Things You Need to Know Before Moving to Japan

Relocation to Tokyo

So you decided to do it. You’re packing your bags and headed from wherever you presently are to the archipelago nation in the Pacific known as Japan. Whatever attracted you to the island of Nihon, whether it’s the culture, the language, or simply the food, you will soon find life as an expatriate in Japan has both positive and negatives. As an expat in Tokyo, Japan, here are some things I wish other foreigners in Japan would have told me before, during, and after the big international move.

Months in Advance before moving:

Moving from one country to another country is no small task. You are not merely moving to the next town over. Not even that next state or province. You will be leaving everything that you have come to know as normal for another.

For the world travelers out there like myself, the thought of moving out of my hometown was no big issue. However, there are those I have ran into during my nomadic travels that are unaccustomed to living outside of a single city or state. Take a moment to consider yourself displaced, in a country where you might not even know how to ask directions, and see how that makes you feel. Think about being separated from family and friends. After all, this move will not just affect your life, but the lives of those connected to you.

I cannot preface this enough. Nothing is worse than moving away from your home town and being thousands of miles away from your loved ones when something lamentable unfolds (like a death in the family). Should the very thought of not being nearby when disaster strikes fill you with apprehension, then the expatriate life may not be for you.

As soon as you have the thought of moving overseas, even for a short duration, consider the above point.

Secondly, now that you’re considering moving to Japan, you need to ask yourself the why and how.

I started thinking about moving to Japan when I was in high school, so it wasn’t just a sudden urge to hop on a plane. In other words, I took the necessary time to understand what I was hoping to gain from this move. Here are the points to answer for yourself:

No matter where you’re going in the world, these are essential questions to ask yourself. But they also pertain heavily to moving to and working in Japan. You see, unlike some European nations getting a Japanese visa is hard (excluding the tourist visa). There is a lot of hoops to jump through, and if you don’t have your stuff together, you will find yourself without a certificate of eligibility (COE). While not essential to obtaining a visa, a COE makes life infinitely easier.

A Certificate of Eligibility is not your visa, by the way. It is simply a letter that says you have what it takes to maintain financial stability and survive abroad.

So now, you need to ask yourself: which visa do I want? (For the sake of brevity, I’m going to generalize the titles)

The Tourist Visa

You’re not going to get a job with this. Consider this a gateway to one route of establishing your life in Japan. With a tourist visa, you can visit the island nation for up to 90 days. This means you can do volunteer work around the islands, attend a short school semester at a Japanese Language School, and go to interviews or attend conferences to see how feasible your planning is. Another thing you can do is set-up the network of acquaintances and resources that you will be needing to apply for housing, setting up a business, getting work, and other things.

The first time I went to Japan was on a tourist visa. That was in October 2010 to attend KCP International Japanese Language School. Using the school as a steering wheel, I was immersed safely into another culture. There was language and culture classes to get my feet wet and get me comfortable with living abroad. I recommend going this route for two reasons:

1. You make international friends and (potential) co-workers. Even on a tourist visa, I was getting offers to teach at English conversation schools or do babysitting. You learn the ins and outs of Japanese schooling, business, and other traditions that probably aren’t present in your home country. Being from America, this “on-site training,” so to speak, prepared me for working in a Japanese company or attending Japanese university, working at an international daycare.

2. You learn the ins and outs of Japanese schooling, business, and other traditions that probably aren’t present in your home country. Being from America, this “on-site training,” so to speak, prepared me for working in a Japanese company or attending Japanese university.

Oh, and you’re also not tied down to one area of Japan. Feel free to explore and see which region and city compliments your lifestyle the best. It may not be Tokyo but Osaka or Fukuoka. Be sure to travel. You might regret getting stuck in a place that doesn’t fit you and wind up leaving Japan before you ever settled in.

Which brings me to another plus of visiting Japan on a tourist visa first. How can you be so sure that Japan is the place for you? Sure, you might love anime, but not everything in Japan revolves around the anime universe. Real life might not match your expectations. Be aware of that. I have seen so many other foreigners come with a vision about what Japan will be, how they will be treated, and what opportunities await. With a tourist visa, you don’t have to stay if you don’t like it here. In 3 months or so, you will know if you want to come back permanently.

The Student Visa

My second venture to Japan was on a student visa. In order to lengthen my term at KCP International and apply to a Japanese university or vocational college, I needed one. So, I had to return to America to complete the application.

If you are young, maybe around 20 to 23 years old, this is a worthwhile route for you to take. Any older and you will run into an age gap at school (unless it’s international or a graduate program). Otherwise, finishing college in your home country to get a work visa is the safer and more financially-friendly alternative.

Again, if you have a sponsor for your student visa (the school), financial backing, and a decent school history (as in you never failed a grade or were truant), getting your hands on a Student Visa is relatively simple. Now, for when you get to Japan, since you can only work part-time on a Student Visa, you’re going to need either extra cash set aside?around $3000 to show the Japanese Immigration Bureau that you’re prepared. 28 hours a week won’t cut it, even if you are somehow managing that on top of school.

You will burn yourself out-financially and mentally. Coming from experience here.

Now, a lot of my friends in Japan used the Student Visa as a vehicle for transitioning to a Work Visa. However, don’t get excited just yet. Most of them already had a Bachelor’s Degree or something to leverage towards their visa to obtain the sponsorship required for a COE. I didn’t. There are no true loopholes around this, because the government wants proof of your education in some form. So if the work visa you’re seeking demands a 4-year college degree or equivalent, you better have it.

On a student visa, you can attend school and simultaneously get work experience and the credentials needed for sponsorship though. For example, a few friends of mine graduated from KCP, used that certificate to transfer to a vocational college for fashion or cooking, and then graduated from that college with the appropriate form of education to obtain the next level visa.

The Work Visa

Since I already touched on what was required for this, let’s cut right to the chase: a work visa can be a nightmare if you don’t go for the usual career in Japan. That means, if you don’t want to be an English teacher or have a technical skill mastery like welding, more effort is required.

Some programs, like JET, are fantastic if you want to be an ALT for a short period of time and have a Bachelor’s Degree. You can choose from there whether you want to remain in Japan or not.

So many of my friends went this route. So many of them still are teaching English for places like Berlitz, NOVA, and Aeon, and while they don’t mind it, some people might dislike teaching languages. Like me. I went to Japan to become a professional dancer. That means I’d need an entertainment work visa. I was already part of a dance company when I tried to switch my student visa to a work visa in this category. Simply put, I was shot down. The company was too small, didn’t pay me enough, and so it was not a reliable source of income.

What did Immigration tell me? “Go back to America and try again.” So, I did.

You can go the self-sponsored route if you’re making well over 250,000 yen ($2500) monthly and have a business to put that money into. But Tokyo is fickle with this one. Kansai, I’ve heard, is a bit more lenient when it comes to issuing visas.

If there is one piece of advice you should heed, it’s that you need to find a job that you love with people willing to back you 100%.

Finding a Home

This varies depending on your visa and the arrangements made with whoever you’re working with. Sometimes the school or college will have living space for you to choose from. Other times you might opt for a homestay or guest house. Then there are those of us who want to rent an apartment or house. If you go out to the countryside, you might be able to buy a house, but since I have no experience there, I can only say you need a bank loan. As a foreigner, that’s difficult.

Dormitories often come with rules and curfews. Some of them require you to be a certain age or gender. The first place I stayed was like this. In my early 20s, the last thing I wanted was to have to run to the dorm before 11:00 PM when all I wanted was to do karaoke or enjoy my date.

Guest houses and hostels are fun if you want to live with an international crowd. But you might not meet many Japanese this way.

Now for apartments. Sometimes the job you get also grants you housing. I preferred to find my own. Apartments in Japan aren’t like apartments in America. You have a lot of fees to pay-sanitation, insurance, a deposit, key money, and a monthly maintenance fee on top of the monthly rent. Some places don’t require all of these. Those would be the older, outdated buildings or the whim of a private landlord.

My apartment was large for Tokyo at around 60,000 yen a month (utilities not included). The start-up was 150,000 yen plus the first month of rent. I didn’t have to pay key money or a maintenance fee. The latter I regret. My apartment was nice, but it also had several leaks, drafts, hazardous appliances, and a slug problem. No maintenance fee means that you might find things in disrepair and have to pay for it yourself.

Another thing to consider when moving to Japan and living in a metropolitan area is what you are bringing. Best to leave most of your belongings and furniture behind or sell it to buy what you need once you get here. International shipping costs thousands, and it can take months to arrive. If you have pets, remember that most apartments in Japan do not allow animals. Especially big ones. If you do find one that lets you have a pet, it might not be foreigner-friendly.

Other things to consider:

Living in Japan

Now for the fun part. Something kept me coming back to Japan time and time again. There’s no denying this is my favorite place on the planet. Whatever spellbound me, I’m sure you’ll find your own reasons for why this country is amazing.

First, the bad news. Living in Japan is not easy, particularly in Tokyo. It is dog eat dog. Even the Japanese people will tell you that the rest of Japan is not like Tokyo. The cost of living is high. The job situation is okay, but don’t expect to be chosen over a Japanese person that can do the same work. No hard feelings. You’re in their country.

Do expect to hear some negativity aimed at your foreignness. I ran into this once in a while, but you’ll learn to brush it off. The thicker your skin, the better.

Don’t come to Japan thinking everyone knows English either. Most of Japanese people don’t speak English at all. Yes, Tokyo is could be exception; however, everywhere else you go values the national language over becoming bilingual. You won’t find much English or any other foreign language outside of the tourist zones. I recommend at least knowing some Japanese and being able to read common words before coming to Japan. If you know some Japanese, Japanese people will confortable with you as well.

Don’t block yourself off to the customs. For example, don’t wrinkle your nose at having to remove your shoes at the doorway or getting reprimanded when you use your chopsticks the wrong way. Learn from the mistake and move on. You will find life in Japan much more enjoyable if you accept the ways.

Now that those caveats are out of the way… the lifestyle is dynamic. Sometimes things are laidback. Most of the time, you are caught up in balancing work and life. Despite the hardships, you will go to sleep each night satisfied-if you’re doing what you love. Coworkers become akin to family. You go drinking at izakaya sometimes or off to onsen in another prefecture. You will cheer each other on, work on projects, and make great connections with students (if teaching) or other professionals in the field you work. This is a cultural aspect, too.

Things are much quieter elsewhere. Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka, I have friends living everywhere; and they all love it. Wouldn’t trade the lives they have for the world. Japan is a country of tradition mixed with innovation. You’ll find elements of the past mixed with the future.

The country is naturally beautiful. Outside of the cities, there’s mountains, streams, rice terraces, valleys, and everything in between. You have tropical islands to the south and frozen tundra in the north. What looks like a small island on the map is quite large. For that reason, there’s slight variations in culture and dialect. My Kyoto friends are different from the ones born and raised in Tokyo, for example.

But you won’t just meet Japanese people. If you work at an English school, expect to make English-speaking friends from across the globe. You might find yourself at bars and clubs popular with expatriates for the first few months until you’re comfortable distancing yourself from what you’re familiar with. In times when you feel lonely or homesick, just remember that such places exist. Attend events, seek out clubs or classes for what interests you, and you will meet people.

Although the outside world paints the Japanese as somewhat unfriendly to strangers, I never found this to be true. Outside of those who don’t like gaijin. They’re just like everyone else in the world. Once they get to know you, they are genuine friends. There’s been many times where I was approached in the streets by curious people who wanted to buy me a drink and discuss life in Japan. Older women will come up to me in the grocery store, asking where I’m from.

I must give off the air that I’m fluent in Japanese, because I’m rarely ever asked questions in English. Unless it’s another foreigner needing help with directions, which by the way, can be really confusing if you don’t understand how streets are numbered. Make sure you have a reliable GPS or map handy for the first few months.

Some Tips and Observations

For the final section, I wanted to just bring up some pointers and observations that my expatriate compatriots and I have made throughout our lives in Japan. Hopefully these will enlighten you to what life is truly like in this awesome country.

1. If you have allergies, you best be prepared from springtime and hay fever. With the pink petals covering the streets comes clouds of pollen. You will see Japanese and gaijin alike sporting face marks and safety goggles.

2. Mosquito coils and other bug repellants will be permanent furnishings in your home. And yes, the cockroaches are gigantic. I had one living beneath my stove that refused to go into the cockroach “house” trap. So I named him George.

3. Get used to seeing beer cans and sake bottles everywhere you go. The booze culture in Japan is very open. Salarymen drink chu-hi on the train, college kids party in the parks (guilty), and some vending machines even sell beer. The convenience stores also carry are lethal 100 yen version of sake that will leave you dazed and confused for several hours.

4. Japan is not the place for picky eaters or those with dietary restrictions. Gluten-free is still not well spread. Vegetarianism is unheard of. Seriously, I had to explain this to everyone I worked or danced with at least three times. The things that you think are vegetarian probably have fish flakes or chicken essence in it somewhere. Read the ingredients or get used to making internet purchases.

5. Going off the above tip, dining out will be a challenge for those with allergies or restrictions too. Custom orders are not typical here. That means you can’t ask for “dressing on the side.” What you see is what you get.

6. A fair portion of your wages will be spent in 100 yen stores or Daiso (and similar places). If you can get it for 100 yen, why spend more at the supermarket or department store?

7. Point cards. Use them frequently. The points do add up. I’ve bought entire loads of groceries on the points I’ve accumulated on some of them.

8. Convenience store food is usually overpriced. However, you can pay your utility bills, your health insurance, internet orders, phone bill, buy tickets, and even print photos or scan documents at these locations.

9. Get a Japan Post Bank account if you want to cash in all those 1 yen coins. It’s the easiest method I found. You can also get insurance through the Japan Post Office, and it’s very reasonable.

10. Guarantor companies are great for helping you do things like acquiring a car or getting an apartment. They can help you if you don’t have any Japanese connections. I’ve even gotten a storage unit with the help of a guarantor company to keep my belongings safe while I moved into a newer abode. They will help you even if you’re still overseas.


To wrap this up, I hope that some questions you might have about moving to Japan and living here have been answered. These are things that I didn’t know until I was in the country and wished I’d known before coming here. Still, I’ve managed to make a living for myself. Life in Japan doesn’t have to be a daydream, because there are so many expats here doing what they love. So come on over and join us!

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