How to Live in Japan

by Christian Monson
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From the beautiful sandy beaches of Okinawa to the enchanting bamboo forests of Kyoto, Japan has more to experience than just a short vacation can provide. Many people visit the country only to discover a strong desire to live there. Or maybe your boss told you you’re moving in two weeks, and now you’re desperately reading everything you can on how to live in Japan.

Whether you just want to spend a year or two in the country or Japan is your dream home, there are numerous paths you can take to live there. Of course, all of these are not without their various obstacles and legal requirements. However, with enough knowledge and preparation beforehand, you can navigate these processes and make the most out of your time in Japan.   

From getting a job to marrying a Japanese citizen, here’s what you need to know on how to live in Japan.

How to live in Japan as a foreigner

Japan is not known for its easy immigration process, and living in the country as a foreigner can be an uphill battle. Of course, just how difficult it depends largely on what you want to do in Japan and how long you want to stay. 

There are often many ways for qualified expats to move to Japan on a temporary basis. These usually require sponsorship from a company or specific expertise in a high-demand field that Japan desperately needs. Due to its shrinking population, Japan actually has many positions it needs to fill—but you have to be qualified.

Jobs in Japan for foreigners

It’s much easier to move to Japan and live there if you have a job lined up before you go. This could be with a foreign company or a Japanese company. 

With Western or other foreign companies

For the most part, foreign companies send executives and other high-level managers to their Japan country offices. However, most other positions will be filled by Japanese citizens. Being from the company’s home country won’t give you any kind of advantage when applying for jobs. In fact, it could put you at a disadvantage depending on the position because the company would have to deal with legal processes and expenses to hire you.

A better option is to begin your career with the company at its offices in its home country. You can try to work in the international division and get transferred to Japan for expat positions. This will be a lot easier if you have qualifications that make you useful for the company’s Japanese offices. This could mean training in international business or law or knowledge of the Japanese language. If you’ve studied in Japan, that can also help.

With Japanese companies

Finding a job with a Japanese company is a balancing act between the country’s isolated nature and its need for skilled professionals to fill out important industries. There are several websites you can use to browse open positions and see the qualifications required:

Job seeking as a foreigner in Japan has gotten much easier in the last decade or so, but there are still some things to keep in mind. Many might seem counterintuitive to your job-seeking experience in the West.

For one, though certain visas might require it, experience doesn’t significantly boost your employability in the eyes of Japanese firms. Japanese businesses often expect their employees to work there for life, so someone who’s had many different jobs might appear unreliable. Many Japanese hiring managers like hiring fresh college graduates.

Additionally, Japanese language skills are essential to finding a job in Japan. In the past, it was impossible to even get an interview without an N1 qualification. Things are more relaxed now, but companies still expect you to be able to communicate with your managers and coworkers, even if your position primarily involves interacting with foreign customers. Unlike in many other countries, your English skills in and of themselves aren’t especially marketable in Japan. Rather, it’s your bilingualism that can land you jobs.

There is a wide range of industries hiring foreigners in Japan, but you’ll almost always need some kind of special skill. The most common is computer programming or engineering or other technical fields. Other types of engineering and manufacturing professionals are also in high demand. There are many healthcare openings as well

A great option is the hospitality and travel industry. This includes a lot of different jobs. On top of working for hotel chains or rental car companies interacting with foreign customers, you can work for universities doing study abroad support or real estate companies that focus specifically on selling to foreign investors.

Lastly, you can try to find work with Japanese firms started by foreign expats. These may be more willing to hire foreigners, and the application and interview process may be more similar to what you’re used to, not to mention the work culture.

Teaching English in Japan

One popular way to work and live in Japan is teaching English. This can be at private language academies or public schools from the primary to university level. It might also mean teaching business English for a large company. 

Generally speaking, your qualifications should match your level. For example, teaching at a university requires a post-graduate degree. Most full-time positions at established schools require a university degree and some kind of Teacher of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. Many of these exist, but the Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) is the most highly regarded and sought after.

Without a certificate like CELTA, you may still be eligible for entry-level positions. For full-time work, this is usually with large language academy chains. However, if you’re willing to work part-time, you can be a language assistant in public schools. A couple of private firms place language assistants like Altia and Interac, but the most prestigious—and best paying—program is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, or JET. The application is a long and competitive process that involves interviews at Japanese embassies and consulates before selection.

Freelancing in Japan

Freelancing is a great job for those who want to travel the world. Your office is wherever you want it to be. You can connect with your clients over the internet. The only obstacles are the legal requirements for residing in the country. Many countries have begun offering freelancer visas to fit this niche, but unfortunately, Japan is not yet one of them.

You can enter Japan on a tourist visa, but that only allows you to stay for 90 days. More long-term options require creativity. For example, if you don’t just have your sights set on Japan, you can rotate through East Asia staying for a few months in each country before moving on. By the time you get back to Japan, you’ll be eligible for a new tourist visa. 

Another option is using a part-time job as a visa anchor. Specifically, you can teach English part-time with one of the language assistant programs. This gets you a visa to live in the country but still allows you plenty of time for your freelance gigs.

How to move to Japan as a student

Studying is a great way to live temporarily in Japan. Most Japanese universities, if accepted, will help you with the paperwork and legal process. Plus, if you go to a university in your home country, they may have exchange programs or agreements with Japanese universities to make it easier to enroll.

Japanese universities divide the school year into two semesters, one beginning in April and the other in September. Each university sets its own admission guidelines, but you usually want to apply about six months ahead of the semester you want to start studying.

By Japanese law, universities have to charge international students the same price as domestic students, but tuition is still expensive, sometimes upwards of $10,000 per semester. Luckily, Japanese universities, your home university and private study abroad programs offer a lot of scholarships. Just watch the dates and apply on time.

Like working, knowledge of the Japanese language is important for studying in Japan. Depending on your program and field of study, some classes may be in English, but it’s more likely you’ll need Japanese to attend lectures and read course material. Most programs will also include some Japanese classes and tutoring to help you along the way. 

Moving to Japan

Once you have your new life in Japan lined up, all that’s left is actually moving there. Since it’s an island country with tightly controlled borders, this is sometimes easier said than done.

Requirements

When you’re ready to move to Japan, the first thing you need to do is navigate the visa process and legal immigration requirements. This can be complicated, but your company or university will most likely offer to help you along the way. Still, you need to be prepared to visit the Japanese embassy or consulate closest to you to fill out paperwork and pick up visas, if necessary.

Finding housing

In and of itself, finding housing as a foreigner in Japan isn’t too difficult. However, there are some things that may be different from what you’re used to, so it’s good to be aware of them ahead of time. For instance, renting a home in Japan requires a cosigner, also known as a guarantor, who agrees to pay your rent if you don’t. Most Japanese people just have a family member cosign, but as a foreigner, you’ll have to pay a private company. 

Depending on what you’re looking for, you could try to contact a private realtor, but there will inevitably be fees. There are also a number of websites, some specifically aimed at foreign expats living in Japan. These can help you find something within your specific price range, desired city, or even neighborhood.

If you want to buy, it’s easy for foreigners to purchase homes in Japan. There aren’t any extra restrictions, and you don’t even have to be a citizen or have a residence visa. That said, owning property does not entitle you to a residence visa, either, so if you buy a house without one, it’s going to be hard to live in it.

For new house and apartment listings all over Japan, check out Homes.co.jp and Suumo.jp. For Tokyo listings specifically for foreigners, go to TokyoApartmentInc.com.

Healthcare

Japan has a developed healthcare system that provides its citizens with one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Everyone in the country is required to have health insurance, and that applies to foreigners as well. For the most part, if you are living in Japan and working, you’re eligible for national health insurance.

Your employer is responsible for most of the paperwork involved in applying for coverage, but you will need to provide information including where you’ll be living. This national insurance is pretty straightforward. It pays for 70% of medical costs while you pay the remaining 30%. This includes doctor’s visits, hospitalizations, and medication.

Banks and taxes

Japan has the world’s fourth most powerful economy, and its financial system is similar to that of Europe and the US. As a result, banking and taxes are also very similar. To open a bank account in Japan, you have to have proof of residency. In other words, you can’t come to Japan on a tourist visa and open an account. 

Also, unlike most Western countries, your income tax won’t be taken out of your paycheck. Instead, you’ll receive a bill in the mail. Keep this in mind before you go draining your bank account.

Transportation

You probably don’t want to bring your car to Japan. The costs of shipping will be almost as much as the car. Plus, Japan is one of the minority of countries that drives on the left, so your car might be awkward to use anyway.

It’s okay, you probably won’t even need a car. Japan’s public transportation system is extensive and can get you around your city and the whole country conveniently. Most impressive are the shinkansen bullet trains which can take you between major cities in a fraction of the time it would take to drive. For example, Tokyo to Kyoto on the shinkansen is a little over two hours while it takes over five hours by car.

Moving to Japan with a family

Japan is one of the best places out there to move to with a family. It’s a developed country with all the healthcare and education infrastructure you need to feel secure. Your spouse and children will have to apply for dependent visas that they’ll also receive via the Japanese embassy or consulate in your area. In the event that you’ve been hired by a company in Japan or asked to teach in a Japanese school, they will most likely help you handle this process.

Healthcare

As for healthcare, the Japanese health system is very comprehensive, and your family will be eligible for the same national health insurance as you. Your children can receive the same advanced care at Japanese hospitals and clinics that they received in your home country, including vaccinations and preventative treatments. 

It’s also possible to seek out English-speaking expat doctors familiar with the Western medical culture, but they’ll most likely be outside of the national insurance. You’ll have to pay out of pocket. For example, here is a list of expat clinics in Tokyo.

Education

Regarding education, your children can attend public school. Once in the country, you’ll need to register them as aliens at the Ward Office, along with yourself, of course. Bring proof of address. After the meeting, the official will call the appropriate public school, and your children can usually begin the next day.

If you’d prefer, there are also many private and international schools all around Japan. For those only intending to stay in Japan for a short time, these may be better as they can provide instruction in the children’s native language. 

How to live in Japan permanently

While many possibilities exist for temporary periods working or studying in Japan, obtaining residence is a whole other ballgame. The ways to do this are limited and require complicated legal processes and applications.

Naturalization

It is possible for foreigners to obtain Japanese citizenship, but the process is lengthy and complicated. There are several specific criteria that must be met:

  • You must have resided continuously in Japan for at least five years.
  • You must be at least 20 years old and legally competent.
  • You must have good legal standing with no history of criminal behavior.
  • You must have proof you can support yourself in Japan, either through work or capital.
  • You must renounce any other citizenships and swear allegiance to Japan.

The most important thing to note is that you have to give up your original citizenship. Unlike many other countries, Japan does not allow its citizens to have dual citizenship. Once you meet the requirements, you will have to submit a lot of paperwork and go through various interviews. Naturally, these interviews will be in Japanese. You can’t be a Japanese citizen without proficiency in the language.

Permanent Residence

For those who don’t want to give up their home citizenship, permanent residence is an alternative that comes with many of the same benefits. Of course, it’s not necessarily less complicated.

It also takes much longer to be eligible for permanent residence than citizenship. Generally speaking, you must have resided continuously and legally in Japan for at least 10 years. You can’t have any kind of criminal record. Traffic violations can even potentially keep you from being approved.

Furthermore, you have to prove that you contribute to Japanese society in some way. Of course, at a minimum, this means a productive job with a Japanese firm or at a Japanese school. Your employer will have to provide work history and financial details of your employment. Sometimes this alone isn’t enough, though, and proof that you’re a real asset to the community goes a long way. This could be awards and recognitions or proof of volunteer work. 

Finally, you’ll have to write a convincing statement detailing why you want permanent residency. This must be in Japanese. After that, you’ll have an interview. Altogether, this process can take several months, and you must have a valid visa to live in Japan throughout that period.

As you might be able to tell, this application—and the application for citizenship for that matter—are relatively subjective. It’s not a simple checklist. Rather, the immigration official in charge of your case will make determinations partly based on his own opinions. Therefore, it’s best to be thorough and as prepared as possible for the interview.

Unlike citizenship, permanent residency does not give you the right to vote. Also, it’s important to be aware that you lose permanent residency if you spend more than three years outside of Japan. That’s not the case for citizenship.

Marrying a Japanese national

Keep in mind, marrying a Japanese citizen does not automatically grant you any kind of permanent residency status in Japan. However, it can make getting citizenship or permanent residency a lot easier and speed up the process. 

For starters, marriage to a Japanese citizen grants you a spousal visa. This lets you live and work in Japan. While this visa must be continuously renewed, it will make it easier to reside in Japan for the required amount of time and work a job that meets financial stipulations and contributes to society. 

Marriage also decreases the amount of time in Japan required for permanent residency. Instead of 10 years, you only have to have resided in the country legally for three. This is much more achievable.

If you end up divorcing your Japanese spouse, you can still keep your citizenship or permanent residency. However, the Japanese courts are known for going hard on divorcees, especially foreign resident divorcee. Getting married just for the immigration benefits is not a good idea.

Adapting to Japanese culture as a foreigner

If you plan to live in Japan for an extended period of time, even just a year or two, you have to be ready to adapt and understand Japanese culture. As you should have noticed reading this article, one of the most fundamental parts of this is the language. It’s necessary for working, navigating legal and financial processes, and just getting around in the country.

The language is just the beginning, though. Japan has a proud and intricate culture dating back thousands of years. Its focus on harmony manifests in many aspects of society like its impressive balance between modernity and tradition.

Stop Procrastinating! Learning Japanese Won't Happen On It's Own

Don’t make the mistake of slipping on learning Japanese like most of us have. If you are having troubles getting into the groove of learning or don’t know where to start, we recommend online courses!

As the naturalization and immigration processes attest to, Japanese society is one that demands assimilation and contribution. As long as you are prepared to learn the culture and respect it, this is a beautiful thing that will continue to reward you throughout your time in the country.  

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