So, you’re thinking of moving to Japan? Well, if excellent food, a healthy lifestyle and constant excitement are high on your list of priorities, you’re in for a treat. As one of the world’s leading economies, with a rich history and natural beauty spilling from every corner, Japan has much to offer for the intrepid expat family. Better yet, expat families moving to Japan in 2023 will find help and support available from the Japanese government.
But beware – living in Japan is not for the faint-hearted. With its work-hard-play-hard culture and high cost of living, culture shock is a common experience for expats in Japan. Fear not, though: with our handy guide to emigrating to Japan, you’ll find everything you need to start a great life in the Land of the Rising Sun.
With a GDP of US$5 trillion and a GDP per capita of US$$42,940, Japan is one of the world’s eminent economies. As such, quality of life is the key theme when it comes to living in Japan.
As of 2023, Japan ranks 13th in the world for quality of life, coming third in the world for quality of healthcare and sixth for safety. As a result, Japan boasts of having the joint-highest life expectancy in the world at 84 years, comparable only to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, according to the latest World Bank data. As an expat, you may be surprised to discover how healthy the lifestyle in Japan can be – clean eating, regular exercise and spending plenty of time in nature are written into the national psyche.
In terms of landscape, Japan offers a little bit of everything. The northernmost region, concentrated around the island of Hokkaido, is renowned for its mountains and winter sports. At the southern end of the country, the sandy beaches of the Okinawan island are comparable to Hawaii and Mauritius. In-between is the mainland of Honshu, where major metropolitan cities dominate the landscape. Tokyo, with 39 million inhabitants, sits at the eastern end of the so-called ‘Taiheiyo Belt’ of cities, which also includes Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Hiroshima. 74 million of Japan’s 125 million population live in this region.
Culture in Japan
Japan can paradoxically be described as both traditional and modern. Especially in major cities, Japan is a technological wonderland, the land of bullet trains and hot food vending machines.
Homes in Japan tend to be built to a high standard of quality, offering plenty of modern conveniences, while outside you will find many shops, bars and restaurants to keep you entertained. Karaoke may be enjoyed around the world, but the Japanese take it very seriously – some karaoke bars offer private booths and stay open 24 hours a day!
At the same time, Japan maintains a strong fealty for ancient customs and ceremonies. Some of these things are easy to get to grips with – make sure you take your shoes off when you step inside someone’s home, for example, and it’s polite to greet people with a bow – but others can seem a little alienating to foreigners.
Everyday things in other cultures can appear rude in Japan, such as eating while walking or using a telephone on public transport. Remember also that Japanese culture is strictly regimented and hierarchical, so always show respect to your seniors.
What language do they speak in Japan?
The official and main language of Japan is Standard Japanese. It is called Standard Japanese to differentiate it from other Japanese dialects and native languages, such as Okinawan and Ainu.
While English is the de-facto second language of Japan, fewer than 1% of the population claims to be fluent – so, as an expat, you should definitely consider learning some Japanese.
The bad news is that Japanese is considered a ‘Category IV’ language by the U.S. Department of State, making it one of the hardest in the world for English-speakers to learn, requiring around 2,200 classroom hours.
Working life in Japan
We mentioned earlier that living in Japan is not for the faint-hearted, and this is mainly because of the working culture. Japanese employees are often characterised by a strong loyalty to their employer, which manifests in staying with one company for a long time and working long hours.
Many expats in Japan have remarked that getting to grips with Japanese working culture is the hardest part of life in Japan, so make sure you are prepared if you intend to work for a Japanese company.
Japanese workplaces also have their own unique culture, which you’ll need to learn in order to fit in. Many businesses have a strict hierarchy, and it is considered a faux pas to leave work before your boss.
If someone hands you a business card, it’s polite to accept it with two hands, and to bow as you say arigato (‘thank you’). It’s also not unusual for workplaces to socialise together after hours.
How many expats live in Japan?
Historically, moving to Japan has been quite difficult for foreigners. In 2016, less than 2 million of Japan’s 127 million population (1.5%) were foreign citizens. However, with Japan’s population now in decline, the Japanese government has made it easier for expats to move to Japan. As of 2022, there were 2.7 million foreign citizens living in Japan, making up 2.2% of the population.
The majority of these people come from other Asian countries, particularly China, which accounts for 26% of Japan’s expat population, and Vietnam, which accounts for 15%.
Europeans make up around 2.6% of Japan’s foreign population, while US and Canadian citizens account for 2.5%.
Where should I live in Japan?
The first thing you’ll need to decide when moving to Japan is where you want to live. The obvious choice is Tokyo, the centre of Japanese culture and the largest city in the world by population.
The Tokyo districts of Minato and Shibuya are popular with expats, offering everything you could hope to find living in Japan: high-quality apartments, great public transit connections and world cuisine on your doorstep.
But Japan is a highly modernised country, so you can expect the same sort of conveniences in many other cities. Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe are becoming increasingly popular with expats, offering great jobs and modern lifestyles without the hustle and bustle you’ll find in Tokyo.
You could also opt to live in the Japanese countryside. Japan is a country of immense natural beauty, and rural homes take full advantage of this. Onsen, or hot springs, are a popular destination, utilising Japan’s volcanic waters to create natural baths.
One thing you’ll need to consider when moving to Japan is whether you want to live in a traditional Japanese home or a modern, western-style property. Japanese-style properties incorporate features that are unique to Japan, including:
- Shoji: sliding doors and walls that are made with translucent paper panels instead of glass
- Fusuma: another type of sliding door or wall, made with solid wood. They allow rooms to be re-configured, so that a dining room can later be used as a bedroom
- Ranma: wood panels placed into walls that can be opened to let air and light into the home
- Tokonoma: a slightly elevated platform, usually found in a guest room. It is considered polite to leave the tokonoma empty, or perhaps to display a single piece of art or houseplant
- Tatami: floorboards made of rice straw. They are made to be comfortable for kneeling and sitting on
- Kotatsu: a knee-high table that families will kneel at to eat meals or play games. It has an inbuilt electric heater to keep you warm in the winter
- Zabuton: a floor pillow, designed to be knelt on while seated on the floor
- Futon: a thin mattress, rolled out directly onto the floor, which is where you will tend to sleep in a traditional Japanese home
- Genkan: the reception area of your home, which is slightly lower than floor level. It is considered polite to remove your shoes when entering a Japanese home
More modern homes and apartments tend to be designed in the same style you would find in Europe and America, but may still include some of these features.
How much does it cost to rent in Japan?
If you choose to live in Tokyo, remember that living in the capital city comes with a high cost of living. Tokyo was ranked the 19th most expensive city in the world for expats according to the Mercer Cost of Living City Ranking 2023 index. The average cost of rent in Tokyo is US$2,334/¥325,735 for a 3-bedroom apartment.
If you don’t want to pay a high premium, there are plenty of other options when it comes to moving to Japan. In order of population, here is what average rents tend to be in other major metropolitan cities in Japan – only Nagoya is more expensive overall:
Average rent (3-bedroom apartment, city centre, USD)
Can expats buy land in Japan?
Absolutely. It is possible for anyone to buy land in Japan, no matter what their status. That means a foreigner can purchase land or property in Japan, and enjoy full rights to that land, whether or not they are a permanent resident, a full citizen, or a foreign national. You will pay the same rate of land or property tax as a Japanese citizen, and you are free to pass on your property in Japan via inheritance.
On the downside, purchasing property in Japan is not a fast-track to achieving citizenship. You will not enjoy any additional rights or privileges as a landowner in Japan.
It should be noted that, as of 2021, Japan has passed the Land Use Restriction Bill. This allows the Japanese government to monitor and, if necessary, restrict purchases of land around ‘Special Vigilance Zones’, which are typically important geographic areas such as military bases.
Top expat tips for living in Japan
- Make sure to start your visa application ahead of time. You will need to decide whether to apply for a regular Japanese work visa, a highly-skilled working visa, or a working holiday visa
- Secure a job offer ahead of time. Jobs can be hard for foreigners to find in Japan
- Try to learn some Japanese before moving – most people in Japan do not speak a foreign language
- Make sure you have some savings to fall back on. You will need up-front capital to cover the costs of moving, to put a deposit on a rental property and to help you settle in
- If you are self-employed, you will need to fill in your own tax return by March 15 of each new year
- Make sure to take out international health insurance. Foreigners can take advantage of public healthcare in Japan, but are still liable to pay 30% of the costs out of their own pocket
- Also consider taking out international life insurance and income protection insurance to protect your family
- Embrace the Japanese way of life and take full advantage of the excellent food, vibrant culture and healthy way of living
Working life is a big deal in Japan. As an expat, you may become familiar with the term shushin-koyo – a Japanese mentality towards work that emphasises dedication to one employer, manifesting in long hours, never changing jobs, and rarely calling in sick or taking time off.
This has sometimes resulted in the Japanese phenomenon of karoshi, meaning ‘death by overworking’. Make no mistake: working life in Japan is not for the faint of heart.
Times are changing, and Japan is becoming less extreme in its views towards working culture. But many expats still comment that working life is one of the biggest culture shocks that comes with living in Japan.
The plus side is that you can expect a high level of job security, many benefits and a great salary. The average salary in Japan is US$44,352/¥6,180,000 (but you may have to work for a long time at the same company in order to achieve this level of income).
This is roughly on a par with the average salary in the UK, at US$48,899/£38,600 and Germany at US$51,670/€47,700, but lower than the average US salary of US$74,738.
On the other hand, unlike the UK, US and Germany, expats will find that non-permanent and entry level jobs, which are popular with expats, tend to be highly-paid. Therefore, you are more likely to find a well-paying job in Japan even without much experience.
How do I find expat jobs in Japan?
There are a great variety of jobs available in Japan for foreigners. As an expat, your foreign language skills are highly sought-after by Japanese companies, many of whom struggle to communicate in English, French, Spanish and other languages.
The biggest employment sectors for expats in Japan are IT and telecoms, marketing and advertising, leisure and tourism and foreign language teaching.
If you are looking for work in Japan, a good place to start is the website Jobs In Japan – they specialise in promoting jobs from companies looking for expats like you. Many of these companies will also offer support to expats who are looking to obtain a working visa for Japan. Speaking of which…
How do I get a visa for Japan?
If you are moving to Japan with the intention to undertake paid work, you will need a working visa. There are three types of working visa for Japan:
- Japan Work Visa – This is a general working visa that covers certain professions, including artist, professor, journalists, medical professionals, teachers and researchers (see the full list here)
- Highly Skilled Professional Visa – These visas make you eligible for longer stays in Japan (up to five years) and are for workers who have a high level of skill in one area. Eligibility is based on a points-based system that will consider your education level, professional experience, age and expected salary. They are typically for professional academics
- Japan Working Holiday Visa – This is for citizens of countries that have a working holiday agreement with Japan. There are a limited number of these visas available and they are typically valid for up to one year (see the full list of eligible countries here)
There is also a start-up visa designed for people who wish to move to Japan to start a business. These are typically only valid for a few months, but can be extended for up to one year after you arrive in Japan, and if you have made significant progress in developing your business during that time.
The best place to start your visa application is online at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.
If you do not already have a job offer, it’s still possible to move to Japan. In order to do this, you will need to be able to prove you are able to financially support yourself and your family.
How to open a bank account in Japan
Once you start living in Japan, it’s essential you apply for a bank account as early as possible.
You will need a Japanese bank account in order to receive your Japanese salary, and it will also help when it comes to renewing or extending your visa. You can also start to build a credit history, which will be essential if you intend to take out a business loan or mortgage after moving to Japan.
Thankfully, opening a bank account in Japan is relatively easy. Simply follow these steps to open your local bank account in Japan:
- Research the local banks available: many banks offer services in foreign languages to support expats. MUFG Bank, Mizuho Bank, and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation tend to be favoured by expats
- Book an appointment: you will probably need to attend the local branch of your bank in person. Make sure to bring documentation such as your passport, residency card of visa, contract of employment, property deed or tenancy agreement, or any other proof of address
- Complete the application and verify your identity: you may need to provide your fingerprints!
- Make an initial deposit: this will typically need to be at least ¥1,000(US$7)
How to pay taxes in Japan
Taxes in Japan need to be paid yearly, and you may encounter both national and local (prefecture or municipality) taxes. You will need to submit your self-assessment tax forms by March 15, either at your local zeimusho (tax office) or online.
If you are moving to Japan to work for a Japanese company, you won’t need to worry about paying income tax, as Japanese employers will typically pay your taxes out of your salary for you. If you are moving to Japan but working for a foreign company, and the employer’s country of origin has a double taxation agreement with Japan, you won’t need to pay taxes on your income (find the list here).
If you are self-employed, you will need to file your own income taxes as normal.
However, it’s not just income tax you should be aware of – there are several other types of tax you may need to pay as an expat in Japan, such as:
- Property tax: if you own property in Japan, you will need to pay a percentage of the appraised value annually. This is typically around 1.4%, and you will need to have the value of your property re-appraised at the start of every year
- Enterprise tax: if you own or operate a business based in Japan, you will need to pay tax on the net income generated by this business
- Capital gains tax: if you buy or sell stocks and shares in other companies while living in Japan, you will need to pay tax on the profits – this is typically 15% national tax plus 5% local tax
Japan has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. As a resident in Japan, you can expect to receive high-quality healthcare from any hospital, which will operate on a universal healthcare system known as kokumin kenko hoken.
As an expat living in Japan, you will be eligible to receive state support towards your healthcare after living in the country for more than three months. In order to prove your eligibility, you will need to enrol at your local municipality office. State healthcare in Japan is very comprehensive, covering everything from major hospital treatments to mental health, hospice and dental care.
When it comes to settling the bill for healthcare in Japan, the government pays 70% and the remaining 30% will come from the patient’s own pocket. Many businesses in Japan offer health insurance packages to help cover this out-of-pocket expense, and elderly citizens are covered by an additional government insurance package, but you may still need to arrange your own private health insurance when moving to Japan.
It is important to remember that many doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals in Japan will not speak English.
This can make it difficult for you, as a patient, to effectively communicate your needs and get the quality of treatment you desire. If you are not fluent in Japanese, you may wish to consider opting for private healthcare, where you can find medical professionals who speak your native language.
Education in Japan
The education system in Japan is one of the best in the world. Japan ranks number one in the world for science and mathematics performance, and ninth for reading comprehension, according to OECD data.
The education system in Japan is notoriously intense: not only do students attend ordinary school, many will also go to evening juku (‘cram schools’), where they will receive additional tuition and help to prepare for exams.
Japan has an excellent state education system. Expats can apply for a place at a Japanese school by enrolling at their local kuyakusho (ward office). However, many expats also choose to send their children to private or international schools, which offer an even higher calibre of teaching. Tokyo alone offers 50 different international schools, with education systems including British, American, Canadian and European IB.
Universities in Japan are similarly excellent. Japan has 16 universities in the QS World University Rankings top 500 worldwide. The University of Tokyo, University of Kyoto, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Osaka University and Tohoku University all place within the top 100.
Education is compulsory in Japan for all residents up to the age of fifteen. The Japanese education system accepts children from the age of three. Kindergarten goes from ages 3–5, followed by elementary school and then secondary school. As many as 96% of Japanese students stay on to post-secondary education in Japan.
Cost of education in Japan
State education is free in Japan at primary and secondary levels.
The cost of international schools in Tokyo ranges from ¥610,000/US$4,372 to ¥6,000,000/US$43,003 per year.
Before moving to Japan, make sure you have checked off the following:
- ☐ Have you researched places to live in Japan?
- ☐ Have you decided which city you would like to move to, or whether you’d prefer to live in the countryside?
- ☐ Do you have a preference for a traditional Japanese-style home, or would you prefer a Western-style home?
- ☐ If you’ve found an apartment or house you’d like to rent, have you contacted the company offering the accommodation?
- ☐ If you’ve agreed a place to live, have you received your rental agreement?
- ☐ Have you asked your landlord or property manager to set up your home Wi-Fi ahead of your arrival?
- ☐ Have you received a job offer from a Japanese employer? Have they sent you a contract of employment?
- ☐ If you are self-employed, do you have proof of income and/or financial records for your business?
- ☐ Do you know which type of visa you require? Do you have proof of qualifications, e.g. if you are planning to apply for a highly-skilled workers’ visa?
- ☐ Can your Japanese employer help you to acquire a working visa?
- ☐ Have you taken out international health insurance before moving to Japan?
- ☐ Have you looked into other forms of health insurance to support your life in Japan, such as life insurance and income protection?
- ☐ Does your health insurance offer access to private healthcare, where you can find medical professionals who speak your native language?
- ☐ Have you calculated a budget that takes into account expenses such as rent, taxes and other bills/fees?
- ☐ Have you set up a bank account?
- ☐ Do you have all the necessary payment cards to go with your account?
- ☐ Have you arranged to get a mobile phone with a local Japanese SIM card?
- ☐ Have you checked to see if you can bring your pets?
- ☐ Have you researched the cost of relocation? If you’re bringing your own furniture from home, have you received a reliable quote from a shipping company?
- ☐ Have you looked into education for your children? If you are planning on enrolling your children in state education, you may need to contact your prefecture or municipality ward office to see if they have school places available.
- ☐ Have you learnt some basic Japanese to help you get by in day-to-day life? Do you know how to access Japanese language lessons once you arrive in Japan?
Before you go…
Moving to another country can be challenging, but you can ensure peace of mind by making sure you have the right international health insurance.
For 30 years, we have helped expats like you move and settle into their new lives overseas, with the peace of mind of knowing their families are covered by a comprehensive and flexible health insurance policy.
Speak to us today to find out more about how international health insurance could benefit you and your family – and good luck moving to Japan!