7 Things you Should know before you Study Abroad in Japan

Are you thinking about studying abroad in Japan? Or have you already been accepted into a program? Congratulations! You will have a fantastic time in Japan.

Oh yeah. But before you hope on that plane, make sure to look deep down inside and make sure you’re coming to Japan with an open mind. Because no matter how much anme you watch (or dramas, silly reality tv shows, and basically everything else on TV), you don’t “know” Japan. And if you show up with all sorts of ideas of what the country is SUPPOSED to be, you’re only going to end up frustrated. Seriously. It happened to me. It happened to quite a few of my friends.

Japan isn’t exactly how Western media makes it out to be. Japan is famous for cutting edge technology, anime and manga, sushi, and chic street fashion. Foreigners love Japan. However, before you study abroad in Japan, here are 6 things you should know:

Sushi in Japan

1. Bring deodorant

As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese people rarely wear deodorant. They don’t need it. The people who do wear deodorant (women, businessmen) use the product not for its odor cancelling properties, but because it smells nice. And Western advertisements show the successful people wear deodorant.

The problem with this is that Japanese deodorant rarely has aluminum. This is great for Japanese, or other Asian, people (because aluminum isn’t good for you) – but this is bad for non-Asians because we stink. And it just so happens that aluminum helps make powerful, anti-stink (antiperspirant) deodorant.

What I’m saying is bring your deodorant. Don’t be “that guy” who smells like a fish that’s been dead for three days. When you pack for Japan, bring a years’ worth of deodorant.

Crowded train in Tokyo, Japan Chuo Line

You don’t want to be the only one on this train not wearing adequate deodorant

2. Watch your medicine

You are not permitted to bring several types of medicine into Japan. For more information about prohibited medicine, click here.

In short, you are not supposed to bring more than three months of prescription medicine (including birth control), not allowed to have said medicine sent to you in more than three month dosages, and flat out not permitted to bring other types of prescription medicine (like ADD medicine – even with a doctor’s note, or certain anti-depressants). Also, no decongestants like Dayquil or Nyquil. Check before you pack, legally they can turn you away at the airport for bringing in illegal substances.

3. You might not be able to fit in Japanese clothes

I’m a size 2-4 in America. I’m a size “large” in Japan. If you are a “bigger girl” (boobs, waist, hips, feet), you need to realize that Japanese clothes might not fit you. A majority of the stores sell “one size fits all” items that can really mess with someone’s self-esteem.

Don’t even get me started on shoes. My size 8.5 feet only fit in XXL sized Japanese shoes. Click here for more tips on Trying Clothes in Japan.

Japanese fitting room at Forever 21 in Tokyo

Japanese fitting room at Forever 21 in Tokyo

3.5. You might not be able to afford Japanese clothes (especially in Tokyo)

Let’s say you’re lucky. You find clothes that fit you in Japan. Awesome. Then you look at the price – $200 for a dress. Or $100 for a pair of pants.

Living in Japan is expensive. There are discount stores (I am addicted to resale shops in Tokyo), but they are few and far between. Even stores like H&M and Forever 21 markup their products by 10% – 25% in Japan. Japan is not the place to buy cheap clothes.

4. You will probably feel out of place. All the time.

And that’s ok. I think it’s good to be regularly put in moments that take you outside of your comfort zone. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or at least, when it comes to embraassment, this is usually true.

5. Get ready to walk

I walk everywhere in Japan. When I’m not walking, I’m biking. I walk to the station, I walk to the grocery store, and I walk to classes. Most of my friends don’t own cars; we all use public transportation. The problem with public transportation is the fact that it does, in fact, require a bit of walking.

Then, when you go travelling, you’re going to walk until your feet are dying (but that’s pretty normal for sightseeing). Bring comfortable shoes. Bring lots of comfortable shoes.

Cute, but not practical for walking in Japan

Cute, but not practical for walking in Japan

6. Watch out for your body image

Japan is a not good place for female body images. At all. It is a very “visual” society. It has the world’s largest per captia skin care market in the world. They is a heavy emphasis on the way you look. Yes, of course it difficult being “ugly” in any society – but I believe being “ugly” in Japan is especially hard. A lot of someone’s merit seems to be based solely on the way they look.

Most girls are skinny. They have excellent smiles, impeccable makeup, and tame hair. They are polite, sweet, and just plain adorable. My first couple months here I had serious problems. I got depressed, I felt awful about my body image, and used to dread going outside. I felt like I wasn’t good enough.

But then I stopped caring.

I will acknowledge that most Japanese women dress consistently nicer than me. But somewhere along the road I realized I would rather be known for my brain than my beauty; I want my talent to shine more than my face.

And I don’t want to pay for expensive, chic Japanese clothes.

Clothes for meeting your Japanese boyfriend's parents

7 (bonus): Get used to reading “between the lines”

After spending a year in Japan, I had this wonderful, warm fuzzy feeling back in Texas at Target when a cashier was overly rude to me. Like a breath of fresh air. Weird, right?

One of the things you will learn about Japan is that very few people actually say what they mean. This can be especially frustrating if you are living with a host family, dating a Japanese person (or becoming best friends), or joining a Japanese “circle”/school club. Most of the time, I don’t know where I stand with people.

My advice: if you want to be happy in Japan, accept the fact that (most) people won’t tell it to you straight. Take this an embrace the culture – learn how to save face with giving criticism, how to pick up on subtle hints, and how to put the group before the individual. My husband and I made it into a game of “How amny times can Grace mess up in one day?”

Fun stuff.

Add me on Google Plus: +Grace Buchele

About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

14 Comments on 7 Things you Should know before you Study Abroad in Japan

  1. Valerie Miller // 18 May, 2016 at 9:21 am //

    Grace,
    I am a student in high school and I have been dreaming of studying in japan for college for manga and animation because I love to draw and create stories. I have been talking to colleges over there and have got some information about them but I have been wondering about the culture and stuff and what I should know before I come over so I don’t make a total fool of myself. If you could email me I would love to ask you some questions about japan. thanks!

  2. It’s December now and I’m reading this in hopes of understanding my Japanese roommate! A lot of these make me go “OHH That’s why she does that”. Thanks so much for writing this, it’s definitely helpful! :)

  3. Thanks for sharing awesome insights about japan. I am really happy to read your post as i was also looking for the same and gathering more info about japan

  4. Hey, Grace!

    (I hope you see this! I know this is an older post…) I have a few questions pertaining more to general traveling to Japan. I plan on going in October with my dad for a week total. About 5 days in Shibuya and 2 days in Kyoto. My issue is that we opted out of having a guide with us so that we wouldn’t feel rushed to follow their daily schedule and I’ve been studying Japanese to try to help…. but I’m worried I won’t know enough and the trip could be a bust. My dad is relying on me to study and have us get by while we visit, but the more I see the stuff you and Ryosuke do and realize I would love to go do those things as well, I worry that I won’t know enough. I would love to study abroad in Japan as well, and I actually plan on getting a degree in teaching ESOL and attempting a teaching job (through a program) later on. I just worry about not knowing enough and going in blind… Do you have any words of advice? Maybe get a guide…?

    Thank you in advance!
    -Madison

    P.S. We are total noobies to traveling, so I’m all for the culture shock, but I’ve got a bit of anxiety about not being properly prepared.

  5. Rachel Carlie // 4 June, 2015 at 4:47 am //

    When I was in Osaka it seemed like all of the clothes were a lot cheaper than they would have been in America, maybe I was just not shopping in higher end places? It also wouldn’t surprise me if in Tokyo the clothes got marked up a lot, similar to how they do that in LA and New York in America.

  6. Anonymous // 4 March, 2015 at 9:22 am //

    Oh okay so my insecurities and my depression is part of moving to Japan…. THANKS SO MUCH FOR THIS….

  7. Waa grace yr statement.. Watashiwa kowaku narimasu. However nothing is perfect right. Just hv to b positive n find friends who would love u the way u are..

  8. If you’re going to Japan for a while, bring Lavilin deodorant with you. It lasts up to a week per use, so should be be set until your next trip home.

  9. Anonymous // 20 October, 2014 at 9:23 am //

    Grace, I have to disagree with you. Japanese people do have severe body odor. We were eating at a restaurant this week.. Two Japanese people sat down at the table next to us. Their body odor was so overpowering we had to move, as did other diners seated near them. I believe that some Japanese people simply think they do not smell. Both were extremely well dressed in expensive clothing, but the odor was so bad you could cut it with a knife, as the saying goes. They seemed totally oblivious to their problem. It was very interesting to read your observation re lack of deodorant availability in Japan.

    • I linked to this video in another article about body odor (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-_QKyipj_Y). Check it out :)

      Body odor is a genetic thing (something I learned back in college as well). About 85% of Japanese people don’t have body odor (because of genetics) – which really sucks for the remaining 15% who DO, indeed, have the body odor, but either aren’t aware of it or are unable to find products that mask body odor.

  10. Do Americans carry a stigma in Japan? How are we generally perceived?

    Also it seems to be difficult to determine if there are good English instructing colleges in Japan. I wouldn’t mind taking Japaneese language classes, however, it would be a comfort to know I’m at a fluent English university.

    Perhaps I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too.

    • in japan you’ll be known as gaijin which means OUTSIDER. if your gaijin you WILL be treated different. you may not be able to buy a house. no one will really help you with english and in some places have we dont speak english signs. the whole english speaking thing is not rude there is just no other way to tell you. so be prepared for some segrigation out their. just stay calm, polite, and yo your best to make a good impression. GOOD LUCK!!!!

      • That’s actually pretty true. If my husband and I go to the bank or phone shop, most shopkeepers automatically assume (and ask) if he is translating for me. It doesn’t bother him much – but sometimes I get frustrated.

        Being non-Japanese (or non-Asian) in Japan means that wherever you go, your “foreign-ness” will be broadcasted. It can be frustrating, but I agree, you should always stay calm, polite, and make a good impression!

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