1 August 2016

Jonathan Hewitt - Expat in Tokyo, Japan

Jonathan Hewitt - Expat in Tokyo, Japan

We’ve had the chance to talk to Jonathan Hewitt, 51, a British expat who has moved to Japan alone and is now a happy family man. Mr Hewitt, who has been living there for 25 years, now works as a freelance advisor. Read more about his experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I was born and raised in the UK until twenty-five when I relocated to Japan


Q: What made you move out of UK?
A: Simply the opportunity. I was young, at the start of my career and my company suggested I spend two years working overseas in Japan.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?
A: In live in Daikanyama, a small neighbourhood in the center of Tokyo, Japan


Q: How long have you been living in Japan?
A: Twenty five years now, as mentioned, I thought it would be two.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?
A: My wife is Japanese, and so no adjustment required. It’s a truism though that expat failures are usually due to the non-working expat spouse not settling. It’s guidance I always give to expats coming to Japan to look out for and ensure they are occupied and find their own purpose to be here.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?
A: Not really. Skype makes the world a smaller place. When I arrived the only way to communicate was a postcard, a call home costing $4 per minute in those days. My son has grown up thinking video conferencing is normal.


Q: What do you think about the locals?
A: As with any country there are some of the local population who do not take well to foreigners, but in Japan, these are an almost unnoticeable minority. I’ve experienced nothing but kindness and support (the odd taxi ignoring me in the rain aside). Although Japan has a reputation for not being open to immigration as a concept, they are very welcoming of foreigners themselves.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Japan? How did you manage to find a social circle there?
A: My friends are a mix of local and international. In the metropolitan areas, it is very easy to meet foreigners through expat or other clubs, schools or simply going to a local “gaijin” bar. The language barrier does make finding Japanese friends more challenging, but with persistence, you realise communication is more about the attitude than a common language. And the Japanese friends you make will be friends for life.


Q: How does the cost of living in Japan compare to your home?

Q: How much is a cup of coffee?
A: This depends on where you go. From a vending machine, it’s about $1, from a coffee shop (Starbucks) $5~10

Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?
A: You can find a descent (and enjoyable) local meal for ¥1000 ($10)

Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?
A: Sky’s the limit on this one. How much do you want to spend?

Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?
A: A decent bottle of wine starts at around ¥1000 ($10) and then anything is possible. Cigarettes (sadly) are amongst some of the lowest taxed in the world and as a result are relatively inexpensive.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in Japan?
A: Be patient! If you’re in Tokyo, the large banks are used to foreigners but if on a more regional posting you may find you’re the first foreigner they’ve had to work with, and the English support should be expected to be zero. Note: as of 2016 there are no foreign banks offering retail services in Japan after Citibank pulled out. For a local account, you will have to go with a Japanese bank.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?
A: Organised. The forms are standard and although the lines sometimes long, the staff are usually helpful. Take a number from the machine and stand in line until you’re called. Tax filings are painful (but find a country where they are not), and if required you will probably need help.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in Japan is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?
A: Japanese healthcare is outstanding. Japan has world-leading health care at extremely low cost if you go local. There are international clinics that provide broad language support however these are significantly more expensive as they operate outside the state system. A quick on-line search will provide an array of services in the main cities. One area where healthcare is recognized as being under developed though is that of mental health. For those feeling the pressure, Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) is an excellent English language service that has been operating with trained support for over thirty years.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in UK or Japan? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?
A: Originally I carried international health coverage though over time I came to use only local coverage as my language ability improved. General coverage from one of the international providers is not accepted in the national or international clinics, so you always need to pay first and reclaim the costs later.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to Japan? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?
A: For me, this was a relatively painless process as I arrived with two suitcases and that was my life. However, for the average expat, the most important issue is to remember to complete your “unaccompanied baggage” section of your Customs Declaration form when you arrive. Forgetting can lead to long delays in receiving your shipment (and probably an apology letter).


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?
A: Not being able to read, write or speak the language. I arrived eight weeks after my company suggested I move to Japan so had no time to prepare or take lessons and so was essentially a bilingual illiterate. However, most expats arrive with the objective of taking lessons and learning the language to be able to work in Japanese. This approach almost always ends in failure though as an expat life is extremely busy and high pressure, so the spare time required is simply not there. The advice I provide to new expats is to learn enough Japanese to direct taxis and order pizza on the telephone ie enough to make daily life easier, and then spend the time learning Japan. Knowing that a “yes” probably means “no” etc., is significantly more useful in navigating the business environment of Japan than spending three years learning kanji only to find you can't read about one character in five in a daily newspaper.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Japan?
A: An expatriation to Japan can be a life-changing experience in a positive way. The people are kind and welcoming and every day brings something new. The downsides for the working expat can be the long hours in the office that Japan is famous for though with time you begin to recognise that the workload is little different to your home country, it’s just spread out more to be with the team. For the non-working non-Japanese spouse, this can also become an issue as accepting that going drinking with your colleagues is part and parcel of working here can be a difficult concept to appreciate, especially if home alone.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?
A: Tokyo is a fascinating city in that there are lots to do but not that much to see. Learn to use chopsticks, work on the principle you’ll try anything once and dive in. Enjoy Japan while you have the opportunity and don’t spend time longing for the return journey.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?
A: No, not for business. It’s been so long I feel as if I now have two home countries the only difference being a plane flight.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?
A: Don’t assume you understand the first time around. If you ask any long-timers, they’ll tell you it takes a while to realise you don’t fully appreciate the differences. But once you do realise this you are in a much more enjoyable and effective position.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Japan?
A: Yes. www.TenguLife.com. But I would say that, I write it.