Many people in the world dream of living in Tokyo. Tokyo has a larger than life image that is not actually larger than life. It has modern robots that make you coffee and soba noodles while at the same time having centuries-old sprawling Japanese gardens built for samurai lords. Watches can be set on the arrival and departure of trains at Shinjuku Station although the number of daily passengers is equal to the entire population of Los Angeles (nearly 4 million). There are conveyor belt dessert shops and Pokemon vending machines. It’s a city of contrasts, high on people’s lists of places to visit, and often, places to live.
Is Tokyo a Good Place To Live for Someone Like Me?
If you are one of the people who dreams of living in Tokyo, I get it. I was one too. But since 2014, I have lived in Tokyo, and after several years here, I have a better, though not perfect understanding of what it takes to thrive here. Not just survive, as I see some foreigners doing, but to thrive. Some people arrive in Tokyo unprepared for how life is so different from where they came from, and they become disillusioned, discouraged, and even depressed. It is important to make an honest assessment of the type of person you are and see how you match up to the kind of person who can really grow to love the quirkiness of Tokyo.
Here are 4 personality types that will thrive in a city like Tokyo:
- The Confident Introvert
- The Lifelong Learner
- The Social Butterfly
- The Serious Entrepreneur
The Confident Introvert
Let’s start with the Confident Introvert because I think this is the category that best defines me. More on the introvert side, as I am quite happy to spend hours or even an entire day on my own, as long as I can be doing something I enjoy. Because I came to Japan with my wife and teenage children, I had a built-in support system, so I didn’t have to be confident in myself all the time. (My wife, that is; teenage children are brutal on your self-confidence.)
Despite the large number of residents of the capital, the general personality of the Tokyo population is best described as “cool.” Strangers don’t make eye contact on the streets, let alone greet one another. Going to supermarkets, restaurants, and retails shops, conversations are very business-oriented. I remember returning to the States for the first time in over a year and having a conversation with the cashier at the supermarket simply because I could. For extroverts, living without this common social interaction could be your worst nightmare, but us introverts usually enjoy having business transactions that do not involve sharing updates on the current health of great-aunt Hilda.
Even if you work in a Japanese company, you will likely be held at arm’s-length for a period of time while the rest of the employees suss you out. This could take months, years, or possibly the rest of your working life. Of course, you will usually be treated with cordial respect. However, it can become grating when your colleagues still refer to you as “Last Name-san” even after attending their wedding reception, sitting naked with them in an onsen on a company trip, or holding them upright as they puked into a urinal at the train station.
Here’s where the confidence comes in. If you don’t believe in yourself, don’t expect to hear encouragement from anyone else. Japanese are humble people, so you will undoubtedly receive many compliments when you arrive in Japan. But after a year of receiving the same praises, you’re eventually going to ask yourself, “Does Sato-san really think my second-grade reading ability is jouzu (skillful)?”
It is at this point you realize that all those compliments you’ve been hearing are not about you. They are just ways for Japanese people to deflect praise from themselves. You are just a convenient target. Now you have two choices: cry yourself to sleep every night, or let it roll off you and try to be a little better tomorrow.
The Lifelong Learner
They say Japanese is one of the most challenging languages in the world to learn because it has three different writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji (characters of Chinese origin). You will likely learn hiragana and katakana within your first year, but even if you study regularly, it will still take you several years to master kanji, if you ever do. Many of my Japanese friends still look up kanji on their smartphones to figure out how to write them.
In truth, however, Japanese is not difficult because of the writing systems. It has plenty of other complexities that are far worse than reading and writing.
If you are the kind of person willing to blow off social conventions and do things “the way we do it in Murica,” you aren’t going to be living your best life in Tokyo. Unless your best life involves hanging around with jaded ex-pats moaning over the superiority of the way things are done in Murica.
Take, for example, the keigo vernacular, where different words and phrases are used for various levels of politeness. For example, “Can I get you a beer?” would be expressed in 3 different ways depending on whether you are talking to your friend, your customer, or the Emperor. Well-meaning people have explained to me that foreigners do not need to worry about keigo outside of business situations, but they forget that even if you can’t speak keigo, keigo will be spoken to you.
Underlying keigo is the social system that ranks the status of others based on your place in society. Now that the feudal system is over and done with, it becomes more difficult to discern who are modern Japan’s samurai, merchants, and peasants. This is why people commonly share their age in Japan, giving each other a simple point of reference for rank: older equals higher status. In the office, you may also have to do some quick mental calculations based on reporting structure, seniority, and pay grade. Basically, before you can even understand which words to use to address someone, you first need to understand your relative social ranking to them.
All of this is a very long explanation of how much you need to understand the Japanese language, culture, and worldview before you can even offer to buy someone a beer. It’s a system that you have to invest a lot of time learning if you want to understand what it means to be Japanese. If you are the kind of person who is willing to blow off social conventions and do things “the way we do it in Murica,” you aren’t going to be living your best life in Tokyo. Unless your best life involves hanging around with a group of jaded ex-pats moaning over the superiority of the way things are done in Murica.
The Lifelong Learner loves the fact that Japan is so utterly different from many countries in the West. She dives headfirst into Japanese culture, activities, and, of course, language. Every day, she is researching something new about the city or country she calls home. The Lifelong Learner never gets bored of living in Tokyo because even by learning something new about Japan every day, there will always be something new to learn tomorrow.
The Social Butterfly
This is not me. But Social Butterflies are living happy lives in Tokyo, flittering from one social event to the next, with hundreds, even thousands of “friends.” Social butterflies do not need deep relationships to be happy; quantity of friends is what makes them happy. And because of the huge number of social activities going on in Tokyo at any given time, the Social Butterfly can keep his calendar full 32 days a month.
Again, I’m not one of these people, and I do not know if this lifestyle is a sustainable one. Making acquaintances or casual friendships which require you only to share a common hobby, activity, or favorite Jpop idol is easy in Tokyo. It is not uncommon for foreigners to build friendships solely on their ability to speak English.
Many Social Butterflies are in Japan on working holiday visas or as English instructors for one of the dozens of small companies (or few large ones) that teach English to Japanese people. They generally last a year or two, but toward the end of their term, their relationship with the city might get a little frayed. If your interests are limited, your circle of friends can get smaller and smaller, even in a city of millions.
My advice to the Social Butterfly is to be prepared to lay roots at some point if you want to stay in Tokyo for the long haul. Transition into a Lifelong Learner or a Serious Entrepreneur. Having a stable relationship or business to rely on is much safer than hundreds of friends whom you can’t necessarily rely on for anything. Yes, you can still be a Social Butterfly, but you also have a place to land when you get tired.
The Serious Entrepreneur
I wouldn’t have believed it before I came here, but Japan is becoming a fantastic place for the Serious Entrepreneur. My impression of Japan was always that the business climate was too conservative and favored large businesses over small ones, old companies over startups. But in recent years, that environment has been steadily changing. More and more, cities across Japan have been wooing new startup businesses. And even Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district has its eye on transforming itself into a technological hub of the world economy. Starting a business in Tokyo puts you at the center of what is happening in Japan and the world as a whole.
One of the reasons the Serious Entrepreneur can thrive in Japan is the lack of competition. Even though Japan is in desperate need of entrepreneurs, the current Japanese education system does almost nothing to prepare graduates to become one. From my experience, the college students who are most likely to succeed as entrepreneurs in Japan are either foreign students studying in Japanese universities or Japanese students who have studied several years at international high schools and universities.
Starting your own business in Japan is also not nearly as expensive or bureaucratic as you might believe. Consulting companies exist that can help you submit the forms you need to establish a business in Japan quickly and inexpensively. Finding good employees with entrepreneurial mindsets, that might be another challenge. But starting a successful business in any country is a long shot best reserved for tenacious, single-minded, and slightly mad individuals. I do freelance work for a fantastic startup founded in 2016 that is already quite profitable in the field of tourism marketing, so I know it can be done and done quickly with the right leadership.
I want to encourage any Serious Entrepreneurs to consider coming to Tokyo to start a business. My reasons are a bit selfish, of course; Japan needs you. The Japanese economy is not sustainable without help from outside talent, no matter what the government would like to believe. But if you are serious about starting a business and making it stick, I believe Japan holds more attractive opportunities than many Western countries that are oversaturated.
Am I Ready To Live in Tokyo?
Now that you know what types of people can thrive living in Tokyo, I hope you can honestly assess yourself to see if any of these types describe you. If they don’t, hope is not lost. You can adapt yourself to become more like one of these types of people. Nobody’s personality is set in stone.
And you can try to beat the odds. I’ve told you a little about what to expect if you move to Tokyo, and I intend to share much more on this topic in the near future. If your dream is to live in Tokyo, I’m not here to crush them. I want to prepare you because preparation is the most critical part of winning. The worst thing you can do is to stumble blindly into a new life in Tokyo unprepared for the differences in language, culture, and worldview that you will encounter.
If you found this article helpful, do me a favor and share it with others. And let me know in the comments if there are any other specific topics you would like to hear about, and I will try to write about them in the future. And keep dreaming, because in these times, what else do we have?