-side in Japan, and almost everyone owns one, although bike lanes are uncommon.

Japan is a world leader in technology research and development, and also retains a significant manufacturing base.  In fact, many hi-tech "Made in China" items are actually assembled in China from parts made in Japan.  More than just research, Japan is ahead of the curve in actually applying technology.  

Japan has a long history, with many remnants visible in daily life.  In fact, Japan is one of the places where the contract between the new and the old is most apparent.  Things such as a high-tech research facility next to an old temple are a common site in Japan.  Tokyo has the recently built SkyTree tower, and Nara has some of the oldest buildings in the world.

Japan is currently populated almost entirely by a single race, the "Yamato" people.  Current (DNA Based) scientific evidence suggests that they traveled from Korea to Japan several thousand of years ago.  The previous population of the main island (Honshu) is thought to have been the Ainu people, which were pushed into Hokkaido, and are all but extinct now.  (This is similar to the situation between Europeans who came to America and the Native Americans).  Besides the Ainu, the other primordial race was the Ryukyu people, who basically lived in Okinawa (which used to be separate from Japan).  Ryukyu people do have a distinctive look when compared to most "normal" (Yamato) Japanese.  Although Okinawa natives have a distinct ethnic background, they are integrated with Japanese society in modern times, and are not considered "foreigners".  

Ignoring nationality law for a moment, if you consider the above three races as "Japanese", and anyone else (including more recently arrived Koreans) as a "foreigner", then you have less than 2% of foreigners.  The official figure is around 1.7%, however it should be noted that that figure refers to foreign nationals living in Japan, and does not consider race.    More than 60% of that 1.7% is made up of Chinese and Korean residents. That least about 0.5% of the population (at most!) to be potentially non-Asian.  (The number is potentially significantly less, considering the large number of Phillipino residents, etc.)  

Since the percentage of foreigners, naturalized citizens, and recent immigrants is so low with respect to the total population, they tend to be seen as very different, and yet simultaneously ignored in many respects.  Since foreigners have almost no voice, there is little in the way of anti-racism laws, etc.

You won't find many bigots in Japan, and screaming of racial epithets is almost unheard of.  Japanese are much more dignified than that in general.  At the same time, most people know little of foreigners, which makes them naturally both suspicious and curious.  Foreigners may find it difficult to be accepted for renting apartments, credit cards, etc.  This is usually not due to race, but their temporary status - and bad experiences on the part of creditors, landlords, etc.  (Most foreigners stay only a few years before returning home, and unfortunately many don't pay their past due bills, etc.)  The other factor is of course language.  There is a widespread perception that foreigners commit much more crime than Japanese, which is only true to a limited extent.  

  • Japanese is the official language of Japan, period.  Many, many things are available only in Japanese.  You can get buy with only English, Korean, or Chinese, but you will miss out on a lot of things.  English is not an official second language or anything like that.
  • Some things are available in multiple languages
    • Major trains in the cities typically have automated announcements in English.
    • Tourist spots usually have people who can speak English. (and other languages).
    • Major signs and guide-books are often printed in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.
    • Many foreign DVDs are available, and TV typically has multiple languages
  • But there are lots of places where only Japanese will do:
    • When you want to apply for a new bank card at (for example) Mitsubishi bank, it's in Japanese
    • When you want to use your ISP's web mail, it's probably in Japanese.
    • When you need to write a resume for a real job, it'll probably have to be in Japanese. (Unless it's a foreign company)
    • When you want to sign a lease for an apartment...
    • When you want to sign up for a cell phone...
    • ... or post office box...
    • ...
Basically anything that's not oriented for tourists will has a very high chance of only being available in Japanese.  Before complaining, think about it for a moment.  If you were Chinese moving to the US and complained "Why is this only in English?", people would laugh at you and say "Because this is America!"  The same is true in Japan.  Japanese is the language of the country, and while some people get by without knowing it, you will have a much more pleasant experience if you can speak to normal people and participate in society without always having to search for special "English" versions of everything.  To those who say "But that's different! English is the international language!", I reply "Says who?"  Basically, Japan never agree to that, and has out-right rejected the idea.  Most of the English schools in Japan are more for entertainment purposes than anything else, and the majority of the population does not even know conversational Japanese.  Nobody can force you to learn the language before you come, but it's highly recommended.

Alternatively, if you're looking to live in Asia, but prefer to speak English, Singapore and Hong Kong will be much more comfortable environments.