Japan Homestay

Culture shock – my crazy 1990s Japan homestay experience

The EarlybirdAdventures, Asia

I lived for 3 years in Japan in the 1990s. I loved Japan and had an amazing experience which I will never forget. Each country has its own uniques culture, but Japan is so far out there, it will never cease to surprise and amaze.

When I arrived in Japan, people told me, the longer you live in Japan, the less you will understand about the culture. How contrary, I thought, surely it’s the other way around! But it turned out to be true – Japan is a very mysterious land and after 3 years, I was still left scratching my head, trying to understand the place.

For 6 months, I lived with my Japanese girlfriend and her family. I learned more about Japanese culture in these 6 months than in the rest of my time there combined. Not only did I experience how a typical family lives and communicates, but I also learned all the crazy family secrets.

How did I get into this situation?

Firstly, it was very rare in the 1990s for unmarried couples in Japan to cohabitate. To host a foreigner in one’s house was practically unheard of. Most Japanese live with their parents until marriage. If they have to move to another city for study or work, they usually get a small one room apartment or live in a dormitory provided by the company.

I was backpacking around South East Asia and was running out of money. My sister was in Japan and suggested I go there to teach English to restock the bank account, so I could continue travelling. My intention was to stay for maximum one year, then continue on to Europe via India.

During this year (1994/5), I had a steady Japanese girlfriend. I left to go to India on my way to Europe. In a moment of weakness in India, I decided to change my plans and go back to Japan for another year. This was on the condition that my girlfriend save money, so we could leave Japan and go travelling.

When I arrived back in Osaka, I had nowhere to stay. My girlfriend’s family offered to put me up in their house temporarily until I could find a place.

The red carpet is rolled out

At first, this was a dream situation. I asked where I would sleep. On the sofa of course, right? No. In anticipation of my arrival, they had bought a new double bed for us! I suspect my girlfriend had already told her parents the ring was already half way on the finger.

They cooked me delicious Japanese food every night and charged me a pittance in rent/expenses. Even when I had to go on a compulsory drinking binge with my colleagues/students, instead of contempt, I was met with great sympathy. Oh you poor thing being forced to drink to the point of unconsciousness and waking up with the hangover from hell!

Sex is (not) allowed!

It was very hard for me to understand what behaviours were ok and which were taboo. There were so many unwritten rules which were not communicated verbally and I was constantly making faux pas.

One example, was the subject of sex and nudity. The Japanese are generally pretty open on the topic of sex and nudity is common in hot springs all over the country, although usually men and women bathe separately.

One day, my girlfriend revealed to me that her mother knew we were having sex in our room together because she could hear the bed squeaking! I expected the mother to scold her for a lack of discretion, but apparently she had laughed the whole thing off. Must be just a normal everyday type of sound in a Japanese home – your daughter being fucked by her foreign boyfriend!

On another occasion, however, the mother reacted very differently when I entered the bathroom to take a bath while my girlfriend was still in the bathroom, finishing up from her bath. In Japan, everyone takes a bath in the evening in the same bathwater. You wash yourself with soap first sitting on a small stool in the bathroom. There is a pecking order with the father getting the first dip. In our case, there was no funny business going on and we had seen each other naked many times, so assumed this would be ok. How wrong could we have been. The mother completely lost her rag – how could we be so shameless and show such lack of respect?!

Revealing the family secrets part 1: Wife beating

Little by little, as the family got to know me, they started to reveal to me their bizarre secrets. Now, I am sure every family has its skeletons in the closet, but this was really over the top. For a start, they told me the father used to beat the mother. In addition to my girlfriend, they had one more daughter of high school age. The father apparently used to punch the mother in the stomach (where babies come from) because she had not given him a son (although anyone with a basic knowledge of genetics knows that it is the father who determines the gender of the baby).

Family secrets part 2: Gambling & Prostitution??

The father was working during the week in Nagoya and was only home in Osaka on the weekends. He used to just lie there in front of the TV all day and not say much, except for “o-furo”, which means, “bath” when he wanted his wife to fill the bath, and; “gohan” which means “meal”/”rice”, when he was hungry. He had been headhunted by Samsung 10 years prior to retirement. Every year, all full time workers get a bonus, which increases every year until retirement when you get a mega bonus. Like a pension paid out in a lump sum. This means, he received his final bonus from his previous company early (minus the last 10 years of service). My family told me they used this money to pay his “debts”. I didn’t pry into the details of the “debts”, but we can assume it was gambling and prostitution which are rife among Japanese businessmen.

Family secrets part 3: Bullying the little sister until her hair fell out!

On another occasion, my girlfriend and her mother were laying into the sister. There were swearing away on and on. She was crying and crying. I don’t know what she did to deserve such treatment, but I felt she had gotten the message. Later they told me, see her long black hair? That’s not her real hair!! It’s a wig! It turned out, her real hair fell out due to stress from being bullied at school.

Bullying is a massive problem in Japan. Because it is such a conformist society anything that signifies difference (appearance, accent) can result in ostracision from the group. Of course, there is bullying all over the world, but usually there is one or several bullies picking on one victim. In Japan, it is known for the whole class to join in, even the teacher. Some bullies used brag online about the number of victims who had killed themselves due to their bullying. There was a famous case when I lived in Japan when a girl was bullied by her classmates. They pretended she didn’t exist and even staged a mock funeral for her class in which the teacher joined in! She later killed herself.

Personally, considering the extreme physical reaction that the sister had incurred as a reaction to the bullying, I would have gone a bit easier on her. But that’s just me and who I am to judge.

Quitting my job and everything turning to shit

To get a visa to enable me to work for another year, I went back to my old job and the largest English language school in Japan. I hated this school – it was like the McDonalds of English teaching. The relationship between teachers and management was terrible and the school used to regularly rip the students off. Still, I decided to go back there to get another visa. This time, I was posted to a different school and I went back with an open mind, but it was exactly the same and after 3 months, I decided to quit and get another job.

I had a new job lined up, but they low balled me after I had quit my first job and I decided to reject the offer. Bad decision. After that, I couldn’t get another job for 3 months. The atmosphere in the house turned really toxic. You don’t quit your job in Japan and if you are out of work, people assume you were in prison! It became really hard for me to explain this decision in interviews.

One day after work, the mother exploded at my girlfriend. She was sobbing and sobbing. At first, my girlfriend refused to tell me what was going on. Finally she relented and told me her mother did not want a stinky, lay-about, good-for-nothing foreigner in her house (the Japanese are very clean and don’t tend to have body odour like we do – hence the stinky). Later, the mother came and talked to me (in Japanese) telling me, they really liked me and wanted me to stay. But after that, I became completely unnerved – did they hate me and were lying, or; did they really like me and she was lying when she exploded at my girlfriend?

It got even worse when the father stopped talking to me on weekends. As mentioned above, he rarely talked to anyone in the first place. However, in Japan, there are standard greetings when you leave and arrive at home and standard replies – e.g. “Tadaima!” (I’m home!), for which the standard response is: “o-kaeri” (welcome back!). He simply ignored me when I spoke to him. It got really awkward one day when by coincidence, we were walking to the local train station together. When the train arrived, he ran to the end of the train, so he wouldn’t have to sit with me!

I made the decision to get out of there asap. Finding an apartment in Japan can be very difficult, however, as you need a sponsor. The sponsor must be someone of good repute (e.g. holding a good position at a respectable company) and is liable for any costs you might incur by not paying rent or damaging the apartment. You also have to pay a deposit (called “key money”), which may or may not be partially refunded according to the location or the whim of the landlord.

The prodigal son is back!

Finally, I got a new teaching job. This time, doing so-called “company lessons”. This meant, I worked for a company on a contractual basis and they farmed me out to corporate clients. I would teach onsite, usually early in the morning or evenings. Some of these clients were famous corporations in Japan, like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The Japanese love to rank things. There are the top 3 gardens, top 3 views, top 3 temples, etc. This also extends to universities (Tokyo University holding the number 1 spot) and companies. I was working at Nisho Iwai, the number 5 ranked company in Japan at that time. Suddenly, the atmosphere at home completely changed. I was no longer the washed-up, useless, smelly has-been. I was transformed into great marriage material.

My father in-law agreed to be my sponsor and we found a tiny shoe-box apartment for me. The rent was US $500 per month with US $5000 non-refundable key money. I moved in and everything was going swimmingly.

After moving out, I came back to the house to visit one day. It was winter and the family were making Nabe (literally “pot”), a kind of stew cooked on special hot plate in the living room. While the women were preparing the food in the kitchen, my girlfriend asked me to thank the father while he was getting the pot ready in the living room. Note, that in Japan, men do absolutely nothing around the house. Once, at a family gathering, I offered to help with the dishes and the men laughed at me as if I was somehow emasculating myself. The exception is Nabe, which I would equate to the bbq in western culture, where the man likes to show off some kind of culinary skill. I tried to stutter out some kind of pathetic excuse for thanks and utterly failed before the rest of the family joined us to eat. Later, I went to apologize to my girlfriend and she told me not to worry as everything was fine. The father had served Nabe to me first, which was a sign that I was accepted back into the family! Another cryptic unspoken signal that I had completely failed to decipher.

Lying about having sex at my place

On the odd occasion, my girlfriend and I would go out clubbing. This meant staying out all night because the trains stopped at about midnight and didn’t resume again until 5am or so. Taxis were prohibitively expensive. My girlfriend would just tell her parents we would be out all night and she would sleep at my place. The parents knew this was just a euphemism for her staying over to have sex with me. I couldn’t understand this subterfuge considering it had been quite ok for us to have sex while I had been living with them.

One night, she told the parents we were going clubbing and we just had sex at my place. I was done and the apartment was so small, so I really just wanted to be alone. I dropped my girlfriend back at the house and she had this bright idea to stay over at mine one more night. The father went beserk! We know you’re lying. You know we know you’re lying. I just got the hell out of there. This all could have been avoided by not lying in the first place.

Realizing my relationship was a complete lie!

Little by little, however, I started realize that the promise my girlfriend made to save and go travelling was all a lie. She only had the intention of luring me back to Japan. Once there, she figured I would get used to Japan again and forget all about travelling.

I started to realize this when she started to spend extravagantly when she should have been saving. Firstly, she booked us a weekend away in very expensive suite in a hotel in some tourist trap resort. We shared a huge room with her cousin and boyfriend. There was nothing to do and they just sat around talking shit and smoking copious quantities of cigarettes (smoking is allowed in some rooms in Japan). When I complained to her, she justified by claiming the room was discounted (due to some family connection). It still cost us in the US$100s per night. Great if we could have afforded it. Even then, I would not have wasted my money on such a lousy hotel and location. Still, it seemed to represent some kind of prestige for her to stay in a fancy expensive hotel. Not a good omen, when our plan was to go backpacking and stay in cheap hostels.

Another day, I met her out for dinner. She usually dressed well, but this time had these horrible slip on shoes with a hideous gold buckle. I thought she must have borrowed her mother’s shoes. When I asked her it turned out they belonged to her. They were Salvatore Faragamo and had cost US$500 (double in today’s money). In Japan, it is the custom to give money rather than gifts for birthday and wedding presents. When you finish school and graduate, you get a large some of money, as we would for a 21st birthday. Then, when you get a job and start earning, you then give to your little brothers, sisters and cousins. My girlfriend had gotten a large cash payment from her grandmother, some of which was used to purchase these ridiculous, ugly shoes!

It got worse. One day, I was at her place and she went to get something from her closet. I noticed a box on the top shelf. It was a Gucci handbag. Costs US$800! I could not believe it. Her response: Steven, you don’t understand – in Japan, every girl/woman needs at least one good bag! To keep wrapped up in cotton wool in a closet in case of some special occasion.

She also started to tell me she didn’t really like my music (techno) and that she had not really enjoyed having sex for the first year we dated! It seems she had just told me what I wanted to hear to avoid risking upsetting me. It is common in Japan for the man to make most decisions and the women just have to suck it up. She was more concerned with contradicting or upsetting me, than being open and honest. I started to wonder what else she had been lying about to avoid upsetting me.

I’m hot (for you baby)!

I decided that we needed to take a break from each other. She interpreted this is wanting to break up and freaked out. I just said, I needed 2 weeks time to myself. It didn’t last long. A couple of days later, I got this SOS call from her. She was at the station and was about to faint. I lived 5 minutes walk from the station, so rushed down there. I had to practically carry her back to my place and lay her down. She had a “fever” and kept repeating, oh I am so hot! As I tended to her, I felt this rush of emotion and…. we started having sex! She was in heat, not hot from any fever and I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

Dumped and threatened with eviction

After the “fainting” incident, we made up and things were going well. I had forgotten about the lavish spending sprees. One night, I called her house late at night. She wasn’t there and her mother was really evasive. The very next day, she unceremoniously dumped me. She had gone out with a (rich) colleague from her work and had not come home! She slept with him on the first date and dumped me the very next day without a forethought. It seemed the enticement of riches was too much for her to resist. Or she simply realized that I was a bum, just lying on beaches in Thailand and wasting my life away with no future.

I was devastated, but came to realise that it was for the best. We were not really suited, our relationship was based on lies and she had shown her true character. Better that it had happened then, rather than years down the road following the inevitable marriage and kids.

I knew this might compromise the sponsorship her father had given me for the apartment. To mitigate any risk, I wrote a nice letter to them and had a Japanese friend of mine translate it. I wrote that although I was very sad, I had lived with them for 6 months and they knew me to be an honest and reliable person. I would not take out revenge by trashing the place or not paying my rent or utilities.

My efforts were in vain, however, and the family went on the attack. I started to get calls and letters from the real estate agent telling me the father had “withdrawn” his sponsorship and I had to get out. Luckily Osaka is a big city and had free services for foreigners. One of them was a free consultation with a lawyer and interpreter. The lawyer told me they were bluffing and that sponsorship was for life. Every formal document in Japan has a stamp and people stamp documents rather than signing them. It is very hard to obtain a stamp due to the bureaucracy, but once the document is stamped, you can’t unstamp it!

I decided to get a second opinion and went to a similar free consultation in the neighbouring city of Kyoto. The lawyer there confirmed, the family had no right to throw me out and that I should ignore the eviction letters. I duly complied and at the end of the year when I had planned to leave Japan, the real estate agent called me and politely asked me to move all my stuff out.


My Japan homestay experience was totally crazy. So much culture shock. I do believe it is possible to have successful cross cultural relationships, but it is hard. Maybe I just had bad luck and got a crazy family. Maybe I am the crazy one and my unconscious bias prevented me from detecting the subtle non-verbal signals. In the end, it was a still an unbelievable experience to have lived with a Japanese family in their home, which most foreigners never have the opportunity to do. An experience I will never forget.

Photo by Jase Bloor on Unsplash