Some of us have traveled to Japan at least once in our life. But let’s face it, Japan is quite unlikely to be somewhere you will end up living. For those who have, they had to deal with many of the surprises and challenges that come with moving to a place that will always defy your expectations. So what is it really like to acclimate to the Japanese lifestyle? Here, I interview Mishal Almashan, a Kuwaiti student currently earning his PhD in Japan. I was curious to ask about his experience in Japan, especially when you also consider how vastly different both Kuwait and Japan are. Either way, living in Japan sounds like a whirlwind of an adventure!
Please introduce yourself and how your journey lead you to Japan?
Hi, my name is Mishal Almashan, I’m from Kuwait. I’ve started loving Japan subconsciously when I began to recognize and love everything produced and imported from Japan back in the 80s. What sparked my interest in Japan were the high quality Japanese products, their good designs and beautiful colors.
I was telling myself there must be something very special about this country, but I didn’t give it much attention at first since I was too young at the time to even realize that this kind of appealing design aesthetic was something unique to Japan. All I knew back then was that it was very attractive.
With regards to products and design, I was a bit confused between American, European, and Japanese products. However, I gradually figured out that I was drawn to Japanese.
One of my first exposures to Japanese society in general was watching the infamous game show “Takeshi’s Castle” (الحصن). It made me like Japanese people and their language. Way before that, it was all about “Made in Japan” products and that’s all I knew. Then I started to step further into getting to know the Japanese culture.
In the 90s, from 1993 to 1994, I was determined that I loved Japan. What started this passion for all things Japanese were my frequent visits to Japanese bookstores in London during my summer vacations. I got to buy random Japanese products that ranged from food, soundtracks, video games, anime magazines, electronics, printed dictionaries and maps of Japan.
Back then I urged my mother to plan our next summer holiday in Japan, to which she replied that there is nothing to eat or buy there! Only refrigerators and TV’s! But at this point, I already knew that Japan was way more than that. I got to know it more from the video game magazines that I flipped through, featuring various interviews, events, and workshops. They gave me an overall image about the real Japan and what it’s all about. This was before the advent of the internet!
So I kept visiting the same bookstores every summer and the turning point was in 1999! My dad received an invitation from the Embassy of Japan in Kuwait for him and my mom to attend a ceremony there as he used to work for the Ministry of Interior. He approached me and gave me the invitation card telling me he knew how much I loved Japan (although he used to yell at me every time I use my chopsticks when eating lunch haha!) He wanted me to take the invite and go to the ceremony instead of him. And I was like, “OK … I’M DEFINITELY GOING!”
I wasn’t expecting anything except that I will be meeting the Japanese ambassador himself! I took a friend to come with me. We were quite lucky that they let us in. We got acquainted with his excellency the ambassador and later on enjoyed authentic Japanese food, most of which consisted of raw fish. To be honest, I didn’t like it at the time. The taste caught me off guard and I thought to myself, maybe I don’t like everything Japanese haha! Afterwards, I walked into a small exhibition in the corner and there I got branded merchandise by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a magazine that was both in Arabic and English introducing the Japanese culture in a simplified and visual way. I was so excited and thought, yes! This is what I’ve been looking for! I WANT THIS! I got several free copies and that was the first issue that the Embassy of Japan came out with. However, the publication eventually became discontinued! So they don’t have them anymore.
Turning the pages of this periodical, I told myself OK, this is Japan, this is everything I imagined it to be. However, everything I knew was only in my head back then. But now, I had something tangible that actually featured Japanese information, right in my hands. I stared at the published images, read their interviews with foreigners living and working in Japan in the 90s, got to know about the story, culture, modern Japan, architecture, food, and more. I enjoyed all of the articles in that issue and kept getting the subsequent issues from my later visits to the Embassy of Japan.
Right after graduation in 2003, I decided to go to Japan with a couple of my Kuwaiti friends. That was my first exposure to JAPAN! It was the long awaited moment! It’s finally JAPAN. I felt like the still pictures and the TV documentaries about Japan that I had long read and watched in the past are coming to life! The only difference this time is that I was about to be totally immersed. The journey has begun, and it’s still ongoing!
Why did you choose to study and live in Japan specifically? What inspired and convinced you to travel all the way there? And how long have you been there? Would you consider staying for good?
I visited Japan in 2003, 2007 (Sakura season), 2012 (after earning my Master’s degree from the States), 2013 (homestay and learning Japanese language), 2014 (Summer in Hokkaidō) and finally in 2015( I’ve decided after this final trip I will be leaving to the states for my PhD).
However, something changed entirely. I decided to live and study in Japan. And I was like, it’s either now or never! So I seized the opportunity.
We know that traveling to a place is entirely different than actually living there. How would you describe living in Japan? What’s the true reality of living there? How does it contrast with life In Kuwait? Did you experience any culture shock? Did you face any hurdles when trying adapt? Were there some big adjustments that you had to make to live there? What was the transition like to go from a place like Kuwait to the opposite side of the spectrum in terms of culture and environment?
Because of my previous frequent visits to Japan, I was determined about my decision to move to Japan for my studies. However, I didn’t really know what to expect living in Japan with my family (a wife and two kids). Since Tokyo is the safest city in the world, I tried not to worry about it too much. The language barrier and the food were the only two daily problems that one could face in Japan. I eventually did learn the basics of the language to help with daily communication and through this I got to know where to eat or what kind of food is consumable for us in Japan. Now, it’s way easier than that first year.
Do you work in Japan too?
No I don’t.
What would you say is the best and most difficult part about living in Japan from your perspective?
The best part of it is the lifestyle. I enjoy my daily life in Japan and I’m now enjoying it not just as a tourist. The architecture, convenient transportation, delicious food, all four seasons, the nature, are mostly things that a tourist would not get to totally appreciate for short-term visits. I also feel that my personality goes well with my favorite city, Tokyo!
The negative things could be (in very minor situations) racism. The Japanese will always treat you as an outsider. But, if you think about it, this occurs technically everywhere. It’s human nature. Other cons could be the very crowded rush hours, which I’m totally fine with it as I know my ways. But it’s not so convenient when accompanied with kids.
What’s something that surprised you or even shocked you during your time in Japan? It can be anything to do with the food, culture, transport, people etc).
The senior people, in many situations, refuse any kind of help. They just don’t want to feel like a burden to the society and that’s amazing and inspiring for me in the future!
Tell us what’s a day in your life in Japan like?
On a typical working day, I shower, have coffee, go to university for my research, have lunch, go back to my office, leave again in the evening (studying Japanese on certain days, going to some nearby places for dinner and coffee!) then back home.
On a typical weekend, I go to events, exhibitions, shopping, cafés, sightseeing (mostly nature and it depends on the season), theatre, concerts, and so on.
You mentioned in your daily life that you go back to your office? Or maybe you meant in university?
Yes, that’s correct. As PhD student I get to work/do research in a laboratory .. a desk probably!
What are some kind of events and exhibitions that go on there? Any examples?
Special exhibitions at museums (historical or scientific). Anime and manga related and other special exhibitions as anniversaries or so.
What about the concerts? What are they like?
Classical music. Hisaishi Joe (the composer of Studio Ghibli films), for example.
Were you required to learn some Japanese?
The program that I have joined is entirely in English and that’s why I’m here as I’ve completed my BS and MS in English so doesn’t’ make sense that I travel all the way to Japan to struggle with my Engineering studies being in Japanese! However, I’ve learned some Japanese and passed the JLPT N5 level just for my own benefits and to improve my daily communication skills whilst living in Japan.
If you were to stay in Japan permanently, what’s one of the reasons why you would prefer living there?
Definitely the lifestyle, respectful people, good manners can be observed everywhere, cleanliness, beautiful nature, safety, their advancement in technology and most importantly, the very convenient transportation and mailing services which we lack in Kuwait.
Was it easy making friends and building a social life there? Did you meet any fellow Kuwaitis there like yourself?
To some extent it is difficult as they are not very open to foreigners but it got easier through daily conversations with my lab mates.
And yes, I got the chance to meet with some Kuwaiti fellas during the national celebrations of Kuwait organized by the Embassy of Kuwait in Japan.
Do you have any piece of advice to anyone that’s considering to move to Japan? Or study there? What’s the education like there?
Moving for work might not be a good option for Kuwaitis as it’s way more challenging and competitive compared to Kuwait, unless if you feel like you can make it with any struggles.
I’ve completed my Master’s degree in the States and now I’m doing my PhD in Japan. So, comparing both experiences I can conclude that no place on earth is heaven. It’s all based on your personal preferences and experiences. You might join a good school in the States but your daily life wouldn’t be as expected or as you wanted it to be, or vice versa, and the same thing is valid in Japan.
Generally, speaking about education in Japan compared to anywhere else, they have good schools and they do offer English-based programs but learning basic Japanese could help greatly to find your way around more “smoothly”.
In addition, always keep in mind that in Japan they have their own educational system that could be way different from the States or UK, unlike in Kuwait where most of our schools are affiliated with the American or British systems. Just ask and politely express your thoughts before you decide or take any action through your professional/educational life in Japan.
So you follow a Japanese style of education?
It is Japanese but it’s a world-class education. At school you’ll get to see more differences but in universities they almost follow the world-class universal educational system.
And if you can point out any differences you see between their system and the ones we are used to here in Kuwait? How is the Japanese educational system different? Are there any big differences that stand out?
The Kuwaiti one is affiliated and accredited, for some programs, by American associations. The Japanese one is just that they have their own quality control systems and their own measures. The curriculum for grad school is to be associated with the local Japanese research society (conferences, events, etc.).
I’m a member of The Institute of Electronics, Information and Communication Engineers (IEICE) and it’s a Japanese one! You can say that Japan is a self-sufficient country even when it comes to education. However, they care about their global presence and contribution/participation and that’s why passing TOEFL exams is mandatory to enter one of the top universities in Japan.
Those societies in Kuwait are not as active and big as this and in many cases you’ll find the local ones that we have in Kuwait are only chapters/sub-divisions of the American/European ones.
I understand that every country is different than any other country, but Japan really does stand out from the rest of the world, in a good way, no exaggeration. I just hate calling it a “planet” but it is sci-fi-ish, though!
Japan is different in a “normal-logical” way with a very simple-complex concept that runs throughout almost every aspect of their daily life.
Once you return to Kuwait, what is something you think you will take with you from Japan? What lessons? Memories? Experiences?
Japan is a way of living. I can live in Japan while I’m in Kuwait! What makes Japan very unique is that its spirit is different, not the concrete.
Other lessons are to be punctual, enjoy the surroundings, be active, be humble, chase my dreams even if they are different from the mainstream, try to establish/join a community where you can enjoy practicing your hobbies or improving your skills in something. They could be all Japanese-related not necessarily the language if one feels that it’s boring to learn a language. Japan is rich in culture too! Practicing JAPAN is joyful for me even when I’m not in Japan. The things that cannot be taken back to Kuwait are the convenient transportation and the extremely good manners (in public) .. and even the good, homegrown fresh food. Here you can even taste the four seasons!
While in Japan is there anything you missed about Kuwait?
Of course. I missed my childhood! Kuwait has been attached to my childhood and this is normal for anyone at any place in the world but you’ll get to miss it and reminisce about it while you’re living abroad.
It’s your birthplace after all, home to where all your childhood memories are. I know that you’re asking about Kuwait in recent days but still the childhood I spent there is attached to my memory. Also the residential areas of Kuwait, palm trees, sun, dust, co-ops, etc. They all become fond to me!
Social gatherings are not of an interest to me, probably they are different between here and there. But for me it’s just ok.
What is something that you would miss the most about living in japan?
Being a Tokyoite and then leaving my life in Japan behind as fond memories.
Do you have any additional personal comments to add?
Thanks for the interview and good luck on pursuing your dreams .. not necessarily in Japan, but anywhere on the planet earth .. it’s all about the journey itself not the dream!
—Sincerely, Mishal Tokyo, Japan