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Moving to Japan

Expats moving to Japan with an open mind will find themselves immersed in the wonderful idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture, coupled with abundant opportunities for adventure and degrees of acculturation.

Working in Japan can be especially lucrative for expats, and many will find that despite the country’s reputation as one of the most expensive destinations in the world, competitive markets have made for beneficial deals and negotiable costs of living as of late.

Japan is an island nation that prides itself on its innovation, strong economy and rich heritage. Expats often comment on the friction between the country’s strong traditionalist roots and its worship of modern technology and forward-thinking ideals. Expats will be exposed to strange contradictory sights side-by-side, like a temple next to a pachinko (slot machine) alongside a gambling parlour, and an anime figurine shop. The contrasts serve to highlight the precarious balance found in Japan between upholding tradition while embracing modernity. 

Like most major global cities, life in Tokyo is fast-paced and full of interesting and unusual experiences. In the countryside and in smaller cities, expats will be more likely to taste the traditional Japan of old, commonly associated with tea ceremonies, tatami mats and rice paddies. While Kyoto feels more tranquil and laidback, Osaka boasts a bustling nightlife and is a popular destination for live international performers.

Great pride is taken in Japanese regional variations and specialities, making for a strangely differentiated experience at times. The country has an extremely well-developed infrastructure, with very efficient public transport systems, postal services, communications technology and road networks.

Expats moving to Japan will be relieved to learn that it is an extremely safe country with very little crime. New arrivals will find themselves immersed in a country that celebrates all things cultural, palatable, technological and fashionable, making Japan a rich and rewarding destination of choice. 

Essential Info for Japan

Population: Over 127 million

Capital city: Tokyo (also largest city)

Neighbouring countries: Japan is an island nation in East Asia with its closest neighbours being North Korea, South Korea, Russia and China. 

Geography: Japan's terrain is mostly rugged with over 70 percent of the country being mountainous. The country's highest mountain is Mount Fuji which reaches an elevation of 3,776m (12,388 feet). Japan is also located in a volcanic zone. Low-level earthquakes and tremors are common and more severe earthquakes do occur occasionally. 

Political system: Japan is a constitutional monarchy. The Emperor is a ceremonial figurehead whose power is very limited. Power is held mainly by the Prime Minister and other elected members of the Diet, while sovereignty is vested in the Japanese people. 

Major religions: The country enjoys full religious freedom, but most people subscribe to Buddhism with elements of Shinto.

Main languages: Japanese is spoken by 99 percent of the population. Japanese and English are taught at most public and private schools throughout the country. 

Money: The Japanese Yen (JPY) is the official currency used in Japan. The banking system is extremely sophisticated and ATMs are readily available throughout the country. 

Time: GMT +9

Electricity: 100 volts, 60Hz in the west (Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Hiroshima), and 100 volts, 50Hz in the east (Tokyo, Sapporo, Yokohoma). Flat two- and three-pin plugs are used.

Internet domain: .jp

International dialling code: +81. City/area codes are used, e.g. (0)3 for Tokyo and (0)82 for Hiroshima.

Emergency numbers: The emergency contact numbers in Japan are 110 (police), 119 (ambulance/fire), and 118 (coast guard). Operators are proficient in English and in Tokyo they also speak other foreign languages.

Driving: Cars drive on the left. Japan has an extensive and sophisticated public transport system and it's unlikely that expats living in the major cities will need a car.

Weather in Japan

Despite its small size, Japan has a variable climate.

Tokyo has a climate similar to New York City. Summers (June, July and August) are hot and humid, while winters are freezing and snowy. Tokyo's weather is best in springtime and autumn; with both seasons offering a respite from the extreme conditions they precede and follow.

Kyoto is very hot in summer, whereas winter temperatures often drop below freezing. Kyoto summers are also humid and virtually windless, with temperatures reaching a high of 104°F (40°C).

Sapporo has a humid continental climate – hot and wet summers and chilly, snowy winters. Sapporo is a former Winter Olympic Games city and can get up to 72 inches of snow (1,829mm) in January alone. Skiing is a therefore a very popular activity in the area. 



Embassy contacts for Japan

Japanese Embassies

  • Japanese Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 238 6700

  • Japanese Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7465 6500

  • Japanese Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 241 8541

  • Japanese Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6273 3244

  • Japanese Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 452 1500

  • Japanese Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 202 8300

  • Japanese Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 473 1540

Foreign Embassies in Japan

  • United States Embassy, Tokyo: +81 (0)3 3224 5000

  • British Embassy, Tokyo: +81 (0)3 5211 1100

  • Canadian Embassy, Tokyo: +81 (0)3 5412 6200

  • Australian Embassy, Tokyo: +81 (0)3 5232 4111

  • South African Embassy, Tokyo: +81 (0)3 3265 3366

  • Irish Embassy, Tokyo: +81 (0)3 3263 0695

  • New Zealand Embassy, Tokyo: +81 (0)3 3467 2271

Public Holidays in Japan




New Year's Day

1 January

1 January

Coming of Age Day

14 January

13 January

National Foundation Day

11 February

11 February

Spring Equinox

20 March

20 March

Shôwa Day

29 April

29 April

Constitution Day

3 May

3 May

Greenery Day

4 May

4 May

Children's Day

6 May

5 May

Sea Day

15 July

20 July

Mountain Day

11 August

11 August

Respect for the Aged Day

16 September

21 September

Autumn Equinox Day

23 September

22 September

Sports Day

14 October

12 October

Culture Day

4 November

3 November

Labour Thanksgiving Day

25 November

23 November

*If a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday becomes a holiday. 

Safety in Japan

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. While one should always use common sense and be aware, it is quite safe to walk around, even at night.

There is a very highly developed sense of moral duty and correct behaviour instilled in children from a young age in Japan, which means that people generally take care of each other.

Crime in Japan

It is always important to take normal precautions in crowds and nightspots, and to avoid areas where one may be isolated and feel unsafe. Pickpocketing in crowded spaces targeting tourists and foreigners does occasionally occur. Expats should take care of their passports and other valuables in airports and public transport areas. 

In particular, certain “red light” and entertainment districts in Tokyo are often targeted by thieves. Popular expat nightlife spots like Roppongi, as well as Shinjuku (particularly Kabukicho), Shibuya and Ikebukuro, have been flagged as high-risk for credit card fraud, assault and theft, as well as drink-spiking. Expats should be aware of their surroundings, take care of their possessions and not leave drinks unattended in these areas. 

Earthquakes in Japan

Japan is located in the most seismically active area in the world and there is a real and ever-present danger of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as typhoons. Minor tremors occur regularly, and occasional large quakes – such as the March 2011 quake that resulted in extensive damage and loss of life – do occur. It is extremely important to be prepared by being aware of local government disaster plans. It is also advisable to make contact with one's embassy upon arrival in Japan. Although Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, the early warning systems that have been put in place are very reliable and have helped prevent further damage.

As a result of the 2011 quake, visitors should avoid travelling or living within a certain distance of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in the northwest of Japan, as well as other evacuation areas noted by the Japanese government. 

Emergency response in Japan

Emergency numbers: 

  • Police: 110

  • Ambulance: 119

  • National Japan English helpline: 03 3501 0110

  • Tokyo English Life Line (TELL): 03 5774 0992

Working in Japan

Despite having suffered some economic woes at the turn of the decade, Japan still maintains one of the world's largest economies, and there are plenty of opportunities across a broad range of sectors for expats wanting to work in Japan.

In recent years, Japan's economic landscape has been remodelled by deregulation, technology advances and an increasing number of foreign companies establishing headquarters or bases in the country. Despite this apparent integration, the traditional Japanese business etiquette remains largely intact, and still poses one of the greatest acclimatisation challenges for expats working in Japan.

Job market in Japan

Expats looking to work in Japan can still find enviable positions with many of the multinational corporations present in the country, particularly in the bustling capital of Tokyo, or within an industry that has remained extremely popular among young Westerners for years, teaching English.

The entertainment, hospitality and manufacturing sectors also continue to offer work for expats, with fluency in Japanese not required. Translation work for those that do have knowledge of Japanese is another popular expat profession, especially for trailing spouses and partners who have followed their loved ones abroad. Language-oriented expats may also consider teaching English in Japan.

Expats planning on working in Japan should note that it claims one of the highest costs of living worldwide, so it's advisable to carefully negotiate an adequate salary package.

Work culture in Japan

Corporate culture in Japan is quite formal, with very long office hours and lifetime employment the norm. After-hours drinking with the boss is very much an established practice. Furthermore, the concepts of genki, gambatte and group – the three vertices of the positive energy, can-do attitude – are often exhausting and frustrating to foreign nationals.

Although newly arrived expats aren't expected to adhere to the regularly practised 60-hour work week, or to the mandatory post-work socialising hours, acting differently from co-workers and being held to separate expectations can increase feelings of isolation. 

Doing Business in Japan

Despite some recent economic and environmental challenges, Japan remains one of the world’s key economies and an important business destination for expats.

The ease of doing business in Japan is demonstrated in its favourable rankings in a number of international business surveys, most notably The World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2019, where it ranked 39th out of 190 countries. Japan scored very well in categories such as resolving insolvency (1st) and dealing with construction permits (48th). However, Japan fell short in areas such as starting a business (93rd) and getting credit (85th).

The biggest drawbacks to doing business in Japan are the cumbersome and expensive tax regimens and the complexity involved in starting a business. In addition, Japanese culture and business practices contain many pitfalls for the uninformed businessperson and mastering (or just understanding) these will be key to success.

Fast facts

Business hours

The usual working week in Japan is 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.

Business language

Japanese is the official language of business in Japan. English is not widely spoken and a translator will be required for most business meetings.


Formal business attire is expected. Dark suits are commonly worn. 


Greetings are formal and usually involve a bow of the head and then a handshake. The most senior member of a delegation should be greeted first.


Gifts are not expected or appropriate, unless it is a small item branded by or representing one's company.

Gender equality

Equality of men and women in the workplace is improving, but Japan is still well behind Europe and the USA. Spouses are not usually invited out to social business gatherings.

Business culture in Japan 

In order to be successful in business in Japan it is important for expats to invest time getting to grips with the local business culture. There are many aspects of Japanese business etiquette which may seem odd to businesspeople from the West. However, it is important to embrace these nuances and engage appropriately with Japanese business associates if one wishes to be taken seriously within Japanese business circles.


Underlying Japanese business culture is the notion of 'kaizen' – the drive for constant improvement. This reflects in the hard work ethic, excellent customer service and never-ending quest to innovate and improve on business practices.

Formality and respect

When dealing with Japanese clients it's a good idea to be excessively formal in everything from conduct to dress code. There are also specific unspoken rules of business etiquette governing most situations. When meeting hosts or business associates for the first time upon exchanging business cards, theirs should be received with both hands and an attitude of respect, as the card is taken to represent the individual. The delegation should be greeted in order of seniority, first bowing then offering handshakes.

Reflection and silence

Silence during meetings is not uncommon, even accompanied by closed eyes. While in the West, this would signify the meeting is going rather badly, in Japan it indicates a period of reflection. Don't interrupt or feel the need to speak and fill the silence.

Saving face

Expats doing business in Japan should note that it's important to be sincere and honest, but without being confrontational or too direct. Vague forms of expression are best used, and there is an art to deflecting a difficult question to avoid embarrassment or disappointment.


Meetings often begin with excessive small talk as rapport is built and relationships are established. It is important that this phase is not rushed. Note that decisions are seldom made in the actual meeting, where it is more usual to exchange information or confirm previously made decisions.

Socialising with colleagues

A calm, humble, introverted personality style is likely to be respected by the Japanese, while the brash extrovert is considered untrustworthy and offensive. There is an exception to this, though, and it starts once the meetings are over for the day, and the evening's social activities commence. This is where the sombre, sober rules of engagement that govern the office culture can be suspended in favour of wild abandon. In fact, getting drunk with a client – or at least as drunk as they are – may be considered a key part of solidifying the relationship and progressing the deal. Rest assured that unless an actual crime has been committed no one will speak of the evening’s more salacious events the next day once business etiquette is restored.

Dos and don’ts of business in Japan

  • Do get bilingual business cards printed with Japanese on one side

  • Don’t write on a Japanese business card, or wave it around or flick it

  • Do accept a business card with two hands and a small bow, and treat it with respect

  • Do use titles when greeting people

  • Do be on time, or if being late is unavoidable, apologise profusely and repeatedly

  • Don’t take any seat at a meeting, wait to be placed

  • Do make notes during meetings, but avoid using red ink

Visas for Japan

Temporary visitors to Japan will need a visitor visa for stays of up to 90 days, although citizens from countries such as the USA, UK, Canada and Australia, as well as EU nationals, are exempt from this.

However, if intending to stay in Japan for longer than three months, all visitors will need to apply for a long-term visa. While on a tourist visa in Japan, sightseeing and tourist activities are allowed, but engaging in employment is illegal.

Temporary visas or visitor visas for Japan

Those not from a visa-exempt country who would like to visit for tourism, attend conferences or conduct research are required to apply for a temporary visa for Japan. Depending on a person’s nationality and the purpose of their visit, these are valid for 15, 30 or 90 days and can be applied for at a Japanese embassy or consulate before arriving in the country. Applicants will need to complete an application form and submit proof of return flights.

If travelling to Japan on business, additional documents may be required such as a letter from the applicant’s company stating the nature of their visit and proof that the company will bear all costs of the visit.

Long-term visas for Japan

Those intending to live and work in the country for an extended period of time need to apply for a long-term visa for Japan. There are different requirements depending on one’s purpose in the country and long-term visas should be applied for before entry into Japan.

Visitors who arrive in Japan on a long-term visa and those intending to work in the country will need to get a Residence Card (Zairyu Card), which can be done on arrival at any of Japan’s main airports. This card allows for multiple re-entries into the country.

Those wishing to work, study or live in Japan are also required to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility before applying for a long-term visa at a Japanese embassy (temporary visitors do not need one). The certificate is applied for by the applicant’s sponsor in Japan, such as their employer or school, on their behalf and testifies that the bearer meets the requirements for a visa. It is valid for three months so the applicant then needs to obtain their visa and arrive in Japan before the certificate expires.

*Visa and work permit requirements are subject to change at short notice and expats are advised to contact their nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for the latest information.

Cost of Living in Japan

Japan has a reputation for having an exorbitantly high cost of living for expats. Nevertheless, it's quite possible to live a good life in Japan without breaking the bank. It is important to remember that Japanese salaries are also quite high. The average Japanese standard of living ranks among the highest in the world.

The vast majority of Japan’s expats live in Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya. These are the three largest urban areas. Tokyo is by far the most expensive Japanese city. However, this is also where most of the higher-paying jobs are available.

Cost of food in Japan

Particularly in Tokyo, where competition is fierce, it is easy to find good deals on meals, evenings out and other forms of entertainment. Eating out can even work out cheaper than cooking at home if expats don't mind a frequent diet of noodles. It is also worthwhile to check out the basement floors of most department stores, where there are food courts selling goods at extremely reasonable prices.

While vegetables and fruit might seem very expensive at first, it is worth bearing in mind that they are in immaculate condition and are usually locally grown. Seafood and fish are relatively cheap and most supermarkets offer evening discounts to get rid of that day’s stock (fresh foods are very rarely kept for sale on the next day).

Cost of accommodation in Japan

The largest expense an expat will have in Japan is accommodation. There is a wide range of options available to suit every possible taste and preference. However, competition is fierce and costs can be pricey even for small, sub-standard spaces.

Cost of transport in Japan

While public transportation in Japan is expensive, it is highly efficient and the easiest way to travel around the country. Most expats living in Japan opt not to own their own vehicle. Driving is more trouble than it is worth in bustling Japanese cities. The cost of parking far outweighs that of using public transport.

Cost of schooling in Japan

Expats relocating to Japan with children will need to factor in the cost of schooling. Most foreigners choose to send their children to international schools which follow the same curriculum as they would in their home country. International school fees in Japan can be extremely high. Parents will also need to factor in various other expenses associated with schooling, such as the cost of uniforms, stationery and field trips. Some schools also charge various additional fees for holding a place for a student as well as for applications. 

Cost of living in Japan chart

Note that prices may vary depending on product and service provider. The list below shows average prices for Tokyo in October 2019.

Accommodation (monthly)

Three-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

JPY 152,400

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

JPY 297,000

One-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

JPY 79,500

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

JPY 128,600


Dozen eggs

JPY 235

Milk (1 litre)

JPY 181

Loaf of white bread

JPY 193

Rice (1kg)

JPY 593

Chicken breasts (1kg)

JPY 835

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

JPY 490

Utilities (monthly)

Mobile call rate (per minute – mobile to mobile)

JYP 44

Internet (average per month)

JYP 4,600

Utilities (average per month for standard household)

JYP 20,100

Eating out and entertainment

Three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant for two

JYP 5,000

Big Mac meal or equivalent

JYP 695


JYP 396

Coca-Cola (330ml)

JYP 159

Bottle of local beer (500ml)

JYP 500


Taxi rate per km

JYP 410

City centre public transport

JYP 193

Petrol (per litre)

JYP 142

Culture Shock in Japan

Expats might find that the degree of culture shock in Japan can be extreme. In addition to the language barrier, which increases the farther from Tokyo one goes, Japanese society has developed a very fixed code of acceptable conduct, especially in the realm of business. Foreigners, or gaijin, very seldom fit into this code without making a considerable effort.

However, the Japanese are very hospitable and friendly toward foreigners, whom they regard as honoured visitors to their country. If wanting to fit in and become part of Japanese society, the onus will be on the individual to learn the language, customs and traditions. 

Language barrier in Japan

Learning Japanese can be very challenging if wanting to go beyond the basics of conversation. Besides the difficulty of learning to read and write Japanese characters, there are very intricate systems of formal language which even native Japanese speakers find complex and difficult to master.

In general, the Japanese are quite forgiving of language mistakes made by foreigners. However, it is advisable to be overly polite, humble and cautious, particularly within the context of business interactions.

Non-verbal communication

As the Japanese value maintaining harmony, they are not the most vocal of people. Facial expression, tone of voice and posture are often used to demonstrate one's feelings on an issue. 

Frowning while someone is speaking can be interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Expats may find that the Japanese maintain an impassive expression when speaking. 

While making eye contact is important, one should avoid staring into another person's eyes for an extended amount of time. This is particularly important when in the presence of someone senior in terms of either age on status. 

Work ethic in Japan

The Japanese work ethic is something that foreigners often struggle to get to grips with. The workplace in Japan is competitive and people are willing to go the extra mile to stand out from the competition. 

A work week of 70 to 80 hours is not unheard of and the Japanese are very reluctant to take sick days, so it is common to see people still working when they have a severe cold or flu.

Punctuality is also highly valued and the Japanese rarely arrive at meetings or appointments even a minute late. It is considered rude and disrespectful to arrive late or unprepared.

Saving face in Japan

The concept of saving face is crucial in Japanese society. The Japanese try to avoid confrontation or causing a person any form of embarrassment by putting them on the spot. 

It is considered rude to reject an invite or request in Japan. Instead of directly saying no, one should instead say they will consider the invitation or propose an alternative.

Cultural etiquette in Japan

Bowing is an important part of Japanese culture – if meeting someone, thanking someone, taking leave of someone, asking for something or just being polite, one should bow. It's important to incline one's head with hands at the sides – the deeper the bow, the greater the respect being shown. It is considered impolite for a Japanese person ever to come out with a direct 'no’. Even a tiny hesitation or any vagueness in the response could actually mean 'no'.

With regards to doing business in Japan, it is particularly important to be aware of the role of seniority, which is measured according to age and not necessarily company status. It is also very important to make sure one has a substantial number of business cards made as soon as arriving in Japan (it might be a good idea to have English on one side and Japanese on the other), as the exchange of business cards is the first thing done in any business (or sometimes even private) interaction.

Accommodation in Japan

Accommodation in Japan is very expensive, and follows a distinct trend: the larger the city, the fiercer the competition, the smaller the living quarters. Therefore, finding appropriate accommodation in Japan can be a challenge for newly arrived expats.

Types of accommodation in Japan

Apartments are common in Japanese cities and where the majority of expats living in Japan will likely reside. Older buildings with small apartments are known as apato. The buildings are not normally higher than two storeys and are made of wood or light steel, so the walls tend to be thin. Newer buildings with larger apartments are called mansions. These usually have more than two storeys and are made of more hardy materials such as concrete.

Both serviced and unfurnished apartments are available. Serviced apartments are usually furnished and offer regular cleaning and concierge services. Unfurnished apartments sometimes have basic appliances such as a fridge and washer, but many don’t even have lighting. 

A popular option with expats in Japan is the gaijin house – shared accommodation in large houses. The set up at these houses varies from house to house, but usually it is inhabited by young expats and Japanese people who are looking to save money over the course of a short-term stay. In some gaijin houses the rooms are mini flatlets with their own bathrooms, while in most others residents will have their own room but will share a kitchen, bathroom and living areas with the other inhabitants.

Finding accommodation in Japan

It is recommended that expats looking for accommodation in Japan go through a real estate agent as they will understand the local language and be able to provide a list of suitable accommodation to meet an expat’s needs. Many landlords are reluctant to rent to foreigners, so it is best to go through an agent, rather than attempting to rent directly from the landlord.

Available accommodation is also usually advertised in the local media. If viewing an apartment, it’s a good idea to take a trusted friend or colleague along who is able to speak Japanese, as most landlords are unlikely to speak English.

Generally, the closer housing is to the city centre and public transport, the more expensive it is likely to be. Newer housing is also normally pricier. 

Renting property in Japan

A typical lease in Japan is signed for one or two years. It is standard practice to pay a damages deposit (around one month’s rent, refundable, although hardly ever in full), a 'key money' gift to the landlord (usually about two months’ rent), in addition to two months’ rent in advance.

Rent is usually paid in advance for the following month. In some apartment buildings, a maintenance fee may also be required on a monthly basis. Utilities are also not normally included in the monthly rental and will be for the tenant’s own account.

In order to rent accommodation in Japan, expats will generally require a guarantor, usually an employer, to assist them in the process.

Healthcare in Japan

Healthcare in Japan is both accessible and compulsory for expats who have a resident’s visa or a work permit. In addition to the two public schemes – one for salaried workers and one covering the remaining population – expats also have the option of obtaining private health insurance in Japan. It is mandatory for expats with a visa exceeding three months (90 days) to be registered on one of the two public insurance schemes. 

Public healthcare in Japan

Public healthcare in Japan falls under either the Employees' Health Insurance Plan or the National Health Insurance scheme.

Under the Employees' Health Insurance programme, it is compulsory for a company that employs more than five workers to provide its employees and their families with medical insurance and healthcare in the event of injury, sickness, death or childbirth. This plan covers the worker for up to 80 percent of their healthcare expenses, and covers their family for up to 70 percent.

The other insurance programme is the National Health Insurance scheme. This plan is also compulsory, and covers Japanese residents other than salaried people and workers. People under the National Health Insurance are covered for up to 70 percent of their healthcare expenses, 80 to 90 percent for people aged 74 or more (depending upon resources), and 80 percent for children under the age of three.

Expats will need to register at their local municipal office or local city hall in order to start receiving healthcare in Japan under the National Health Insurance. A national social security card will then be issued and delivered. This document is needed when using public hospital facilities for anything from consultation to surgery.

It may be worthwhile for expats to take out additional private health insurance to cover any remaining costs not covered by the public schemes.

Private healthcare in Japan

The medical system in Japan is one of the best in the world, and expats should not be concerned about the standard of practice, but in many cases private international medical insurance is still recommended. This will greatly depend on one's employer, as different employment categories have different rules regarding healthcare. If an expat has private insurance they will be required to pay their bills upfront, and will be reimbursed by their insurance scheme at a later point.

Many doctors might be nervous about treating a non-Japanese patient, particularly if the patient can't speak Japanese. There are medical services in Tokyo which will direct expats to their nearest English-speaking doctor/dentist. In other cities it may be necessary to take a Japanese friend or colleague along to act as interpreter and to reassure the doctor.

Medicines and pharmacies in Japan

Pharmacies can readily be found on all major streets or in shopping malls in Japanese cities. Pharmacies tend to be well stocked and are open from 9am to 5pm. The prices of most medicines in Japan are subsidised by Japanese health insurance, making the price significantly cheaper.

Pharmacists are generally very knowledgeable. However, not all pharmacists speak good English so expats may struggle if they have lots of questions. It is useful for expats to buy a little book and have the pharmacist keep a record of their prescriptions. It's also handy to let the doctor and pharmacist know the medications which have been prescribed in the past.

Expats moving to Japan should note that there is a clear difference between pharmacies and drugstores in Japan. Drugstores only sell certain medicines and a variety of healthcare goods. The medicines and products available at drugstores in Japan are not covered by Japanese health insurance. In contrast, pharmacies in Japan only deal with medicines and sell no other merchandise. 

Health hazards in Japan

There are no major health hazards in Japan. However, expats are advised to ensure that their routine vaccinations are up-to-date.

Air pollution is arguably the region's biggest issue. This is particularly bad during the winter months. Those with respiratory issues or asthma may find their symptoms become heightened when they move to Japan. 

Emergency services in Japan

In the event of a medical emergency in Japan, expats can call an ambulance on 119.

Outside Tokyo it is unlikely that the operator answering an emergency call will have a good command of English and therefore expats will benefit from learning a few basic Japanese phrases to use in an emergency.

The response times of the Japanese ambulance services are fairly good, especially in urban locations. Again, expats should bear in mind that while medical staff are well-trained in Japan, they may not speak English fluently.

Education and Schools in Japan

Education options for expat families in Japan are plentiful – particularly in large cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and others. However, these options largely depend on how long expats plan to stay in Japan, the age of their children, and their location.

The school year in Japan generally runs from April to March. There is usually a two- or three-week break between school terms, and summer vacation lasts anywhere from one to two and a half months, though this depends on the school and district. However, international schools may use a Western school year calendar, depending on the school.

International schools in Japan

International schools are one of the most popular options for expat families considering education for their children in Japan. The accreditation systems and curricula of these institutions vary depending on the type of school and the child's national origin. Most will teach in English, but there are also schools that cater specifically to French, German, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean expats, as well as some other nationalities.

The majority of schools cater specifically to kindergarten, elementary and middle grades as high school is considered optional in Japan, but a few schools do go up to Grade 12. Many schools use an American-based curriculum, while some utilise the British or Canadian system. Some schools also incorporate a religious curriculum (typically Christian-based), but not all do so.

Admission requirements for international schools vary widely and, of course, depend on the school. Some require a certain level of English ability (if English is not the child's first language). Many require students to reside near the school, as very few schools have boarding facilities. Tuition and costs also vary, and aside from basic tuition costs, there may be additional costs for uniforms, backpacks, field trips, bus services and even technology fees.

Public and private schools in Japan

A less common option, Japanese public or private schools may suit expat families, particularly if they are staying in Japan for a long period of time or living outside of a major metropolis.

In Japan, the Ministry of Education determines the national curriculum, though schools and teachers choose how to present the material. Curriculum for secondary grades is primarily assessment-based learning and quite rigid. General subjects are taught in Japanese, though some schools offer international tracks.

English is required to learn as a second language at elementary and secondary level, though the effectiveness with which it is taught is debatable, and the level is far too easy for children who speak it as their native language.

Elementary schools are generally assigned by location, though it is possible to choose a private school. Some private schools are highly esteemed, and thus admission is competitive, but more often private schools serve as a “safety net” for secondary students not admitted to the school of their choice.

Public junior high schools are either assigned by location or admission-based. This depends on the city and admissions are often more common in large cities. Public high schools require entrance examinations and competition is fierce, much like university admissions. Unfortunately, the high school that students attend dictates the universities they can apply for and, essentially, also their futures.

Elementary school is more relaxed, as one might expect of primary education, but junior high and high school can quickly become overwhelming and stressful to students, and potentially more so for foreign children who have not grown up in the system.

Homeschooling in Japan

Homeschooling is another common option among expats in Japan. Though technically not illegal, there are also no specific legal provisions in favour of homeschooling, so it can be somewhat of a grey area. Elementary and junior high school are compulsory in Japan, whereas high school is optional, so parents must request permission from their “enrolled” school to homeschool their children. The “enrolled school” is typically the school assigned based on the expat's address, but school for the middle grades subscribes to different appointments according to the specific city or district.

In principle, schools generally understand the situation and agreeing to the expat's request makes their job easier, particularly if the school does not have English support.

Transport and Driving in Japan

Transport in Japan is generally fast, efficient and reliable (albeit crowded during rush hour). Expats living in metropolises and large cities have easy access to every form of transportation – therefore owning and driving a car is unnecessary.

What’s more, expats needing to conquer long distances will find that trains connect the country and buses travel over extensive networks.

However, smaller cities and towns typically have more infrequent or less accessible options. Expats considering living in one of these locations may have a harder time getting around, and may want to explore the option of buying a car.

Public transport in Japan

Expats will not be disappointed by the availability and the excellent standard of public transport in Japan. The country has some of the most modern and fast rail services. Buses also provide a means of getting to more isolated locations in Japan.


Rail is one of the fastest and most efficient ways of getting around in Japan. Super express trains, otherwise known as Shinkansen, connect most of the country’s major cities (on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu), allowing for fast commute times and accessibility for expats, locals and tourists alike. In some cases, it's faster and cheaper than flying, depending on the distance and destination. Japan Railways (JR) owns and manages all Shinkansen trains. Tickets must be purchased at JR stations or designated sellers.

Regular express trains are more widely accessible than the Shinkansen. Tickets can be purchased at a ticket machine before entering the ticket gate (using bills or change). Then, stick the ticket in the slot and remember to grab it from the other side when passing through. At some stations one can simply give the ticket to an employee to stamp when passing through. Do the same thing when exiting ticket gates.

If living in Japan, expats can purchase electronic cards that act as rechargeable tickets when riding JR and some private lines. Simply recharge the card as often as necessary.

Subways function similarly to trains, as in the ticket process is the same. However, subway systems are only found in heavily populated areas and large metropolises.


Where a train line ends, a bus often starts. Not all cities or areas have regular bus routes and, even if they do, bus times may be infrequent (possibly four times a day or less). In major tourist areas, English will be displayed on the screen and spoken over a speaker. In smaller cities, Japanese will be the only language displayed or heard. 

Also, remember to grab a ticket from the machine next to the door when getting on the bus, as this number will indicate how much is owed. Most buses nowadays have change machines on board, though some may not, so it’s good to carry extra change just in case.

Most train stations with bus terminals will have some kind of bus information booth, often with someone on staff during the day to help. However, English can be limited. 

Cycling in Japan

No matter where one lives in Japan, it would be nearly impossible to go a day without seeing someone riding the ubiquitous bicycle. Most train stations and public areas provide large bicycle parking areas to cater to the vast majority of people who often travel on two wheels.

This also includes scooters, which require a special licence to operate, but are typically a much easier and cheaper way to go than driving a car. Most bicycles used for daily commutes are fondly known as mama-chari – inexpensive, plain and practical, often with a front basket. However, specialty bike shops sell popular mountain, road and cross-country bikes for those who prefer something a bit racier.

Taxis in Japan

Taxis are popular transport options for those expats living in big cities without cars. Beware though that rates are very expensive and run up quickly. Also remember to never open or close a taxi’s door, as the driver controls the door. Most drivers likely won’t speak English, so it's best to know the destination in Japanese, or have the address written down to show them.

Walking in Japan

Many people in Japan walk as much as they ride bicycles. It’s great exercise, and Japan is incredibly pedestrian friendly. 

Driving in Japan

Many people in Japan do own a car, and it may be necessary to have one's own vehicle in some parts of the country.

Expats must have an International Driver’s Permit to drive in Japan when arriving (purchase from a local auto association). This is valid for up to one year, after which it's necessary to get a Japanese Driver’s Licence. For many nationalities, this isn’t a problem as one can simply transfer a home country’s licence.

For Americans, and a few other nationalities, it's necessary to translate the American licence, then take a written and practical driving test before receiving a Japanese licence. Sounds easy, but the driving test in Japan is notorious for being difficult.

Keeping in Touch in Japan

Expats can rest assured when it comes to keeping in touch in Japan. The island nation is known for its advanced technology, and thus finding ways to communicate with loved ones back home is easy and affordable.

Internet in Japan

Hundreds of internet service providers exist across Japan, all offering different services and high-speed internet. Prices vary by type of service, term of contract and current promotions, with some of the most popular internet service providers including Asahi Net, Softbank and NTT Docomo.

Internet cafés can also be found throughout Japan (and can be especially useful while waiting for internet access at home). Typically, it costs a few hundred yen an hour, or a set price for a certain number of hours.

Mobile phones in Japan

Japan is a leader in mobile phone technology, and with cheaper VoIP and mobile options becoming more popular, landline telephones are slowly being phased out. Softbank, NTT Docomo and AU are the three main mobile providers. Both contract and prepaid options are available with prices and plans varying by company, phone, plan, contract and current promotions. Some store locations have English-speaking staff, but many do not.

Postal services in Japan

Have a letter or package to send? Simply take it to a local post office (Japan Post). International shipping costs are reasonable; generally less expensive than in the US. Keep in mind that most post offices, with the exception of those in large cities or main city offices, close early on weekdays (between 3pm and 5pm) and are completely closed on weekends.

Frequently Asked Questions about Japan

From its ancient history and traditions to its fast-paced, vibrant cities of today, Japan is a fascinating destination for expats. New arrivals are sure to have many questions about their new home so here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Japan. 

Do I need a car in Japan?

In the more rural areas of Japan, public transport can be a bit slow or infrequent, so it is recommended to have a car. In the big cities a car is not necessary and could even be more of a liability. Petrol is very expensive in Japan and there are many pricey toll roads, which means that using public transport is usually preferable. Add to this the cost of car maintenance (roadworthiness tests, licence fees etc.) and it becomes very expensive, despite the fact that the car might have had a cheap purchasing price when compared to international standards.

Is it worth learning Japanese?

Definitely, especially for the mutual respect this creates between expats and locals. There are many language schools in Japan with varying approaches, as well as some very useful phrasebooks and textbooks. There is a standardised testing system (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which most students aspire to and which is a very good indication of one's level. In Tokyo, it is very easy to get by without ever speaking Japanese, but as soon as one travels a bit further afield, they will need at least a few basic phrases.

How does one get around Japan?

Trains, ranging from the Shinkansen (bullet train) to the underground, are the most popular and quickest means of transport in Japan, although the bus system is also very reliable, comfortable and often cheaper. There are some great deals on airfares during holiday periods, although trains are usually cheaper. The JR pass, which allows unlimited travel on the Japanese railway system for a fixed period, is a good investment for expats.

Do expats pay taxes in Japan?

Anyone earning an income is required to pay tax in Japan. In fact, there are two types of tax which need to be paid – income tax, which is a percentage on one's wages, and the annual resident tax, which is determined by where one lives.

How do I keep in touch while I am living in Japan?

Japan is a technologically advanced country and expats really have no difficulty keeping in touch with people from home. There are hundreds of internet providers so new arrivals will be sure to find a package to suit them.

Banking, Money and Taxes in Japan

The Japanese banking system is one of the best and most reliable in the world. Expats banking in Japan have a variety of international and local banks to choose from, making opening an account an easy process. 

However, expats may be surprised to learn that Japan remains a largely cash-based society. Most transactions are done in cash and credit cards are usually reserved for very large purchases. Luckily, it is quite safe to walk around with a considerable amount of cash, although the usual precautions should always be taken.

Japanese currency

The local currency is the Japanese Yen, usually abbreviated to JPY or ¥. It is one of the most traded currencies in the world, alongside the US Dollar and the Euro.

The Japanese Yen is available in the following denominations:

  • Notes: 1,000 JPY, 2,000 JPY (increasingly rare), 5,000 JPY and 10,000 JPY

  • Coins: 1 JPY, 5 JPY, 10 JPY, 50 JPY, 100 JPY and 500 JPY

Banking in Japan

Both local and international banks offer a range of services to expats in Japan, with the most prominent local banks being Mitsubishi, Japan Post Bank, Mizuho and Sumitomo banks, while international banks in Japan include CitiBank, HSBC and Barclays.

Opening a bank account

Expats are able to open a bank account quite easily at any of the local or international banks once they have their Zairyu Card (residence card). It may also be necessary for expats to bring along their passport and visa, but this depends on the bank.

It is highly recommended that expats get a hanko, an official stamp with their name in characters, before opening a bank account. In Japan, the hanko is the equivalent of a Western signature and it will make life much easier. Although a hanko is not required at all Japanese banks, there have been reports of debit orders being rejected because the signature on the permission form does not match the signature on the bank’s records exactly.

Banking hours in Japan are generally from 9am to 3pm Monday to Friday. Most banks are closed on weekends and public holidays.

Most banks don’t require a minimum deposit amount to open an account and interest rates on normal bank accounts are generally quite low. Not all banks have English-speaking staff or English service offerings, such as for online banking, so expats should shop around to find the best bank suited to their particular needs.

ATMs and credit cards

ATMs never used to be open after 11pm, with many maintaining normal business hours, but an increasing number are now operational 24/7. Many ATMs in Japan don’t accept foreign-issued bank cards. If located outside of Tokyo it is helpful to write down the important characters in order to be able to use the ATM, as not all machines have English options.

As mentioned, Japan remains a largely cash-based society and credit cards are not a popular means of payment. Nevertheless, credit cards are accepted at most large hotels, restaurants and retailers.

Taxes in Japan

Expats will be required to pay two types of tax while in Japan – income tax, which is usually worked out as a percentage of one’s salary (ranging from five percent to the maximum 45 percent), and the annual resident tax, which depends on where an expat lives. The resident tax is worked out on an annual basis and is only applicable if living in Japan for longer than a year.

A person's tax residency status is determined by a number of factors, with tax residents liable for paying tax on their worldwide income and non-resident taxpayers only liable for tax on their income earned in Japan. It is a good idea to see a tax advisor on arrival in Japan, as the tax system is quite complicated and can change at short notice; there might also be a treaty between one’s home country and Japan which could affect the taxes payable.

Expat Experiences in Japan

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories and experiences from other expats who have lived there. We'd love to hear about your expat experiences. Please contact us if you live or have lived in Japan and would like to share your story.

In September 2014, Joan Kissler left her home soil of the USA in search of a new life in Japan. Now working as an assistant language teacher in Tokyo, she shares what she misses about home and what enjoys most about her expat life in Japan.

When Jonathan Hewitt was sent to Tokyo, Japan, by his UK company, he thought of it as a two-year adventure in a foreign country. More than 20 years later, he still calls Tokyo home and is married to a Japanese woman. He reveals some insider secret's to making a success of expat life in Japan and even runs a blog on the subject to help other expats settle into their new homes. Read more about his expat life in Japan.

Jonathan Hewitt is a British expat living in Japan.

Becki is an American expat living in Japan. She has lived in a number of cities in Japan, but currently resides in Wakayama, where she teaches Business English to engineers at Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metals. Although Becki finds the city lacking in nightlife and not as diverse as cities like Osaka and Tokyo, she enjoys the fact that it is within easy reach of beaches, mountains and world heritage sites. Read more about her expat experience in Japan.

Becki - An American expat living in Japan

Christopher Carr is a man of many talents and identities, among them husband, father, writer, editor and expatriate. Chris has avid interests in mountain climbing, skiing, spending time with his stepson and two daughters, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, exploring the internet, reading, and listening to MIT Open Course Ware. Read his marvellously informed and helpful account of expat life in Japan

Di Clark and her husband lived in Northwest Louisiana until they were struck with a strong desire to travel in 2003. They upped and moved to Japan, where her husband taught fifth grade on an American military base. They remained in Japan for 6 years before moving to Germany. Read about her expat experience in Japan.

Born and raised in the Northwest Washington State (USA), Ashley Thompson crossed over the ocean to Japan. After a year and a half teaching English full-time to high school students, she currently spends her time writing, blogging, learning Japanese and experiencing the culture first-hand (with some occasional English teaching thrown in). Read about her take on expat life in Japan.

Ashley Thompson picture

Franzi Kasch spent a student's year in Osaka, and has plans to return and continue research in the city in 2011. Even in her short time she became enamored with the magic of the metropolis, and now shares some of her expat experience in Japan with Expat Arrivals.

expat experience interview with franzi kasch

Sibylle Ito moved to Tokyo nine years ago after a lengthy stint in Los Angeles. She's passionate about supporting and creating growth within companies that relate to Japan, and has the professional experience and the multi-lingual ability needed to accompany such a bold motivation. Read about her expat experience in Japan.

expat interview with sibylle ito