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10 Things to Know Before Moving to Japan

Mt. Fuji with fall colors in Japan.

Are you considering moving way off to the “Far East” –to The Land of the Rising Sun–Japan? I’m no expert but I did live there for a little while and have been back over ten times, so I’ve put together a few things that might benefit you to know before going.

First of all, Japan has a reputation that precedes itself and sets it apart from most any other place I can think of. For me and many others, it truly is a country that is unlike anywhere else in the world.

It’s safe, has incredibly clean cities as well as breathtaking countryside, is known for things both modern and historical, is innovative, creative, quality-conscious, and it’s known to have some of the best food in the world.

For this reason, it’s not exactly surprising that so many people consider or daydream about moving to Japan, if not actually doing it. As a matter of fact, did you know that American residents in the land of the samurai form 2.4 percent of the total population? To top it off, this number is only getting bigger due to not only changes in how families are being created nowadays, but also government policies and incentives for skilled foreign workers.

But, let’s be honest, a move across this vast earth does not come without its fair share of intimidation, does it? After all, you’re more than likely dealing with a transition in language, social, and political changes, and perhaps even moving away from a variety of friends and family.

When I left America back in 2013, I definitely experienced a variety of fear. I no longer had a “home” to go back to as I no longer had a house, a car, a job, or even savings! I burned what cash I had left in order to take the big risk of moving abroad and essentially starting a new life. Now, as I look back, I can’t help but laugh at how I felt because I know better! There truly is nothing to fear (not even fear itself, because there is no such thing unless we create it).

Still, if you feel that you need some extra assistance in order to overcome your own personal struggle with fear of traveling, I welcome you to read my article about kicking that fear problem on this page.

To help make your overseas transition easier, let’s uncover ten must-know facts that anyone moving to Japan should be aware of, starting with…

1. The Elderly Population

Did you know that Japan has one of the world’s highest life expectancies?

As of this writing, the average life expectancy in Japan is approximately 84 years of age. When you consider this number it may not come as a shock to you that 25 percent of the population is over the age of 65.

However, as the years go on, this number is only increasing. In fact, studies estimate that by 2050, 40% of Japan’s population will be comprised of those 65+ in age.

To add to that, Japan is also facing an ongoing shortage of new deliveries. What kind of deliveries? Why, the stork kind of course!

It seems that fewer and fewer people are getting married, therefore there are fewer babies. The reasons for this are multiple, however from what I have experienced and seen with my own two eyes, a big part of this has to do with money.

Nowadays, more people are choosing to move back home with their parents after they finish university studies. The reason for this is simple: They can spend less money on expenses while at the same time having more money to spend on things they want. Essentially, they can still have a boyfriend or a girlfriend if they desire–and they usually do–but they don’t have the added weight or responsibility of having to buy a house and, for the men, they don’t have to turn their salaries over to their wives as has been traditionally done in Japan for years now.

I lived in Tokyo for 3 months

and during that time I dated a few different ladies I met locally–some from a speed-dating event which was quite interesting and fun. For the most part, they took the dating scene very seriously. I was asked very direct, pointed questions about my job, my skills, and where I wanted to live in the future. I was even asked about children on a first date!

I actually don’t mind such questions on a first date or even a second date, but I simply wasn’t used to such a phenomenon. Not only that, most girls I dated in the past wouldn’t ask or be comfortable with being asked such questions so early.

Because of the slowdown in Japan’s marriage rate and subsequent birth rate, the elderly population is growing steadily at unprecedented levels.

2. Tattoos Are Frowned Upon

Thinking about getting a tattoo upon your arrival in Japan?

Well, you might want to think again. The truth is, tattoos are stigmatized in Japanese culture and not exactly praised. In the eyes of the Japanese, getting a tattoo is said to taint one’s body. This is because the body is seen as a gift that has been gifted by one’s parents.

In fact, tattoos are actually associated with crime in Japan. And, to make matters worse, some public places will not permit you entry if you have visible tattoos.

While it is true that tattoos today have become more popular, accepted, and even considered stylish, the fact remains that in Japan, they are still associated with the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia).

As a result, don’t be surprised if you are turned away

from a business or even job opportunity if you display visible tattoos.

Back when I was an English teacher in Guangzhou, China, there was a teacher there whose family was originally from South Korea. He, however, was born and raised in California. Not only was he a tattoo artist, but he also had many tattoos on his arms. The school where we taught required him to wear sleeves covering both of his arms so that his tattoos would not be visible to the students.

Now, China as a whole isn’t opposed to tattoos in particular. However, even in this society, there exists a small stigma and people must pay attention to how they appear in many situations at work and in school. In Japan, this appearance factor is even more important, due to the traditional view of one’s body and the link to organized crime.

Therefore, we advise you to think about this before you visit Japan, as opposed to waiting until you arrive and being surprised! For those of you wishing to work or get into certain places, it could make or break these plans!

3. Japan Has Three Alphabets

When it comes to the Japanese language, you’re going to want to prepare for the fact that there are three alphabets.

Yes, we said three alphabets. These alphabets are known as Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana and each one is just as important as the other. Some alphabets are used for grammar while the others are used for concepts.

Each alphabet has a different number of letters ranging from 26 letters to 2000 letters.

If you don’t know anything about Japanese, the simple way to think about it is like so:  hiragana Is the most basic form of Japanese and can be used to spell any word. Katakana can be used in a similar way, it is typically used for words that have been imported from other languages. I have often heard from my Chinese friends, colleagues, and students that the Japanese alphabet or writing system comes from China, however this isn’t the complete truth.

If you take the time to look at the differences between the three different systems used in Japan and the writing system that is currently used in China (which is Simplified Chinese–Traditional Chinese is still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong), you will notice that it is not all like Chinese style writing, and much of it is actually is quite different.

Another point to keep in mind is something that I have just heard within these past few months: I have been told that there is a push in Japan to move their system over onto Katakana completely. I have no way right now to determine if this is true or not, however I think that it is  an interesting development if so.

Such a move would cause Japan’s writing system to become more unique than it has been since adopting the Chinese system, and I believe it would also make it easier for foreigners to learn how to read and write Japanese. If you have studied Japanese writing systems before, then I’m sure that you will agree with me that Katakana is much easier than kanji!

4. Travel Times are Fast

If you plan to travel within Japan, you can expect to get to your destination at a rapid rate.

This is because the travel time in Japan is incredibly fast. The average speed on the Shinkansen Bullet Train is 155 mph and other trains can reach up to 375 mph.

Let’s consider that the distance between Tokyo and Kyoto is approximately 320 miles. However, you can get from A to B in less than 2.5 hours.

During my residence in Tokyo and my subsequent trips to other cities in Japan,I became quite familiar with the transportation system.  Since I have also live in China for many years, I am just as familiar (if not more so) with the transportation system here, as well as the differences between the two countries.

I will now take a moment to tell you about some of the main differences in Japan’s travel system.

If you are a tourist, then you can buy a  JR Rail Pass which allows you instant, all-day, everyday access to any service within the JR system. This pass can be purchased in your home country before leaving for Japan and, if you do, you can get a slight discount off the price. I have done this a few times myself and it is quite simple, although it might seem a little confusing the first time you do it.

After you buy the pass online, you will be sent a receipt for your purchase. When you travel to Japan, you simply take that receipt with you– along with your passport of course– to the nearest JR train station where you can obtain your Rail Pass.

This past looks like a small booklet, similar to your passport, although it is only made of paper.

To use it, you need to show the train station  attendants as you pass through the gate nearest their office.  remember that you cannot use this past to go through the normal ticket gates like the other commuters– you need to show your pass to the attendants so that they can allow you to walk through.

It might seem a little strange at first,

especially if you are used to using just a card, token, or other type of means to to go through the subway station entry and exit gates, but I can assure you that once you get used  to it, you will grow to appreciate it!

As a matter of fact, just by witnessing the amounts of people crowded at the ticket machines, you will instantly begin to feel happy about your purchase.

The JR Railpass also comes in different amounts (costs) depending on how many days you want it for, so you can save a bit of money if you aren’t going to need it for more than a few days. REMEMBER that as soon as you activate the pass, that day counts as DAY ONE, no matter how late in the day it is! So, if you activate it at the station late in the evening, it will still count that entire day as “Day One” and DOES NOT give you until “the evening” of the last day. This is very important and beneficial to remember!

On a final note,

always remember–as we mentioned before–that the Shinkansen (high-speed train) isn’t the only place you can use your pass! Anywhere there is JR service, you can use your pass. This means that the local JR Lines throughout the cities are also fair game–so get out there and travel as much as you like!

5. Japan Is Known for Their Toilets–Good & Bad

Ask anyone who has ever spent time in Japan and they will tell you about the modern, new-fangled Japanese toilets.

Sure, it may sound silly, but once you experience your first traditional, Japanese-style toilet you’ll understand why they have become such a hot topic–for lack of a better term.

The Pots Must Be Crazy

Using the bathroom in most Japanese buildings–restaurants, businesses, hotels, shopping malls–is sure to be a high-class experience, pretty much straight across the board. With few exceptions, these toilets are known to be ultra-intelligent and contain a number of complex features–most of which you can’t figure out–or may not want to.

We’re talking auto flushing toilets, seat warmers, spray features for self-cleaning different sensitive areas, noise functions, auto-lids, and deodorizers.

Necessary? Not exactly. The ultra over-the-top bathroom experience? That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

Now, let’s be fair and take a look at the darker, smellier, less-than-comfortable–ahem–“dark” side of toilets in Nihon.

Just when you thought that all Japanese toilets were the sh**,

you go and find out that some are, well, crappy.

Typically, the public toilets are similar to those described above, akin to the golden throne descended from the very defecatorium of almighty Zeus himself. Even many of the at-home commodes are similar: heated seats, hand-washing tank and all.

However, there is another side that leaves one somewhat speechless when first encountered, and that, my friends, is the dreaded squatter.

The aptly titled “squatter” toilet is pretty much what it sounds like.

There is essentially a bowl built into the floor and there is no sitting to be had here (and trust me, you wouldn’t want to try, anyway). You simply stand with one foot on either side, drop your pants and undies, hike up that dress or skirt, and then do your best baseball catcher impersonation.

If you happen to have trouble with this simple maneuver–and that would be considered very strange in China, where there is still a larger abundance of squatter toilets than tea shops–then you may want to scope out this information prior to committing to a particular hotel.

I will say that while my exposure to squatters in Japan has been extremely limited and rare, there have been some occasions where it was the only option when I stayed in some low-budget, no-frills capsule hotels (and that’s something interesting that I will talk about soon, so stay tuned!).

The bottom line is that you should expect to eventually see a squatter-style toilet if you plan to have an extended stay in Japan, but in general the ones you’ll experience with regularity are more like helpful little anime robots (assuming you yourself are regular).

6. Karaoke is Life

It’s safe to say that karaoke is a way of life in Japan. Combine that karaoke with J-pop and you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to Japan’s music culture.

Throughout Japan, especially in cities, you will see karaoke bars on every corner of the street. These bars are outfitted with private rooms that are dedicated to all things karaoke. You can even dress up, control the lighting and make use of the karaoke props that reside in each room.

When it comes to post-work drinks in Japan, be prepared to head to your nearest karaoke bar!

7. Tipping is Not Expected

While there are a few exceptions, tipping in Japan is generally not a common practice. While most places outside of Japan use tripping as a way to incentivize good service, this is not how hospitality is practiced in Japan.

In fact, if you leave a tip in a Japanese restaurant, they likely will not accept it. Some places might even find the tip to be offensive and a sign of disrespect.

Because tipping is not exactly an option, you may find yourself worrying that the service will be sub-par. The reality, however, could not be further from the truth! Japan is known to be one of the best countries for hospitality in the world.

8. Japan is Very Safe

It’s safe to say that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. In fact, in a study ranking the ten most safe countries, Japan was number three.

Considering how populous Japan is, it’s shocking to realize how little crime actually takes place there. And, to prove this point even further, Tokyo is ranked as the safest city in the world as well as one of the most populous cities in the world.

So, if you’d like to combine a city that is full of non-stop excitement and culture what a city that is known for its safety, Japan just might be your best bet.

9. Japan Is Home to Many Onsens

If you’re not familiar with the term Onsen, you’re going to become so if you move to Japan.

An Onsen is a natural hot spring and they are everywhere throughout Japan. Because Japan is a volcanic country, these onsens present themselves throughout the country.

The only downside? You have to be naked in the onsens and tattoos are not permitted.

10. Japan Experiences Many Earthquakes

Did you know that approximately 1500 earthquakes hit Japan each year?

Let’s consider that Japan is located along the notorious Pacific Ring of Fire. It is along this fault line that 90% of the world’s earthquakes appear.

If you’re deathly afraid of earthquakes, Japan might not be the country for you. However, it’s also important to understand that Japan has become very skilled at preparing for these earthquakes and many buildings are outfitted with anti-earthquake designs.

What to Expect When Moving to Japan

Japan is a stunning country that is rich in culture and contains no shortage of excitement.

If you’re considering moving to Japan, it’s best to know a thing or two about the country prior to the big move. While such a drastic move can feel overwhelming, having a basic understanding of what to expect beforehand is sure to ease your stress levels.

From being aware of the unwritten social rules of Japanese culture to understanding the demographics of the country itself, these facts provide for a glimpse into the Japanese lifestyle.

To read more articles on travel and gain a better understanding of where your next destination may be, be sure to visit our blog!


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