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Moving to Japan

A small island in the Pacific, Japan has a big reputation for innovation in technology and is a bucket-list destination for many thanks to its fascinating history and culture. Expats moving to Japan often come for work initially, but end up staying longer than intended as they delve into the adventures and experiences that the island nation has to offer.

Living in Japan as an expat

Japan 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.

Like most major global cities, life in Tokyo is fast-paced and full of interesting and unusual experiences. In the countryside and 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 laid-back, 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. That said, the entire country has an extremely well-developed infrastructure, with efficient public transport systems, postal services, communications technology and road networks.

Cost of living in Japan

Tokyo is infamous for being one of the world's most expensive cities to live in, and other major Japanese cities also command a pretty penny. Rural areas are much cheaper but salaries are lower, too, and most expats will find themselves in business centres rather than out in the countryside.

Working in Japan can be especially lucrative for expats. Despite the country’s reputation as one of the most expensive destinations in the world, competitive markets have made for good salary offerings for expats. We advise carefully calculating costs ahead of time, though, to ensure that the salary offered easily covers the high cost of living in Japan, especially Tokyo.

Expat families and children

Japan has a lot to offer families and is a wonderful place to raise children. The country is extremely safe, with little crime. Healthcare and schooling are of a high quality, though some expat parents prefer to send their child to an international school rather than a local one. On weekends, there's lots to explore, including Tokyo's very own Disneyland.

Climate in Japan

Japan has a varied climate, ranging from Tokyo's icy winters and humid summers to Osaka's more temperate conditions, marked by mild winters and rainy summers.

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.


Fast facts

Population: About 126 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. More severe earthquakes do occur occasionally. 

Political system: Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy

Major religions: Shinto and Buddhism

Main languages: Japanese. English is only spoken by a small percentage of the population, though younger locals in large cities are more likely to speak more fluent English.

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

Time: GMT+9

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

Internet domain: .jp

International dialling code: +81

Emergency numbers: 110 (police), 119 (ambulance/fire)

Driving: Cars drive on the left-hand side. Japan has an extensive and sophisticated public transport system. 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. Both seasons offer a respite from the extreme conditions they precede and follow.

The weather in Osaka is more temperate. Winters are quite mild with highs above 50°F (10°C). Snowfall is rare and usually light. On the other hand, summers can be hot, moist, and rainy. Temperatures can get as high as 95°F (35°C) with very high humidity. Rainfall is also abundant in Osaka.

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, 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 20 7465 6500

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

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

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

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

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


Foreign embassies in Japan

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

  • British Embassy, Tokyo: +81 3 5211 1100

  • Canadian Embassy, Tokyo: +81 3 5412 6200

  • Australian Embassy, Tokyo: +81 3 5232 4111

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

  • Irish Embassy, Tokyo: +81 3 3263 0695

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

Public Holidays in Japan

 

2021

2022

New Year's Day

1 January

1 January

Coming of Age Day

11 January

10 January

National Foundation Day

11 February

11 February

The Emperor's Birthday

23 February

23 February

Spring Equinox

20 March

21 March

Shôwa Day

29 April

29 April

Constitution Day

3 May

3 May

Greenery Day

4 May

4 May

Children's Day

5 May

5 May

Marine Day

22 July

18 July

Health and Sports Day

23 July

10 October

Mountain Day

9 August

11 August

Respect for the Aged Day

20 September

19 September

Autumn Equinox Day

23 September

23 September

Culture Day

3 November

3 November

Labour Thanksgiving Day

23 November

23 November

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

Pros and Cons of Moving to Japan

The island nation of Japan has a booming economy and a thriving expat community. While it presents a fascinating juxtaposition of modernity and ancient traditions, the culture shock can be difficult for new expats to overcome. Here's a summary of some of the pros and cons of moving to Japan.


Getting around in Japan

+ PRO: Excellent public transport system

It's widely acknowledged that Japan's public transport system in one of the world's best. Clean, efficient and far-reaching, the integrated network of public transport throughout the country makes it easy to get wherever one might need to go. Though tickets are fairly pricey, travellers can relax knowing that timetables are strictly followed and delays are rare.


Accommodation in Japan

– CON: High prices, small spaces

With such a tightly packed population, space comes at a premium, particularly in major cities like Tokyo. Japanese accommodation is universally small and expensive, so expats moving here will have to get used to paying more for less.


Cost of living in Japan

– CON: Japan is hard on the wallet

It's no secret that Japan is an expensive place to live, with Tokyo frequently claiming the top spot in worldwide cost of living surveys. The quality of life is second to none, but it's important that expats ensure that they will be paid enough to comfortably shoulder these expenses.


Keeping in touch in Japan

+ PRO: Outstanding communications infrastructure

Almost everyone has a smartphone and it's easy to keep in touch. Internet enters most homes via super high-speed fibre optic. Even after the earthquake of March 2011, the networks were still up and running. Nothing ever seems to break.

– CON: Time zone

For the typical expat from Europe or America, the time zone difference to Japan is about as hard as it can be. Eight hours between London or California and 11 hours to New York can make work schedules problematic. Organising Skype sessions with family back home is something to be planned rather than a spontaneous chat.


Culture shock in Japan

– CON: Language difficulties

The language barrier in Japan is an unfortunate reality and can be a major obstacle for newly arrived expats. Both speaking and reading Japanese are notoriously hard to master. English has few similarities with the language, and native English speakers often struggle to find a jumping-off point. Not being able to speak the local language can lead to feelings of isolation, but simply putting in the effort to try to communicate in Japanese will earn favour with the locals.


Lifestyle in Japan

+ PRO: Some of the world's best food

Eating out in Japan is a dream come true. Tokyo is famously home to more Michelin-star restaurants than Paris. While sushi lovers will be right at home in Japan, there's much to explore in Japanese cuisine. It has a myriad of different dishes to offer at a range of prices from budget to bank breaking.

Kobe beef is literally melt-in-the-mouth, whereas tonkatsu (a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet) will be familiar but satisfying. Teppanyaki (a style of Japanese cuisine cooked on an iron griddle, usually in front of customers) will set diners back a small fortune but is well worth it. Equally delicious but much cheaper yakiniku (grilled meat) is another top choice.

+ PRO: Seemingly endless entertainment options

A country at the forefront of worldwide music and entertainment trends, Japan is brimming with things to see and do, especially in the capital. From Tokyo Disneyland to anime-and-manga districts such as Akihabara, it's hard to get bored in Tokyo. Themed restaurants and cafes can be found in abundance with plenty to choose from.

Safety in Japan

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. While one should always use common sense and be aware, it's quite safe to walk around, even at night. Nevertheless, it's always important to take normal precautions in crowds and nightspots and to avoid areas where one may be isolated and feel unsafe.

There is a 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

As with any other major tourist destination, pickpocketing in crowded spaces targeting tourists and foreigners occasionally occurs, particularly in Tokyo. 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 in Tokyo like Roppongi, as well as Shinjuku, 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's 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 massive March 2011 quake that resulted in extensive damage and loss of life – do occur. It's extremely important to be prepared by being aware of local government disaster plans. It's 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.


Emergency response in Japan

  • Police: 110

  • Ambulance and fire: 119

Working in Japan

Despite facing numerous challenges ranging from an ageing population to limited natural resources, Japan still maintains one of the world's largest economies. 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 know 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 important to carefully negotiate an adequate salary package.


Finding a job in Japan

Prospective expats looking to work in Japan will benefit from knowing Japanese. It's possible to find jobs with few Japanese language requirements in multinational corporations, most of which are based in Tokyo, but having a good command of the local language will offer broader prospects.

Online job portals are a useful resource in getting to know the job market, but word of mouth through local friends or fellow expats is a good way to get a foot in the door.

With the popularity of teaching English in Japan, those looking to work in this area will have a particularly robust selection of online resources and can either apply directly to international schools in Japan or enrol in the Japanese government's popular Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme.


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 and ganbatte – which require presenting a positive energy and can-do attitude – are often exhausting and frustrating to foreign nationals.

Newly arrived expats aren't expected to adhere to the regularly practiced 60-hour workweek, or the mandatory post-work socialising hours. However, 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 efficiency and simplicity of business in Japan are demonstrated in the country's favourable rankings in several international surveys, including the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020, where it ranked 29th out of 190 countries. Japan scored well in categories such as resolving insolvency (3rd) and dealing with construction permits (18th), but fell short in areas such as ease of starting a business (106th) and getting credit (94th).

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. Understanding these will be key to success.


Fast facts

Business hours

Japan is known for some of the longest working hours in the world, although the usual work week in Japan is from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. By law, employees aren't supposed to work more than 40 hours a week, but most work significantly longer hours as it's seen as a sign of dedication to the workplace.

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.

Dress

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

Greetings

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

Gifts are not always expected, unless it's a small item branded by or representing one's company. The presentation of the gift is also important. Receiving a gift should be done using both hands.

Gender equality

Equality of men and women in the workplace is improving, but Japan is still well behind much of Europe and the US. 


Business culture in Japan 

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

Kaizen

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 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 – there's an art to deflecting a difficult question to avoid embarrassment or disappointment.

Networking 

Meetings often begin with excessive small talk as rapport is built and relationships are established. This phase mustn't be rushed. Note that decisions are seldom made in the actual meeting, where it's 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's 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 relaxed socialising. In fact, going drinking with a client and getting tipsy – or at least as tipsy as they are – may be considered a key part of solidifying the relationship and progressing the deal. Rest assured that nobody 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.

All visitors intending to stay in Japan for longer than three months 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 for Japan

Those not from a visa-exempt country who would like to visit for tourism purposes, to attend conferences or for the purpose of conducting 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.


Long-term visas for Japan

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

Those wishing to study, live or work in Japan are required to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility before applying for a long-term visa at a Japanese embassy. 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's valid for three months, so the applicant then needs to obtain their visa and arrive in Japan before the certificate expires.

There's no need for expats to change their visa status if they change employers while in Japan, as long as they still work in the same visa category (English teachers, copywriters and translators all fall under the Specialist in Humanities category, for example). Visas can be renewed from within Japan on an annual basis at the local Immigration Office.


Getting a residence card for 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 (known as a Zairyu Card). This can be done on arrival at any of Japan’s main airports.  If not arriving at one of the designated international airports, the card will be delivered in the mail.

The residence card grants expats in Japan the right to multiple re-entries into the country and is valid for up to five years. Having a residence card in Japan makes life much easier for expats and allows them to engage with the country’s infrastructure by opening a bank account, getting a mobile phone contract, a driver’s licence or registering for the National Health Insurance benefits.


Permanent residency in Japan

Applying for permanent residency in Japan is based on a point system. Expats applying for permanent residence will have to complete a form that will give a score based on factors like profession, work experience, academic qualifications, age, achievements and salary. Scores can also be boosted by proving knowledge of the Japanese language.

*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.

Work Permits for Japan

Work permits in Japan give the holder permission to work and to enter the country, and are known as work visas. These can broadly be divided into working visas and highly skilled professional visas.

There are over 30 different work visas available for Japan. The type of work an expat intends to do will determine the permit they would apply for. Examples of work visa categories include professor, researcher, engineer, caregiver and entertainer. Of particular interest to foreigners is the specified skilled worker category, as well as the humanities specialist category, which includes foreign-language teachers.


Specified skilled worker visas in Japan

The specified skills visa is split into two categories. These visas aim to encourage foreign workers to fill employment gaps in the Japanese labour market.

Specified Skills Visa 1 (SSV1)

Expats who work in fields including agriculture, nursing care, shipbuilding, hospitality and construction can apply for this visa. The visa is valid for one year and can be renewed for a maximum of five years.

Foreigners with this visa aren’t able to bring dependants with them. Workers who wish to stay in Japan for more than five years, or who want to bring their family with them, can apply for the Visa 2-SSV2.

Specified Skills Visa 2 (SSV2)

This visa can be renewed indefinitely and visa holders are able to bring their family to Japan. At the moment, only foreigners already in Japan on the SSV1 visa and who have a high level of specialisation in their field are able to apply for this visa.


Certificate of Eligibility

For most types of work visas, expats will need a job offer from a company in Japan before applying. The hiring  company acts as the applicant’s sponsor and must supply them with a Certificate of Eligibility. This certificate testifies that the applicant meets the requirements for a visa. Once it has been obtained, the certificate is submitted as part of the expat's work visa application at the Japanese embassy in their home country.

*Visa and work permit regulations 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, but it's important to remember that Japanese salaries are also high. This makes it quite possible to live a good life in Japan without breaking the bank. 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, ranking third in Mercer's Cost of Living Survey for 2020. Osaka ranked 22nd and Nagoya 26th out of 209 expat destinations surveyed.


Cost of food in Japan

It's easy to find good deals on meals in Japan thanks to fierce competition between restaurants. Eating out can even work out cheaper than cooking at home if expats don't mind a frequent diet of noodles. It's 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 rather expensive at first, expats should bear in mind that they are always top quality, super fresh and usually locally grown. Seafood is relatively cheap and most supermarkets offer evening discounts to get rid of that day’s stock (fresh foods are rarely kept for sale 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, but it is important to bear in mind that competition is fierce and costs can be pricey even for small spaces.


Cost of healthcare in Japan

Japan has universal public healthcare. All Japanese citizens have public health insurance while companies must often also provide additional insurance to their employees. This means that, for expats, healthcare costs can be relatively low. In some cases, private care and private insurance are necessary, such as for expats who are staying in Japan for only a short term. The standard of care in both public and private hospitals is high as Japan's healthcare system is one of the best in the world. It's still a good idea to conduct some research on the different public and private options available to expats.


Cost of transport in Japan

While public transport in Japan is expensive compared to other Asian countries, it's highly efficient and the easiest way to travel around the country. Most expats opt not to own a vehicle seeing as driving is often more trouble than it's worth in bustling Japanese cities – the cost of parking being just one of the cons in a long list containing few pros.


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 a non-Japanese curriculum, often that of the expat family's home country. International school fees in Japan can be extremely high. Parents should also note that extra costs, such as for uniforms, stationery and field trips, usually aren't included in the pricey tuition fees.


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 June 2021.

Accommodation (monthly)

Three-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

JPY 170,000

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

JPY 330,000

One-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

JPY 80,000

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

JPY 150,000

Groceries

Dozen eggs

JPY 260

Milk (1 litre)

JPY 210

Loaf of white bread

JPY 220

Rice (1kg)

JPY 500

Chicken breasts (1kg)

JPY 970

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

JPY 520

Utilities (monthly)

Mobile call rate (per minute – mobile to mobile)

JYP 35

Internet (average per month)

JYP 4,000

Utilities (average per month for standard household)

JYP 22,000

Eating out and entertainment

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

JYP 6,000

Big Mac Meal

JYP 700

Cappuccino

JYP 400

Coca-Cola (330ml)

JYP 150

Local beer (500ml)

JYP 500

Transport

Taxi rate per km

JYP 420

City-centre public transport

JYP 210

Petrol (per litre)

JYP 140

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 further 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.

But the Japanese are also very hospitable and friendly towards 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 expats to learn the language, customs and traditions. 


Language barrier in Japan

Learning Japanese can be extremely challenging if expats want to go beyond the basics of conversation. Besides the difficulty of learning to read and write Japanese characters, there are highly 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, but it's advisable to be overly polite, humble and cautious, particularly within the context of business interactions.


Non-verbal communication in Japan

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 or 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 workweek of 70 to 80 hours isn't unheard of and the Japanese are very reluctant to take sick days. Overtime is seen as standard and it's normal to stay late at the office, even if there isn't any work to be done.

Punctuality is highly valued and the Japanese rarely arrive at meetings or appointments even a minute late. It's 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. In the case that expats encounter a personal problem with someone, they should address the issue with the individual privately.

Similarly, it's 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.

Accommodation in Japan

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


Types of accommodation in Japan

Apartments are common in Japanese cities and are where the majority of expats living in Japan reside. Older buildings with small apartments are known as apato. The buildings are normally not 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.

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. Usually, they are inhabited by young expats looking to save money over the course of a short-term stay or while searching for something more permanent. 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

Finding accommodation in Japan can be a challenge for expats. Japan is a small, densely populated country. This has made the housing market competitive. Expats should do proper research before they arrive in the country. Knowing which city one will live in and which neighbourhoods or areas are appealing will make the search less overwhelming. Expats can use online property portals to get a feel for the housing market and set up a budget.

We recommend that expats looking for accommodation in Japan go through a real-estate agent. Many landlords are reluctant to rent to foreigners, so it's best to go this route rather than attempting to rent directly from a landlord. Agents also have the advantage of understanding the local language and knowing the local areas.

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's 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's likely to be. Newer housing is also normally pricier. 


Renting accommodation in Japan

Furnished vs unfurnished

Most rental properties in Japan are unfurnished. Unfurnished apartments rarely include appliances such as washing machines or fridges. Furnished accommodation varies widely and is more expensive than unfurnished.

Short lets

Since rental contracts in Japan are usually signed for two years and demand high fees, short-term lets are a good alternative for expats who are only in the country for a few months. Short-term rentals in Japan are typically furnished. There’s a wide market catering to expats with options ranging from shared houses to high-end serviced apartments.

The rental process

Most expats will research properties online and contact some local estate agents in Japan who will set up some viewings. Once a suitable property has been found, and an agreement has been made with the landlord, the estate agent will draw up the contact. Deposits and fees need to be paid before the start of the tenancy.

In order to rent accommodation in Japan, expats will require a guarantor, usually an employer. This person needs to vouch for the expat and take liability for any outstanding rent or fees.

Leases

A typical lease in Japan is signed for one or two years. A renewal fee may apply at the time of an agreement renewal. Rental contracts are normally prepared in Japanese. An English translation may be available, depending on the landlord, but expats should ask a Japanese friend or colleague to go over the contract with them.

Deposits

The upfront costs for renting in Japan are extremely high. Expats may need the equivalent of six months’ rent to get set up with an apartment. It’s standard practice to pay a real estate agent fee which is non-refundable and equal to one month’s rent. A security deposit (shikikin) is the equivalent of two or three months’ rent. Expats may also be expected to provide the landlord with a gift referred to as a reikin or key money, though this practice is becoming less widespread. Key money is non-refundable and typically equivalent one to two month’s rent, though it can be up to six months.

Utilities

In most cases, renters need to take care of their own utilities in Japan. However, there are cases where the landlord will arrange utilities and include it in the rental price. It’s therefore important to carefully read the rental contract to see what is included or not.

Healthcare in Japan

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


Health insurance in Japan

Most expats will fall under one of two major healthcare schemes in Japan – Employees' Health Insurance (Shakai Kenko Hoken) or National Health Insurance (Kokumin Kenko Hoken). In these two schemes, healthcare expenses are covered up to 70 percent. There is also the Advanced Elderly Medical Service System (Choju Iryo Seido) for those over the age of 75, which funds up to 90 percent of medical expenses.

Under the Employees' Health Insurance programme, it's compulsory for a company to provide its employees and their families with medical insurance and healthcare in the event of injury, sickness, death or childbirth. The National Health Insurance scheme covers those other than salaried people and workers, like those who are self-employed or unemployed.

Expats will need to register at their local municipal office or local city hall in order to start receiving healthcare in Japan. A Health Insurance Certificate 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.


Public and private hospitals 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. However, in many cases private medical treatment is still recommended, if only for the extra creature comforts it allows.

Many Japanese doctors have studied overseas and speak good English, while others might be less proficient. There are medical services in Tokyo that will direct expats to their nearest English-speaking doctor. In other cities, it may be necessary to take a Japanese friend or colleague along to act as interpreter.


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. Pharmacists are generally very knowledgeable. However, not all pharmacists speak good English so expats may struggle if they have lots of questions. The prices of most medicines in Japan are subsidised by Japanese health insurance, making the price significantly cheaper.

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, the operator answering an emergency call may not 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 such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. These options largely depend on how long expats plan to stay in Japan, the age of their children, and their location.


Public and private schools in Japan

In Japan, the Ministry of Education determines the national curriculum, though schools and teachers choose how to present the material. General subjects are taught in Japanese, though some schools offer international tracks.

Elementary schools are generally assigned by location, though it's possible to choose a private school. Some private schools are highly esteemed with the result that admission is competitive. 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.

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 and are unfamiliar with the language.


International schools in Japan

International schools are one of the most popular options for expat families in Japan. The accreditation systems and curricula of these institutions vary depending on the type of school and its country of origin. Most will teach in English, but some schools cater specifically to French, German, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean expats, as well as some other nationalities.

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 from school to school. Some require a certain level of English ability (if English isn't the child's first language). Tuition and costs also vary, though fees are typically extremely high. Aside from basic tuition costs, there may be additional costs for uniforms, extra-curriculars, field trips, bus services and even technology and building-maintenance fees.


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 something 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.


Special-needs education in Japan

The Japanese government is focused on creating an inclusive society in which educational needs are met for each individual student. In line with this, the vast majority of children with special needs are taught in regular public schools. The method of assistance in Japanese public schools will depend on the child’s disabilities and the severity thereof. Options range from being taught in regular classes to attending special resource rooms a few times a week, to special-needs education classes. 

Children with acute disabilities may benefit from attending dedicated special-needs schools. These schools are run by local governments and have classes from kindergarten to senior high school. The curriculum in these schools is the same as in public schools, but they also have added activities that teach daily living skills.

Various international schools also offer support for certain conditions or disabilities, though usually at an additional fee. There are also schools following the Waldorf-Steiner and Montessori methods. These have a more flexible approach to education and are known to cater to individual students’ needs.


Tutors in Japan

Schooling in Japan is competitive. It’s therefore common for students to have multiple tutors for different school subjects. Especially for expat children, having a tutor in Japan may be useful. A tutor can assist a child to maintain their mother tongue or help them study Japanese. If a child is attending a school with a new curriculum, a tutor is an excellent way of catching up with what they are behind on.

Tutoring is popular in Japan, which has led to many tutoring companies popping up across the country. Though expats may be spoilt for choice, they should do thorough research on all options before choosing a tutor. Schools will also often recommend trustworthy tutors.

Transport and Driving in Japan

Transport in Japan is generally fast, efficient and reliable (albeit crowded during rush hour). Expats living in large cities have easy access to every form of transportation – making owning and driving a car unnecessary. What’s more, expats needing to travel long distances will find that trains connect the country very well, and buses travel over extensive networks.

That said, 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 consider 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 fastest and most modern rail services. Buses also provide a means of getting to more isolated locations in Japan.

Trains

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, allowing for fast commute times and accessibility for expats, locals and tourists alike. Japan Railways (JR) owns and manages all shinkansen trains. Tickets can be purchased online, at JR stations or via designated sellers. Expats who travel regularly should obtain the relevant smartcard for their area.  These act as rechargeable tickets when riding JR and some private lines. Simply recharge the card as often as necessary.

Most major cities, such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, have subway systems.

Buses

Where a train line ends, a bus often starts. 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. 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 much easier and cheaper 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, speciality bike shops sell popular mountain, road and cross-country bikes.


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. Many drivers don't speak English fluently, so it's best to know the destination in Japanese or have the address written down to show them. Ride-hailing services such as Uber are available in Japan's large cities. These eliminate the language barrier but can be expensive.


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. This is generally not needed in major cities, though, in which owning a car can be more of a hassle than a convenience.

Expats will usually need an International Driver’s Permit to drive in Japan when arriving, though some nationalities can use their licence from home as long as it's translated. These licences are valid for up to one year, after which it's necessary to get a Japanese driver’s licence. Some nationalities can simply swap their home-country licence for a Japanese one, while others will have to take a written and practical driving test before receiving a Japanese licence.

Keeping in Touch in Japan

With high-tech infrastructure across the country, expats should have no trouble keeping in touch in Japan. The island nation is known for its advanced technology, so finding ways to communicate with loved ones back home is easy and affordable.


Internet in Japan

A number of different 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. Some providers have better English-language support than others, with Sakura Fiber Internet being a frequently recommended option for expats. Major providers include NTT Docomo and Asahi Net/

WiFi hotspots can also be found throughout Japan (and can be especially useful while waiting for internet access at home). These are plentiful in major city centres, operating from various locations such as coffee shops, hotels and subway stations.


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.


Postal services in Japan

Japan Post is the country's national postage service and, like much in the country, it's efficient and reliable. International and local shipping costs are reasonable. Various commercial courier services are also available, including FedEx and DHL.

Shipping and Removals in Japan

As an island nation, the former Empire of Japan depended on imported goods and products to drive its burgeoning industry. As a result, the country cultivated a thriving shipping sector that still provides a number of easy and efficient options for shipping goods to Japan.

With the exception of high-end luxury service apartments, most accommodation is unfurnished. For this reason, many employers include a shipping allowance in expat contracts. Don't be afraid to broach this topic when negotiating a contract as shipping costs can quickly escalate if one is not careful.


Shipping household items to Japan

Generally speaking, household items are duty-free and tax-free, provided they aren't new. If shipping items to Japan, expats should make an inventory of the goods they will be sending across and bring at least two copies in their carry-on luggage.

Expats also have the option of buying furniture in Japan. There are plenty of stores dealing in interior decor and household furnishings. If not opposed to second-hand goods, expats leaving the country often have large-scale 'sayonara sales', where its possible to find nearly new items for far less than one would normally pay for them new. Look for listings on supermarket notice boards, Facebook or on classified websites.

Another alternative to shipping to Japan or buying in Japan is the option to lease home furnishings.

Frequently Asked Questions about Japan

From ancient history and traditions to fast-paced, vibrant cities, 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 big cities, a car isn't necessary and could even be a liability. Petrol is very expensive in Japan and there are many pricey toll roads. Add to this the cost of car maintenance (roadworthiness tests, licence fees etc.) and it becomes exorbitant, even though the car might have had a cheap purchase price when compared to international standards.

In the more rural areas of Japan, though,  public transport can be a bit slow or infrequent, so in these cases it's recommended to have a car. 

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 useful phrasebooks and textbooks. In Tokyo, it's easy to get by without ever speaking Japanese, but if expats want to travel a bit further afield, they will need to go armed with 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. The bus system is also highly reliable, comfortable and often cheaper. There are some great deals on airfares during holiday periods, although trains are usually cheaper.

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. This makes opening an account an easy process. 

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


Currency in Japan

The local currency is the Japanese Yen, usually abbreviated to JPY or ¥.

The Japanese Yen is available in the following denominations:

  • Notes: 1,000 JPY; 2,000 JPY; 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 UFJ Financial Group, Japan Post Bank, Mizuho Financial Group and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, while international banks in Japan include CitiBank, HSBC and Barclays.

Opening a bank account

Expats can 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's 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.

Not all banks have English-speaking staff or English service offerings, such as for online banking. Expats should shop around to find the best bank suited to their particular needs.

ATMs and credit cards

ATMs can be found easily, especially in big cities. However, if located outside of Tokyo, machines might not have English options so it's helpful to write down the important characters in order to be able to use the ATM.

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's 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.


Dave is a Canadian writer, originally hailing from Vancouver Island. These days he lives in Kyoto, Japan, and is working on a soon-to-be-published novella. Read about his expat experiences in Japan. Dave

Originally from Macedonia, expat Sania is passionate about Japan and loves discovering new places and learning about new cultures. Here, she tells us about her expat life in Ashiya, a picturesque city situated between Osaka and Kobe.

Sania

American expat Kim is a lover of travel and adventure, both of which can be found in abundance in Japan. Having lived in Yokohama for the last three years, here Kim shares the ups and downs of her expat life in Japan.

Kim

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 secrets to making a success of expat life in Japan. 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 several cities in Japan but currently resides in Wakayama, where she teaches Business English to engineers. 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 expat. 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 up-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. Even in her short time, she became enamoured 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