I’m guessing for many of us who find ourselves on this website, moving to Japan for an extended period of time is a major goal. It’s easy to see why — stepping into Japanese culture is akin to inhabiting an exciting new world. It is equal parts daunting and completely thrilling. So why not bite the bullet and hop on the plane?
There are a number of different routes one can take to move to Japan. In order to decide which option is best for you, take time to consider what you want to achieve while in Japan, and what your needs would be while over there. Are you hoping to see as much of the country as possible, while working casually to fund yourself? If so, a working holiday visa might be your best bet. Are you hoping to move to Japan permanently, and eventually bring your family over to join you? If so, perhaps a specified skills visa is the best option for you. Maybe you’ve always been fascinated by Japanese cooking and have saved up enough money to spend a year learning it in-depth. If so, the Japanese Cultural Activities Visa is your best friend.
Regardless of what a move to Japan looks like in your head, there’s a way to get there. For some, the move might be more straightforward than others – but in my humble opinion, any amount of paperwork and red tape will always be worth it. Here are some options to consider.
11 Ways To Move And Live In Japan
1. Getting a Job Before Moving
The easiest way to move to Japan is to secure employment in advance of leaving your home country. This means a Japanese company will sponsor a work visa for you. Please note, work visas are generally only afforded to so-called “skilled workers” – and this generally involves holding at least a Bachelor’s degree. An exception may be made if you have extensive work experience or notable achievements in your field, but this is exceedingly rare.
Jobs in sprawling urban Japan are generally plentiful – especially if you have business level Japanese. If you only speak English, there are still opportunities you can pursue. Large multinational companies are likely to consider English speaking applicants, but teaching English as a foreign language is perhaps the easiest route to go down for those without Japanese. It is worth noting that an English teaching position simply requires a Bachelor’s Degree – the discipline you studied does not matter, and teaching experience is not generally necessary. Even if teaching isn’t your dream job, securing a position like this will get you your initial work visa – you can then live in Japan and search for other opportunities. Subsequent employers can apply for your visa to be transferred into another sector if they choose to hire you – so don’t worry about being pigeon-holed into English teaching for your entire stay. Check out an English-friendly Japanese search engine such as jobs.gaijinpot.com to begin your employment search.
Most companies will offer you the option of Skype interview if you are based abroad. Showing an understanding of Japanese business etiquette through your interview will bank you some major brownie points – take a look at our interview guide here for tips.
Work visas are divided into different sectors and industries, and the application process can be complicated. When a company sponsors your application, this means your employer will assist you in securing the appropriate visa, and this will be a lot less stressful than going through the process yourself – particularly if you don’t speak Japanese. The length of time allowed on your working visa is dependent on your employer’s request – usually they will be valid for between one and three years, with the option of extending them.
Once you get to Japan under these conditions, you will need to go to your local city hall as soon as possible and apply for your residence card. You will need your ID, visa, and proof of a Japanese address. Even if you are only in temporary accommodation during your house search, it is still important to apply right away and then update your address once you move. Japanese residents are required to carry these cards on them at all times and the police can request to see them at any time – avoid attracting unwanted attention and get your paperwork in order. You will need to go through this process if staying in Japan under any extended visa (ie anything other than a tourist).
2. Moving with a “Specified Skill”
A relatively new visa option for those wanting to move to Japan is the specified skills visa. These were created by the Japanese government with the aim of sourcing workers in certain understaffed industries; such as agriculture, construction, and nursing care. If you are experienced in any of these industries, you could be eligible to move to Japan under a specified skills visa.
There are a number of conditions to this visa though which might render it an impractical choice for many Westerners. Firstly, under the current SSV-1 visa you may not bring a spouse or children with you to Japan. Secondly, you must prove proficiency in basic Japanese language, to an N4 level. And thirdly, you must complete your language proficiency examination in one of the following countries: Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam.
In 2021, the SSV-2 visa will be introduced, which allows eligible workers to move to Japan with their spouses and children. Those already in Japan under the SSV-1 will be given the option of applying to change their visa to the SSV-2. Workers who move to Japan under specified skills visas will also be eligible to eventually apply for permanent residency in Japan – so this could be a good choice for those who want to play the long game.
3. Going for a Working Holiday
This is a visa specifically for young people (18-30) who want to live and work in Japan for up to one year. This visa is not currently offered to US citizens, but numerous other Western countries (including Canada, Australia and The UK) are eligible. These visas allow recipients to engage in casual part time work while in Japan, for the purposes of funding their travel.
One thing to note is that working in institutions such as bars and nightclubs, or anywhere else deemed at odds with the “public morals” of Japan is not allowed under the working holiday visa. If you violate these terms, your visa could be revoked. While many of us have spent sinful summers pouring pints in far flung destinations, the Japanese working holiday experience is a far more civilised one.
4. Moving and then Searching for Long-term Work
Many countries (68 to be exact) do not require a visa to enter Japan. For those who do, the application process is simple and quick – check in with your closest Japanese Embassy to be guided through step by step. Temporary visitors are generally allowed to stay in the country for a period of 90 days – if you are from a country that requires a tourist visa, your allotted stay may be shorter. Many people travel to Japan on as tourists initially to begin their job search, in the hopes of finding a suitable opportunity before their 90 days is up.
Bear in mind that if you were to go this route, it would very much be a fact finding mission. You can attend interviews, but you cannot start work while you are still considered a tourist. If you do find a suitable job, you will be required to leave Japan and then re-enter on your working visa once this is processed. It could take your working visa up to 6 months to be processed.
There is little point of apartment searching while you are technically a tourist. Even not-withstanding the long waits for work visas, most landlords won’t consider offering a lease to someone without the required documentation. Unfortunately, even when you do obtain your working visa this may still be a challenge – it is legal for landlords to discriminate against potential tenants on the basis of nationality in Japan, and many will not rent to foreigners. However, that’s a subject which requires an article in itself.
Please note – you must not, under any circumstances, overstay your tourist visa or short-stay entry. Even if you’ve landed the dream job interview the day after it expires. This is something Japanese immigration officials crack down extremely hard on – so even if your interview goes well, records of overstaying as a tourist will play havoc with your work visa application.
5. Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program
The JET programme was established in the 1980s with the aim of increasing internationalism and English language fluency within Japanese communities. The programme allows English-speaking participants from foreign nations to work in one of the following roles in Japan: assistant language teachers, coordinators for international relations, or sports exchange advisors. These roles can be held for up to five years, but contracts are renewed on an annual basis. Participants are paid a set salary for participating in the programme, which increases slightly each year.
It is perhaps misleading to refer to JET as an exchange programme – there is no Japanese counterpart that travels to your home country in exchange for your services. Rather, an exchange of language and culture occurs between the participant and the Japanese community they are assigned to. As a programme participant, you must demonstrate throughout your placement that you are actively improving your Japanese language skills, and continuously learning about the local culture.
In order to be eligible for the JET programme, you must have a minimum of a Bachelor’s level education. Teaching experience and Japanese language skills are not required but are a great asset in your application.
6. Working Remotely from Japan
If you want to move to Japan for a short time (three months or less) you could always look at the remote working route. You are legally entitled to work remotely for a business based outside of Japan while staying in Japan on the standard tourist visa.
During this time, you would likely either have to stay in tourist accommodation (you could secure a short term let on AirBnb if a hostel/hotel wouldn’t suit your needs) or crash with a friend. It would be highly unlikely to secure a rental property through standard channels on this basis.
There are expats that return to their home country once their visa runs out and then return on another tourist visa to continue their remote work periodically – but be aware that if you make a pattern of this, you will likely be noticed by immigration officials and may be refused re-entry to Japan. Although you are technically not doing anything illegal, the idea of benefiting from the Japanese tax system without contributing is frowned upon.
7. Studying in Japan
If you have a nice packet of savings, or a generous family who are happy to support you on your adventure, then you might consider moving to Japan to undertake unpaid study. Happily, this is not just an option for those who are at university age – a student visa is an option even for adult learners.
Have you always wanted to learn Japanese? Japanese language schools can support you in obtaining a student visa if you sign up to attend approximately 4 hours of Japanese language studies per day. Enquire about visa sponsorship options when researching individual courses and institutions to find out more.
You can, of course, also follow a traditional study route by attending a university under a student visa. If you are registered with a Western university, you can enquire about any programmes they might have in place with particular Japanese universities where you might be able to attend for a semester. This is one of the most painless ways to organise studying in Japan, as your university will be able to assist you in your visa applications, and credits will transfer back towards the degree you are studying for at home. If you are applying without assistance from your own university, you might like to contact an agency like Gaijin Pot Long Term Study Programme to assist you through the red tape of setting up your studies in Japan.
8. Japanese Cultural Activities Visa
If you have a strong interest in a particular Japanese art-form or discipline, it’s worth looking into a Japanese Cultural Activities visa. This covers the holder to participate in unpaid study of Japanese cultural activities, such as judo or ikebana, while keeping residency in Japan. You can stay in Japan for up to one year with this visa.
Please note that to apply for a cultural activities visa you will require exact details of your plans – you can’t simply state that you’re hoping to learn more about a particular cultural activity when in Japan. You must organise your studies with a particular organisation or professional prior to your visa application, and provide proof that you have sufficient savings to live unsupported in Japan.
9. Volunteer Visa
For UK residents, it is possible to obtain a volunteer visa for Japan. This visa allows British citizens to engage in unpaid charitable work in Japan for up to one year, in conjunction with a registered charitable organisation providing public services. This agreement was made between the Japanese and British governments in 2003.
Please note, these visas permit only the volunteer to enter Japan – you cannot bring a spouse or children with you on a volunteer visa.
10. Marrying a Japanese Partner
Let me preface this by saying that I am absolutely not suggesting that you marry a Japanese person solely in order to get a visa – that would be an ethically questionable way to gain entry into the country. However, if you are in a genuine romantic relationship with a Japanese resident and you do choose to get married then a new visa option will open up for you.
Husbands or wives of a Japanese resident can apply for a spouse visa, which also covers any unmarried children of the resident. This enables you to live and work in Japan, and to gain unlimited re-entry to the country once you do not leave for a period of longer than 12 months. Please note, this visa may be cancelled in the event of divorce.
Unfortunately, the spouse visa is generally only awarded to married heterosexual couples. If you are in a same sex partnership, the partner moving to Japan may have to pursue alterative visa options. Please be aware, however, that same sex relationships are widely accepted in Japan and many areas have a thriving LGBTQ+ scene.
11. End Game – Permanent Residency
A points system decides who is applicable for permanent residency in Japan. In order to be in the running, you must procure a minimum of 80 points. Points are awarded for things like age (the younger the better), work experience (you must have a minimum of three years in the workforce to even qualify for points), Japanese language proficiency, and income.
In many countries, owning your own property can give you a major advantage when applying for permanent residency. It is interesting to note that this has virtually no bearing on a permanent residency application in Japan – the legalities are as such that foreigners can buy property without even setting foot in Japan, and little correlation is observed between property ownership and commitment to the country. To find out more about Japan’s interesting relationship with home ownership, check out our article on the subject.
If you do not meet the points requirement, 10 years of consecutive residency in Japan (or five if you are on a spouse visa) must be evidenced before you are deemed eligible to apply for permanent residency. In all cases, the applicant must have a clean criminal record and a Japanese guarantor willing to vouch for their application.
The benefits of being awarded permanent residency include no restriction on your activities within Japan, and lifelong residency without obligation of visa renewal (residence permit must still be updated every seven years through a simple process). Some choose to hold off on permanent residency for tax reasons.
Beginning Your Journey
Every expat in Japan will have a different story about how their move began. There’s no time like the present to start your own story. If you’ve already taken the leap, feel free to write about it in the comments!