Five Things I Wish I’d Known about Life in Japan

…before they happened to me!

While I know it’s impossible to be 100% prepared, here’s a list of some things I wish I had known earlier into my life here in Japan:

= wrong!

It was about a month after I had arrived in Japan – I had already given a few of my introduction lessons and was getting along well with my JTEs, so I was thrilled when one of them asked me to check some student writings! I was given a stack of notebooks, I grabbed my red pen, and I started correcting using s and Xs, feeling very much like a real teacher.

About halfway through the pile, I had to turn a page in a notebook. I suddenly noticed that, on the previous page, all of the correct answers were marked with Os, not s! In fact, actually meant it was the wrong answer! I had unknowingly been marking my students’ work as incorrect, even though it was right!!

To keep it consistent, I continued marking the notebooks with s and Xs, but went back through all of them and drew smiley faces next to the check marks to (hopefully!) show that = right (at least, in Canada)! I also told my JTE, who laughed and explained my mistake to the students when she handed back the notebooks. At least it turned into a nice bit of cultural exchange!

Not all laundry detergents are made equal.

My apartment doesn’t have a dryer, which is normal for Japan, but it also doesn’t have a balcony! So, for the past two years, I’ve had to dry all of my clothes inside on a rack in my bedroom. (Who wants to drag their laundry to a laundromat? Not me!) For over a year, I thought that all laundry detergent was made equal. I put up with the smelly towels that comes with drying clothes in your humid, 30C+ mid-summer apartment (or having to wait three days for them to dry in your freezing, 2C, dead-of-winter apartment!).

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that there is laundry detergent specifically for drying clothes indoors! I found that switching to this special detergent really made a difference in my laundry and I no longer have to deal with stinky towels! Yay! So, if you have to dry your laundry inside, like me, I recommend looking for any brand of detergent that has the kanji 部屋干し (へやほし, heyahoshi, room drying).

Local Inhabitants Tax is EXPENSIVE.

In my jet-lagged state when I first arrived in Japan, I don’t think I was listening very well when our senpais told us about the Local Inhabitants Tax that we would have to pay the following year. When that first tax bill arrived in June 2014, it was for a mere 28,000yen (about CDN$280), calculated on my salary from August-December 2013. Phew! I paid it off no problem and decided that I would be proactive – I heard that next year’s would be significantly larger, so I would start saving money every month to put towards it and lessen the blow!

…Then I decided that travelling was more important than preparing for the future, so I spent the small amount that I had managed to save. Haha! Fast-forward to this June when I received my tax bill for 140,000yen – about CDN$1,400! – calculated on my salary from January-December 2014. That’s more than half of my monthly paycheque!!

Of course, if I were staying in Japan, I could pay this in four installments over the next 10 months and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Unfortunately, us leaving JETs have to pay it in full before we depart Japan in less than two months! Eek! I am in a financial situation where I can pay it, fortunately, but I might have to live a slightly more frugal lifestyle for these next two months. Oops! (But all of the travelling was so amazing that I regret nothing! ;))

*The Local Inhabitants Tax may be different for you, depending on your home country (i.e., Americans). Some COs may also take the tax directly out of your monthly paycheque and pay the tax on your behalf.

Speaking of taxes…

Annual car tax is a thing.

That’s right, every year (also in June), I get a bill in the mail from my city about paying taxes on the kei car that I own! This tax is in addition to the tax that is included in your car’s shaken. The tax has only been 7,200yen/year for this year and last for me, so it is affordable, but never having owned a car before I came to Japan, it took me a little by surprise! If you buy a car, definitely keep an eye on your mail box around this time of year!

*I’ve heard that the tax on white plate cars is more expensive, but I’m not sure by exactly how much.

Kanji isn’t as scary as it seems.

Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn. The complexity and sheer number of kanji doesn’t help – by the time students finish Grade 12, they can write 2,136 different kanji! Kanji is also difficult because each one has multiple readings, for example, 火 (fire) can be read as ka or hi, depending on the context.

However, with some exceptions, that context isn’t arbitrary. Most kanji have two readings, an on’yomi and a kun’yomi. The on’yomi uses the original Chinese reading of the kanji and the kun’yomi is the Japanese reading. If the kanji is attached to other kanji, like a compound word in English, you use the on’yomi. If the kanji is by itself or if it’s followed by hiragana (ひらがな), you use the kun’yomi.

(That’s about as watered down as it gets! You can read more about on’yomi vs. kun’yomi on Tofugu’s website.)

For 火 (fire), the on’yomi is ka and the kun’yomi is hi:

曜日 (Tuesday, kayoubi) – with other kanji, so it takes the on’yomi reading, ka

山 (volcano, kazan) – with other kanji, so it takes the on’yomi reading, ka

(fire, hi) – by itself, so it takes the kun’yomi, hi

遊び (playing with fire, hiasobi) – with another kanji, but ultimately with hiragana, so it takes the kun’yomi, hi

Of course, real life is messy – the usage will be more complicated, there will most definitely be exceptions, some kanji have multiple on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, some kanji don’t have on’yomi or kun’yomi readings at all, etc., etc. – but if you can remember the on’yomi vs. the kun’yomi, you can at least make an educated guess!

…Actually learning the readings for each kanji is a whole other matter, though, isn’t it? A friend recommended Wanikani.com to me last year and its combination of spaced repetition and mnemonics improved my kanji reading ability so much! I still can’t write kanji well (with computer and cell phones, there never seems to be a need to pick up a pencil and actually write), but at least I can read and recognize and puzzle out the meanings of way more kanji than I could before!

If only I had realized this pattern (and started using Wanikani) earlier, I could have learned even more kanji by now!

And there you have it – five things I wish I had known before they happened to me!

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