Moving across town can be daunting, but moving across the world to reside in Japan permanently may seem next to impossible. With adequate planning, flexibility, and a strong commitment toward embracing both the good and the not-so-good parts of Japanese culture, you can realize the dream of moving to Japan and staying on as a permanent resident.
Although I did not set out to make Japan my home forever when I started to study the language as a first-year college student several decades ago, after three “tours of duty” in a long career on both sides of the Pacific, my wife (who is a Japanese national) and I decided to take the plunge and make Japan our home indefinitely into the future.
I am periodically contacted via various SNS channels by people with similar intentions and seek advice from a veteran gaijin who has committed to a life in Japan for the long haul.
While the following tips are not exhaustive, they may provide a good place to begin your adventure.
Research and Planning
Start by thoroughly researching about Japan, its culture, lifestyle, and the specific city or region you intend to live in.
Consider factors such as job opportunities, cost of living, climate, and quality of life. However, research from afar can only take you so far.
After completing some initial research, if you have not yet had an opportunity to visit Japan and spend an extended period in-country, then I would strongly suggest such a trip. You should dip your toe in the water before jumping into the deep end.
Especially if you are from a Western country like the United States, you might find Japanese culture too foreign to commit to spending the rest of your life here. It is, after all, not completely like anime.
That said, you will, most likely, fall in love with many of the aspects of daily living in Japan, e.g., a sense of community and shared values, openness toward non-Japanese—especially in the countryside, cleanliness, deep connection to nature and history, high quality and variety of the food, etc.
Determine the most appropriate visa category for your situation. Japan offers various types of visas, including work visas, student visas, spouse visas, and investor visas.
Each has specific requirements and conditions. Visit the website of the Embassy or Consulate of Japan in your country to learn more about the visa options and application procedures.
After initially coming to Japan on a student visa, I relied upon a “Highly Skilled Professional Visa” with sponsorship by my employer for many years. After marrying a Japanese national, I switched to a “Spouse Visa” not tied to a particular employer.
Given the number of years that I had spent living and working (and paying taxes) in Japan, I decided to apply for a permanent resident visa approximately six years ago. Obtaining a “Permanent Resident Visa” is a significant milestone, allowing foreign nationals to reside and work in Japan indefinitely.
It essentially provides all the same rights and privileges that Japanese nationals enjoy in the country except for the ability to vote.
This was, however, tested in the early days of the recent global pandemic when even permanent residents were prohibited from re-entering the country, which caused quite a stir among the community of approximately 830,000 permanent residents, of which there are only about 19,000 fellow Americans like me.
This policy was, however, reversed after the Japanese government was pressured by many foreign governments, business groups, and prominent individuals.
Employment or Study
If you plan to work or study in Japan, secure a job offer or an admission letter from a Japanese educational institution.
This will be required for obtaining the respective visa. After initially coming to Japan on a student visa, I relied on a “Highly Skilled Professional Visa,” sponsored by my employer, for many years.
Learning Japanese will greatly enhance your experience and opportunities in Japan.
Enroll in language classes or pursue self-study to acquire basic conversational skills. Some visa categories, such as the working visa, may require a certain level of language proficiency.
Japanese language proficiency is commonly measured through standardized tests and certifications. The most widely recognized and respected proficiency test for Japanese is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). Here are the key levels of the JLPT:
- N5 – Beginner: Basic understanding of simple expressions and daily vocabulary. Can read and write hiragana, katakana, and some basic kanji.
- N4 – Elementary: Understands basic grammar, can comprehend and participate in simple conversations, and read and write more kanji characters.
- N3 – Lower Intermediate: Can understand and express oneself in everyday situations, comprehend written materials with a wider range of vocabulary and kanji characters.
- N2 – Upper Intermediate: Has a good command of intermediate-level grammar, can read and comprehend more complex texts, and participate in more detailed conversations.
- N1 – Advanced: Demonstrates advanced proficiency, with the ability to understand and express oneself fluently in a wide range of situations, read complex materials, and comprehend abstract and nuanced expressions.
Apart from the JLPT, other proficiency tests are available, such as the EJU (Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students), which focuses on assessing the language skills of students aiming to enter Japanese universities.
Additionally, language schools and institutions may have their proficiency assessments or placement tests to determine a student’s level of Japanese proficiency.
It is, however, important to note that Japanese language proficiency is not limited to test scores. Practical usage, fluency, and cultural understanding also play a significant role in assessing overall language proficiency.
Moving to a new country can be expensive. Assess your financial situation and ensure you have sufficient funds to cover the initial expenses, including accommodation, transportation, visa fees, and daily living costs. It is advisable to have some savings to support yourself until you find a job or settle-in.
The recent devaluation of the Japanese yen, especially against the U.S. dollar and Euro, has certainly made the cost of living in Japan much more affordable than in the past. After spending decades living and working in Japan, I have lived through a period when the U.S. dollar was only worth 80 yen.
Everything seemed expensive in Japan during that period. Thus, foreign exchange rates may fluctuate wildly during any prolonged stay in the country.
One aspect you might not immediately consider involves the two inevitable aspects of life, no matter where you live—death and taxes. Be certain to consult a financial planner familiar with the unique conditions of living in Japan (e.g., relatively low threshold before gift taxes with very high tax rates kick in, etc.).
Special note to U.S. citizens:
Be aware that you will be expected to file income tax returns with the IRS even if you live and work abroad. Also, be aware that the IRS does, in general, not recognize passive foreign investment companies (PFIC) such as Japan’s Nippon Individual Savings Account (NISA).
Research housing options in Japan, such as renting an apartment or house. Consider factors like location, size, and affordability. You can use online platforms, local real estate agencies, or relocation services to assist you in finding suitable accommodation.
While Airbnb has an extensive nationwide network, another option is to rent a “weekly mansion” upon first arriving in Japan.
A “weekly mansion” is a term commonly used in Japan to refer to furnished apartments or serviced apartments available for short-term stays, typically ranging from a few days to a few months.
The name “weekly mansion” is derived from the fact that these apartments were initially marketed for weekly rentals, although nowadays, they often offer flexible rental periods. Options include the following:
- Furnished Apartments: Weekly mansions come fully furnished and equipped with essential amenities such as a bed, table, chairs, kitchen appliances, and bathroom facilities. They are designed to provide a comfortable living space for short-term residents.
- Rental Periods: While “weekly” is used, weekly mansions often allow flexible rental periods. You can rent them on a weekly, monthly, or even longer-term basis, depending on your needs and the specific policies of the accommodation provider.
- Services and Facilities: Many weekly mansions provide additional services such as housekeeping, laundry facilities, Wi-Fi, and utilities included in the rental price. Some may also offer amenities like gym access, parking, or a front desk for assistance.
- Location: Weekly mansions are typically located in convenient areas, close to transportation hubs, business districts, or popular tourist destinations. This makes them suitable for business travelers, tourists, or individuals in need of temporary housing.
- Booking Process: You can make reservations for a weekly mansion through online booking platforms, the accommodation provider’s website, or by contacting the property directly. Prices vary depending on factors like location, apartment size, amenities, and duration of stay.
Weekly mansions are a popular choice for individuals or groups seeking temporary accommodation in Japan.
They offer the convenience of a furnished living space, flexibility in rental periods, and the ability to settle in without needing long-term contracts or purchasing furniture.
Healthcare and Insurance
Research the healthcare system in Japan and understand the requirements for obtaining health insurance. In Japan, there are several types of health insurance available to residents, each serving different categories of individuals, including the following:
It is important to note that health insurance coverage is mandatory in Japan, and residents must enroll in the appropriate insurance system based on their circumstances.
The coverage and premiums can vary depending on the type of insurance and individual circumstances.
The details and enrollment procedures can be obtained from the local municipal office or the employer’s human resources department.
- Moving Logistics: Plan the logistics of your move, including shipping your belongings, canceling or redirecting services in your home country, and arranging for transportation to Japan. Consider whether you sell, store, or ship your possessions and research international moving companies.
- Settling-in: Once in Japan, complete the necessary administrative procedures, such as registering your address at the local municipality office, obtaining a resident card, and opening a bank account. Familiarize yourself with local customs, public transportation, and essential services in your area.
Moving to Japan—even for just a few years—is significant.
Moving to the country permanently involves some real soul-searching and much preparation. It can be done, leading to a very satisfying life.