MY NAME IS BOB, I’M A 2nd YEAR ALT, AND I WAKE UP EVERY MORNING AND CRY OUT, this is my life, this is really happening, why why why. WHY AM I THE ONLY ALT I KNOW WHO FEELS THIS WAY?

You are not alone, Bob.

It seems like a whole heckuvalotta ALTs are having the time of their lives. Everyone is having fun with their co-workers and students. Everyone is engaged in their community. Everyone has an active social life. Everyone has a very, very active sex life.

But, maybe outside of your closest friends, you are the only person who seems to be mind-numbingly depressed.


Well, Bob, you probably just spent 4+ years in college earning a very expensive degree and you are hungry to prove your worth. And so are most other ALTs. Unless you’re good friends with someone, the ALTs around you will avoid exposing any blemishes regarding their lives in Japan.

Also, Japan is an extremely image-conscious country. No matter the stress or ordeal, Japanese people are the undisputed grand masters in the art of grin and bear it.

Sandwiched between Smile Hard 20-somethings and The People Who Never Complain, you, Bob, are very likely to assume whatever problems that you’re having, the problem is with you. Since no one else is complaining, maybe you’re somehow broken.

And this is why a lot of ALTs suffer in silence.

So what is to be done?

Ever hear of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

(By FireflySixtySeven [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Hierarchy of Needs is a theoretical compilation of things we need to live a good life. It’s a theory that neatly summarizes the psychological factors that influence a person’s well-being. If you are having a rough time in Japan, it may help you identify the source.

PHYSIOLOGICAL NEEDS — food, drink, shelter, sleep, etc

Let’s start with the basics. Do you physically feel like shit all the time? If so, make sure you are taking care of your body.

Are you staying up until 6:00 a.m (when work starts at 8:00)? Are you eating junk food non-stop from the konbini? Are you 75% composed of carbonated soft drink and not H2O? Are you losing your breath on the stairs because you don’t work out?

Well. Stop.

If you’re expecting your body to keep up with junk food, lack of exercise, low water intake, and poor sleeping habits, all while keeping a 9-5 job, you’re going to find that your body is going to fall apart. If you’re not taking proper care of yourself, get into the gym, join taiko, start up C25K; learn how to cook some simple, vegetable based meals; drink water; and get some sleep. If you’re really feeling crappy physically, this might take a chunk out of it.

SAFETY — security against the elements, chaos, fear, poverty, etc

Congratulations: you live in Japan, and things are pretty safe here. The ALT rarely has fear for their life, but sometimes bullying by staff or students or whomever does happen. If these or other things are making you feel unsafe, contact your direct supervisor, your contracting organization/dispatch company, the local Board of Ed., and if things really get out of hand, your country’s consulate/embassy. But IANYL, don’t sue me.

Japan has a reputation for being a safe place (and it’s mostly deserved), but:

  • If you are a woman, be aware of your surroundings just as you would anywhere else (ESPECIALLY nomikai/drinking parties). This is a Boys Will be Boys, Blame the Victim kinda patriarchy.
  • If you’re a pedestrian or a bicyclist, proceed as though NO CARS CAN SEE YOU. If you’re a driver, proceed as though NO CARS GIVE A FUCK. Imagine there are cars and pedestrians waiting to jump out of every nook or cranny. And there are very few police cars on the road here, so those knuckleheads who like to drive fast and aggressive have no reason not to. Do not get into it with aggressive or poor drivers or you might have to read this blog from jail (in conflicts with Japanese folks, the police tend to be The Gaijin is Always Wrong kind of police).
  • Your apartment is made out of Saltines and won’t protect you from the elements. Winters will be cold. Summers will be hot. Prepare warm clothing, cool clothing, space heaters, water bottles, electric kettles, draft busters, bubble wrap, etc. Try not to get caught off guard.

LOVE AND BELONGING — feelings of connection and/or acceptance between coworkers, friends, lovers, and the other people in your life

This is where things might get tricky. You are in Japan. You are a big, hairy foreigner. One reason Japanese society runs so smoothly, on the surface, is that they always know how to speak to and behave with a person, based on their social status.

But Japanese folks get super anxious in front of foreigners. They have a pressure to properly address a person based on their relative social status, and you just don’t exist on that social ladder. Japanese people also put a huge pressure on themselves to speak with non-Japanese in fluent English (because foreign people only speak English, or something), despite only rarely developing the ability to do so.

It’s not rare that all of this results in an intense desire to politely avoid you.

(Is that what the legendary Empty Seat is really all about?!)

Needless to say, forming strong bonds with the people around you can be a challenge. It’s certainly possible, and it’s a topic that deserves its own entry, but basically — be nice! Smile, you sexy animal! But don’t smile because you want people to smile back at you — Smile because every time you do, you’re punching xenophobia in the dick. Eventually, people will feel stupid for being afraid of the polite, friendly, smiling, (even if he is a hairy) foreigner, and begin to warm up to you.

If you want to be more proactive, put yourself out there. You may have to make the first move. Honestly, this is an area that still puzzles me, especially at work — but outside of the office, I worked my way up from going out to the bar gatherings every now and then, to organizing them myself, to starting a club. I basically built as much community for myself as I could handle. By God, if it worked for me, it can work for you.

Also: Facebook is your friend (or, at least, a necessary evil). If you’re feeling lonely at work, use it. Discreetly. Sometimes just having someone to talk to can make you feel better.

ESTEEM — self-respect, self-esteem; respect from others, belonging

It’s very, very easy to feel like a worthless waste of space as an ALT. Maybe you’re used to jobs where you had to work…harder. Or your work had clear, perceptible results.

As an ALT, I know (in an air quotes sorta way) that I’m helping my students by giving them a friendly, English-speaking foreigner to interact with. But, in the classroom, I feel like if I could find a suit and tie the right size, I could be replaced by a head of cabbage without anybody noticing.

If you’re in a suboptimal work situation, it can be easy to feel removed from the educational process even though you’re in a school all day. So if you’re spending most of your time at work keeping your chair warm, you might want to find something you can take pride in outside of work.

Get a hobby! Join a club! Start a club! (cough cough) Start a blog! Learn how to skateboard!

You probably came here because you wanted to do awesome things. Traveling and tourism are great and all, but when you’re at home, don’t you want to feel like you’re working, to feel like you are appreciated?

If nobody’s giving you anything to do at work, give yourself something to do. I go to the gym twice a week with some bros, and at school, when I’m not preparing classroom materials, I study this or that and write. I have no idea if this blog is going to be worth a damn in the end, but it’s certainly giving me something to do during finals week, and having a hobby that might actually allow me to help another sucker makes me feel pretty nice.

Having a positive self-image is Mental Hygiene 101. Remember to do the stuff you love, and maybe try out new stuff that you might learn to love. If you can, do stuff that will help someone else, as well.

SELF-ACTUALIZATION — finding fulfillment, developing your potential

Why are you really here?

I can smell that copy of Minna No Nihongo in your closet. It’s under the socks.

No? Well, maybe you aren’t one of the many ALTs who come here to master Japango, but each of us has something we want to achieve. Do you want to be fluent in Japanese? Do you want to get fit? Do you want to be a programmer?

Are you doing anything about it?

Why are you really here?

Like, why are you here—on Earth? What is your calling? What were you put here to do?

Every once in a while, someone with an otherwise great life comes to Japan because they are running away from facing the future. Or maybe they stay in Japan too long playing the ALT/Eikaiwa game — It’s so easy; It’s so painless. It’s virtually impossible to fail.

Even if all your other psychological needs are being met, and you’re not running away from the call of greatness, there’s gotta be something you want to make of yourself. Something you want to accomplish. If you’re ignoring that part of you, you may have a great life and still feel… flat.

Congratulations, challenges of this caliber are usually insanely hard. (The funny thing is they’re not even objectively hard; it’s because the thing is important to you personally that it seems bigger than the moon and the sun.)

Luckily for you, this ALT gig pays a decent bit of money for a pretty easy job that will leave you enough free time to face your challenges. I understand that it’s easy to find yourself wrapped up in a lot of extracurricular activities to try and make up for the lack of challenging or fulfilling activity your 9-5 gives you, but ultimately you know what you should really be spending your time on. It’s up to you to prioritize.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


No, Bob, you don’t have to do all of that. I don’t pretend to be a psychology expert and Maslow himself tweaked this simple version of the Hierarchy many times (many complicated times). So this is not presented as a guarantee of anything.

This kinda feels like stupid advice to give, considering your average ALT lives in the Japanese countryside with very few English-speaking medical services, but if you think a chart on the Internet isn’t going to fix whatever feels broken, loose, or wobbly inside of you, you should seek out a mental health professional.

I know a lot of ALTs who go through a lot, emotionally, while doing the job, because of the job. It’s driven me to the brink more times than I’d like to admit, and it drives me crazy that others might needlessly go through the same.

No matter whose advice you follow for having a safe, happy, fulfilling time in Japan, make sure you remember to take care of yourself and enjoy as much of this crazy, frustrating life as you can get away with. It’s gonna go by in a flash. Be the kind of ALT who can think back on Japan with a smile.


You. Yeah, you. Do you like what you see? Leave a comment, gimme a like, Tweet me. Thanks a million.


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