Life in Japan – Moving to Japan

There are nearly as many reasons to relocate to a new country as there are stars in the night sky. You want to see more of the world or to travel while earning and even saving money. Perhaps you want to truly immerse in another culture, not just see it superficially. Maybe you need greater economic opportunity than you have in your home country.

Japan is at the top of many travellers’ lists of places to visit, but few people have an idea of what life is like on a daily basis for members of the international community.

The Pure Land Co’s Life in Japan series exists to cover the huge variety of topics relating to living in Japan as a foreigner. Finding jobs, self-sponsoring a working visa, finding a place to live, cooking, shopping, exploring – and beyond.


When a holiday isn’t enough.

For many of us, a couple of weeks spent somewhere new every year is enough. Enough time, enough exploration, enough experience. For some of us, ‘enough’ and ‘travel’ are mutually exclusive concepts: we need more. We know that a holiday barely even scratches the surface of a new destination and the endless possibilities for growth and discovery it holds. We know that learning a new language opens us up to a wider world and that immersion in a new culture deepens our understanding of humanity.

Some destinations offer us the experience we need after just a few days or weeks. Others are best kept for special occasions, as true ‘escapes.’ Not every new place we visit needs to spark a desire to abandon our lives and start afresh. Through years of life in Japan, however, I’ve found it to be the exception to the rule for many fellow migrants and travellers. We shared a similar narrative: “I came once to visit… then again, because I felt like I hadn’t seen enough. And the third time… I guess I just didn’t go home.”

A Buddhist monk walks through the Oku-no-in cemetery in Koya-san, Wakayama-ken.
A Buddhist monk walks through the Oku-no-in cemetery in Koya-san, Wakayama-ken.

So… why Japan?

It’s hard to know where to begin and difficult to find an end to the list of reasons supporting a decision to relocate to Japan, as needs and wants vary from person to person. Some of the most enduring reasons I’ve found are:

  • Safety and security – Japan has the lowest rate of any kind of crime in the developed world. Generalised theft and public violence are highly uncommon.
  • Political stability – for better or worse, Japan is a stable country. You’re not likely to be caught in the crossfire of political revolutions or civilian uprisings, ever.
  • Modernity – Japan has the best infrastructure on earth. Public transport is unrivalled. It is spotlessly clean. Public services in general are highly funded and well-regulated.
  • Convenience – Want a beer? A cold beer? At the top of a mountain? At 3am? No problem.
  • Family friendly – Japan is a genuinely safe and hospitable place to raise children.
  • Affordability – yes, really. Japan being an ‘expensive place’ is a myth. If you’re sensible with cash, you can get by just fine. Rent smart, shop smart, socialise wisely and it’s very manageable.
  • Easy visas – compared to most developed nations, securing a legal right to reside in Japan is easier than you might think.
  • Awe-inspiring biodiversity – this is hugely important if you’re planning on really seeing some new things. Okinawa is a tiny Hawai’i. Hokkaido is a snow-capped, heart stopping Middle Earth. Wakayama’s aeons-deep layers of peace and beauty will see you drop to your knees and weep.
Incense sticks burn in a large urn at Nanzenji, Kyoto.
Incense sticks burn in a large urn at Nanzenji, Kyoto.

Surely, there are downsides?

After five years of life in Japan, I can see some very real downsides specific to the country:

  • Existing while female – Japan is still appallingly mired in the past in terms of womens’ rights, employment, healthcare and social status. If you are a strong and uncompromising woman, this will be harder to live with than I can begin to explain.
  • Existing while Black… or Korean, Vietnamese, half-Japanese or any other non-Japanese ethnicity outside of ‘identifiably white’ – people who write about life in Japan ostensibly don’t mention this. This is largely because said people are white or white-passing and are oblivious to race relations and issues relating to ethnic identity in Japan. I will go into detail on this matter in future posts, but I want people to be aware that Japan is far from the post-racial utopia that some people perceive it to be.
  • Wages – if you’re foreign and acting as a ‘free agent’ (not a company transplant or on an overseas corporate sponsorship visa) you will find that pay in Japan is not spectacular. Being single is expensive (more so for women). Promotions within employment are complicated and uncommon. Creative roles do not pay well. Unpaid overtime is the nightmare you can’t wake up from.
  • Isolation – a huge problem in a rapidly urbanising nation, for Japanese people as much as foreigners. Loneliness is a silent killer and in many ways, Japan can be a perfect storm of alienation.
  • Work/life balance – it doesn’t really exist for people who are interested in serious career development.
Endless traffic in central Tokyo.
Endless traffic in central Tokyo.

Too much of a good thing?

My biggest realisation from five years of life in Japan is that I may have been better off actually spending less time there. I had told myself that I’d remain there for three to five years and at the end of this time, would know if I wanted to stay long term or not.

If you’re aiming to live in Japan long-term, you’ll need to set some serious goals and timelines around your life there. However, living there for one year is highly do-able. It’ll give you a great insight into the culture, a taste of all four of Japan’s varied and special seasons and a chance to find ‘just enough’ of the best parts without really having to worry about the bad parts.

Staying as long as three years still builds upon these experiences without creating too much of a rift between the life you’re living and the life you want to re-enter when you leave Japan. If you want to stay longer than three years, you’ll need to give consideration to long-term career moves, bankable financial security, social integration and genuinely mastering the language.

A Maiko making morning rounds in Ponto-cho, Kyoto.
A Maiko making morning rounds in Ponto-cho, Kyoto.

Intent on going? Planning is key.

The research and planning stages of my move to Japan were immense. I’d visited Japan twice traveling solo and made some pretty good friends. I also convinced my university to let me attend a Japanese partner university for the first semester of my second year. There was no real exchange available to students on my course, but I managed to find some loopholes and convince the relevant staff that it would be a great exercise in ‘interdisciplinary practice.’ Yikes.

All of this time spent in Japan was an opportunity for me to meet people, create friendship groups and talk to other foreigners who were already living in Japan. The two largest groups of foreign residents could more or less be divided into English teachers and university students. As such, I surmised that a student visa or an instructor visa would be my best options.

While chipping away at my undergrad degree, I was also researching endlessly. As a native speaker of English who would soon have a Bachelor’s degree, I had ticked the first two boxes on the list of ‘easiest ways of getting into Japan.’ Working visas are harder (if not impossible) to acquire without a university degree, or considerable (5-10) years’ experience in a highly specialised profession.

Kyoto's famous (and temporary) glass teahouse.
Kyoto’s famous (and temporary) glass teahouse.

How and where do I start the research?

As well as researching visa types (Instructor and Specialist in Humanities are the most common), I trawled through endless job sites and forums. You may have already heard of G Plus Media’s “GaijinPot” – I would advise reading though job postings and relevant articles on this site and others like it.

Based on the likelihood of success, I narrowed my job search down to English teaching roles who preferred to hire from outside of Japan. I also researched costs of living and transport options in various areas, as I was determined to be placed as close to Osaka city (and my friends/social life) as possible.

The cost of living figures gave me an idea of how much I’d need to earn to live, travel and save while in Japan. Researching and planning the basics of financial survival are absolutely essential to making a success of long term work and travel. Reading first-hand accounts of people already living in Japan on various forums was also useful, especially if your search terms relate to very specific questions.

Being eaten alive by Koi in Osaka.

Case study: my first move.

When I started on my journey to move to Japan, I’d spent ample time there doing on-location research. I had the good fortune to be from an English speaking country and had been able to attend university. As English teaching seemed to be the most reliable way into legal residence in Japan, I researched the many different types of English teaching roles available.

The three main employment streams are the ‘JET Program’, an Assistant Language Teacher dispatch company called ‘Interac’ and Eikaiwa (English conversation schools owned privately) such as AEON, NOVA, GABA, ECC and many more. Of these three, the JET program is considered by most to be the most desirable. It’s also the job that applicants are least likely to get. It’s always worth applying, but safer to assume it’s not going to happen.

I lined up applications to JET, Interac and several Eikaiwa: Plans A, B and C. My plan D was to apply for a working holiday visa and interview for jobs while living and working on a temporary visa. I had every eventuality covered.

Before too long, I was offered a teaching position with Interac. Qualifications are key, but correct interview etiquette in the Japanese employment industry is paramount. I’ll be sure to explain this in depth in the upcoming Life in Japan series; there’s an almost ‘checklist’ style approach to getting it right. Welcome to Japanese bureaucracy!

My greatest asset was my CELTA teaching certificate. Obtaining some form of TESOL/EFL/TEFL qualification is something I recommend for everyone looking to move to Japan in any capacity. Not only will it help you get your first contract, it’ll offer a ‘fallback’ option for times when you need expedient access to part-time work or an entirely new job.

Celebrating autumn (the best season) in Osaka.

So… what else should I know?

In undertaking an international move of any kind, preparation is key. Not only in practical terms, but for the sake of resilience and your ability to take opportunities at short notice.

In my next Life in Japan post, I will explain Japan’s job industry in depth. I’ll offer details of my own experiences which, after five years, are hugely expansive. Securing a job that also offers housing is an ideal way to start your life in Japan. In some cases it can cut costs and in most cases offers breathing space while you adjust to living and working in a vastly different culture. Once in Japan, you’ll be tied up with tax and social service registration (including health insurance and pension/welfare).

Truly covering the realities of living and working in Japan is a vast undertaking. By splitting The Pure Land Co’s ‘Life in Japan’ posts up by subject, you’ll have a chance to follow the steps I suggest, set your intentions in motion and to come back and learn more when the time is right!

Are you thinking about moving to Japan? Have any specific questions you’d like me to answer for you? You can find me at @thepurelandco on Instagram, or you can leave a comment under this post.

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