Here are some of the changes, both big and small, comparing nearly 18 years ago (when we first arrived) to now.
- Spoken communication abroad was extremely costly and difficult when we first arrived and is now virtually free due to internet services such as Skype and GoogleTalk. When we first arrived, not only would phone calls back home cost a dollar a minute but a lot of foreigners chose not to have a telephone at all because NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) required a hefty deposit for the privilege of having a phone installed. At that time, the deposit was in the $500-$600 range.
- Diet sodas were rare to impossible to find. The best you could do was a Japan-only beverage called "Coca-cola Light" which had reduced calories relative to regular Coke. Pepsi was completely off the radar. Now, you can get both diet Pepsi and Coke though you can't always get both at any particular shop and other types of diet soda can only be purchased at places specializing in imports.
- Tokyo was a smoker's paradise. All coffee shops and restaurants allowed smoking and the non-smoking areas, when present, were relatively small and not the least bit shielded from wafting smoke from the smoking section. Nowadays, Starbucks is a smoke-free coffee shop option (the only one, I believe) and restaurants are expanding non-smoking sections relative to the smoking areas. Additionally, some streets are smoking-prohibited in Tokyo. That is, you cannot walk and smoke on them at the same time.
- Foreign entertainment was strictly in the form of videotape rental or limited pay access to services which are the Japanese equivalent of HBO (Wow Wow being the biggest). The selection for these channels was pretty poor and the relative cost for the quality high. Access to U.S. television was only possible through the largesse of relatives who were willing to tape shows and send the tapes abroad. Now, there is cable television which shows select T.V. series as quickly as one year behind the U.S. and more channels seem to be dropped in every few years. Currently, "Lost" is airing about a half season behind the U.S. on AXN. However, comedy is still pretty hard to find except for "Friends", "The Simpsons", and other Fox-produced shows (since Fox has its own channel on Japanese cable).
- Access to foreign food was limited to the odd item here and there at some markets and the expensive supermarkets in the "gaijin ghetto" areas of Tokyo. I use the term "ghetto" in the sense of it being a pooling of a certain type of person, not as any indication of poverty. The people living in those areas are quite wealthy compared to those of us living in Japanese communities. These days, you can get more foreign food consistently at local markets compared to the past, go to Costco (though only far from central Tokyo in a relatively long day trip), and order from the Foreign Buyer's Club though this takes a month and a half to deliver items.
- Getting English language books was very expensive. The main way to get them was through Kinokuniya bookstore where you were charged double the cost of the books back home. A secondary way was through one of the used books stores that kept starting and going out of business like restaurants in bad locations. In both cases, selection was limited. Nowadays, we have a stable used book store to visit (Good Day Books) as well as any branch of Amazon. Both Amazon U.S. and Japan will allow you to buy English books. From the U.S., you can buy anything you want at U.S. prices but the postage can be a nasty bite. From Amazon Japan, the price tends to be higher than Amazon in the States because they don't apply the same discounts. However, selection is far better and overall prices much cheaper than 18 years ago.
- The salary structure for foreign employees and working conditions have changed and are far less favorable than they were 18 years ago. The minimum amount a foreigner can make and still qualify for a working visa is 250,000 yen a month. In the past, you could make 250,000 yen in 25 hours of teaching work. Now, that has shifted to 30 hours for the same salary. Additionally, teaching children was a specialty and relatively uncommon as part of the average teacher's workday. These days, because of the shrinking population, almost all major language schools require some teaching of children. This is a way of increasing the market even though there are fewer and fewer people to teach. Finally, most schools have shortened class times as well as teacher break periods and schools that once offered paid national holidays no longer do so.
All in all though, it's a lot easier to live in Japan than it used to be. However, it's still not home.