One expat shared an incredible tip for people moving to Japan, "Lower your expectations and don't romanticize living in another country. It is just another place with its own struggles. Moving won't solve your problems, but only make them worse. Once you realize that, then you can thrive and continuously be surprised by the kindness of strangers and the warmth of the friends you will make."
What to Bring When Moving to Japan (and what to leave behind)
When we asked expats who had already moved to Japan what they wish they had brought and left at home, they replied:
"I live on navy base. I have most things but if not I order on line. It does cost a lot to live in Japan. Learn to use the train for getting around Japan. It opens up a whole world to you. Driving a car should be limited. There are tolls on the highways quite expensive $$$$. Mass transit is the way to go. There is a craigslist in every area to find used stuff & cars on cheap. I suggest a IPHONE from the carrier Softbank. It has a GPS on it I rely on & a train app for Japan that will tell you which trains to get on to get where your going. Just FYI. Rugs would help keep the floor warm too," said one expat.
"3 things wish I had: Food stuff from home. Winter clothing. My red wing safety shoes. 3 things wish I left at home: My computer - can get good one in Japan. Camera - can get good one in Japan. Reference book," said another expat.
"I wish we had brought: box fans (it gets really hot here in the summer, and there is no central AC.) A roaster oven or convection oven. Traditional Japanese apartments don't have ovens. Food, including sugary cereals, Gatorade drink mix, and sweets. The "sweets" they sell here are very different. I wish we had left: some of my clothes, our golf clubs," wrote one expat.
Expats Talk about Moving to Japan
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Deciding Where to Live in Japan
When we asked expats living in Japan to offer newcomers advice about choosing a neighborhood and finding a home, they replied:
"When choosing a home, pick something near a train station, as this is the easiest way to get around. Most Tokyoites spend at least an hour commuting by train, so don't let the distance worry you. Most real estate agents only speak Japanese, so bring a translator with you. Expect the kitchens to be galley style, and for the washing machines to be in the bathroom or on the balcony. Make sure your neighborhood also have plenty of markets nearby-refrigerators are so small, you have to shop daily," advised one expat.
"My husband's company gave us a real estate agent. We told her what we were looking for, and our price range. We also brought our dog with us, so it was much more difficult to find a place. Most places that allowed dogs were much more expensive," added another expat.
"I live on base but I have lived off base before. They don't insulate their homes out in Japan. I would suggest a electric blanket., Space heaters for your rooms for the winter. I know the military use gas ones not elec,"
said one expat who moved to Kanagawa Perfecture, Japan.
"Real estate agencies will show you everything even places that don't meet your requirements, ex:2 bedrooms instead or 3, no parking, etc... See the floor plans before seeing any of them, it will save you a lot of time. And once you have narrowed it down, visit the flat a time when you know that your nieghbors will be in.... Some flats don't have insulation and you can hear if your nieghbor just sneezed," commented one expat who made the move to Japan.
If you're moving to Tokyo, our article, Top 10 Tokyo Neighborhoods for Expats is a helpful guide.
Healthcare in Japan
"While medical care in Japan is good, English-speaking physicians and medical facilities that cater to U.S. citizens' expectations are expensive and not widespread. Japan has a national health insurance system which is available only to those foreigners with long-term visas for Japan. National health insurance does not pay for medical evacuation. Medical caregivers in Japan require payment in full at the time of treatment or concrete proof of ability to pay before they will treat a foreigner who is not a member of the national health insurance plan," wrote the US Embassy in Japan.
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International Schools in Japan
If you are moving to Japan with children who are not fluent in Japanese, finding an international school may be a top priority.
For an overview of Tokyo schools, read our article, International Schools in Tokyo. The overview includes schools such as The British School in Tokyo, St. Mary's International School and The New International School of Japan.
Driving in Japan
"Driving in Japan can be quite complicated and expensive. Those who cannot read the language will have trouble understanding road signs. Highway tolls are assessed at about US $1 per mile. City traffic is often very congested. A 20-mile trip in the Tokyo area may take two hours. There is virtually no roadside parking. In mountainous areas, roads are often closed during the winter, and cars should be equipped with tire chains. Roads in Japan are much narrower than those in the United States. Vehicular traffic moves on the left. Turns at red lights are forbidden unless specifically authorized. Japanese compulsory insurance is mandatory for all automobile owners and drivers in Japan. Your U.S. auto insurance likely does not provide coverage in Japan; check with your insurer," stated the US Embassy.
Driver's License in Japan
As of 2002, expats in Japan may use an international drivers license Japan for up to12 months. The US Embassy in Tokyo wrote about drivers licenses saying, "As of June 2002, however, foreigners are only able to drive on an international driver license for up to 12 months. After that, foreign drivers must apply for and receive a Japanese driver license. Long term foreign residents in Japan who attempt to avoid taking a driving test by continually renewing their international driver license abroad every 12 months will now be required to prove that they obtained the international permit at least three months before re-entering Japan. Note that tourists and others coming to Japan for short stays may still drive with an international license obtained at any time before their arrival in Japan. The driver test consists of hearing, eyesight, written and practical/road test components. Citizens of 27 countries and regions, including the State of Maryland, are exempt from taking everything but the eye test. Some of these countries met the exemption requirement because the NPA examined their domestic traffic safety record and determined that it was at least as good as Japan’s. Other nations exempt Japanese license holders from a driving test. Effective January 4, 2016, the exemption applies to the holders of a license issued by the State of Maryland. Other U.S. states are not exempt from the driving test requirement."
Foreigners from these countries are exempt from taking the test:
- Czech Republic
- Washington and Maryland States (in U.S.A)
- New Zealand
- The Republic of Slovenia
- The Principality of Monaco
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
(List updated 2019)
There is another option. It is possible to convert your foreign driver's license (from any country not just those listed above) to a Japanese license. More information is available from: The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and The Japanese Automobile Association.
Japan Has Very Strict DUI Laws
"Japan has a national 0.03 percent blood-alcohol-level standard for driving, and drivers stopped for driving under the influence of intoxicants will have their licenses confiscated. If you’re found guilty of driving under the influence, speeding, or blatantly careless driving resulting in injury, you are subject to up to 15 years in prison," wrote the US Embassy.
Typical Housing for Expats
When we asked expats in Japan about the type of home or apartment they life in and whether that is typical for expats, they replied:
"We live in a two-bedroom apartment, called a 'mansion'. This means it is newer construction, built mostly of concrete and brick. It is a small building, with only 5 other tenants. The owner lives on the first floor. Our neighborhood is all Japanese, and we are the only foreingers in our area.This is not typical - most expats either live in high-class apartments that cater to foreigners, or else in tiny traditional apartments. It depends on your payscale. (ie executive or English teacher)," mentioned another expat.
"I lived in a Mansion (high rise) 10 yrs ago off base. I had a agent find me a place. Its best to have a Japanese represent you to landlords. They will speak for you & if any problems ,can represent you," said one expat who moved to Kanagawa Perfecture, Japan.
Gas Heaters & Bleach
"Electricity is high!!!!! No insulation. Get gas space heaters for the rooms to stay warm in the winter. The stackable washer dryer is what we had but the vent didn't vent to the outside . They had it come back inside which caused a major mildew problem in the bathroom. A lot of Japanese wash their clothes but hang their clothes on the balcony to dry. It is subtropical here so there is a lot of moisture in the air. Bleach will be your best friend to keep down on the mold in your restroom," said one expat who moved to Kanagawa Perfecture, Japan.
American Furniture Is Usually Too Big for Japan
"Think small. A lot of American furniture won't fit in the pats here. I would come with my important papers & luggage. get your place then shop & have furniture delivered. Or by used from craigslist or recycle or 2nd hand stores. There are plenty! There are food places all over Mexican, Italian, Indian, Outback, TGIF. I'm an hour from Tokyo. It's easy to find food places you like. Average meal 10-12.00 to eat out, train ride 6-8.00 each way to Tokyo. Plus size clothes are very rare to find. If you a small person you will find your size clothes,"
said one expat who moved to Kanagawa Perfecture, Japan.
Bringing a Dog to Japan
If you're moving to Japan with a dog, cat or other pet, it's important to understand the regulation of importing pets to Japan. The Japanese Animal Quarantine Service (AQS) is the official source of information on this topic. The US Embassy wrote, "It is imperative that persons who wish to import their pet to Japan consult the AQS website and make the proper coordination directly with AQS in order to avoid any misunderstandings. The personnel in AQS have proved to be very helpful and they encourage direct communication through this site. Check with your airline for the terminal at which you will arrive. Other phone numbers and AQS offices around Japan are listed on their website. Note that due to strict quarantine laws of Japan, AQS is unable to grant exceptions and that animals which have not met all requirements as described on their website are subject to being held for extended periods of quarantine, or possibly deported back to the origin of the flight."