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Living in Japan

Your guide to expat life in Japan

Want to live 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.

Accommodation in Japan

There’s a wide choice of accommodation in cities such as 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. 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 may be included in your rent.

Many landlords in Japan are hesitant to lease property to foreigners, so it’s best to work with English-speaking estate agents who specialise in helping expats find accommodation. You should expect to pay the equivalent of a month’s rent for their service. Although most landlords will only sign leases for 12 months or longer, you may be able to find places with a shorter tenancy.

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 several fees, including a reservation fee to hold the property until the agreement is signed, a damages deposit (often a month’s rent) and, in some cases, key money or reikin (literally ‘gratitude money’), which is a non-refundable payment to the landlord that can amount to several months’ rent.

Local culture in Japan

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.

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

The same goes with speaking Japanese. Though it's very difficult to learn, mastering the basics is useful – and locals will be delighted if you can speak a few words in their language.

Education in Japan

Japan has a wide range of international schools that offer expats a choice of curricula in various languages. The school year runs from April to March with three main holidays in March/April, July/August and December/January.

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 has been 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 British, Canadian, Chinese, French, German or Korean curricula.

Keeping in touch in Japan

There are plenty of internet service providers to choose from in Japan and speeds are quick. Japan is also 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.

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.

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

Healthcare in Japan

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 some expats can find medical professionals curt.

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 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.

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 (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.

In emergency situations 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 in Japan

Public transport in Japan is fast and efficient. 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.

The country’s four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, are covered by an efficient rail network run by Japan Railways. Dozens of private railway companies operate services in the metropolitan areas – and you can get a travel card that covers almost all of these. As well as an extensive rail network, Japan has a large number of metro systems in heavily populated areas and big cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

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. Most bus, train and metro services stop running at around midnight, so a taxi may be your only option if you’re out late. Licensed taxis are a lot more expensive than public transport. Not all taxi drivers speak English – so it's best to know your destination in Japanese or have the address written down. Ride-hailing services are also available.

For long-distance travel, Japan’s bullet trains (Shinkansen) are legendary. Domestic airlines also serve numerous airports across Japan. Fares are competitive, but flying is usually more expensive than travelling by bus or train.

Cycling is also 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.

If you choose to drive in Japan, you can drive with an international licence when you arrive, 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.

Cost of living in Japan

Japan is one of the world’s most expensive countries. Most expats manage to live well thanks to the correspondingly high salaries and excellent employment packages. Housing is likely to be your biggest expense – expats living in Tokyo pay similar rents to those in New York and London.

Utilities are expensive, particularly electricity. And charges for phone, TV and internet services are high. You’ll save on grocery bills if you buy local produce and avoid imported goods. Eating out is relatively good value, especially at lunchtime when restaurants have set menus.

Top tips for Japan

See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in Japan.

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

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

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you're aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.

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