When it comes to living in Japan, the biggest hurdle may not be holding down a job – for some, it’s setting up and securing proper accommodation. Without advanced Japanese ability, something as simple as setting up the internet can be impractical or impossible. Nathan, an American who has been living in Japan for the last few years, helps people bridge this linguistic divide every day as a Bilingual Advisor for Real Estate Japan. I had the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss how he is making a difference for international residents and his own experiences moving to Japan.
Why did you decide to come work in Japan?
I was interested in it as an idea for a long time because my dad actually taught English in Japan forty years ago. After my dad came back to America, he was very interested in Japanese stuff, so I just ended up being around that. As I got older eventually it just became an idea where I thought, “It does seem kind of cool, maybe I’ll go over there, teach English, do this sort of thing that my Dad did.” I did that, really liked it, and now I’m here long term in a definitely-not-English-teaching job.
It seems that, for a lot of foreigners looking to move to Japan, English teaching is the foot-in-the-door.
It’s definitely the easiest way to get over here for most people. Whether you’re coming for just a short time to travel or you actually want to stay here long-term: to get over here is the hard part. Come over here to teach English and then move into something else if you want.
Were you prepared to teach English or was it something that you didn’t have a lot of background in and jumped in?
I very much went into English teaching thinking, “This looks cool. I’m probably going to do this for a really long time!” And then I was actually doing it. I was first working at an eikaiwa [English conversation school] and it was interesting and a good experience, but after a little while I thought, “Maybe this isn’t exactly what I want to do.” I went into it with a very different mindset than I came out with. I did the eikaiwa and then I switched over to an international preschool which was pretty cool. It was a really good company, but it was really small. I definitely did not have training on how to deal with little tiny two and three year olds, so it got to a point where I thought, “I don’t know if I can really do this.”
Now you’re working in real estate. How did you make that jump?
In college I actually studied economics. I thought, “If it’s good, I’ll stay in English-teaching, but I do very much like business,” that kind of thing. It was always, “If I don’t like teaching, then I’ll try to move into something like that.” It was kind of a timing thing with moving into this because I never thought about specifically real estate. I saw the job advertisement and it worked out really well.
What kind of responsibilities do you have? Is it the same position you started a year ago?
It’s a very interesting situation because we are a smaller company under a bigger company and the GaijinPot Housing Service, the subleasing service that we operate and I’m part of the team of, very much is still a new service and idea. In terms of responsibilities, we have to deal with people who are interested in moving into apartments, setting up room views, and getting them into the apartment. Even once they move into the apartment, if they have any issues we have to help with that. Random things come up all the time where you have to say, “I guess I have to do this.” There’s always a new situation that we’ve never experienced and that we suddenly have to figure out how to deal with.
GaijinPot Housing Service is oriented towards foreign residents, correct?
Exactly, yes. The GaijinPot Housing Service is from Real Estate Japan, which is technically a separate company from G Plus Media, but both under Fuji. The housing service, the subleasing basically works by using G Plus Media as the name. Properties are leased as G Plus Media, and then we sublease them to foreigners. It’s similar to a guarantor in a way, but not exactly. It kind of fulfills that same role. Whereas a lot of Japanese agents and owners might not be necessarily so keen on renting to foreigners, by doing this we can say, “It’s okay, you’re not renting to them. Technically, you’re renting to us. And we’ll, of course, pay.” That’s sort of how it works.
Are there any services that you perform for foreigners that you may not do for domestic residents?
We help foreigners out by being able to get an apartment in the first place because it can be quite difficult. The main thing is that we support the tenants throughout their entire stay. Many English teachers, for example, don’t really know any Japanese other than the basics. What if something breaks in their apartment, or even when they move in, how do they set up their utilities? There’s all sorts of these things that they don’t know or maybe can’t do depending on their situation. By using the GaijinPot Housing Service, they don’t really have to worry about that. They can just email or call us in English and we handle all of the complications. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of people who are really worried about that.
What kind of cultural challenges or things that you’ve had to adjust to in your job – not just in your job, but also in your everyday life moving to Japan?
I think something that probably applies for both is that I find that I kind of have to accept a lot of things here go slower than I would expect to back home. There are a lot of things that are very efficient, but bureaucracy and everything here is very big. You have to go through a lot of processes to do things. We still have to send faxes all the time for work. I think, “What’s that? That doesn’t seem necessary,” but we still have to do it. It’s a big cultural challenge to follow these very bureaucratic processes.
That’s where Real Estate Japan comes in to take care of some of those processes for people moving to Japan.
Exactly. A few people have friends or some sort of person in Japan who can speak Japanese and help them, but a lot of people actually don’t. Many people just come here by themselves, and we even have people who say, “I actually don’t have any emergency contact in Japan, I don’t know anyone yet.” When that comes up, we say, “Well, it’s probably a good idea that you go through us then and not just some random agency because if something does happen with the apartment then what are you going to do?”
Tell us about some social challenges of living in Japan.
When I first moved here, I thought, “I want to improve my Japanese.” Which is also why I thought, “I don’t want to speak English, I don’t want to hang out with other foreigners, I just want to hang out with Japanese people.” I have made some Japanese friends, but there is a lot of clashing in the way that some Japanese people and at least Americans think of friendship, what is considered a friend, and how often you hang out. It took me probably the first year and a half of being here to get over that weird thing of, “I don’t want to talk to foreigners, I don’t want to speak English.” Now I hang out with whoever, I don’t have to think so hard or be weird about it. I think a lot of people do that when they do start out. You get in the mindset of “I’m here for a reason, I’m here to study, I’m here to learn, I’m here to get better.” It’s good to want to do all of that, but for me it just went way too far. I have more [friends] now, although my main support is my girlfriend. I have a very easy support there which is really helpful for me.
How do you feel your lifestyle changed whenever you moved to Japan?
I think one of the biggest things was becoming more active, but not necessarily on purpose. In America, you don’t have to move very much. You just get in your car and drive somewhere, and the only walking you’re doing is from the parking lot to destination. Here, you’re walking all the time. You’re walking to the station, you’re walking to the store, all over the place you’re carrying stuff. That has changed my lifestyle a lot. It’s somewhat of a double-edged sword, because if I feel like I don’t have to do anything to be healthier here, then I actually don’t make any effort. There are also pros and cons for train commutes as opposed to driving commutes. Before I moved here I thought, “I’m tired of driving, I never want to drive a car again.” And now I think both have good things. It’s a lot better when you’re tired after something to just drive home, listen to a podcast, and relax on the road than being on a super crowded train. When people would say, “Sometimes they have to push people on the train,” I thought, “That’s silly, that’s not real.” It’s real. Not all the time, but it happens.
Do you see yourself continuing to work in Japan, say, for the next five years?
I’ve been through many phases with that. I came to Japan with the impression that I was going to stay here forever. Then, for a pretty long while I thought, “I don’t know if I want to stay here forever, there’s a lot of issues, cultural stuff, difficult things. Maybe I’ll stay here for a while and move back home.” I visited home a few months ago and had reverse culture shock, so now I’m now very much back on the “Let’s stay here, start planning to save money, and buy a house eventually” train. Now I’m very much in a Japan full-on phase, but who knows where else it will go.
Nathan gave me a brief tour of the office and saw me off. Heading back to the inevitably packed subway station, I wanted to be filled with a touch of dread. However, it’s hard to have any kind of apprehension when you’re literally walking in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower. In a way, living in Japan is like that. Sure, there may be unavoidable unpleasantries or frustrations in everyday life, but at the end of the day you shouldn’t lose the perspective that you’re in Japan. The Tokyo Tower was just an opportunity reminder of that fact. The pros of living in Japan far outweigh the cons, and when there are services that can help you mitigate those cons, living in Japan can be a truly wonderful experience.