So you’re moving to Japan! It can be a pretty awesome place to live, but you’ll need to do a bit of planning to make things easier on yourself.
If you’ve never been to Japan before, I recommend trying to live in a suburb or urban location unless you have at least conversational-level Japanese.
Without solid language skills, you will effectively be both illiterate and deaf. This creates an environment where you can feel isolated, which can amplify homesickness or even cause depression. Most cities in Japan have an expat community, and even if it’s small, it can really help.
I joined a volunteer English café in my town to meet people. A friend joined an English DnD group that plays on weekends. Do yourself a favor and get involved early on!
You should definitely try to learn some Japanese before you leave. Wanikani is probably the best kanji tool for Japanese beginners because it teaches kanji in a way designed specifically for foreigners. The Genki textbook series is one of the simplest grammar books out there.
Things To Do At Home
Your first step in the moving process should be to begin organizing things at home. Everyone’s preparations will be a little bit different, but the list always ends up being longer than you anticipate.
Start by downsizing your closet and putting what you want to keep into storage. If it isn’t something that you use regularly, I really don’t recommend bringing it with you. Poshmark and eBay are great places to sell your things if you want extra cash. Craigslist is a good option for furniture or garage sale announcements.
The process of downsizing will also help you get into the “what I need” mindset instead of a “what I want” mode. I find that this helps in the cultural adjustment process where home comforts aren’t always available.
I recommend preparing at least 350,000 yen (roughly 3,100 – 3,500 USD)in savings before you move.
In Japan, you will be paid your wages once per month. Most companies issue payments in the middle of the next month, usually around the 15th. You should note that some companies still use the traditional date of the 25th, so ask your employer for specifics.
Example: You start your new job on April 1st. You work for the month of April. Your pay for the month of April will be deposited around May 15th.
This means that you will not be paid for at least a month and a half.
Moving is going to be expensive. Most companies do not cover your plane ticket.
If you’re moving into an apartment on your own, there is usually a payment upfront that can be close to 3 times your monthly rent. Daily expenses can also add up, so start saving as soon as you can.
If you have student loans or debt, you’ll need to figure out how you plan to pay them from abroad. Start budgeting once you know your new salary. You may need to reevaluate payment plans if your new earnings are lower.
If you plan to keep your bank accounts in your home country, make sure you have a phone number to access them with. Some people use a trusted family member’s number.
Others get a global roaming plan or a digital number through Skype or Google Voice. For Americans, both T-Mobile and Project Fi offer unlimited global roaming. Try to get a joint plan with another American who will be staying in the country, or your contract may be terminated for excessive roaming.
Credit cards with zero foreign transaction fees are also something to look into, because getting a credit card in Japan is notoriously difficult for foreigners. If you’re American and qualify, consider getting a card with flier miles or travel rewards as well. Who doesn’t like a free trip home?
Don’t forget to inform your bank about your upcoming travel; otherwise, you may be locked out of your accounts! Make sure you know your debit card withdrawal fees as well. Percent fees don’t matter, but if your card has a set per-transaction fee, it’s best to withdraw large sums at once.
I spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to send my money home. There are a variety of services available.
Wire transfers can be time-consuming. They also tend to give you poor exchange rates and have high fees. PayPal is another option, but it can also be somewhat time-consuming to set up. Western Union is notorious for their fees.
Personally, I’ve found TransferWise to be the best service. They’re upfront about the exchange rate, which is suspiciously rare for their competitors. Their fees are also the lowest on the market, as far as I can tell. They’re very fast and you can have your money transferred in as little as 2 days.
Voting From Abroad
While every country does it a bit differently, November is the US voting season. If you haven’t registered to vote and you plan on participating while abroad, make sure you register before you leave. You should also make sure your state allows for absentee voting.
I highly recommend updating things like your driver’s license and passport before you leave. You need at least 6 months of validity left on your passport or your visa won’t be issued. Doing this will keep them from expiring while you’re gone, which can cause a hassle later.
Obtain certified copies of all your important documents to take with you. This includes things like your university transcripts, certificates of graduation, birth certificate, marriage certificate, and so on. Japanese companies and the immigration bureau may want official copies of your diploma as well.
Personally, I’ve never had an issue with submitting a photocopy of my diploma along with official/certified copies of my certificate of graduation and my transcript, so this might be a good workaround.
It’s also wise to make digital copies of everything. I recommend storing these in encrypted files.
Make sure you follow the paperwork protocol for your visa. The typical flow is that your sponsor in Japan (company, school, etc.) will send you a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) in the mail. This can take several months for the Immigration Bureau of Japan to issue, but be patient.
Once you receive it, you can take it to your nearest embassy or consulate. Processing times will vary, but in the US it usually takes about a week for them to issue your visa after you receive your COE.
Prescription and OTC Medications
If you’re dependent on any medication, make sure that you can obtain it in Japan. If your medication is legal but not available in Japan OR if you would like to bring more than a one-month supply with you until you can see a Japanese doctor, you will have to fill out an import form called the Yakkan Shoumei to bring with you.
You should plan for the process to take at least 3 weeks, and you cannot receive it after your arrival in Japan. Please note that you will need to have already purchased your flight to start the application process.
If you like having strong OTC painkillers, cold medicine, antihistamines, etc., I recommend bringing some with you. You can bring up to a one-month supply without needing the Yakkan Shoumei. Make sure they’re legal in Japan, though!
If you have any questions, do not hesitate to email the Bureau of Health and Welfare. I’ve found them to be incredibly prompt and helpful during the application process.
**IMPORTANT: Some common OTC or prescription medications are ILLEGAL in Japan.
Any medication containing over 10 mg of pseudoephedrine (a common ingredient in cold and allergy medicine) is PROHIBITED in Japan. Many medications designed to treat depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and ADHD are controlled or banned. Any medication containing codeine (a common ingredient in European cold medicine) is considered a controlled substance.
Dosage can affect whether or not it’s controlled, so make sure to do your research beforehand! A thorough list can be found here.
If your current medication is banned in Japan, I recommend seeking alternatives ahead of time.
If you are caught with illegal medications, you can be deported or sent to prison, regardless of your Western prescription. Never bring medication across borders in unmarked bottles.
Packing – What Do You Need to Bring?
This is probably the most stressful part of planning your move. What’s available in Japan? What should you bring? Remember: you only have two checked suitcases and two carry-on bags. I’ve moved to Japan twice now, so I’ll share some of my tips.
(Don’t forget to pack a gift for your new coworkers! Teachers can also pack gifts for their future students.)
If you’re from North America, you’ll probably need a three-prong to two-prong adapter. If you’re from other countries, you’ll need plug adapters for every electronic you bring. Remember that Japan uses 100 volts and the frequency varies between 50-60 Hertz. You may need a voltage converter if you bring sensitive electronics.
If you plan to bring your phone with you, even if you plan on switching to a Japanese service provider, make sure it has global roaming capabilities. The phone network protocol in Japan may be different from your home country, so check beforehand!
What should you wear?
This is a deceptively simple question. Many of the social norms may be different from those in your home country. Work attire in Japan will likely be more conservative, but you may not be in a full business suit every day.
Typical work attire for men is a dress shirt, slacks, a belt, and a suit jacket. In the summer, you can do away with the jacket as “Cool Biz” will be in effect. Casual attire is usually a t-shirt, pants, and sneakers. It’s important to remember that being shirtless in public, even in the summertime, is considered indecent in Japan.
There are more things for women to keep in mind when they dress, especially for work attire. Any sort of cleavage or excess collarbone is considered scandalous in Japan. Particularly tight clothes may also be considered inappropriate. Professional skirts should be around knee-level and pantyhose should always be worn. Slacks can be paired with clean socks or knee-high hose.
Casual attire for women follows the similar no-chest rule, but you’re allowed to show as much leg as you’re comfortable with. Tops that are transparent or have cut-outs will be seen as particularly sexy, so understand that you may be sending an unintentional message with the way you dress.
Both men and women should bring a full suit that fits them well. Japan uses suits for formal business meetings, ceremonies, and interviews.
Japan has clearly defined seasons. Snow is common in winter throughout the country, except for the southern islands, and Japanese buildings tend to be less insulated than those in the West. You should pack a good winter coat and thermals.
The summer often has temperatures of 35°C (95°F) or higher and is incredibly humid. It’s often so humid that you’ll be damp within just a couple minutes of going outside. Bring good wicking fabrics to keep your sweat off of your skin.
Plus-sized and taller people will have difficulty finding clothes that fit them, although there are several guides available. Shapely women with curves up top and/or in the hips will have problems with fit as well, regardless of body size. I recommend bringing clothes with you if you fall into these categories.
It’s important to note that if you’re teaching English at a private company, you may be required to follow a strict dress code. Ask your employer if you’re unsure.
I highly recommend that both men and women bringing at least one pair of sturdy walking shoes and a pair of dress shoes.
Japanese shoe sizes run small. An American woman’s size 7.5 shoe (size conversion chart) is the last commonly available shoe size for women in Japan. Japanese shoes also run narrow, so if you have wide feet, it may be hard to find something comfortable.
Fashion-conscious individuals should consider bringing several pairs of stylish shoes. Keep in mind that open-toed shoes are not considered appropriate work attire in Japan.
If you’ll be teaching English, check with your employer to see if you’ll need indoor shoes.
There’s a lot of mixed information about what sort of toiletries are available in Japan.
In my experience, American-strength deodorants are uncommon in Japan. I highly recommend bringing some of your preferred brands with you if you don’t want to risk body odor.
I also find that the shampoos available in Japan don’t get my hair as clean. After a couple months, I end up with a residue that makes my hair look greasy. I seem to be one of the only people with this issue, so it could just be the products I’ve tried, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Japan has plenty of options for things like eyeliner, eyeshadow, nail polish, etc. For anything related to your skin tone, bring your preferred products. The range of shades you’re used to may not be available.
If you’re a person of color, I recommend packing a set of your own hair care products until you have time to see what works and what doesn’t. This review says that there are products available, but the author also states that she uses relaxers, so this could affect a product’s effectiveness. Room 806 in Tokyo has a variety of black hair care products, but they do not list prices on their website.
Is it Hard to Get Everything Done?
Moving can be stressful even when it’s not being done internationally. If you’re easily overwhelmed, make to-do and packing lists to ensure that you get everything done. There’s a lot to do to before you leave for Japan, but it’ll run more smoothly if you break it down into steps.
Have you moved to Japan recently and want to share your story? Is there anything you regret bringing or leaving behind? Leave us a comment below!