What Happens to You When You Decide to Become a "Lifer" In Japan


I was lucky that I was able to start my career rather quickly after coming back to the US in 2015. While I certainly had to do a few jobs that I probably wouldn't do again (except for Fedex, that was a fun job), I knew that this would all be a part of the sacrifice in leaving a rather... comfortable... teaching job in Chiba in order for me to find a better position, one where I could be encouraged to continue my Japanese studies.

It is scary coming back to the United States after living abroad, no matter what part of the world you are returning from. It's even scarier when you realize that if you have been teaching either as a JET or as an Eikaiwa teacher, most of your skills are not transferable to the business world. When people in this situation realize that (by my standards) 3-4 years later, it's already too late. No company, Japanese or American, want to hire people that have no tangible skills.

I was really lucky that my first position after living in Japan was willing to take a risk on me, and teach me the fundaments about capital machinery and basic technical Japanese. Although the position lasted me a year and a half before I moved on to a short-lived assignment in sales (and eventually becoming a in-house interpreter / translator a month after that assignment), the fact was that learned how to be "handy" with my hands (in more than a few ways), learn how to read blueprints for capital machinery (which also translated into being able to read car parts and entire vehicular structures), and learn how to do sales. In addition to my day jobs, I learned how to write for Simple Gaijin, teach Japanese to various different kinds of people, and public speaking at events.

But there are those guys whom are stuck in Japan...the "Lifers".

A Lifer has many different meanings, depending on whom you ask, in Japan. I'll just go with my definition.

Lifer - Noun; A person stuck living in Japan, usually (but not always) not by their choice, because of a fear of returning to their own home country. Origins for this fear usually stems from lack of marketable job skills either from a liberal arts degree, either knocking up a Japanese woman after a night of drunk sex and now legally obligated to stay in Japan until the child's 18th birthday, or fear to go back to go to their home country and go through a tough culture shock. Regardless of where there unhappiness stems from, they sometimes become bitter and angry at the success of other people that leave the English teaching realm.

My own experiences meeting lifers had been... eye-opening. While I certainly wasn't planning on staying in Japan for the rest of my life (esp. after spending time in the "Hokkaido Hoosegow"), it started to become very evident to me that teaching in English would not be the way for me to make my fortune and make my mark.

While not all lifers are miserable (I am close friends with a few guys that have made the active decision to stay the rest of their lives there), I have noticed a common trend with Lifer Guys in Japan. Keep in mind that these are only my observations and opinions...

  • One of the most common things that I hear is that "I haven't been given a raise in nearly 5-10 years", which only deterred me more into leaving when the time was right. It's well known that the golden age of teaching in Japan (1980s- 1990s) brought in a lot of money for teachers, but when the economy burst in the early 90s, the salaries of teachers either stagnated, froze, or even reduced. One thing that stands out to me is that when most were younger, they didn't think about saving money. Every night after work, they would either go to the bar or club, and drop the little money they had on trivial bullshit. While I certainly like going out and having a good time, doing frequently is a drain on the wallet. I saved money too (though to be honest, the amount of money that I did save is just the money from my JET Program Pension and my payments into the Japanese Social Security refund), but I made it a point that if I ever went out, I would try to be as frugal as possible My salary as an English Teacher in Chiba was 250,000 yen a month (by today's exchange rate = $2,200 before tax, which is what I bring home every two weeks after tax is taken out). But because it is almost impossible for me to determine how much they would be making after 5-10 years, let's go off my previous company's standard. After a year, they'd add 5,000 yen to your monthly salary, doing this up to a total of 3 times (essentially maxing out at +15,000 per month). That's peanuts. It's your own damn fault for not saving and being a party animal. Besides, why waste money at the bar when there is a vending machine or konbini on every street corner in Japan? I'd much rather pay for a 300 yen can of Budweiser than dropping 600 yen for a draft.

  • "I think Japanese life is suffocating" - One J-Blogger that I can't stand (I think you might know who it is as I talk about it) talks about the Japanese people being "fake, not honest", blah blah blah". This is one the one thing that irks me the most. If you can't stand living in Japan, leave. Life is too short for you to be miserable.

  • "I've become a sort of loner in Japan" - It's true that it is difficult to make sincere friendships with Japanese people as a foreigner. I know this first hand. But it isn't impossible to make friends. The only thing that I have against me is that Japanese men are afraid of me either due to my height and size, or "little man syndrome" next to me (of either origin of where the "little" is). But it is also inexcusable that you don't take the time to meet with other foreigners as well. Some, if not the majority, of my closest friends, I've met somewhere in Japan. Either in Osaka at Kansai Gaidai, in the "Hokkaido Hoosegow", or spending time in Chiba, I've met great foreigners that I probably wouldn't have been friends with if we had met in America. It is your fault that you are stonewalling others out.

  • "I hate seeing other teachers leave and become successful while I am still stuck slaving as a teacher" - Success is a very subjective term, and by my own standards, I am still not a success in my own eyes until I get that elusive JLPT N2 and then N1. True, I might have achieved my dream job as an interpreter / translator, getting paid weekly with a great take-home salary, have a small and comfortable abode, and (finally) getting noticed on the internet for Simple Gaijin. But success is still subjective. I especially see this on the online community for English Teachers in Japan (You know who I'm looking at). Those whom are successful, or go against what these lifers or failures as English teachers that are stuck in Japan beliefs, usually earn the ire of them. But all of us (myself included) have no time to deal in such petty and really meaningless bull. I know that I have received plenty of ire online and throughout Japan for my "kabukimono" antics in Akkeshi and Chiba (and I have no regrets doing it). But it only validates my decisions that I made in the past.

  • "I just hate Japanese people and Japan in general" - Got nothing to say here, really.

So if you want to teach in Japan for the rest of you natural life, go ahead and do it. There is nothing wrong in teaching itself and it is an honorable job. But if you are a lifer, and you seriously resort to living your life in a position you hate, do something about it. Life is too short to be miserable.

What do you guys think? Did you have any lessons from lifers? What are your opinions?


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