Expat lives: A seismic shift

We arrived in Tokyo just as many expats were going the other way. It was August last year, five months after the strongest earthquake Japan had ever seen, and newspapers were full of stories about power shortages, food scares and radioactive material throbbing in the suburbs. We touched down from carefree Hong Kong, not entirely convinced we were doing the right thing.

I was even less sure after the first big tremor, less than a month later. I was in the FT’s offices, on the 21st floor of a 27-year-old building. The sudden jolt was unmistakable, as was the groaning of girders and the half-minute of queasy rocking. As colleagues snapped on the television to check for details – a 6.2 earthquake off the coast of Ibaraki prefecture, not far from the deadly March quake – I called my wife. Safe on ground level, chasing after our two young girls, she hadn’t felt a thing.

By then, the sense of disorientation was familiar. I’d lived in Japan before, spending two years after graduation on a small island off the coast of Kyushu, teaching English at a junior high school. But arriving 15 years later with a wife and two daughters in tow, I felt clumsy all over again.

Japan is not a hardship posting. The accommodation is excellent, the food superb, the welcome as warm as anywhere on earth. But ask any expat: the real challenge is the language. My teaching job had given me the basics but I’d never progressed much further than trying to keep up with J-pop at the karaoke booth. Now, in my second stint, I still struggle. Tokyo has plenty of signage in English or romanised Japanese, so getting around is no trouble. But try picking out skimmed milk in the supermarket, or operating a mobile phone, or figuring out when a postman will return with a package.

Other barriers are less obvious. Your gaijin – alien – ways will offend your hosts daily but the Japanese won’t let you know when you cross a line. You’ll be struck by the prevalence of group behaviour – the way that no one crosses a deserted road until the green light tells them to; or the way that beach resorts are empty all year, except during the designated bathing season from the middle of July to the middle of August. You, too, will learn to respect rituals. Don’t try running in a clockwise direction around the Imperial Palace, for example. And don’t bother calling a salaryman between the hours of 12 and 1. He’ll be out, queueing for lunch.

To ease our early adjustment I called on an old friend from the island, while colleagues at the FT took care of property agents and rental agreements. But none could help on the night of the move into our new house, when the worst storm in almost 50 years hit Tokyo. The removal firm hemmed and hawed for hours before cancelling the delivery of our furniture; by then, the chances of finding a hotel, or a taxi to take us back to our temporary apartment, had vanished. The formal introduction to our neighbours – one of the million important ceremonies in Japan – became a mini-disaster appeal for food and bedding. Still, we were grateful for the blankets, the popcorn and the tins of Spam.

We’d settled on Yoyogi-Uehara, a district wedged between the dense masses of Shinjuku and Shibuya yet somehow quiet and village-like. As we moved through the application process we discovered that we had picked a compound owned by descendants of Korekiyo Takahashi, the ex-prime minister best known for steering Japan out of its slump following the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Takahashi was not around for much longer, assassinated in an abortive coup d’état after he tried to cut spending on the military. Seeing my family nameplate in such company was, and still is, a thrill.

Our western-style house, ringed by a narrow rock garden, is a bike-ride away from the girls’ school – the British School in Shibuya – and a seven-stop ride on the metro to work. Nearby is Yoyogi Park, the Clapham Common of Tokyo, good for picnics, ball games and spotting dogs in tweed jackets. At night we hear more crickets than cars, which, in a metropolitan area of more than 30m people, is quite a feat of urban planning.

Housing is expensive, like almost everything else in Japan. Tokyo rents have dropped from the recent peak of November 2008, but not by much. The mid-range runs from about Y200,000 (£1,600) a month for a three-bedroom, 80 sq m house an hour from Tokyo station, to about Y600,000 a month for a bigger three-bed apartment in the trendy central districts of Azabu and Hiroo. Luxury properties go well into the millions. Depending on the gall of your landlord, you may be asked for several months’ deposit and some non-refundable “gratitude money,” equivalent to another month or two.

If you’re looking to buy, come laden with cash. Japanese banks rarely lend to non-residents. Among foreign banks, Citi is most active in lending to non-residents with a Japanese spouse, or with a parent or child with permanent residency who can act as guarantor.

My job is markets and economics-focused so I’m mostly tracking people and institutions that understand what the FT is trying to achieve. Plenty don’t, though. I’ll spare the name of a large publicly listed manufacturer that replied by fax to an emailed request for an interview saying it couldn’t answer any of my questions, as they were “on matters related to our company’s strategy”. Others just don’t care. The three highest-circulation newspapers in the world are Japanese, and in Japanese. It is very easy to brush off a funny pink paper in English.

Outside work, frustrations linger. I wish I’d given a more fluent bollocking to a taxi driver who knocked me off my bike a few months ago, breaking my thumb. I wish I didn’t have to pay so much for porridge or shower gel. I wish I could find shoes that fit me. I wish mosquitoes wouldn’t burrow through mesh screens.

Despite all that, this is starting to feel like home. My wife has set up a small business teaching English to toddlers; I have joined the British Embassy football team, and the girls have a cat, rescued from the streets of Osaka. And nine months on, we have learned not to flinch at the occasional quake. Like most Japanese, we hurry to the internet instead to note location, depth and seismic intensity.

Still, the hatch in our kitchen floor (beneath it: canned food, sugary gels and water) is a reminder that, for Tokyo at least, the quake last March was not the Big One. And we’re always very glad when the shaking stops.

Buying guide

● Clean, peaceful, safe. There is little crime, petty or otherwise
● The service culture. Nowhere does it better
● The weather. Each season does jaw-dropping things to the landscape

● Communication. You need to apply yourself to learning the language
● Closed markets and cartel pricing. Bullet-train tickets seem deflation-proof; budget airlines have barely got started

What you can buy for ...
$100,000 (Y7.9m) A new, 50 sq m two-bed house in Sendagaya, near the National Stadium; or a decadesold 13 sq m studio flat in Roppongi
$1m (Y79m) A two-bed, 101 sq m apartment in upmarket Akasaka


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