How To Move To Japan - The Definitive Guide
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Apply For A Visa[back to top]
Who Needs A Visa To Enter Japan?
The citizens of 68 countries can visit Japan without a visa for up to 90 days in any one year depending on their nationality. This is because a general visa exemption arrangement has been agreed between those nations. The reason for the visit must be tourism, conferences, commerce, visiting friends and family or undertaking a short-term course at a Japanese language school.
However, you are not permitted to work for a Japanese employer or business under this visa-free arrangement, even for short term or casual work.
Countries whose citizens are allowed a visa-free leisure visit under the ‘exemption of visa short-term stay’ arrangement are listed on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.
People from countries that are not on this list must obtain a temporary visitor visa for a leisure trip to Japan.
If you want to stay longer in the country, you must obtain the appropriate visa for your visit. Moreover, you need to do this before you arrive in Japan.
Where To Obtain A Japanese Visa
All visas must be obtained before arriving in Japan. You can make an application through your nearest Japanese consulate or embassy.
Citizens of the UK, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein or Mexico who wish to extend their 90-day, visa-free visit for up to another 90 days may do so in Japan at an Immigration Bureau (Nyukoku Kanrikyoku). Branches are located throughout the country.
Arriving In Japan: Border Control
Everyone entering Japan will have their passports and, if relevant, their visa inspected for validity. Evidence of a booked return journey may be requested.
Photographs and fingerprints will be taken of every person entering Japan. This applies to long term residents returning from a trip abroad as well as short stay tourists. Only under 16s, diplomats and visiting dignitaries are exempt from this.
You must keep your passport with you at all times while you are in Japan. An official may ask to inspect it at any time during your stay.
Extending The 90 Day Tourist Period
You can apply for a 90-day extension on top of your initial 90 days if you are a citizen from the UK, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein or Mexico.
Note that you are still not permitted to undertake paid work during this period.
Wealthy Citizens Can Stay In Japan For A Year
Wealthier citizens of the countries within the general visa exemption arrangement may apply to stay for up to one year.
Evidence must be provided that you have savings in excess of 30million yen. Couples can apply for a shared visa.
You must obtain this visa before arriving in the country, and not work during your stay there.
You can only work in Japan if you have the appropriate visa. This applies to casual, short-term work as well as a full-time salaried job. You must obtain your work visa before arriving in Japan, via your nearest Japanese consulate or embassy.
You will need to specify the professional field in which you work. You can change jobs when living in Japan under this visa, but you cannot change professional field without obtaining a new visa.
A relevant university degree is normally a minimum requirement, although an impressive professional CV may be an acceptable alternative.
Your application is more likely to succeed if an employer is sponsoring you. That means obtaining work before you head out to Japan, and is why the most common careers for which expats move to Japan are teaching English as a foreign language through the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program, or a transfer from within an international business.
If your application succeeds, your visa will be granted for up to five years. You can apply for an extension later if you wish.
Long Term Study
Whilst many citizens can undertake short term courses at Japanese language schools without applying for a visa, all other prospective students must obtain a residence visa for long term study before they arrive in Japan.
Your application must be sponsored by the institution you will be attending. You will also be asked to prove that you can sustain yourself financially throughout your studies in Japan.
The visa issued will be valid for a period reflecting your studies. This period should be at least three months but no longer than four years and three months in duration. However, you can apply for an extension if your circumstances require it later.
If you want to work while you are studying in Japan, you can apply for permission. However, if this is granted, you will only be able to work a specified number of hours each week. You must not break this limit, as the purpose of your visa is to study and not to work.
Residence Permission For International Spouses And Dependents
A permanent resident or Japanese national may apply for a spousal visa on behalf of their husband or wife. This visa not only allows a family to live in Japan, but also means the spouse can legally work.
The visa issued can be for any time between six months and five years. You may apply for an extension.
A dependency visa will be issued if the international resident does not have permanent residency status. This allows the spouse and children to reside in Japan but not work. Permission for work can be requested, but even if it is granted, the number of working hours will be strictly limited.
Dependency visas are valid for any period between three months and five years, and you can apply for an extension.
Working Holiday Visas
Young people between the ages of 18 and 30 may apply for a working holiday visa if they are citizens of eligible countries.
These visas allow young people to work part-time in Japan for the period specified in their visa, which will be no longer than one year.
Eligible countries are:
● Hong Kong
● New Zealand
● United Kingdom
If you arrive in Japan via Narita, Haneda, Kansai or Chubu airports, you will be issued with a residence card. This is an important document which must be carried at all times. If you come through a different arrival point, you will need to collect the residence card from local authority offices.
Without one of these cards, you cannot open a local bank account, rent an apartment, obtain a valid driving license or take out a mobile phone contract.
The residence card contains a computer chip which means the information on the card can be read by electronic systems. They are difficult to forge, which is why they are such an essential tool for identification.
Leaving Japan For More Than A Year
Migrants who hold a residence card are free to leave and re-enter japan. However, the absence must not last a year or more. If it does, a re-entry permit must be obtained from the local immigration office on return to Japan.
Obtaining Permanent Residency In Japan
The amount of time you must continuously live in Japan before being eligible for permanent residency will depend on your skills and profession. The wait can be up to 10 years, but if you are highly qualified in a sought-after profession, it could be as little as three years.
However, you will have to prove your case to stay. Your finances must demonstrate that you have sufficient assets and income to support yourself without relying on the state. In addition, you must have a clear criminal record.
Once you have obtained permanent residency status, you can choose to work in any job or profession without having to seek approval. You may also stay in the country as long as you wish.
Your residency card will be valid for seven years, after which you will need to request a new one. Despite being a permanent resident, your residency card should be carried with you at all times.
As with permanent residency, the Japanese citizenship test requires you to prove that you have sufficient income and assets to support yourself and that you have a clean criminal record.
Another feature common to both is that you have indefinite leave to remain and can choose your occupation.
Bear in mind that receiving Japanese citizenship means relinquishing your existing citizenship. You can’t go back to your country of origin as a citizen, and your new status could possibly affect your right to stay there. It is therefore not a step to be taken lightly.
However, if you do decide that you want to be a Japanese citizen, you only have to live legally (and continuously) in the country for five years or less if you are married to a Japanese national.
If you need any further information about Japanese visas, such as how long the queue for a particular visa office is, or the best way to find sponsored work in Japan, why not reach out to the expat community living there?
You can use the ExpatFocus Forum for expats in Japan, or the dedicated Facebook group to ask for help from other people who have been in the same situation as you. This can help your planning - and perhaps introduce you to a new friend or two.
Find A Job[back to top]
Finding A Job In Japan
You need a visa to legally work in Japan. There’s no way around this - you definitely need state permission to work in the country, no matter where you come from.
If you work illegally while visiting as a tourist or awaiting the results of your asylum claim, you risk being arrested, imprisoned without trial and deported. There are allegations that some international detainees are held in squalid conditions and even die in custody as they await deportation. It is therefore essential that you obtain this paperwork before you go to work in Japan.
Most expats heading out to the country have already been offered work, so their employer sponsors their application for a work visa.
Students are allowed to work while studying in Japan. However, they must have written permission to do so, and must adhere to the limited number of hours they are permitted to work each week.
The spouse of a Japanese national or permanent resident can obtain a visa allowing part-time work. Again, the maximum number of working hours permitted each week will be specified.
If you want to find out more about visas in Japan, read the relevant section of this country guide.
Does Japan Need Expat Workers?
Japan has the longest average lifespan in the world, as we discussed in the Healthcare section of this country guide. However, with rates of marriage and birth declining as the elderly population increases, there is an increasing demand for workers.
This is a problem made worse by the poor treatment of women in the Japanese workplace, as explored in the article Japan Is Seeking More Expats: Could You Be One Of Them? The glass ceiling is more intact in Japan than most Western people would find acceptable.
In addition, the percentage of the Japanese population who were born elsewhere is less than two percent, and the authorities are not keen to change this number quickly as this would prove unpopular with the electorate.
Highly-skilled professionals have the greatest chance of receiving a work visa. Your qualifications, experience and skills will all be taken into account.
Foreign nationals are now allowed to stay in Japan even after their fixed-term visas expire if they are working in managerial positions. Academic researchers, technical experts, entrepreneurs and some other professionals can be fast-tracked for permanent residency, with some achieving the status in just three years and others in five. Everyone else must be in the country for 10 years before they can apply for permanent residency.
Essentially, Japanese companies and businesses of all sizes will recruit from overseas where the skills gap demands it. Their first preference, however, will be an appropriately skilled Japanese person.
There is a certain irony that alongside this increasing skills gap, the security of a job for life with opportunities for promotion and good pay that older generations of Japanese people enjoyed has eroded in recent times. Life for those without highly sought skills and experience is increasingly insecure and uncertain.
How To Get A Job In Japan Without Speaking Japanese
The Japanese language can be difficult to learn, as we outlined in the Language section of this country guide. The written characters, grammar and sounds of each word are outside the experience of most Westerners. This means the language can definitely be a barrier to international jobseekers.
Moving to Japan under the sponsorship of an international employer is often the best route to securing work there. This usually includes an invaluable support network too, meaning your visa applications will be overseen and accommodation will be arranged for your arrival. Your new employers may also offer orientation events with other expats.
A popular path into the Japanese workplace is teaching English as a foreign language, usually at a language school or through the Japan Exchange and Training (JET) programme. If you have an interview for one of these positions, make sure you dress well, prepare thoroughly and gather facts about your own country. For example, questions about your democratic system are not unusual.
If you want to teach English as a foreign language in Japan, you will need a degree as a bare minimum. You have very little chance of being interviewed without one.
Teaching should not be seen as an easy route to employment. The hours are long and standards are monitored. Japan is not an environment where teaching staff are encouraged to become friendly with pupils. You can learn more about the school culture in the Education And Schools section of this country guide.
US teacher Jerrmarco Rhodes works in the Japanese city of Hekinan-shi. He suggests using gaijinpot.com and jobsinjapan.com to find employment in the country. However, he also advises people do their research on the English teaching companies, since: “some of them are good and some of them are bad”.
Jerrmarco recommends that you have enough savings to support yourself through the first couple of months in Japan, as you won’t get the first paycheck until you have completed your first month of work.
What Is The Japanese Workplace Like?
In our country guide section Climate And Weather, we outlined the clothing that is suitable for both the Japanese climate and culture. Of particular note, workwear for the professional office or customer-focused business must always be conservative and formal. That’s not always easy in the muggy heat of August. However, if you don’t conform to the dress code required, you may find yourself being quietly passed over for promotion or even without a job. This is just one of many unwritten rules of business etiquette you must quickly absorb and comply with in the conservative environment of Japan.
Expat Annabelle, originally from New Zealand, talked to ExpatFocus about her experience working in Tochigi under the JET programme. She found that in addition to the long working hours Japan is well known for, workplace hierarchy, which “seems to be almost entirely based on age,” was very much in evidence.
Jonathan, who moved to Tokyo from the UK, advises expats to be aware that a different culture exists in the Japanese workplace. “Japanese people work as a team rather than individuals, [so] everyone stays late in the office rather than leave when their work is over.”
He also explains that when it comes to decision making: “Westerners are comfortable with grey, Japanese are comfortable with black and white”. He admits this can be frustrating at first, but says it can become a highly rewarding learning experience.
Starting A Business In Japan
One way to support yourself in Japan may be to run your own business.
If you are going to provide goods or services to the local population, understanding both the language and the culture of Japan is paramount. The world is littered with stories of international companies taking over an enterprise in a new country and then seeing it fail. Business success comes as a result of giving your customers what they want, when they want it, to a consistent high standard. You cannot assume that what works in your home country will work in Japan.
Many expats living in Japan work online, some of whom you can find on our list of Recommended Social Media Accounts. However, be aware that blogging and Youtube commercial ventures sit in a competitive field, and only a lucky few earn enough to pay their bills this way.
Regardless of the type of business you intend to run, it is a good idea to hire the services of professionals to guide you through the maze of Japanese regulations, requirements, procedures and documents that are essential to getting your enterprise legally registered and taxed. As the article Starting A Business In Japan: Four Things You Should Know explains, hiring both a shiho-shoshi (judicial scribe) and a gyosei-shoshi (administrative scribe) will save you a lot of time pouring over unintelligible paperwork, while a zeirishi (certified public tax accountant) will keep your taxes in order.
Any business takes a while to take off, and some never do. Make sure you have adequate resources to sustain both your household and the enterprise for the foreseeable future, and be level headed about when you may need to seek paid employment instead.
More Advice From Expats In Japan
If you have decided to look for work in Japan, why not reach out to the expat community there for help? The ExpatFocus Forum and Facebook group are good places to ask questions about the reputation of potential employers or any elements of the recruitment process about which you feel worried.
Rent Property[back to top]
There are various ways to secure accommodation in Japan before you get to the country. When Portuguese expat André Moreira first arrived in Japan to study, he was placed with a host family. This was a successful arrangement which helped him settle into an unfamiliar country and to learn about the culture and language in a safe environment. Even when he moved to a nearby rental apartment a while later, he still went back to visit the family.
For those who don’t want the hassle and expense of renting an apartment straight away, staying with a host family or in a guest house is often a good solution.
Alternatively, you can ask the employer who sponsors your work visa to secure your initial accommodation. Remember, you cannot legally work in Japan without obtaining a work visa, as we set out in the Finding Employment section of the country guide.
Of course, if you ask your employers to arrange your living space, there’s a risk you will end up in an apartment you don’t like. However, Japanese accommodation is expensive and often smaller than Westerners expect, so this will give you a chance to acclimatise to what is typical without spending a lot of time traipsing round hundreds of apartments looking for the impossible.
Annabelle moved from New Zealand to an apartment in Tochigi which had been secured by her new employers at a language school. She was responsible for paying the rent but was spared the pain of other upfront costs.
Finding An Apartment To Rent
Looking through some listings will give you an opportunity to assess what you can expect to pay in the area of your choice.
Do not agree to rent an apartment without seeing it for yourself. All the photographs in the world can’t give you the information you need about the condition of the heating system, noise levels from next door or the type of neighbourhood outside.
Estate agency staff will make suggestions based on your wish list and budget. They will then accompany you to viewings, which saves you the worry and hassle of getting lost or trying to negotiate with a landlord in Japanese.
It is a good idea to reach out to the existing expat community in Japan and ask for recommendations for a reputable rental agent. You can do this through our Expat Forum or by joining our dedicated Facebook Group.
Furnished Apartments In Japan
Canadian expat Erica Knecht, who secured a rental apartment in Kyushu, found that furnished apartments are a rarity outside larger Japanese cities. “Apartments come totally empty and it is up to the renter to supply all appliances, including A/C units,” she warned.
Like many other expats, she also noted how small the accommodation is, with tiny kitchens and limited storage room. She added: “We eventually found a place that met our needs, but it required a lot of leg work, and some modifying of expectations”.
Renting Accommodation In Japan As A Migrant
You will often hear discussion about landlords who only accept Japanese people as tenants. Official figures are not available, but this practice appears to be fairly widespread.
Some people call this out as blatant racism. Others conclude that landlords may be worried about upsetting neighbours by renting accommodation to migrants who don’t respect the cultural norms of low noise levels, tidiness in communal areas and correct allocation of rubbish disposal.
Your estate agent should have any issues like this identified before you go to view a property. You may wish to seek out accommodation near other expats, to give yourself the best chance of making friends and being accepted comfortably into a social group.
UK expat Jonathan moved to Tokyo. He found major cities are a good place to source estate agencies that are tailored to the needs of expats, and that specific areas of major cities can be easier places for expats to settle into.
“Tokyo is a wonderful city for expats. However, on a clock-face, the areas from 6.00 to 10.00 and into the centre (roughly Gotanda, around the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku and into Akasaka) are more used to foreigners requirements. The east of the city is always fascinating; however, unless you speak Japanese, it’s more challenging in daily life. Additionally, the foreign stores, schools, expat clubs and so on tend to lie in the western part of the city,” he explains.
Upfront Costs Of Renting Accommodation
When you sign up for a new tenancy, you will pay a significant amount of money upfront.
First is advance rent, which will be at least one month’s rent.
A deposit is also required to cover the costs of any loss or damage to the property while you are a tenant. Ideally you will receive all of this back when you vacate the premises at the end of the tenancy. To keep the charges against the deposit to a minimum, take a thorough photographic record when you move in and then again when you move out. In an age where good quality digital photos can be backed up from your phone into free cloud storage, this is easy to do.
You will be charged commission by the rental agency that helped find your new home. Whilst this is a service paid for by landlords in most other countries, many expats are happy to pay this since the tailored services make their property search so much easier. It is often equivalent to six weeks’ rent.
Guarantors are part of the Japanese rental system. This responsibility has recently moved from financially secure family members across to insurance through rental agents. This adds yet another month’s rent to the list, and is not refundable.
Depending on the property, your annual building maintenance fee may well be charged in full at the beginning of the tenancy. In addition, you should also take out insurance at this point.
Then comes the key exchange fee. This isn’t much, but does add to all those other fees you are trying to cover. If you are unlucky, you will be asked to pay a key charge. Plus, don’t lose the keys at any time during the tenancy, as replacement will be very expensive.
The practice of giving a financial ‘gift’ to your landlord to thank them for allowing you to become a tenant has become an established business charge. This is usually a further month’s rent and is not refunded.
Luckily, a sea change is happening in the market for property rentals to migrants. Savvy landlords and rental agents have understood that expats don’t like paying the key charge when they are already struggling to afford the upfront costs for a place to live. This means that many of them are reducing the upfront costs, in particular abolishing the key charge, and increasing the ongoing rent instead.
This means your rent will be higher than it otherwise would be, and perhaps over the long term will cost you more. However, it is an incentive to encourage landlords to rent to foreign tenants, and means it is one less fee to worry about when you are trying to find somewhere to live.
Proving Your Right To Rent In Japan
Your landlord is not allowed to rent to illegal migrants. This means they will ask to see your passport and your residency card. If your employer is arranging accommodation for your arrival, you may have to send scanned copies of your documents in advance, or produce them on the first day of arrival in the country.
Your landlord will also want to see proof that you are financially secure. This means payslips, bank statements and contract of employment can all be requested.
Your rental agent will ask for a character reference, as a check that you are a reliable person. This is not only important so that the landlord has assurance you will pay the rent and not trash the property, but it will also to protect their reputation. If they let the property to tenants who disrupt the life of the neighbours, this will reflect badly on them.
While you may be able to wire through the advance payments from an international bank account, you should pay your regular rent through a Japanese bank account. Therefore, do prioritise the task of opening such an account.
Don’t be tempted to pay any rental costs or fees in cash. Electronic payments are the only secure, indisputable way to prove you have paid should you need to resort to a court of law. This becomes especially important in a country where you are unfamiliar with the culture and practices.
Once you finally move into your new home, don’t forget to register with the local town hall as a matter of urgency. Almost as importantly, do get to grips with the local recycling regime. These are different in every area, and making the wrong decisions about how to dispose of your garbage will quickly irritate your new neighbours.
Buy Property[back to top]
Migrants are legally allowed to buy land and buildings in Japan without restriction. You do not need permission to make a property purchase even if you continue to live abroad.
Japan is famed for its law and order, and particularly for its low crime rates. Property buyers whose paperwork is completed by a notary can be confident that their ownership is secure.
Finding A Cheap House In Japan
Like just about every other country, Japan has experienced housing market bubbles and contractions. It is an expensive country, so isn’t a bargain hunter’s dream, but if you catch the market at the right time, your investment can be a good one.
The old adage location, location, location applies in Japan. The large, successful cities are where the best paid jobs exist, so that is where people with money want to live, including the majority of expats. In contrast, an isolated, small home with little land will not generate much interest from those who need a well-paid job and an active social life.
Therefore, if you plan to purchase property solely on the basis of its price tag, you could end up beyond a comfortable work commute and without the social community or infrastructure you may be used to.
However, if you like old houses, you may be able to make your budget stretch further. Back in the 1970s, houses that were approaching 100 years old in Western cities such as London and Denver were seen as cold, old-fashioned and unsuitable for modern life. Over the past thirty years, these same period properties have become highly desirable and expensive. In Japan, however, this change of attitude has not occurred.
As the Financial Times reported, traditional ‘machiya’ houses are fast disappearing in Japan as new apartment blocks are preferred, not least because they are designed to withstand earthquakes. International buyers are increasingly buying these properties, often in a poor state, to renovate them as holiday homes or even as a place to live. Some people are even able to access a renovation grant.
On the flipside, if old houses continue to be unfashionable, you may struggle to maintain the property’s value.
If you are buying a brand-new house, try to buy it direct from the developer rather than through an estate agent. This will save you a large sum of money.
Housing Loans In Japan For Expats
Mortgage companies need to know that they will get their money back over the long term. Most people who end up in financial trouble do so after divorce or bereavement, illness or redundancy. It isn’t possible for a mortgage lender to see the future, so they have to exercise caution with every loan.
Migrants who do not live in Japan or have done so for less than two years are seen as a high risk of defaulting on their loan. These people may not be settled with a long-term job and family, and if they decide to head back overseas, there will be few consequences of default beyond losing ownership of a property they aren’t living in.
As a result, any lender will ask to see proof that you have legally lived in Japan for a minimum of two years, that you have permission to stay for the long term and have a stable job to support yourself. Your credit history must be clean and free of any problems.
If your application is successful, the deposit required and the interest rate levied will be dependent on your individual circumstances and the mortgage lender’s policies.
You will have to pay stamp duty. The bank will also charge commission, as well as guarantor insurance. While wealthy family members would traditionally act as a guarantor, today this is purchased as an insurance. You must also secure fire insurance.
Viewing A Property In Japan
If you can’t speak Japanese, it is possible to find a small number of estate agencies who have training that is tailored for the expat market.
They can arrange viewings, which are essential because you should never make a property purchase without seeing the property and ensuring that reality lives up to the brochure. Apartments and homes in Japan are much smaller than in the west, which can be hard to appreciate unless you see the space in person.
Alternatively, if you are buying a new-build home, you can do so direct from the developer to save some money. However, make sure you understand what you are buying and what is included in the sale. It’s harder to visualise the space if it only exists on paper.
Once you have found the perfect property and agreed your offer with the seller, you are required to put a deposit down with your notary and pay stamp duty. This will be 10 or 20 percent of the sales price. If you withdraw from the purchase without good cause, you will lose your deposit.
The Purchasing Process
Your notary should check your new home’s registration to identify the legal owner and any debts held against the property, along with any plans or local obligations which affect it. They will also hold your money in a client account and pay it across to the appropriate parties when required.
Therefore, identifying a good notary is the first step. Try asking on the ExpatFocus forum or Facebook group to receive recommendations from other expats who have received a good service from a notary in your area.
The estate agency fee will typically be three percent of the purchase value and may add other charges. Make sure you agree this clearly in writing before making an offer on the property so you don’t receive unexpected bills when you are already trying to cover the cost of a house, moving costs and taxes.
A fee is charged to register your ownership of the property, which the notary will undertake. Stamp duty is also levied.
The fee you pay your notary should have been agreed in writing before they started any work for you.
Apartments will have a management fee levied to keep communal areas clean and the roof in good condition, for example. You will also have to pay local community taxes based on the value of your property.
About three months after your purchase, all the paperwork related to the transaction is sent to the tax office and a real estate acquisition tax charge will be due.
Nearly all taxes and charges are based on the price of the property. If you want to get an accurate idea of the costs and charges involved with buying your own property in Japan, have a look at the detailed tables on Realestate-Tokyo.com.
Property Surveys In Japan
The traditional principles which dictate Japanese life have led to a strong reliance on trust. Moreover, people prefer to buy somewhere new; period properties are typically unwanted. As a result, surveys to check the condition of a property during the purchase process are the exception rather than the rule.
A valuation survey is undertaken to ensure a mortgage lender will get their money back in case of default, but does not look for problems that could end up costing you a lot of money to fix. Therefore, find a professional to undertake this thorough survey for you.
In a country frequently rocked by earthquakes, and whose humid summers encourage termites to chew away at property foundations, this is an investment that you must not overlook.
Register For Healthcare[back to top]
QUICK LINK: Japan health insurance
The Health Service In Japan
The average lifespan for residents of Japan is longer than in any other nation on earth. When Expat Focus published the article Why Moving To Japan Will (Probably) Make You Healthier, the healthcare system was cited as one of the major reasons Japanese residents enjoy long and healthy lives. So it’s definitely one of the positive aspects of moving to Japan - but you must know how to pay for your cover.
Healthcare In Japan
It is not possible for migrants to arrive in Japan and receive any healthcare without paying for it.
If you are going on holiday to the country, you should arrange comprehensive travel insurance which includes adequate health cover. Check all exclusions and limits carefully, as you could find yourself facing huge treatment bills if you are hurt doing a sporting or leisure activity for which you aren’t insured.
Declare all pre-existing medical conditions when you take out your policy, and inform the insurer if you develop new ones between taking out the policy and arriving in Japan. Even if you are lying in a critical condition in a hospital emergency ward, the insurance company can cancel the policy with immediate effect if they discover you had an illness or operation in the past which you failed to declare.
When you contact a hospital or family doctor for treatment, you will be asked how your bills are to be paid. Typically, you will pay upfront to reclaim from your insurer or, if the treatment is expensive, you may be asked for a deposit.
While some expats see Japanese medical costs as reasonable, especially those arriving from the United States, migrants from the UK might be surprised by how quickly the costs of treatment add up. You don’t want to receive an unmanageable bill at a time you aren’t well, so always maintain your insurance coverage.
Migrants who live in Japan pay for their medical cover privately or through salary deductions.
Expat Healthcare In Japan
If you will be a resident of Japan for more than 12 months, you have to join the state healthcare insurance system. If your stay is less than 12 months, you have a choice between the state system or private medical insurance.
As is common across many nations, employees pay into the state scheme by having a percentage of their wages deducted from their monthly or weekly salary before it is paid. The employer then pays this amount to the state system, along with another percentage which the employer pays from their own funds.
Membership of this scheme means 70 percent of your medical costs are covered. However, you will be required to pay the other 30 percent yourself out of your own funds.
Many people purchase additional insurance to cover the other 30 percent, whilst others pay more for policies which will cover them for fully private treatment.
As Expat Focus set out in the article Moving To Japan? Heres What You Need To Know Before You Arrive, in addition to your residence card, you must carry your health card with you everywhere you go. An accident or sudden medical emergency can occur at any time and you may be refused treatment if you cannot prove your ability to pay the bill.
The Quality Of Healthcare In Japan
Japan’s health service is staffed by well-trained professionals, working in modern, well-equipped facilities. The services are well thought of by expats living there.
However, the cost of treatment is not cheap, so make sure you are adequately insured, either through salary deductions to the national system, or by purchasing insurance from a private healthcare policy so you can access treatment quickly.
Unfortunately, not many doctors in Japan are fluent in English. It is not a country which attracts many doctors from English-speaking countries because of the language barrier. You might find it a good idea to access medical facilities targeted to the expat community, even if they charge more than other local facilities.
Interestingly, much of the medical training system was developed in conjunction with German doctors. Therefore, many German terms are part of Japanese medical training and practice.
Expat communities in Japan tend to be small but friendly, so if you want to find out which local medical services are recommended by expats in the area of Japan you are heading for, reach out to them via our dedicated forum or by joining hundreds of others on our Facebook group for expats in Japan.
In Western countries, hospitals are seen as the place you go to when you are seriously ill or have had a bad accident. Alternatively, if your family doctor is concerned about your symptoms and wants them investigated by a specialist, they will make a referral.
In Japan, people will head to the hospital with more minor complaints. Jasmine, a German expat who writes the Zooming Japan blog, was taken to the hospital by her manager the first time she had a temperature in Japan. Some employers see sick leave from work as only being justified if you are ill enough to seek hospital treatment.
As a result, hospital waiting times can be lengthy. Obviously, this will depend on the time of day, day of the week and location of the hospital.
There are a number of cultural differences between the care in Japanese hospitals and that offered by hospitals in the West. Your privacy is less valued, so you may be asked personal medical questions with other staff in the room, or even in a waiting room near other patients. Doctors will be less assertive and may be reserved about touching you. For example, if you are examined by a gynaecologist, a small screen will keep your face hidden.
How To Call For An Ambulance
If you are taken seriously ill or have an accident and cannot get to a hospital yourself, call 119 and ask for an ambulance. This is the same as the number for the fire service.
You can call for emergency police assistance on 110.
Remember to call your insurance company quickly - programme the number into your phone so it’s ready for you when you need it.
Mental Health Issues In Japan
The Japanese workplace has a global reputation for loyalty, efficiency and hard work. Unfortunately, this culture can make it difficult to achieve a good work-life balance; overwork is a health issue in the nation. The rate of suicide, for example, is high by international standards, but through widespread discussion in the media and some official action, numbers are decreasing.
Employees are now legally entitled to 18 days of leave each year, and employers with more than 50 members of staff must undertake regular stress tests. Meanwhile, volunteers patrol areas where suicide attempts are frequently made, and posters showing helpline numbers are also displayed.
Attitudes to mental health are changing in Japanese society. As an expat, you may find feelings of isolation and low mood hard to overcome. If this describes you, do try to take action. Make the most of your adventures, take time out to relax in one of the hot natural springs if there is one nearby or enjoy a relaxing bike ride through the park, and get to know your nearby expats by using a friend finder app such as Panion.
If you need further help with mental health issues, counselling is available. Vickie Skorji talked to Expat Focus about the TELL project, a not-for-profit organisation which provides dedicated support to expats and their families. They are always looking for new volunteers, so perhaps you can help other expats even if you don’t need to use the service yourself.
Open A Bank Account[back to top]
Debit And Credit Cards
Department stores, chain retailers and online merchants will accept debit and credit cards without any problem.
However, whilst Japan is a modern, sophisticated society which embraces technology, it is not a cashless society by any means. Therefore, you should always carry some money in your wallet; possibly more than you would feel comfortable carrying around back home.
Typically, small traders will only accept cash. This applies to many cafes and restaurants as well as taxi and bus drivers.
It’s an unwritten rule to leave a cash donation to a temple or shrine when you visit, so do remember this before you arrive.
If you find yourself hungry and without cash, head to the restaurant in your nearest department store, as they will accept your credit card.
ATMs are plentiful in Japan. Cities and towns are densely populated, which means services in busy neighbourhoods are good, as so many people live nearby to use them.
Obviously if you live in a rural area you will have more difficulty accessing ATMs. Post offices and bank branches will usually have them, but these services have restricted opening hours and are closed throughout the weekend.
The ATM menu will often include an option for English. Portuguese may also be one of the languages on offer.
International cards are accepted by the majority of ATMs, although you may not be able to use these cards in the small machines in convenience stores. However, the currency conversion may be a higher rate than market best, and a foreign currency charge of one to three percent may be applied. You may be happy with this if you are just travelling and can look into the terms and conditions of each card to see what your best option are before leaving home.
However, if you are an expat living in Japan, it makes sense to open a bank account locally and withdraw your cash without paying additional charges.
Unfortunately, bank branches in Japan are open for fewer hours than you would find in most countries. They open Monday to Friday, but close for the whole weekend as well as all national holidays. Bank branches usually open at 9am and close at 3pm. As a result, lunchtimes can be busy.
Can I Open A Bank Account In Japan?
Anyone legally living in Japan is allowed to open a bank account there. The application form will ask you to confirm that you are a resident and that you pay your taxes in Japan.
Your residence card and evidence of financial circumstances will be checked. The bank needs to be sure you are a legitimate applicant who will use the account for legal and honest purposes. You’ll have to complete a form confirming this.
If you do not live in Japan, every bank in the country will reject your application.
How To Choose A Bank Account In Japan
You can’t ask your UK or US bank to transfer your account across to their Japanese operations as these banks simply don’t have a presence in Japan. As Jonathan, a UK expat living in central Tokyo, warns: “Opening a bank account may take time as all foreign banks have now pulled out of the market, or are in the process of leaving due to competition in the retail market.”
If you are settling straight into an area for the medium to long term, assessing the banks nearby is a good starting point. That way, you have ready access to ATM facilities and can pop in to the branch easily. In a city, you are likely to have a decent range of nearby banks to choose from.
Have a look at your chosen bank’s website. Some will have pages set up in English, which will be helpful if you don’t speak Japanese fluently. However, do check the site is secure, with a page address beginning ‘https’. If it doesn’t have this, it isn’t safe to use for sensitive information such as payments and online bank account access.
Each bank should publicly list their fees and charges, and any interest they offer on an account. You should be able to find these on the website and in the branch.
If you are unsure which bank to sign up with, why not ask the expat community for their experiences? The ExpatFocus Forum and closed Facebook group both give you the opportunity to ask for recommendations.
As with any other financial matter, be careful not to go into too much detail about your personal finances online. Talking about which banks have good customer service for expats is the kind of information that is fine to share.
Opening A Bank Account
If you live in an expat area, you have a good chance of talking to an English-speaking member of staff when opening a bank account. However, if you make an appointment in advance, the bank has more time to make appropriate arrangements.
Luckily, banks often have tablets which the staff use to provide you with the forms in English. You can complete them on the tablet whilst sitting in the bank branch, and they can be processed at the same time as your evidence is checked.
Don’t forget to bring your residence card, which you are supposed to carry everywhere with you. You will have produced evidence of your identity, address and right to stay in the country to obtain this card, so the bank is usually happy to accept it as proof for all those checks. However, if you want to be sure that everything runs smoothly, taking your passport and proof of address along is a good idea.
The bank will probably want to establish your financial position. So bring along your employment contract, any recent wage slips for your current job, and your most recent bank statement.
Some banks ask for a hanko, or personal seal. Others are happy to accept a signature.
Your Japanese Bank Account Numbers
Your new bank account will have a three-digit sort code and a seven-digit account number.
Your bank card will allow you to access your funds at an ATM, or pay for goods during a trip to a retailer, when you use your four digit PIN. This number is only known to the card holder and must be kept secret. If you tell anyone else your PIN online or in person, the bank is not liable for any theft from your account.
Japan Has A Secure Financial Environment
The official currency of Japan is the yen (¥), which is controlled by the government and the Bank of Japan.
Banking systems in Japan are regulated and monitored, and fraud levels are low.
Bank deposits are insured by the Bank Deposit System. If a bank were to become bankrupt, the money in your account will be safe and will be returned to you. In 2018, regulators began investigating how to incorporate new, technology-based financial businesses, known as fintech, into the same regulatory framework as traditional banks. If this succeeds, banks will not be the only institutions able to hold customer deposits. However, deposit insurance is an important element of this forthcoming regulatory change.
Japan experienced a lengthy period of financial contraction in 1990, which became known as the ‘great recession’. However, economist Richard Koo argued that it was really a: "balance sheet recession". Japan remains an expensive country in which to live, and whilst the country’s debt levels remain high, according to an opinion piece in the Financial Times: “most of the debt is owned by the central bank and the domestic financial system”.
The Bank of Japan
Japan has a central bank, known in English as the Bank of Japan. They have a website in English which offers information about the bank’s functions, policies, news and key personnel.
If you want to know more about Japan’s monetary policy, the Bank of Japan’s website is an excellent and reliable resource.
The head of the Bank of Japan is the Governor. Decisions are made about this position by the cabinet, and announced on the Bank of Japan website.
Learn The Language[back to top]
Japan doesn’t have an official language, but most people in the country speak Japanese. The Tokyo dialect is regarded as standard Japanese, but each area has a distinct accent and varying use of grammar and vocabulary.
In Okinawa and some of the Kagoshima area in the Ryukyu Islands, Ryukyuan languages are spoken. Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages belong to the Japonic language family, but they are distinct from each other and aren’t interchangeable in any way.
The indigenous people of the Hokkaido island speak the Ainu language. Like the Ryukyuan languages, Hokkaido Ainu is in danger of disappearing as the local population increasingly speaks Japanese instead.
When the Soviet Union took over the area of Sakhalin from the Japanese, many people speaking Orok, Evenki and Nivkh moved to mainland Japan. Today, the descendants of these migrant communities tend to use Japanese instead of their ancestral tongues.
Other migrants have arrived from nearby countries, bringing with them their use of Korean, Zainichi Korean and Chinese.
However, if you need to speak or learn one local language to live or work in Japan, it would be Japanese.
Speaking English In Japan
Some people in Japan have a gift for languages and have learnt to speak English to a proficient level. Many of these have studied abroad in English-speaking countries and therefore have a good level of fluency.
However, most of the population are unable to speak more than a few basic words of English, despite it now being part of the school curriculum.
The extent to which this matters depends on your workplace, where you live and how far you want to become integrated into the local community.
If you have been transferred to Japan by your employer, it is likely both that you will be offered language classes and that your workplace values your specialist work above your language skills.
However, if you independently seek work in Japan without a reasonable grasp of Japanese, it will be a different story. Even tourist areas will not seek English speaking hospitality staff because there are not enough English-speaking tourists in the country to create demand. There are some jobs you could seek out, which we discuss in the Finding Employment section of this guide to Japan.
Culturally, Japanese people can find it hard work to socialise with Westerners, and the language barrier makes it even more difficult. At a basic level, you should learn enough Japanese to greet your neighbours and show them respect. However, settling into the local community will be difficult unless you have close families ties or are fluent in Japanese. This means that living in an expat community will help you avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are a common issue for expats everywhere.
Everyone coming to Japan should, at the bare minimum, watch some videos about the correct body language and appropriate behaviour. It is easy to cause offence without knowing it and so find yourself ostracised. The YouTube channel Abroad In Japan can give you a good head-start from a seasoned expat.
Television Licences In Japan
In the early days of television and radio broadcasting, the Japanese government controlled the nation’s channels. However, in 1950, the system changed so that an independently operated public broadcaster operated under the principle of freedom of speech. This was paid for by implementing a public broadcasting fee, which still exists today.
In practice, this means all television owners sign up with public broadcaster NHK (also known as the Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and pay a compulsory monthly fee. The cost is similar to the BBC’s licence fee in the UK.
There have been legal challenges to the fee, which have not succeeded. Do not take any chances. Purchase the licence, whatever anyone says in a casual conversation.
Most households watch NHK’s news and entertainment programmes. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can watch NHK World programming in one of 18 languages, including English. Many cable and satellite providers include this in their packages, and the station is also available to download on the internet for free.
The NHK World website is similar to the UK’s BBC news website. It contains the top stories for weather, business, world events, culture and even lessons to learn Japanese.
Cable TV In Japan
Cable TV is popular in Japan. You can choose your package according to what you want to watch and how much you can afford to pay. For some sports events, for example, it may be more cost effective to find a local bar which screens the events you want to see.
BBC World and a range of US channels including CNN are normally included in cable packages.
Netflix has a strong presence in Japan. Indeed, in 2018 ChampionTraveler reported that Japan has a larger selection of streamed films and TV content than the US and UK. This has a lot to do with licensed content. The Netflix aspiration to offer all consumers across the globe a similar level of service has been a major factor behind its significant investment in making its own original content.
English Language Newspapers In Japan
The most popular newspapers in Japan are issued solely in Japanese. However, English speakers have a good range of websites to access.
The Japan Times covers a range of national and international news, as well as articles about education, health and politics, business and corporate news, and sports events.
In 2015, the Japan Times published an article alleging political bias of other English language newspapers in Japan and suggesting that a worryingly right-wing political outlook was taking hold.
The Mainichi was established in 1922 and today offers a free online English language newspaper.
Learning To Speak Japanese In Japan
If you need a few basics to get started on the Japanese language, start with the free website for public broadcaster NHK.
They have a specific section dedicated to this subject which is well laid out. You can listen to the audio, see the Japanese characters and read the English sentences from the same content box. The creators have designed these simple lessons around useful phrases and situations, and include separate grammar instruction boxes.
If you prefer game-like lessons, the free website and app Duolingo is helpful. They have a structured Japanese programme in five-minute segments which you can complete on-the-go. Interactive exercises have instant feedback to help you improve, and the scoring system motivates you to keep learning.
For those with the adequate resources to cover fees, language schools are a good place to learn Japanese. Gajonpot lists 12 facilities which offer language instruction to adults.
Alternatively, you can meet with a personal tutor for individual sessions. These are more expensive but will be focused on your specific needs.
In some areas, it is possible to find a conversation club. This is a good way to gain confidence in using your new language skills in a safe environment, and is affordable.
Quick Steps To Help You Get By In Japan
Japanese is a difficult language to learn for many Western people. The sound and characters are alien and so progress can be slow.
If you need a few basic pointers to help you get started, read the Expat Focus article Learning To Communicate With The Locals In Japan - Some Tips For Expats which covers basic phrases, non-verbal communication and business etiquette.
Choose A School[back to top]
Education in Japan is free for state school pupils in grades one to nine. These are the compulsory school years for Japanese nationals. Other children may attend school on a voluntary basis.
Children start grade one at the age of six, and end grade nine when they are 15.
Elementary schools teach grade one through to grade six. After that, the pupils move up to junior high school, the first element of the secondary education system, until the end of grade nine.
During these compulsory school years, textbooks are also provided without charge.
Children with special educational needs due to physical or mental disabilities have the option of attending a school catering to these needs. This is also provided by the state without charge.
Private schools also offer places for pupils during compulsory school years, but charge tuition fees. It is a parent’s choice whether or not to send their child to a private school.
After grade nine ends, pupils can choose to leave education or move on to high school. Since education is voluntary at this stage, all schools in both the state and private sector charge tuition fees.
The Japanese School Year
In Japan, the new school year opens at the start of April, when the cherry blossom trees herald new beginnings. The summer vacation begins at the end of July, and pupils return to school in September.
Annual university entrance exams are taken in January.
How Long Is The School Day In Japan?
Timetables are complicated and vary according to age, school and day of the week. However, from Monday to Friday, pupils generally start school at 8am and leave at 4pm. Some days will be longer for assembly and career planning events. Pupils are often at school for fewer hours on Wednesdays.
Pupils are given a morning break and later enjoy a long lunch break, which is good for exercise and socialising.
Is There School On Saturday In Japan?
Elementary schools don’t usually have lessons on Saturdays except for sports and extracurricular activities. However, many high schools routinely teach Saturday classes and may even be open on Sundays.
Elementary schools often run sports and club activities on Saturdays. Even though pupils are enjoying extracurricular activities rather than learning in a classroom, great value is placed on achievement, so children are expected to do well in these Saturday sessions.
There are also regular parent days held on Saturdays at elementary school. Parents can come in to see how the children are taught and how the school operates. These days are popular in a society where education is highly valued.
Japan has a culture of hard work and hard achievement. This means that if a high school pupil is doing well and aiming for university, Saturday lessons will become a normal part of life. And take a deep breath for the most surprising part; in the run up to university entrance exams, students may well spend several months going to school on Sundays too.
Schools In Japan
Schools in Japan are very different to those in the UK and US.
Each school has their own uniform, with every item regulated so all children look the same. In the UK, pupils wear different styles of trousers, skirts and shirts according to where their parents shopped, with usually just the branded jumper from one supplier. However, individualism is not encouraged in Japan. This is reflected in the strict adherence to the set uniform.
Wearing shoes indoors is a big taboo in the country. This applies in school too, so children place their shoes in lockers and wear a pair of school slippers.
A national curriculum is followed across Japan. The dominant teaching style is traditional and conservative, with pupils sitting and quietly writing down what the teacher says. Teachers prioritise the learning of facts ready for fact-based exams, which is very different from the US aim of producing free thinkers with strong soft skills sets.
Violence In Japanese Schools
You are likely to read stories online about the high levels of violence in Japanese schools. There are two aspects to consider here.
The first regards violence against pupils by staff members. This appears to have been fairly common until the 1990s, especially for schools outside prosperous neighbourhoods. Punching, kicking, hair pulling and humiliating tasks such as holding buckets of water were seen as part of a discipline regime to keep difficult pupils in line.
Fortunately, Japanese attitudes to child welfare have changed dramatically since the 1990s. Today, the physical assault of pupils is against the rules, and any allegations would be investigated. Teachers can restrain a pupil if needed, but not hurt them. If found guilty of such charges, they will suffer a pay cut or even termination of their contract (and career), depending on the nature of the offence.
Secondly, school bullying exists in Japan – as it does in classrooms across the globe. A society based on strict unwritten rules expects children to conform. However, this can exacerbate the social targeting and ridicule of outsiders to which groups of children are already prone.
Eryk Salvaggio from Maine in the USA worked in Japanese classrooms as part of the popular JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. He observed class bullying first hand and gives a full account of the group dynamics in his blog This Japanese Life. If you are thinking of working in a Japanese school or sending your child to one, his article is a fascinating insight into the complexity of the situation.
In 1993, the death of a 13-year-old pupil at school drew national and international attention. Yuhei Kodama had been rolled up into a gym mat and placed upside down in a storage cupboard, where he suffocated. What was particularly notable was the refusal of any other pupils to come forward and testify to the bullying that Yuhei had endured.
However, it should be noted that deaths at school are very rare indeed. The terrible Osaka school massacre of 2001 in which eight young children were killed and 15 children and adults injured was committed by a mentally ill 37-year-old former school janitor wielding a knife, and was an isolated incident. Japan has rigorous gun control laws and no history of school shootings.
International Schools In Japan
International schools are private schools that follow the curriculum and teaching practices of a foreign country, such as the US, UK or France. Typically, a number of the teaching and support staff for these schools will have been recruited from overseas.
Expats are not the only people who value the facilities and teaching system on offer at these international schools. As UK expat Jonathan explained from his home in Tokyo: “it’s not unknown for executives to take advantage of this to provide their children with the opportunity to be immersed in a second language.” Fees are often higher than for local private schools, which is a factor to bear in mind in a country as expensive as Japan.
If you want to know more about the International Schools in Japan, including Tokyo’s American School in Japan, the Canadian Academy in Kobe and the Yokohama International School, you can read more in the Expat Focus article An Overview Of International Schools in Japan.
Choosing A School? Ask Other Expats
Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions of your life. Other expats in Japan are often only too happy to share their experiences.
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