Complete Guide on Relocating to Japan

New in 2020

One major new event that will occur this year is the Tokyo 2020 Olympics beginning on July 24th. Even though it is only short term it can be expected to cause serious traffic and train congestion during this time in Tokyo. For expats relocating here the impact on housing availability is a concern but it is difficult to say how great a concern it will be since most expat housing is unfurnished and for long-term rental. (over a year) Certainly we can expect that there will be huge demand for hotels and furnished apartments. Whether this will spill over to regular housing is somewhat doubtful but these things will need to be taken into consideration more and more as the time gets close. Other areas of the country will be unaffected though.

Also very important at the time of this writing is the impact of the Covid 19 Coronavirus on expat movement in and out of Japan and it is difficult to forecast the extent of the problem in the coming year. Since the situation is in flux it would be best to contact our office for the latest information at any time. We would also encourage all concerned parties to liberally use hand disinfectants and face masks while travelling. Also please be aware that Japan has an excellent medical system both in terms of medical facilities and disease prevention that should also help keep the situation under control, Still this is something that all expats will need to monitor regularly in the coming months.

In regards to immigration the rules have tightened such that it is no longer possible to come to Japan on a short term visa, apply for and receive a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) and then seek to change one’s visa status without having to leave the country. This is no longer possible. Indeed it is necessary to present the COE to the embassy/consulate in one’s home country to obtain the long term visa.

Country of ‘Omotenashi’ (Hearty Hospitality)

One might have heard of the word, ‘Omotenashi’ frequently used by media when Tokyo was selected as the host country of year 2020 Summer Olympics. It means to welcome guests with warm hospitality and such an attitude is shared very naturally throughout the nation. Despite this Omotenashi spirit rooted in the Japanese, one might still find some barriers when unfamiliar with the very basics of local culture and formalities. We are hoping that the following topics will help point out some of the issues that newcomers need to be aware of in order to make their stay more successful.


The Japanese do not tend to live in homes as large as those in North America.  The average residential area per capita is about half that of North America. ( This does not mean though that there are no large houses or apartments, but such rental accommodation for a western family settling into Japan will be mostly found in the major cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka/Kobe and Nagoya. In other cities it will be difficult to find. The majority of rental apartments in Japan are unfurnished (without any furniture and appliances except for air-conditioning, a stove, and hot water heater). However, family housing for expats will usually have major appliances (fridge, washer/dryer, etc).

Naturally large rental housing in major cities tends to be expensive and landlords clearly prefer a corporate lessee to a personal lease. Anyone who may try to have a personal lease for a long-term apartment may need to find a Guarantor who basically shares the same liabilities as the lessee. Fortunately there are now major “guarantor companies” that can analyze an applicant’s financial wherewithal and provide such a service. Typically, the fee for this service would be 50-100% of the monthly rent.

Key money, usually equivalent to one or two month’s rent, is an upfront payment to the landlord at the beginning of the lease that is not refundable. There will also often be a refundable security deposit of 2 months’ rent.  Larger expat housing will not have key money but will usually have a larger deposit.  Other costs will be the need to pay 1 month agent brokerage fee to the real estate agency upon signing the lease.

Read our guide on Non-Japanese buying real estate for information on purchasing a property.

Furniture Rental

Rental furniture is easily available in the major cities.  Furniture leasing companies also offer temporary, say one-month, fully furnished packages that include everything from utensils to towels to TV for the purpose of tiding an expat family over until either their furniture shipment arrives or they can purchase their own.  For the longer term some clients are recently buying lower cost furniture from places like Ikea and selling it when they leave, as an alternative to shipping their furniture from home.

Visa and Immigration

It is possible to stay and work in Japan under a short term visa, usually 90 days, though one cannot receive payment and the visa is not renewable.  If one is a national of a country on the visa waiver program (for eligibility see: one will simply receive the visa upon arrival at an international airport like Narita.

For stays of over 90 days it is necessary to obtain a proper Long Term Visa before one’s relocation to Japan. The most basic requirement in the process is a proper sponsoring entity, either the Japanese subsidiary of the company for whom the assignee may be employed or a contractual relationship with a Japanese company to sponsor and employ the assignee. The first step towards obtaining a Long Term Visa is obtaining a document called the Certificate of Eligibility or COE.  Once the COE is issued it can be  forwarded to the assignee for them to take to their local Japanese embassy with their passports to have their visas stamped in.

We have in-depth articles and information regarding working in Japan:

Visa & Immigration Key Facts
Eligibility to Work


Japan easily has the most efficient train system in the world.  No less than 45 out of the top 51 busiest train stations in the world are all in Japan (  Trains are not only used for local commutation but also for long distance travel as the nationwide Shinkansen, or bullet train, depending on the location, can often transport people as fast as an airplane. Also there have been improvements in the use of English throughout the system so that signs and announcements are often in Japanese and English, and sometimes also in Chinese and Korean.  The trains and metros are incredibly punctual, and even small delays result in apology announcements to the passengers.

Ease of use has also improved dramatically with prepaid cards that allow rapid passage through station turn styles without the need to buy tickets. Fares are calculated automatically and deducted instantly from the card when the commuter departs at their station.

Read out article on taxis in Japan if you need to get around. Also check out our article on the driving test requirements if you're looking to drive in Japan.


Electricity and gas meters are checked once a month after which each customer will receive a notice in their mailbox that states the actual amount they have consumed as well as the amount to be invoiced. The same system goes with water except the bills will be sent out every two months. Shortly after receiving such a notice, invoices will be sent out to those customers who have not applied for automatic bank payment. Payment through one’s credit card or auto-debit can be activated 1 or 2 months after applying for the service (Until then, one needs to pay in cash at a convenience store, post office etc.,  using the invoice slip) It is necessary to arrange an appointment with the gas company in advance to start/end the service.

Learn more by reading our article specifically on utilities and electricity voltages.

Health & Medical

Japanese medical care is of the highest caliber and very accessible. There are a variety of English-speaking doctors and clinics/hospitals in Tokyo and the major cities. If English speaking specialists are required these medical facilities will usually be able to make the necessary introductions. Also the availability of MRI machinery or other medical diagnostic equipment is very good.  And Japanese hospitals are generally very well staffed.

It is required by law for citizens and long-term residents to have health insurance. Expats may be covered through overseas insurance programs or through the national health insurance system.  For those using overseas insurance it will be necessary to pay in cash at the time of the visit and then later seek reimbursement from the insurance company.

Read our in-depth articles on healthcare and giving birth/registration of birth and nationality.

Doing Business

Japanese business etiquette is an art form in itself. Name cards are the basis of all introductions and expats would be best served to have English and Japanese double-sided cards available when visiting clients in Japan. Handshakes are to be avoided, as generally business people politely exchange their business cards followed by a gentle bow. Cards should be proffered with both hands, and received in a similar fashion. Name cards should never be written on in meetings, and should be treated with the utmost respect..

Attitudes towards punctuality are also quite strict in Japan. Being early or on time for all appointments, regardless of their formality, is a show of respect and therefore any time one is late requires forewarning and an apology.

Read our article on meeting etiquette for more information.


As most will know, Japanese food culture has become one of the leading cultural influences of Japan on the world at large.  But Japanese culture goes far deeper than simply food. The Japanese are probably best defined by their attitudes of cooperation and deference. They also have very sophisticated and active interests in the visual arts, music, literature, dance, etc. They are also very careful about fashion and how they look. Housing in Japan, however, tends to be small and cramped, so do not expect to be invited to a friend’s home. Japanese socialize in cafes, restaurants and bars, and not often at home.

As everyone is aware the Japanese are well known for their gardens. And there are temples and parks throughout the country where Japan’s gardens can be best appreciated. Religion is not an overwhelming occupation of most Japanese, though they share the same beliefs in regards to respect of their ancestors. The New Year’s holiday is the longest holiday of the year and many will use the opportunity to visit temples and pray for good fortune in the coming year. During the Obon holiday, lasting about a week in mid-August, it is believed that the ancestors' spirits return to this world in order to visit their relatives. Surprisingly, there are no specific days off for this holiday though many companies close during this period. So, whatever business transaction you make in August may need extra caution in terms of schedule management.

Read our articles below for more information on topics relating to culture and language:

Useful phrases
Understanding the language barrier
Cultural Challenges

IT and Communication

Japan has sophisticated high-speed internet and telecommunication systems. That however does not mean cell phones are easily compatible. When visiting a foreign country, replacing the chip in one’s smart phone may be sufficient in most countries to receive normal cell phone service, but not in Japan. Though it is possible the connectivity is not that great. Though wifi and email is accessible, there will be less quality in the connection. That is why long term expat residents will obtain new local cell phones and cell phone service soon after arrival in Japan.  Short term visitors are unable to do this as only long term residents can register their residence in Japan and open a bank account, which are both prerequisites before cell phone purchase is possible.

Read our internet services article for more information.

Natural Disasters

Japan is arguably one of the safest countries on earth. In 2015 there was only one shooting fatality in the entire country – in a whole year. And this is a country of 130 million people. However natural disasters are a possibility, especially in regard to typhoons and earthquakes.  Typhoons are most possible during the early fall – September and October. And they can cause flooding though usually the problem is limited to temporary disruption in air and train transportation systems for a day or so while the storms pass.

Earthquakes are also not uncommon, even in Tokyo, though fortunately the building standards are quite high and strictly regulated, especially for those buildings constructed after 1982 when a more severe construction law was enacted. Though still it can be a bit unnerving when the ground shakes sometimes, even though damage is rare. Tsunami caused by earthquakes are also a possibility, though again there are early warning systems throughout the country to provide warning.


Schooling in Japan is in the Japanese language so most expats with children will avail themselves of the variety of international schools available in cities throughout the country.  Tokyo has the many English-speaking schools and they are generally of a very high standard.  Tokyo also has a number of schools in other languages such a French, German, and Korean.  The school year in the international schools runs from September to June, similar to most countries. The local Japanese schools however, run from April to March.

Most expats relocating to Japan with children will seek to arrive in August before the school year begins, or in early January before the start of the second term. It is important to try to reserve a place in the schools as early as possible as they do not always have a lot of openings.

Read our Japanese education system article for more information.

Last update: 24 February 2020

Tokyo Orientations was founded in 1983 to assist expatriate families in their moves to Japan. We provide companies and individuals with relocation solutions to make the transition as smooth and cost-effective as possible.