Your guide to expat life in Japan

Living in Japan

One of the most refreshing things about Japan is how different it is, full of quirks and contradictions.

City life is fast-paced with hypermodern amenities while rural areas are peaceful and scenic, giving you an escape from the crowds. Most expats find Japan a surprisingly easy place to live – and it’s known for being a family friendly country. In our 2016 Expat Explorer Survey, it was ranked 1st for safety and 3rd for culture.

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Accommodation

There’s a wide choice of accommodation in cities like Tokyo, from compact apartments to large suburban houses. Rents are generally very high – and you’ll pay more to be close to a city centre and public transport.

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Finding accommodation

In all of Japan’s big cities you’ll find English-speaking estate agents with experience in helping expats. It’s common for there to be two agents, one representing the landlord and one the tenant – and each agent charges their client a brokerage fee. Although most landlords will only sign leases for 18 months or longer, you may be able to find places with a shorter tenancy.

Furnished/unfurnished

Many rental properties in Japan are unfurnished, but expats tend to rent fully furnished or serviced accommodation. While this is more expensive, initial fees are lower and utility bills are often included in your rent.

Renting property

To rent a property in Japan, you’re likely to need a local guarantor (usually your employer) to co-sign your tenancy agreement. You’ll also have to pay numerous fees, including a reservation fee to hold the property until the agreement is signed, a damages deposit (often a month’s rent) and key money or reikin (literally ‘gratitude money’) which is a non-refundable payment to the landlord that can amount to several months’ rent.

Culture changes

Most Japanese people treat foreigners (known as gaijin) as honoured guests, but the onus is on you to learn their customs and strict codes of behaviour. There are lots of cultural faux pas you can make, but expats are given plenty of slack.

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Language

Japanese is very difficult to learn. Mastering the basics is useful – and locals will be delighted if you can speak a few words in their language.

Manners

Japanese society has hundreds of rigid procedures for everything from where you sit at a table to how you use a toilet. If you do your best to keep learning, you’ll be excused some indiscretions.

Slippers

When you enter someone’s home (and certain restaurants) you’ll be expected to remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Even the slippers must come off before you step onto a Tatami mat.

Education

In our 2016 Expat Explorer Survey, Japan was ranked ninth for the quality of its schools. This is partly because of the wide range of international schools that offer expats a choice of curricula in various languages. The school year runs from April to March with the main holidays in March/April and July/August.

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Public schools

Public schools are free and education is compulsory for children aged between 6 and 15. Classes are in Japanese, but English is on the curriculum. While academic results are excellent, the system is criticised for rote learning and putting too much pressure on students to achieve.

Private schools

The wealthier Japanese send their children to private schools, but these tend to be very expensive and have strict admission policies.

International schools

There are more than 200 international schools in Japan. Many of these follow the American curriculum, but you’ll also find schools that offer the British, Canadian, Chinese, French, German, Korean or Portuguese curriculum.

Homeschooling

Although it’s not sanctioned by local authorities, homeschooling is popular among expats in Japan. If you want to homeschool your children, you’ll have to submit a request to the school they’ve been assigned to.

Make sure you stay safe by learning landmarks, keeping credit on your phone and carrying a pocket map wherever possible.

Gillian Kemmerer, Expat Explorer guest blogger

View more hints and tips for Japan

Keeping in touch

Landlines

Conventional phone lines are dying out in Japan as cheaper VoIP and mobile options become more popular. You can rent or buy a landline phone – and line installations are handled by NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone).

Mobile

Japan is a world leader in mobile phone technology. Your phone from home may not work, but you can rent or buy a new phone cheaply. Contract and prepaid options are both available.

Internet

There are hundreds of Internet service providers and speeds are quick. Agencies such as BB Apply will help English speakers negotiate the best deals and get services set up.

Social media

While global sites such as Facebook and Twitter are popular, national companies like Mixi and Gree dominate the social media landscape in Japan.

Television

All Japanese households with at least one TV have to pay an annual subscription fee to the Japanese public service broadcaster NHK. Most expats watch programmes from their home countries via the Internet.

Newspapers

The main English-language daily is The Japan Times. Japan Today is a useful online news service for English speakers.

Healthcare

Japan’s hospitals are very well equipped and have high standards, but the language barrier can be a problem in consultations – so you may want to take along an interpreter. There’s no such thing as a family doctor or GP in Japan. And many expats find medical professionals abrupt.

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Public healthcare

Medical fees are strictly regulated by the government to keep them affordable. To access public healthcare, you must belong to either the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, for which you need a national social security card, or the Employees’ Health Insurance plan. Both schemes will pay for most healthcare services, but you may decide to take out medical insurance to cover any additional costs.

Private healthcare

There are numerous private hospitals in Japan, which are generally small, privately owned and offer non-profit facilities. These hospitals are run by physicians.

Pharmacies

Pharmacies (yakkyoku) tend to be well stocked and are open from 9am to 5pm. Not all of them will handle prescriptions or have the medicines you’re used to – and foreign prescriptions aren’t accepted.

Emergency services

Dial 119 for an ambulance. Outside of Tokyo, operators don’t always speak English – so you may need to get someone to translate for you. There’s no charge for an ambulance and you’ll be taken to the nearest hospital.

Getting around

Public transport in Japan is fast, efficient and inexpensive. The daily commute in cities can be daunting, with suffocating rush hour crowds, but you can avoid these by cycling or riding a scooter to work. Most bus, train and metro services stop running at midnight – so a taxi may be your only option if you’re out late. For long-distance travel, Japan’s bullet trains (Shinkansen) are legendary.

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Trains

he country’s four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, are covered by an efficient rail network run by Japan Railways. In fact, it’s among the most punctual systems in the world. Dozens of private railway companies operate services in the metropolitan areas – and you can get a travel card that covers almost all of these.

Metros

As well as an extensive rail network, Japan has a large number of metro systems in heavily populated areas and big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Buses

Although buses aren’t as popular as trains in Japan, commuter and long-distance routes cover the length and breadth of the country, serving city centres, tourist attractions and national parks.

Taxis

Licensed taxis are a lot more expensive than public transport. Not many taxi drivers speak English – so it's best to know your destination in Japanese or have the address written down.

Bicycles

Cycling is popular for commuting and touring in Japan. You’ll see bicycles everywhere, particularly the mamachari (mum’s bike) with its basket, child seat and kickstand.

Driving

You can drive with an international licence when you arrive in Japan, but you’ll have to convert to a local licence within a year. Cars are cheap to buy but expensive to run – and you’re unlikely to need one if you’re based in a city.

Ait travel

Numerous domestic airlines serve around 50 airports across Japan. Fares are competitive, but flying is usually more expensive than travelling by bus or train.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in August 2016. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.