Practical Information for Successfully Moving to Tokyo

You have decided to begin an international life, CONGRATULATIONS!  While it may be difficult and stressful at times, living abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have.  Challenging your perspectives, experiencing a new way of living and building connections are just a few of the rewards you will experience because of your choice to make the move. 

Japan has long been an exotic and attractive destination for foreigners.  It's exciting food, ancient traditions and unusual street culture - Tokyo continues to welcome huge numbers of people to live and work in the metropolis every year.  Calling this international center your home may be easier than you think.  Here are some important things to keep your transition as trouble-free as possible.

#1.  MONEY  "Making friends with the Yen"

This may seem like an obvious point :  YOU NEED MONEY.  Think about how much you are spending now every month on everything you do, convert that number into the Japanese Yen and then double it.  This may seem dramatic, but Tokyo definitely earns it's reputation for being an expensive city (check out my "Guide to Living Cheaply in Tokyo" for ways around this).   The basic truth is the more money you bring with you the more relaxed of a transition you will have.  The less money you have the less you will be able to cut corners and get to the fun part faster.  

Do some research about the conversion rates and the ATM fees - usually the most efficient way of getting money before you have a Japanese bank account. Another important thing to keep in mind "How will I pay my bills back home?"  Talk to your bank at home about what their policies are on international transfers - SHOP AROUND - many banks have different payment structures and you definitely want the best plan available.  

If your bank does not offer convenient rates or transfer options, there are a number of things you can do from Japan including Western Union, Go Llyods, etc.. But working through established connections with real people "back home" is the best idea. Especially because it may be several months before you see money coming in and you will likely burn through the resources you brought with you to Tokyo.  This means that you need to send Yens somehow to pay any ongoing debt.  


#2 Living Situation  "Where do I sleep tonight?"

This, like so many things, depends on your level of adventure.  If you are one of those people who like to know ahead of time what is going to happen, it is a good idea to set something up before arriving in Japan.  If you are one of those who are comfortable with a bit of risk, you can easily arrange for a few nights in a hostel or hotel and find a good fit once you arrive.  Either way, there are several options for living arrangements in Tokyo.  

Guest Houses

This is basically a glorified hostel situation.  They vary property to property (and there are thousands of them) ranging from "Semi-Private Apartments" to dormitory living.  Some guest houses include entertainment rooms where tenant can watch movies, exercise facilities, and even rooftop terraces.  While the price may be the lowest, privacy is scarce and you need to feel comfortable being very social and making lots of friends right away.  A huge benefit is that the deposits are usually very small and the contracts  "month to month", giving you a lot of flexibility.  

Apartment Sharing

This is another cheap option for living in Tokyo, very similar to Guest Houses in that you share common spaces like bathrooms and kitchens. Different from Guest Houses in that they are usually only one apartment and only a few people to navigate.  This is an attractive option for people who may be looking for more quiet and control over their living situation, although still wanting some convenient social interaction.

"Gaijin Apartments"

The word Gaijin (if you do not already know it) is a loose term meaning "foreigner".  As Japan has a very, very traditional system that organizes its rental agreements, a whole market for renting private apartments to foreigners has developed.  Usually you will visit an office that has a foreign or at least English-Speaking staff which will then show you several of their available properties in your ideal locations.  After you choose a property you sign a contract with them (typically very simple) and rent the apartment through them directly.  A month's rent is usually requested as a deposit (more than in a guest house) and you pay the following rent using a "month to month" plan.  

Japanese Apartments

The biggest benefit of renting a 100% Japanese owned apartment is the cost and the size.  While renting from a foreigner based company cuts out a lot of the confusion and difficult cultural barriers, they also charge more for less space.  Remember, NO ONE in Tokyo has enough space.  Another benefit is that you will most likely be living around Japanese citizens and experience more "normal" side of Tokyo.  The downside is that these apartments are much, much more difficult to rent.  First of all, you have to find an agency that wants to work with you - many Japanese agencies do not think it is worth the trouble to even talk to you.  After you find that benevolent agent, you need to discuss the language issues; Do you speak Japanese?  Do they speak English?  If you cannot communicate (or if you cannot READ THE CONTRACT) you need to find an additionally benevolent Japanese friend with some time to help you.  Next, the agent has to find a property owner that will accept a rental agreement with foreigners, this is another very difficult find.  If you manage to find all three of these miraculous people, your next challenge is the money.  In Japan it is customary to pay:  A month or two of rent as a deposit, a month or two of "gift money" to the afore-mentioned property owner, and a month to the agent (some properties require fire or disaster insurance as well).  The deposit is the only payment you can hope to be returned once your contract has been completed.  The last thing to think about is that rental agreements are two year contracts.   Once the two years are up you are required to either pay all the fees again to the same people or begin the search anew.

#3 Gaijin Card  "My new Japanese identity!" 


Just as you are accustomed to carrying a driver's license around in your wallet or purse, you will need to carry a "Gaijin Card".  It looks very similar to any ID card you may have seen.  You must apply for one immediately after you have signed any of the rental agreements mentioned above.  It is free and is a very straightforward process.  

First, find the City Hall that your area is assigned to.  Next go to City Hall and ask the information desk where to apply for the Foreigner ID card.  Usually City Hall has some amount of English language support, but if you have a willing Japanese friend, this is another time you may want to invite them along.  You will need your passport and two passport sized photos.  Usually there are conspicuous photo booths outside of the City Hall office.   After filling out the necessary documents they will give you a form that says you are waiting for your ID card, you need to carry this paper around with you until you have the real card.  They will also give you several dates as options for when you can return to the City Hall to retrieve your card.  

Remember, when you are approved for your visa (keep reading) you will need to return to change this card.  Also, if you change addresses or get married you will need to change this card.  If the police decide to stop you for any reason and you do not have this card, the worst case scenario is deportation.  On a lighter note, you need the card to enter clubs, events and to get a cell phone.  

#4 Employment "How am I going to pay for my new Japanese life?"

If you moved to Japan because you have a great contract with a powerful finance company, or will be working as a glamorous fashion model.. skip this section.  If you are like many who arrive in Japan and plan on teaching English at least to start with, keep reading.

An important thing to keep in mind is that your experience teaching in Japan will dramatically affect your experience living in Japan.  Do not jump on the first job you find that is "willing to hire you" - this brings us back to having enough money when you arrive.  Plan on a good three months of job hunting before you actually receive a pay check.  There is a huge demand for teachers in Japan and it is good to remember that you have valuable skills to offer to the right situation.  This will garuntee you are happy at work and that your co-workers / clients are happy you are at work.  Contracts vary from job to job so make sure you are clear about what you want and what you are getting.  

Children's Classes and Preschools

While from the outside children's classes may seem to be the easiest route, they are NOT.  Teaching Japanese children takes a lot of enthusiasm, patience and energy.  Often you are required to sing and dance and to scream out grammar chants for hours on end.  Some school may also need you to take the children on field trips in the city, traveling on public busses and trains.  If you are not comfortable working with children it is not even worth your time to apply, you will be miserable.  On the other hand, if you have experience working with children and have a lot of energy it can be an extremely rewarding way to teach and experience Japan.  Children's classes involve the parents in some cases - "Mom and Baby" classes are popular and can be well paid if you are good at teaching them.   Along with Conversation Classes, jobs teaching children are probably the easiest to get and easiest to find.  

Conversation Classes 

Typically these are very basic classes offered to adults that just want a chance to converse in English.  You need minimal skill and knowledge of things like grammar or test taking skills to teach them. They are almost always jobs that pays hourly and have a lot of last-minute cancellations so the income flow may not be as appealing as some other options.  Although, if you are a person that enjoys talking and socializing with many different kinds of people, this kind of teaching position could be a really great fit.  Another thing about conversation classes is that usually the more popular you are in the company's client base and the more students ask for your class repeatedly the more financial success you can have.  

Jr. and Sr. High Schools

Teaching jobs at both public and private Jr. and Sr. High schools usually requires some experience teaching in Japan, so unlike the previous two options you cannot typically apply to teach for a position until you have been in Japan 2+ years (unless you contracted before arriving in Japan).  That said, these positions have the attractive upside of A LOT of paid vacation time.  Japan is serious about National Holidays, and they have a ton of them.  Including a long winter vacation, summer vacation and a few weeks off during the spring.  The classes are usually 40+ students and the curriculum is usually up to you developing it with your Japanese co-teacher.  

Business Classes

Another more difficult teaching field to get into without at least a couple of years in Japan, business classes or "Corporate Training" is focused on providing lessons for a set number of weeks to employees at many of the large multi-national corporations in Tokyo.  You will be responsible for instructing Japanese professionals in the business and general communication customs of English-speaking countries.  The challenge for some is the professional atmosphere required.  Business attire is strictly demanded and many students expect a professional relationship with their teachers instead of a social or more conversational dynamic.  The benefit of teaching in the field is the pay.  It is much higher than that of any other option listed so far.  It is not at all unreasonable to expect $43-50 USD per hour when teaching these classes while children's classes will usually pay something around $21-25 USD per hour.  

Finding Students Online

Another way to work teaching English in Japan is to register with the number of online databases for Japanese people to find YOU.  The sites need a photo and ask you to fill out some information about your teaching style, availability and location in the city.  Then, Japanese people pay the site to browse their database and to contact you about setting up a private lesson.  This option lets you charge whatever you want and meet students in coffee shops, the homes or your home etc...  While the flexibility is a major benefit of these kinds of lessons there are some things to keep in mind.  First, remember that the website does not screen students, many people use these databases to find foreigners to date socially and if you are not comfortable navigating these kinds of discussions, prepare yourself.  Second, because there is no "middle man" it is up to you to communicate with your students about your policies and expectations, and vice versa.  How long you can keep a private student once you set up a lesson with them is directly dependent on your ability to please them and help them see progress quickly.

Many teachers use agencies in Japan to find jobs for them and place them in situations that fit the teacher's criteria, while this is very convenient it can also be rather tricky to find the right agency that is really willing to work with you for the best situation, beware.


#5. Visa  "I am here, now how do I stay?"

This may be the most difficult piece if the puzzle or it may be the easiest, it depends a lot on what jobs you find and how well suited you are for that position.  If you can prove to an employer that you are the perfect fit for their company or school they are a lot more likely to give you visa sponsorship.  Without a work visa it is very very difficult - if not impossible - to teach English.  Some companies offer them upfront to all contracted employees, but as a general rule if you do not have a full-time contract you will not get a visa.  It is unusual to see part-time positions include visa sponsorship, it happens but it is rare.  Another thing to think about is if you are planning on staying more than a year in Japan working, you will need more than a year-long visa to do it.  Normally, teachers are granted a 1 year working visa for their first application.  After that year and in theory your working contract are up, the process starts again.  The second approved application can be up to 3 years of permission to work in Japan.  Something to think about when applying to jobs "Is this a job I could commit to for 2 years?"  If you know right away it is not, maybe you should keep looking.  

# 6. Health Insurance  "How do I take care of myself in Japan?"

This is one of the best things about working and living in Japan.  The health care is really great.  After you have a Gaijin Card, somewhere to live, a job and a visa you can apply for a health care card.  Actually the Japanese government requires you to have health care and to have proof of payment if you want to renew your visa, ever.  This is the great part, it is relatively cheap and covers everything.  Your monthly bill depends on your income and number of dependents but provides things like acupuncture, massage, MRIs, dental work, eye exams, cancer scans etc... The co-pay is very very little and the quality of care is very very good.  For example an MRI at a hospital for a back injury cost less than $50USD, a root canal costs about the same and a therapeutic massage with acupuncture is less than $10 USD.  Like I said, GREAT.  

#7. Taxes "Paying into the System"

Taxes are another requirement for renewing your visa.  You will receive a notice in the mail reminding you to pay them.  The new fiscal year in Japan begins in March and that is usually when you need to pay the taxes you owe on the previous year's income.  To pay your taxes you need to find the Tax Office for your area, City Hall should be able to direct you to it.  It is a wonderful idea to go early with lots of flexible time on your hands.  It requires a lot of paperwork and while there are very friendly people to asset you, they may not speak English and you may not understand their formal Japanese.  It is one of those times when bringing that benevolent Japanese friend with you is a good idea.  Also, there may be items or services that you can claim as tax-deductible and not claiming them could cost you a lot of money.

#8. Cell Phones  "Staying in contact with my new Japanese network"

After living in Japan for several months you will undoubtedly have a group of friends, co-workers and employers that need to contact you and that you will want to contact.  Arranging a cell phone in Tokyo is more difficult than it should be.  You need a work visa to sign a contract with a cell phone supplier.  You also need your Gaijin Card (updated as perfectly as possible) and either a Japanese bank account or an international recognized credit card.  To get most of these things you also need a phone number (which you will not have yet and this creates the difficulty), it will be helpful if you can use a Japanese phone number of some kind before you apply to get a cell phone - at this point you owe a lot of dinners or beers to this benevolent Japanese friend I keep mentioning.  

The contract for a cell phone is usually 2 years for a phone with tools like internet or any kind of "smart phone".  Sometimes the phone itself will be free when you sign up.  Things like internet and texting are vital resources for networking and navigating Tokyo as a whole,  you will use them everyday so make sure your plan includes them.  There are a number of service providers and many locations that speak English so do some research and find what fits you best.  Then be cautious about how much you are chatting as the rates are relatively steep. 

 #9.  Japanese Bank Account  "Getting paid and entering the system"

It is a great feeling when you get your first pay check in Yen.  Most companies require that you open a Japanese bank account and will pay you monthly through direct deposit.  This is a convenient way to be paid and it minimizes the effort on everyone's part.  The things you are required to present differ between banks, but basically you will need your updated Gaijin Card, possibly your passport showing your visa, and a Japanese signature stamp with your name.  This stamp is called a "Hanko" and you can have one made for you at most stationary shops.  Either research ahead of time how your name is written in "Katakana" ( the Japanese writing system for foreign words) or you can sometimes ask the shop to help you directly.  To have the stamp made costs around $15USD and takes anywhere from 3 - 6 days to complete, so plan ahead.  

After you are ready to open the account you will need to find a branch of the bank you have chosen (or is required by your employer) that has English customer service, there are most likely several near you.  Once you have successfully opened the account they will typically give you a bank book and explain that your card will be sent in the post within 1-2 weeks, so again plan ahead.  

#10. Utilities and Other Bills "How do I keep my household running?"

You will need to contact the electric company, gas company and water companies right away after you move into your new apartment (guest houses and shared apartments include these services typically).  If you have not received the numbers from your agent or foreign agency, you can visit City Hall to get a list of important numbers you will need.  Usually there is an English-speaking operator anal you need to do to set up these services is give them your address.  Once you have lived in your Japanese home for a month, bills for these services will arrive in the post and when you open them up you will find a bar code on the bill.  This bar code enables you to pay the bill at ANY convenience store in Japan.  Simply bring them to the cashier and they will ring you up as if you were purchasing any other product.  Once you have paid, they will give you a receipt and you are done!  It is another great system available to you in Japan and you will learn to love it.  





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