Life in Japan seems all fun and games, with the popularization of anime, video games, and cutting-edge technology. Tokyo might as well be the center of the universe, in terms of what it has to offer its inhabitants. If you come from out of the country, however, it can take some time and effort to adjust.
Here’s a guide from our Expat Travel Expert, Wailana, on moving to Tokyo!
What to Expect
Tokyo is a bustling metropolis—lights, movement, heat, energy—life here moves quickly and there’s always something going on 24/7. You’ll wander the city for years and never touch most of it.
It can be a bit overwhelming. Luckily, the train system is so awesome you can zip somewhere else to enjoy a smaller town or the rural countryside. Take a trip out to temple-laden Kamakura, or to the green city of Nara.
Societal Norms: The society is heavy with cultural cues and social behavioral norms, so by adopting some of these into your everyday life, you can improve your relationships with the locals.
Respect elders. Bow when you meet someone. Learn a few standard phrases of politeness. These little gestures can go a long way.
For a country that spent much of its history in isolation, there is still a fair share of xenophobia. The best thing you can do in these cases is to accept your status as a foreigner—with all that entails—and whatever you do, remain polite.
Although less frequent, there is still the existence of the “well, you’re a foreigner so it can’t be helped” card, an unspoken assumption that you are a foreigner and therefore you can’t understand a social situation or a Japanese sentence. Whether this infuriates you or you play it to your advantage, that’s up for you to decide.
Food: The food in Tokyo is some of the best in the world. Nowhere else will you enjoy a Michelin-star level of sushi and sashimi, at least not the proper Japanese way.
Try some unusual local dishes while you’re here—natto (fermented soybeans), okonomiyaki (the Japanese answer to pizza), takoyaki (octopus balls), dried crabs—if you don’t like them, you’ll at least have a story for later!
Cost of Living: Tokyo is expensive, but there are ways to keep costs down to a minimum. Go shopping at the hyaku-en (100 yen) store, buy healthy lunches at the wholesale market, cook at home, ride a bicycle around town, shop for clothes at secondhand shops.
Visas and Immigration
Depending on your status, there are a number of ways to start your life in Japan. If you have savings of over 30 million yen per month for the duration of your stay, great!
No questions asked, simply apply at your nearest Embassy. For those of us who don’t have such resources, there are basically three ways to stay in the country:
Get a Job: In order to apply for a work visa, you’ll need official sponsorship from a company willing to hire you. Work visas can be granted anywhere from 4 months to 5 years.
If you have some ESL qualifications, so much the better: CELTA, TESOL, any tutoring experience won’t hurt your chances. Even if you don’t like your job you can quit and look for another, because you can be jobless with a work visa for up to 90 days.
The key factor to finding a job is that it comes with visa sponsorship—but only a few companies will hire from abroad, so keep a lookout for those that do. Finding a non-teaching job is certainly less common, but if you have the right qualifications (or you are fluent in Japanese) you can give it a shot.
Having a tight, impressive CV will improve your chances.
Enroll as a Student: If you have been accepted as a student in a credited school, you’ll need a letter of enrollment as well as a bank statement or proof of scholarship that proves you can manage yourself financially for the time you are studying abroad.
Note that you’re not allowed to work unless you get special permission from immigrations (and then only 20 hours per week are permitted).
Get Married: Alternatively, you can marry a citizen or permanent resident of Japan. This grants you a spouse visa, granted in periods of 6 months to 5 years.
Take note that you should apply for your permit before you leave home.
Regardless of your visa type, you’ll have to submit several documents to the Embassy — Passport, visa application form, photograph, and certificate of eligibility (an official letter of sponsorship from a job or a school). It might take a few weeks to a few months to process, so make the arrangements well before your flight.
As soon as you arrive in Japan at the airport with your papers in hand, officials will issue a residence card for you. Always keep this in your wallet. This card is necessary to open a bank account, obtain a cell phone, or convert a driver’s license.
Within the first two weeks of your arrival, you need to register your address with the nearest city or ward office.
As long as you are still employed or enrolled at the end of your visa, renewal of your permit is relatively painless, and takes only a few weeks maximum to process. You may stay in the country while it’s being processed, even if your previous permit expires.
If you have a work visa, you can get the company sponsoring you to arrange your accommodation, but I generally advise against this, because a) monthly rent is usually expensive, b) you have no control over where you live, and c) it puts you in a difficult position should you ever want to quit.
Better yet, find temporary accommodation, a share house, hostel or Airbnb, until you can get on your feet.
There are many benefits to moving in a share house when you first arrive. Share houses are typically month-to-month contracts, utilities included, with only a down payment of the first month’s rent. They also often come fully furnished with bed, closest and desk.
There are downsides however, especially if you’re someone who values privacy—the kitchen, showers and common rooms are typically shared. You can’t choose the people who share with, and there’s generally less personal space.
In this way it’s more like a dorm building than an apartment. But then again it’s a fantastic way to meet fellow expats. I recommend staying with a shared house at least for the first few months until you are stable enough to rent.
Traversing Tokyo for foreigners is relatively simple, if you learn the basics. The train system is extensive and one of the best in the world. The Yamanote Line runs in a loop around central Tokyo, and from there you can transfer to a number of smaller lines.
You’ll want to pick up a Suica pass—a small, rechargeable card that grants access to the train and bus systems—plus they work all over Japan. Downtown the Tokyo Subway Navigation app, it works offline and is useful for charting your route.
Although many signs and announcements are in Japanese and English, it doesn’t hurt to know some basic kanji. Trains are classified into speed and can be identified by their kanji: Local (普通), Rapid (快速), and Express (急行).
The local train stops at every station on the line, the rapid skips some, and the express skips even more.
One of my first days in Tokyo, though I was familiar with these kanji, I failed to notice them and hopped on a rapid train instead of a local one, and the train of course shot past my stop!
For other areas the metro doesn’t reach, there’s always the bus system—though it is a bit more confusing to the foreigner who might not know any Japanese. Bikes are another great way to get around, it can be more convenient and less annoying than pubic transit.
Familiarize yourself with the rules of the road: don’t cycle with an iPod or phone, and keep to the left side of the road.
About the Expat Community
The expat community in Japan is HUGE. With a bustling metropolis like Tokyo, there’s people from all over—from South African diplomats to British ESL teachers to Vietnamese barbers. All in all, there are about 2 million expats. And how does one meet some of them?
Meetup is a great app to find English-speaking groups who meet up for an after-work beer. Try to make connections with like-minded people (bloggers, for instance) before you arrive, so it’s easy to meet up once you’re there.
Join an international nomikai, or drinking party, to meet other expats as well as Japanese who want to practice their English.
Other Helpful Tips
Language: Learn some Japanese before you go—it tends to impress easily!
Etiquette: Remember to take off your shoes before you enter the home. I’m from Hawaii, where this is a norm so it wasn’t a problem for me, but for many Americans it can be surprising.
Gaijin Trap: Be wary of the gaijin trap—a halfway point of culture shock in which you criticize your host country too much, leading to an unhealthy, negative spiral—and criticizing anything non-Japanese too much.
Just because you are living in Japan doesn’t mean you have to go into full-blown immersion: for example, refusing to hang out with people just because they’re non-Japanese. In fact, this can lead to cultural burn-out in the long run.