The Complete Guide to Working, Visiting, and Living in Japan

Directory of Resources For Being in Japan

- "How's Shopping?"

Not really different. But if you wear fairly large sized clothes/shoes, you'd better bring all you'll need with you. Large-sized goods in Japan are scarce, or very expensive, or make you look like a dork. Mail-order shopping is also growing in popularity, but the customs hassles can make it more expensive than you might imagine. Make sure you know ALL the costs your purchase will entail. There is also no custom of tipping in Japan -- people do not tip waitresses, taxi-drivers, etc. Before you come to Japan, getting a credit card would also be a good idea. Getting one in Japan can be very frustrating, with more trouble of finding a guarantor, $100 annuals, etc.

Bringing a cell phone to Japan is completely worthless. Japan runs on its own unique system.

It is also possible to rent a cell phone for a short period. There are some companies that allow you to just pick up a cell phone at the airport, or pay at a convenience store. Another option is buying a handset and using pre-paid cards from such brands as Docomo, J-Phone, AU and Tu-ka. Costs typically run from 6000 yen for the phone and up, making calls are about 100 yen per minute, and you can buy more time at a convenience store. For example at stores like 7-11 or phone shops is the "Pretty" model by Tu-Ka, which is about 7000 yen, or the J-Phone "Preca" model at 6,000 yen. You'll need to give some sort of ID which will be copied, and phone cards from 3-5000 yen are valid for 90 days. You can receive unlimited calls at no charge. The phones have a color screen, and can also use the Short Message Service (SMS) and send e-mail. If you want more freedom though, no seller will give you an unrestricted phone without a credit card and/or a deposit. Many people are stunned when they see the prices in Japan.

Bringing in your own vitamins, herbs, cosmetics, aspirin, cold medicines, etc. would be a smart choice. But BEWARE-- in the US lately many illegal methamphetamine labs have bought up mass-amounts of psuedo-ephidrine type cold pills (Sudafed, to convert to illegal speed. Japanese Customs is aware of this and on the look out for anyone coming in with a mountain of Sudafed or Vicks inhalers. Before you buy all those pills for those future colds, consider what you purchase.

There are a few other noteworthy aspects--you can buy virtually ANYTHING from vending machines, which are everywhere. (They turn themselves off at 11PM for alcohol; however these days there are many convenience stores that also sell liquor 24 hours a day). There are no "last calls for alcohol" by law in Japan either, and it's perfectly legal to be totally drunk on the street, in parks, and on the beach. And nobody ever cards you. Now that's freedom! Fireworks are also thankfully very legal, but on sale only in the summer months. If you want to light some up for New Year's, you'll need to buy them before August ends. It's still very rare for families to do so, but that may slowly be changing too.

When leaving Japan, you are permitted to take up to 1 million yen with you without declaration. But if you enter the US you are required to file a form with Customs if you are carrying more than $10,000 (regardless of currency, travelers checks, bonds, etc.). Failure to do so may result in seizure of your assets, DEA scrutiny, and maybe even an IRS audit. You are allowed to take with you up to $400 of goods duty free into the US.

Help, Useful Info, Phone Numbers, and Moving Back

Culture Shock, Isolation, and Getting Burned

Just 10 years ago there were few westerners outside the big cities. Now there are mobs of them everywhere. Even so, if you're new here, there may be times that you feel out of it, or have a problem that you just can't solve by yourself. But you don't have to feel helpless if you have a medical problem or your employer screws you over. There are now many associations that can help you. Here are a few valuable phone numbers to remember.

Important Phone Numbers

Tokyo and Kanto Area

Hokkaido and Tohoku Areas

Chubu and Kansai Areas

Chugoku and Kyushu Areas

More websites for other cities and languages is at Secom and the Tokyo government. Other groups such as AA, AIDS support groups, PC and Mac User groups, motorcycle clubs, culture groups, religious groups, etc. are also around. Consult the classifieds of any big English magazine like Kansai Time Out, The Hiragana Times, Tokyo Journal, Tokyo Classified, etc.

Beware The Bait-And-Switch Travel Agent

If you live in Japan, there might be a time when you decide to go home for a visit. You might also notice that on some magazines there are some discount travel agencies with seemingly reasonable prices. One big caveat however--the price in the magazine might not be the one you pay. Many, if not most agencies have a bit of a scam running. They set you up for the price they post and then as you close the deal they say, "By the way, there is an airport usage tax of (2500-6500) yen you'll need to pay..." I have had that put on me every time. I have also flown through Los Angeles many times and I KNOW there is no such "usage tax". Sure, there are certain taxes and fees that exist, but they're usually included in the up-front price of the ticket. Even more off-the-wall is that for every agency you call, you get a different amount for the so-called "usage tax". Japanese, of course, simply say OK and pay more. Can you avoid the scam? Maybe not. But when you start calling for quotes, make sure you ask how much their ticket is with ALL surcharges included-- don't just simply set up a reservation at a place with the "cheapest price in town".

Moving Back

Moving back is also very expensive. Whatever is not critical should either be sold or trashed since the moving costs might well cost more than the item itself. Besides, unless there is a specific international warranty, warranties are invalid outside of Japan, and even if you have something made by a big name multi-national, they'll often be unable or unwilling to fix it. If you do take it home though, there are several moving companies, all of which are expensive. A cheaper option is the post office. Yet there might be one more choice if you're up to it -- fill your suitcases and backpack with stuff, go to Guam or Korea, and mail your stuff there. From Guam you can use the US postal service, which costs about one-third that of sea-mail from Japan--and your stuff will arrive in 2-5 days if you're sending it to the States. To calculate exact costs, go to the USPS site and find the cost from Agana, Guam to your destination.

For residents, it is important to notify your landlord or his representative at least a month before you move out. Also, contact your gas, water, and phone company on when you plan to leave, and arrange a time for them to come to your place to assess your usage for the last fraction of a month and have you pay on the spot. It may take a few weeks for the landlord to return any of your deposit by furi-komi, so you may wish to designate a friend's account number and be paid back later. Also you may have to arrange a time and pay a small fee to have larger items like washing machines, cabinets etc. taken away to be trashed. Your ward office should have all the details. Generally speaking, the selling price of used items is about half of what it cost when new (assuming there's nothing wrong with it). Selling items to another individual at a "sayonara sale" is preferable to a used-goods shop, since the shop will probably give you merely a quarter what you paid for it (and then they'll sell it at half price). Used good shops may not want the item if it's more than 10 years old, even if it's in mint condition. Do not take moving out lightly--unless you live like a spartan monk it will take several days to divide up what you want and what you don't, getting your affairs taken care of, etc. Leaving Japan during tourist season will also make getting a ticket that much harder -- call a travel agent at least 2 months in advance. You are allowed 2 suitcases up to 32 kg each and one hand-carry item (and a backpack if you've got the back for it) if flying to the Americas. When flying to Europe or other areas some airlines like Air France only allow up to 20kg per suitcase). Carrying a 3rd suitcase may also be an option. You'll need to pay the excess baggage charge but compared to mailing it from Japan it'd still be well worth it. Many airlines charge excess baggage at 1% of the airfare per kilogram. Check with your airline for complete info.

"Do you have any tips?"

*Learn as much Japanese as you can before you come. Anything you learn will make your stay here easier. Very few Japanese can speak English with ease. If you get lost, try writing your question on paper and giving it to someone young. Use simple words. Probably they can point you in the right direction.

*Bringing a number of inexpensive gifts with you is also a good idea, to give them to those who show you a big kindness. Nothing extravagant is necessary--even a video of MTV would do wonders, or some item of Americana or that represents where you're from. Cassettes of top-40 radio (Japanese radio is horrible), small picture books or calendars, posters, ashtrays, chocolates, pure maple or berry syrups, t-shirts or pens/pencils with famous animation characters (except Disney or Snoopy, which they have in abundance), liquor, caps, coasters, nice soap or shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, etc. would be great. Be aware though that in Japan 4 and 9 are "unlucky" numbers, and especially older Japanese tend to be superstitious, so avoid giving sets of 4 or 9.

*If you still don't know how many litres there are in a gallon, how hot 37 degrees Centigrade is, how heavy 32kg is, or how far 1 km is, then join the rest of the world and get on the metric system. Everything here is metric, and if you're not, you'll be lost very quickly.

*If you know where you'll be, getting some business cards before you come may be a good idea. However, while getting them in Japan is far more expensive, in Japan they can be printed in Japanese, or with English on one side. You will also receive many of them. They are exchanged to show who is superior to whom in this vertically-structured society. Do not play Frisbee with them , or stick them in your back pocket and sit on them when you meet someone.

* In Japan there is a 5% consumption tax. It is placed on every product you buy and every service (except public transportation), and more increases are expected in the years ahead.

* This is obvious, but NEVER SURRENDER YOUR PASSPORT TO ANYONE except the legal government authorities. Many people have been blackmailed to stay in their jobs by shady types who took them "for safekeeping". If they ask why, tell them the truth-- that you trust them about as far as you can throw--, well, maybe not that. But say that it's not even your property to give them--it's your government's, which is also true. Stay away from such places--you wouldn't be working there long anyway.

* If you're definitely coming, bring a good digital camera with you. They are excellent for sending photos to friends thru the net, as well as easy to make many photo albums of your experiences here. You can also store thousands of photos on a Super DigiBin, X-Drive, Nixvue Vista, Digital Wallet, Image Tank, or really dazzle people with an Archos Jukebox. The photos will be a treasure you will look back on with great fondness as you get older, and if you don't do it you'll sorely regret it later.

* On the main island of Honshu there are many earthquake faults, and tremors in Tokyo are a daily happening. Most of them you won't even feel, but on occasion you might get a jolt. DON'T PANIC. But Tokyo is expecting a "Big One" someday, so be prepared for any big earthquake or tsunami.

* In case you lose your passport, license, etc., keep a photocopy of them in your place just in case. They can't be used in place of them but might speed up getting a replacement.

For lots of other important cultural and etiquette info, please refer to Japanese Manners and Etiquette Page.

Other Useful Websites

There are a lot of excellent websites to help you out. Not coincidentally most of them have put of a link to THE JAPAN FAQ.

Other Useful Ex-pat Resources

Other Useful Ex-pat Resources


This Japan FAQ can by no means answer everything. But I have attempted to answer the most frequent and basic questions. Japan is neither paradise nor hell, Tokyo neither Babylon nor Camelot. You can greatly enjoy and experience Japan by coming here with an open mind and not "why they don't act more like me". Some people will stare at you, and hearing how great you can use chopsticks and how great you can speak Japanese (regardless of your true ability) will be a daily, if not hourly occurrence. If this FAQ has saved one person from a difficult situation, then it has been worth the effort of making it. One final question that is often asked is, "Is Japan for me?" There are good things and bad things about everything and whatever you choose there is a series of trade offs; taking advantage of one thing means giving up something else. There are many people in Japan, some have been here for over 20 years and don't plan on leaving anytime soon; and others for just a year and clearly it was a year too long for them (and just about everyone else around them). It clearly takes some stamina, patience and an open mind to survive living in a very dissimilar foreign country. Unfortunately of late there have also been more than a few whiners who could win the lottery in Japan and still complain and moan about everything Japanese from morning til night. This FAQ may tend to be read as a bit cynical and sobering, but overall Japan is what you make it, and most people should find being in Japan a postive experience. If you choose to come, enjoy your stay, and discover life in a very dissimilar foreign country. You will learn as much about your own country as about Japan. BE ENLIGHTENED.

The first page of The Japan FAQ is HERE.


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