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What’s difficult about living in Japan?

A question we’re often asked when we’re in Australia is, “What is the most difficult thing about living in Japan, aside from language?”

That assumes you can divorce the language from the difficulties of living here, but you can’t. It affects almost everything. It means we struggle to understand the culture and make friends. Daily-life things that are (relatively) easy in Australia are more difficult, like using banks, negotiating bureaucracy, and communicating on the phone.

Other stress factors, apart from language and culture include:

Rest and recreation

Things that we might do for rest in Australia are not always so easy here. For example, just going places with children can be stressful in Japan. Traffic is slow in Tokyo so driving can be frustrating. Trains are efficient, but the culture doesn’t allow much room for energetic, loud boys. Thankfully my boys are now older and are able to behave appropriately on trains now, but when they were younger it was difficult.

Japan doesn’t have a holiday-culture like other countries. You cannot book holiday units or houses, they don’t exist. And hotels are too expensive for a missionary’s budget. OMF has compensated for this by purchasing and maintaining holiday houses.

Hobbies are limited in choice. We have a limited budget and a small house. We face the challenge of storing our stuff every time we go on home assignment (approximately every four years). We cannot have hobbies that require lots of stuff.

Setting limits

It is hard to set limits on when you work when you don’t fill out a time sheet or have set hours. We also live in a culture that works very long hours. I’m very thankful for a husband who is able to come home at 5pm and eat with us and be a part of the evening routines.

There is also a strong work ethic that pervades missions. This idea: People are sacrificing to pay for us to be here, we shouldn’t waste their money. Plus, there is always more to do than there are people resources to do it. We minister in a land with less than 1% Christians. Where do you stop? Can you justify stopping?

Balance between family and ministry

This is a challenge any family in ministry faces. Not just that you have to set your own limits, you have to refrain from criticising other people’s decisions and from comparing yourself negatively with others.

Meeting others’ expectations

We live in a fishbowl-type situation. We have to write regularly to supporters about what we’ve been doing. We have Japanese watching all we do. We have regular reviews with leaders here in Japan, and when we’re home there’s a psychological review and interviews with home side staff. When we’re on home assignment we have a lot of people wanting to meet us or hear us report back about what we’ve been doing in Japan. We live fairly public lives. How much reveal to others can be a challenge.


This is a constant. Even if we ourselves are “still”, others around us are moving, changing countries, roles, etc. Then every four years we change countries ourselves twice in a year. Our friends, leaders, and co-workers frequently change. For a girl who spent her whole childhood in one town and only two school, that is stressful.

Belonging nowhere

We no longer belong one hundred percent in Australia, nor will we ever belong in Japan.

All this sounds depressing, but we are also held up by prayer. That is what keeps us going. I’m certain we wouldn’t still be here except that God hears and continues to answer those prayers.

Next instalment for this series will be: “How I maintain spiritual zeal.”

By Wendy Marshall

Wendy is an Australian who has been in Japan with OMF since 2000. She’s married to David who teaches maths and science at the Christian Academy in Japan. She’s an editor and writer. In this nine-part series she answers searching questions about her experience of life and ministry as a missionary.

Read all the posts in the series:

Missionary Calling

How did God call you to mission?

Preparing for the mission field

How did God lead you into your current ministries?

What’s your ministry in Japan?

My experience of culture shock

What’s difficult about living in Japan?

How do you maintain spiritual zeal?

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