Expat Guides

Expat Living in Japan Guide

Japan has been described by some as “the ultimate East-meets-West, 20th-century experience,” and indeed, it is a land of contrasts. A place where ancient culture lives in harmony with modern technology . . . where quiet tradition rubs elbows with glitz and glamour . . . where cherry blossoms release their gentle fragrance in the shadow of cold steel skyscrapers.

The country itself comprises four main islands and thousands of smaller islands. Its climate is temperate, with hot, humid summers, and winters that are cool and dry. April, May, October and November are generally considered among the most pleasant months of the year.

With the exception of the island of Hokkaido, all of Japan experiences two rainy seasons. Tsuyu begins in early June in most of the country and often lasts until the middle of July. A second, shorter rainy season occurs from early September through mid-October.

The way of life

Politeness and propriety are the cornerstones of Japanese life, and maintaining harmony or wa, is king. Although the Japanese do not expect foreigners to understand their ways, they are pleasantly surprised — and honored — when they do. Expats who take the time to learn and respect the Japanese culture will find this greatly eases their social and business relations.

In business, the Japanese are practical, hard-working, and highly conscious of status. People are addressed by their surname and the suffix san; first names should not be used. Japanese always bow to one another — although handshaking is also common in business — and the depth of the bow connotes respect for the other’s position.

Business cards are an important aspect of doing business in Japan. Ultimately, the cards should be printed in English on one side, Japanese on the other, and reflect the expat’s title and credentials.

Office dress is relatively formal, with business suits and white shirts the norm. Punctuality for business and social meetings is critical. Given the complexity of Japanese addresses and the ever-present traffic, it’s wise for expats to leave adequate time for travel.

Although the number of women in the Japanese workforce is increasing, their numbers are not on a par with women in the US. Those who are in the workforce tend to hold positions of lower rank. The result is that many Japanese businessmen today may appear aloof or uncomfortable when dealing with female expats.

Daily living

Credit cards were relatively rare in Japan until the mid-1980s. Today most major credit cards are accepted by large hotels and leading stores, but cash is still more useful in areas not frequented by foreigners.

Japan has a wide variety of restaurants with food from all over the world. Prices vary, but most are considered expensive by Western standards. Less expensive meals are available in department store dining rooms, and restaurants in downtown arcades and office blocks. Of course, there are also plenty of familiar American restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Red Lobster, Tony Roma’s — even Dunkin’ Donuts.

Supermarkets in larger neighborhoods offer a selection of moderately priced domestic and imported products. Many neighborhoods also have smaller stores specializing in meat, fruit, vegetables, bread and fish, which are also reasonably priced. In addition, Tokyo and other major Japanese cities have stores that cater specifically to foreigners. Although these offer the convenience of familiar Western-style products, expats will find they are considerably more expensive.

Taxis, limousines and buses run from the airport to the center of the city, and some buses run by hotels as well. Japan Air Lines, All Nippon Airways, and Toa Domestic Airlines all offer flights within Japan. Japanese trains provide punctual, comfortable service, and link to most major cities. Subways operate in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, Fuknoka and Sapporo.

Housing options

In major Japanese cities, it is possible to rent modern apartments or homes, or even a traditional Japanese home. Accommodations are smaller than most Western expatriates expect, and second (and third) bedrooms tend to be especially small.

When signing a rental contract, expats may have to pay a large sum of money upfront. This may include a one-time rental deposit ranging from two to six months’ rent; a real estate agent’s fee equal to one-month’s rent; and an advance rental payment that can range from two month’s to one year’s rent.


In Tokyo, expats favor the Hiroo/Azabu area west of downtown, which offers many flats with Western-style living and neighborhood conveniences, good public transportation, and international schools. Apartments are usually unfurnished, and feature a garage, and sometimes a swimming pool.

Shibuya is a large sub-city with major Western conveniences, a variety of accommodations, and family-oriented features, including international schools and good public transportation.

Yoyogi-Uehara is a residential suburban area, with a variety of accommodations, a large children’s park, Western-style supermarket, good public transportation and international schools.

Other popular areas for expats include Takanawa, Shiokane and Shiroganedai, which have some detached homes; Bancho, Kohjimachi, Ichigaya, and Yotsuya, which are residential areas with new structures and easy access to schools; Ohyamacho and Nishihara, which are residential areas with apartments and homes for rent in proximity to bus routes for international schools; Setagaya, which is near international schools; and Den-en-Chohfu, which is a more upscale residential area that has detached homes with gardens.

The following monthly rents for Tokyo represent citywide averages. Expats may be able to negotiate prices down by as much as 20-30%, however, due to a depressed economy.(Need help converting currencies? Check out the GNN/Koblas Currency Converter.)

Apartments – one-bedroom: ¥320,000; two-bedroom: ¥580,000 to 850,000; three-bedroom: ¥650,000 to 1,000,000; four-bedroom: ¥1,200,000 to 1,300,000.

Semi-detached houses – two-bedroom: ¥350,000 to 550,000; three-bedroom: ¥500,000 to 800,000.

Detached homes – three-bedroom: ¥700,000 to 750,000; four-bedroom: ¥850,000 to 900,000.


In the Yokohama area, Bluff has the most expensive accommodations. Expats will find residences there are larger with small gardens, and some have garages and swimming pools. The area also has adequate public transportation and international schools.

Negishi is a mainly residential area located in proximity to the Yokohama Country Athletic Club, which has many foreign members. Public transportation in the area is good. There are also a variety of properties and international schools.

Honmoku is a restored area with many apartments and homes, an excellent infrastructure, and nearby international schools, shopping facilities, parks and recreational facilities.

Following are average monthly rents for Yokohama. As with Tokyo, the rents may be negotiated down.

Apartments – two-bedroom: ¥270,000 to 275,000; three-bedroom: ¥375,000; four-bedroom: ¥400,000 to 450,000.

Semi-detached houses – three-bedroom: ¥325,000; four-bedroom: ¥325,000 to 400,000.

Detached homes – three-bedroom: ¥350,000 to 375,000; four-bedroom: ¥550,000 to 750,000.


A pleasant residential area 25 miles from downtown, Kobe-Millage has a variety of rentals (some with garages and pools), good shopping facilities, restaurants, and international schools.

Ashiya is 12 miles from the center, and has excellent shopping, restaurants, transportation and international schools.

The Kobe-Chuo-ku area is located 32 miles from the center, and is a residential area with good access to shops, restaurants, public transit and international schools.

The following average monthly rental rates for Osaka may be negotiable.

Apartments – one-bedroom: ¥200,000 to 250,000; two-bedroom: ¥330,000 to 350,000; three-bedroom: ¥440,000 to 500,000; four-bedroom: ¥600,000 to 700,000.

Detached houses – three-bedroom: ¥500,000 to 620,000; four-bedroom: ¥680,000 to 900,000.

Educational choices for expat children

Academic standards at Japan’s international schools are high, and grade scores on standardized tests are significantly higher than in US schools. Most expatriate schools in Japan follow the American system, although there are other schools available. Tuition at many international schools is high. The following schools offer instruction in English:

Tokyo – American School in Japan (ages 3-18); British School in Tokyo (ages 4-12); International School of the Sacred Heart (ages 3-18); Japan International School, for children whose native language is not English (ages 5-16); Nishimachi International School (ages 4-18, except girls only from age 6+); St. Mary’s International School for Boys (ages 6-19); Seisen International School (ages 4-18, except girls only from age 6+).

Yokohama – Yokohama International School (ages 2.5 – 18); St. Maur International School (ages 2.5 -18); St. Joseph International School (ages 5-18).

Kobe – Canadian Academy (ages 4-18); Marist Brothers International School (ages 4-18); St. Michael’s International School (ages 3-12).

Other cities – Kyoto International School, Kyoto, (ages 2-13); Fukuoka International School, Fukuoka, (ages 4-18); Hiroshima International School, Hiroshima (ages 3-18); Okinawa Christian School, Urasoe City, Okinawa (ages 4-18); Osaka International School, Mino City, Osaka (ages 5-18).

Health and safety

The quality of available medical care in Japan is good, in fact, Japan has some of Asia’s most advanced medical services and facilities. Many US medical insurance policies, such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield, are accepted in Japan, although expats may be expected to pay their bill first and be reimbursed by their insurance company. English-speaking, Western-trained doctors operate from clinics or their own practices in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe. Prescriptions written by US doctors are usually not honored in Japan unless they have been approved by a local physician. Some US prescription drugs are available over the counter in Japan. On the other hand, some drugs sold over the counter in the US are illegal in Japan.

Japan’s crime rate is low and its arrest record high, so no special security precautions are necessary. Although there are pickpockets and baggage thieves at the airport, as there are in most major world cities, they tend not to be Japanese.

Staying in touch

Major post offices in Japan are usually open from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekdays, and from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday (some are open as late as 5:00). Larger post offices are also open on Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

The main post office in front of Tokyo Station has an English-speaking staff. Stamps can also be purchased from stationery shops, cigarette kiosks, and other places displaying a double-crowned “T” on a red background. Unlike in the US, stamps are placed on the upper left corner of the envelope, and return addresses go on the back.

Telephone service in Japan is automatic and reliable. Japan’s country code is 81; its international access code is 001. Tokyo phone numbers have eight digits. Blue and green phones accept ¥10 coins only; yellow and green phones accept both ¥10 and 100 coins. Green phones also accept telephone cards, and those marked “International and Domestic Card/Coin Telephone” will let you make direct ISD calls as well. All phone boxes have English-language instructions.

Tokyo is home to a number of excellent English-language bookshops, including The National Book Store and the Maruzen chain of stores. Its major daily newspapers — Asahi, Yomiuri and Mainichi— print both morning and evening editions. Other leading dailies include the Nihon Keizai (financial business), Sankei, and three major industrial dailies — Nikkan Kogyo, Nihon Kogyo and Nikkei Sangyo. There are also four English-language dailies: The Japan Times, Mainichi Daily News, The Daily Yomiuri (morning), and the Asahi Evening News. The Nihon Keizai publishes a weekly English edition called the Japan Economic Journal. Japan’s main economic monthly, The Tokyo Keiza, also publishes an English version (Tokyo Business Today). Foreign newspapers and magazines are available in main cities within two days of publication.

An easier transition than some

As with any foreign assignment, expatriates to Japan will face the normal challenges of adjusting to life in a new location. But in the unique mix of the Japanese people, culture and infrastructure they’ll find a support system not present in many overseas locations. Those who embrace this support, and take the time to know and respect the people, should have little trouble calling Japan home.

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