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10 Things to Know Before Moving to Japan

Mt. Fuji with fall colors in Japan.
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Are you considering moving way off to the “Far East” –to The Land of the Rising Sun–Japan? I’m no expert but I have lived in Japan for a little while and traveled to several different locations, so I’ve put together a few things of interest for those who haven’t been yet.

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. Sometimes, its rep causes it to leave some feeling a bit disillusioned after they arrive and spend some time here, while others find the expected world they have already pictured in their minds.

I have had some people tell me that Japan wasn’t what they expected and cited their favorite media as the reasoning why. Conversely, others have said the exact opposite, saying that they felt Japan was every bit matching-up to its reputation and more, even exceeding the bar set by famous media such as its anime.

Famous for its incredibly safe, organized, and clean cities as well as breathtaking countryside, things both modern and historical coexist side-by-side as it continues to be innovative, creative, quality-conscious, and it’s known to have some of the best food in the world.

For these reasons, it’s not exactly surprising that so many people consider or daydream about traveling or 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.

A Canadian friend of mine, who lives in Tokyo with his Japanese wife and young child, pointed out one day that more and more foreigners were being brought in simply to fill the need for material handlers in some of the ports and warehouses. I was surprised to learn this as Japan has held a rather stringent immigrant worker policy for skilled people who can demonstrate a clear ability to support themselves.

But, let’s be honest, a move across this vast earth–for many of us–doesn’t come without its fair share of fear, doubt, uncertainty, or intimidation, does it? After all, you’re more than likely dealing with a transition in language, work environment and expectations, social circle, political changes, and perhaps even a big disconnect from a variety of friends and family.

When I left America back in 2013, and although I was excited and looking forward to arriving in Japan, I definitely experienced a variety of fears. I no longer had a “home” to go back to as I had gotten rid of my house, car, job, and even much of my 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 today 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 you feel a bit more comfortable and at ease with your overseas transition, let’s uncover a few light facts that anyone moving to Japan should be familiar with. These aren’t meant for seasoned immigrants, expats, or people very familiar with life in Japan, but they are either interesting or important tidbits to consider for the inexperienced.

1. The elderly population expandeth: good or bad?

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.

How does the aging population in Japan relate to YOU?

Well, as I mentioned before, due to a steady decrease in available and able bodies, a bit of a labor shortage has ensued in Japan. Many years ago teaching English was one of the primary ways to get hired and even begin to build a life here, but nowadays there are other opportunities, and not just those with professional skills.

If you like the idea of trying your had at work and life in Japan but don’t know what you’d do besides teaching English (it’s not something for everyone and the pay isn’t much to write home about), then I’d recommend that you take an inventory of your work experience, skills and certifications, degree(s), and even current level of the Japanese language. Put these together for a better image of what you’re truly capable of and then you can pop open your favorite search engine in order to look for companies hiring in Japan for just this type of person.

The more targeted you are in your job hunt, the better the results you’ll have, and due to the increased need for workers, Japan just might have something for you.

I’ve lived in Tokyo and some other areas of Japan,

and during all this time I dated a few different ladies I met locally, some even from a speed-dating event which was quite interesting and fun. For the most part, these Japanese ladies 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 whether or not I wanted to have more children on a first date!

I actually don’t mind such questions early-on in dating, but I simply wasn’t used to such a phenomenon. Not only that, most girls I’ve dated or been around wouldn’t really ask or be comfortable with being asked such questions so early on.

Still, not as many are looking to settle down as before, and because of the slowdown in Japan’s marriage rate and subsequent birth rate, the elderly population is growing steadily at unprecedented levels, but this works in your favor if you’re looking for work.

2. Tattoos are basically still frowned upon

Do you have a tattoo or are you thinking about getting one?

Well, you might want to think again if it’s going to be somewhere hard to cover up.

The truth is, tattoos are still rather stigmatized in Japanese culture and not looked upon favorably. Historically, getting a tattoo is said to taint one’s body, because the body is seen as a gift that has been given by one’s parents.

You may or may not be aware that tattoos have been associated with crime in Japan for many years now. And, to make matters worse, some public places will still 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) and can cause you to have some problems which you can easily avoid by just not having them in the first place. If you do have some, then I would recommend that you just take some steps to cover them up well. A friend of mine in China had some “sleeve” tattoos on his arms and, despite the more tattoo-accepting society in China, he was forced to cover them up while at work–even in summer.

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

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

My friend–a Korean born American from California–was not only a tattoo artist, but he also had many tattoos on his arms. The office where we worked required him to wear sleeves covering both of his arms so that his tattoos would not be visible to the locals.

Now, as I mentioned before, 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. 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, I advise you to think about this before you visit Japan, as opposed to waiting until you arrive and being surprised–and perhaps disappointed. For those of you wishing to work or get into certain places, it could make or break these plans!

3. Japan uses a combination of alphabet systems

If you’re going to live in Japan for an extended period of time, then I would strongly recommend that you take some Japanese classes if you haven’t already and do your best to get a grasp on the language, and this will definitely include the writing systems. However, let’s take a quick look at the listening and speaking first.

Listening & Speaking

Listening to and speaking Japanese has never really been difficult for me to learn as I find its sound rather easy to pronounce. I do not find any of the sounds to be difficult and I feel that for most native English speakers, this should be the case.

The key for me in learning effectively and efficiently in Japanese and even Chinese follows the same rules I learned from professionals and even polyglots (people who can speak many languages, basically):

  1. Method
  2. Repetition
  3. Regularity

Method

My coach told me in high school that “Practice doesn’t make perfect–perfect practice makes perfect.” It didn’t make much sense when he first said it, but I realized what he meant and then was able to apply it to improve myself.

I use the same principle in language study, as I also should’ve when I was learning to play golf! There’s a question I ask people when they say “I study English/Japanese/Chinese every day but I just don’t improve and I don’t know why.” My question is “If you played golf every single day, would you get better at golf?” They always answer “Yes” or “Of course!” but imagine their surprise when I tell them “No, you wouldn’t.”

Here’s why:

If you grab a set of golf clubs and head out to the course for a practice at the driving range followed by 18 holes, every single day, then you won’t get better at golf–you will be getting better at YOUR kind of golf. This is the same with learning to speak Japanese, or any language for that matter.

If you practice speaking all the time but aren’t using the right method, then you’re going to learn in a way that’s more harmful to your success than it is helpful, plus it’s going to make it even harder for you to “unlearn” your bad habits and relearn the right way. It’s really best for you to focus on doing it right from the beginning and keep at it the same way as you go.

Repetition

Doing something again and again and again may be boring (unless it’s winning in the casino) but it’s definitely necessary if you want to acquire, hone, and fine-tune a language–and Japanese is no exception. Remember what happened to Ash (Bruce Campbell) in Army of Darkness? Perhaps a bit of laziness in repeating your Japanese lessons properly won’t wake an army of the dead, but it would definitely cause you to have some troubles or challenges easily avoided if you’d just do them a bit more!

Regularity

I’ve seen people studying a language for a few hours a day and I’ve seen others studying for one hour a week. If you really want to see something impressive, go over to YouTube and check out some of the polyglots’ daily habits for study and compare that to yours. You’ll probably be left thinking “What have I actually gotten done today?”

Simply put, doing even a little language study every single day will go a long way to help you learn, retain, and improve.

Reading & Writing

Japan’s alphabets are known as Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana–each one just as important as the other.

Some can be used for grammar while the others are used for concepts, and 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 essentially be used to spell any word that exists. Katakana can be used in a similar way, while it is typically utilized for words that have been imported from other languages, called “loan words.” I have often heard from my Chinese friends about how 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 writing 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 some of it is not as similar to Chinese style writing, and much of it is actually is quite different, and sounds are even attributed differently. It’s funny how my Chinese friends have often tried to read the characters as I have given them tours around Japan, with the writing sometimes making sense and often not making any sense at all!

Another point to keep in mind is something that I have read this year, 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 even a bit more unique than it has been since importing the Chinese system, and I believe it would also make it easier for foreigners to learn how to read and write Japanese with one less alphabet to focus on.

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! Still, for the time being I highly recommend that you get to studying as soon as you are able in all of these–listening, speaking, reading, and writing–because to live in any country not your own is hard enough and becoming familiar with the language opens many doors.

4. Travel times are generally fast but can be complicated

If you plan to travel within Japan, you can generally expect to get to your destination at a rapid rate as there are numerous options from point A to point B and almost everywhere in-between.

Some travel times in Japan are incredibly fast and if you are from a more or less turtle-style train system country, the you’ll be impressed by the efficiency, speed, and service here. The average speed on the Shinkansen Bullet Train itself is 155 mph and other trains can reach up to as much as 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.

Between my residence in Tokyo and my subsequent trips to other cities in Japan since 2013, I have become quite familiar with the transportation system.  Since I have also lived in China for many years, I am just as familiar (if not more so) with the transportation system there, as well as several differences between the two countries. The key difference for me being the sheer complexity of the two, but definitely worth mentioning are efficiency, convenience, and cleanliness, among others.

Sophisticated yet Complicated

Once you find yourself in Japan, you’ll inevitably need to attend a meeting, go for an interview, meet a friend, go on a date, or get to some other place–on time. While the speed isn’t the issue, figuring out the train system itself can be. I have a couple of suggestions for you in dealing with this.

  • First of all, do use a great app with the ability to give you full directions from your starting to end points. I personally do use Google Maps for pretty much everything and it even gives the train departure and arrival times, among other things. There are definitely other apps available and you can play around with them to see which works best for you, but after getting used to the interface and having relatively consistent and dependable results, I find it easiest to just stick with GM.
  • Second, although I do recommend using a nice map-app, I also encourage you to not become strictly dependent on it. Sure, once you’ve arrived in a huge, bustling city like Tokyo, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost at times. Heck, even after you’ve been there for a year you may still feel a large degree of this. However, you really should make an effort to familiarize yourself with getting around by using the signage only, as this will not only help you to be aware of your surroundings, familiarize yourself with the environment, and become more confident, but it will also save your neck and eyes from looking at your phone too much–not to mention a friend or partner who may be trying to tell you something!

About the JR Pass

If you are going to enter Japan with the right type of visa, 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. The process 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!

Key Points to Remember: The JR Pass isn’t for anyone with residency, temporary or otherwise. You need to be coming to Japan with a temporary-type visa in order to qualify for this JR Pass, so remember that if you are coming for work. After you arrive and obtain your residency, you can then take advantage of the best options available. I recommend that you discuss this with your company, as they often cover transportation costs in Japan.

5. Japanese 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 often more like 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, deodorizers, and more. Necessary? Not necessarily. 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 may 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. Well, so maybe this is an exaggeration, but still: 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, then you may want to scope out this information prior to committing to a particular place. While it is super rare to see such a toilet in an actual apartment or house in Japan (I never have, personally), it is possible. If you need to stay in a hotel for a little while, then depending on what type it is, there’s a chance you may see one there.

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!).

Don’t be surprised if you 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 probably more “kommon” than you’ve known it

It’s safe to say that karaoke is a common, regular way of life in Japan. While I am familiar with it from the US, my experiences in KTV in both Japan and China both are vastly different from anything I’ve ever seen–and it most likely is for you, as well.

Still, the main reason I mention it is because anyone who stays in Japan for any length of time will inevitably get invited to sing karaoke and, for those of us who extend our stays to several years, this becomes a regular thing.

Throughout Japan, especially in cities, there are karaoke bars up and down and on every corner of the street. These bars are outfitted with private rooms that are dedicated to all things karaoke, including multiple mics, TVs, sofas, food, drinks (even all-you-can-drink), lights, themed rooms–and you can even dress up in some of them or make use of the karaoke props that reside in each room.

When it comes to post-work drinks or hanging out in Japan, be prepared to be invited to the nearest karaoke bar and don’t be surprised if it happens on a work night.

7. Tipping is not a thing

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 or reward 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. While some places might find the tip to be offensive and a sign of disrespect, the people are aware that many foreigners aren’t up-to-date on this knowledge so they will always be cordial when they refuse your money, as they generally are about most things.

Because tipping is not exactly an option, you may find yourself worrying that the people helping you will take offense. 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 and it’s all done without the existence of a tipping culture. It took me a bit of getting used to, but now that I am, I really enjoy it. 🙂

8. Japan is safe, but also in ways you might not think about

It’s safe to say: Japan is one of the safest countries in the world.

As a matter of fact, in a study ranking the ten most safe countries, Japan was ranked number three. You probably aren’t shocked by this, however, unless you’ve been living under a rock.

What is shocking however, is considering how populous Japan is and realizing how little crime actually takes place there as a whole. 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, for those looking for a city that is full of non-stop excitement and culture but is also known for its safety, Japan has more than one option.

Other things

Without knowing where you hail from, I can’t attest as to what you are used to in the way of general day-to-day safety that is non-crime related, such as infrastructure, buildings and construction, food, and getting around.

  • In the history of Japan’s high-speed rail, there hasn’t yet been a single death as result of a mechanical, electrical, human, or any other type of failure.
  • The majority of people follow the street signals very well, and the few times I’ve seen people ignore them, it’s never caused anyone to be in danger.
  • Japan gets a bad rap for being “expensive,” especially Tokyo, but I think that it really depends on what lifestyle you want to lead. However, even many cheaper, delicious foods can be had without having to worry about their quality.
  • While walking around the streets, construction workers and gate attendees alike take great care to guide and instruct people safely, so this adds another level of safety and organization that I’ve come to really appreciate and enjoy. Things were not always this way back in America, and there are often quite dangerous construction areas in some other countries I’ve been to.

9. Making friends is doable but takes some effort

When I first moved to Japan, I felt that making local friends was just going to keep eluding me. I connected with one great guy and we did several things together, including basketball, karaoke, walking together, sometimes having a few drinks, and always good conversations about various things. Unfortunately for me, his work took him out of the country and when he came back he was far away in Kyushu, quite a distance from me. As I had begun to focus more on expanding my business, my friendships weren’t happening and I wasn’t happy about it.

Later I was able to figure out why.

The main reason had nothing to do with Japan and everything to do with me. Back in the US, if I had moved to a new town and picked up a job, then it would’ve been really easy and quick to meet and go out with colleagues or people in the local community. However, due to my basic Japanese skill at the time, isolated life on the computer, and zero effort in going to the right places, I remained without a replacement best friend.

The best advice I can give you, now that I’ve gotten around this issue, is to be proactive in your approach to finding and making friends in Japan. It’s quite possible that someone may actually want to go out with you or invite you out, but not want to bother you or give the wrong impression so they remain silent.

In order to connect with Japanese and form friendships, I personally go to language cafes and other areas where the locals purposefully hang out in order to meet and chat with foreigners. I’ve found that people like this are very open to having foreign friends and will show genuine interest in me, so I believe the same will be true for you.

10. You’re gonna feel some shaking

I’m sure you know that Japan experiences a large number of tremors, but did you realize that approximately 1500 earthquakes happen each year?

Japan is located along what is called The Pacific Ring of Fire, where 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur. If you are from an area that is isn’t particularly foreign to earthquakes then perhaps this won’t bother you, but for someone like me who had never experienced one, it was odd, if not startling.

If you’re deathly afraid of earthquakes, then Japan might not be the country for you and I would strongly recommend you to think about this, as you will definitely feel quite a few shimmies and possibly even some larger ones if you choose to live there.

On the other hand, it’s also fair for me to say that Japan has become very skilled at preparing for these earthquakes and many buildings are outfitted with anti-earthquake designs, the most memorable of which for me is Tokyo Skytree, which was engineered to withstand large earthquakes and strong winds (not to mention having an amazing view of the city–and even Mt. Fuji on any clear day!).

One morning in my apartment, which was at the time located in Ueno, I awoke early in the morning to a gentle rocking back-and-forth motion, as if someone was gently trying to wake me up. When I opened my eyes and looked up at the light in the middle of the room, I saw that it was swaying to and fro. The feeling that I got from this was one of the strangest ones I’ve ever had in my life–a combination of “Well that’s an interesting sensation” and “Should I be worried about this?”

I messaged my friend Tomiya and asked her if she felt the earthquake and her response was “There was an earthquake? I didn’t feel it, no.” A few minutes later she messaged me again to explain that it wasn’t an earthquake, but just a common “shake.” Common like karaoke.

Anyway, I’ve felt a few here and there but that one was the biggest I personally can remember–actual shocks from a quake east of Tokyo. If it bothers you, then it’s something to consider.

What to Expect When Moving to Japan

The bottom line is that Japan is a stunning country in multiple ways–rich in culture and with no shortage of excitement.

If you’re considering moving here, then it’s best to know a thing or two about it 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. This “10 List” is a simple, light look at just a few things for you to consider, but there are many, many more, such as residency, getting an apartment, finding work, dealing with cultural differences, and more, but these will be covered at a later time. They are deeper issues and take more time to lay out!

These facts provide but a glimpse into the lifestyle of Japan, but I hope that you will continue your journey with me here as I share more and I would encourage you to also check out the variety of expat vloggers who are posting on YouTube–some are great and some not so great, but you can take it with a grain of salt and glean some useful things.

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

That’s all for now — ja mata!


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