Let’s Live in Japan!

So you’ve decided to stick around, have you? The persistent humidity, the aggravating pedestrians — you still want to stay?

I understand completely.

Just know that many things you never needed to worry about as a visitor suddenly become important when you decide to stay longer, and while you only got a taste of some of Japan’s quirks before, you’ll get the whole bottle now.

(It’s possible you’ve never been to Japan, but plan to make your first visit a long one, be it studying abroad or taking a working holiday. If that’s the case, I recommend reading this first, then coming back.)

[Let me preface the following advice by saying it’s written with the assumption you speak at least rudimentary Japanese (or, at the very least, have someone here willing to translate for you). If this is not the case, you will face many more challenges than I’ve listed below, and if I’m being honest, I have little sympathy. The difficulty of living long-term in a country whose language you don’t speak should be obvious without having to try it firsthand. End disclaimer.]

• To begin with, you’re going to need two things: a bank account and a phone. Here’s your problem: to get a phone, you need a bank account, and to get a bank account, you need a phone number. Let’s start with the bank account.

There are many, many banks in Japan — so many that I can’t, in good conscience, recommend one. If you’re in Japan on business, ask your boss or coworkers who they use. If you’re here as a student, ask your school. If you have friends here, ask them. If you don’t know anyone, pick the bank with the mascot or celebrity endorsement you like best. In the end, a bank is pretty much a bank. As for providing a phone number, your options are to give them the number where you work, your school’s office number, or use a friend’s number (and change it later). If you have none of those, you’re pretty much out of luck.

Japanese banks are terribly inefficient. The level of bureaucracy is very high, making even the simplest tasks unpleasant. Online banking is not a default service; you have to opt into it. They use separate cards for debit (which basically nobody accepts), credit, and ATM, as well as an ATM passbook. In short, dealing with the bank is a huge hassle, but a necessary one. Remember to breathe. If you can get assistance from your job, school, or a native speaker, I highly recommend it.

• Assuming you have a bank account, you’ll most likely want a phone. (I’ve previously covered this topic, as well as a list of suggested apps, here.)

• If you’re in Japan for work or school, you’ll certainly travel the same routes. Rather than pay the fee over and over, you can get a 定期 (teiki), or monthly train pass. The question is whether it’s worth buying. Do the math; if you take that route more than thirty times a month, it’s worth getting.

• Japanese society can seem closed to foreigners, and it often is. One way to get a foot in the door (well, one of countless doors) is to become a regular customer at a restaurant, bar, or café. (I previously detailed that process here.)

• Customer loyalty cards, something you probably declined during short visits to Japan, become both relevant and useful for long-term stays. (More information can be found here.)

• It depends on where you’re from, but chances are you’re unaccustomed to earthquakes. Be ready. On 本州, at least, they’re relatively common. Some are so minor you may chalk them up to heavy trucks passing by, while others will visibly shake your building for several long seconds. Most quakes are brief and mild. It’s important not to panic. It doesn’t help that many phones (possibly including your own) will start squawking, which is annoying and alarming, so keeping calm can be a challenge.

• While you live in Japan, you may or may not have TV access. Maybe you can’t afford it, maybe you’re not interested. Regardless, you need to keep an eye out for the NHK. NHK is Japan’s government-run TV station, and is funded by a sort of “TV tax” levied against anyone who’s got a TV — including a TV-capable smartphone. Even if you don’t get cable or watch TV on your phone, they will still try to charge you. Now, if you watch a lot of TV, you might wanna just pay from an ethical standpoint. If, however, you don’t watch Japanese TV, take the following advice:

  • Don’t let the NHK people into your house. You have no obligation to let them in.
  • You don’t own a TV. If pressed, or if they see your TV, tell them it’s a computer monitor.
  • Don’t tell them (or show them) your phone’s make and model. If pressed, tell them you use pocket wi-fi or something.
  • Don’t give details. You’re busy, you’re about to go out, whatever. Don’t try the no-Japanese card; they have multilingual staff. With luck, they’ll give up on you early.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, sign anything or give them any money.

• Finally, though it might seem silly, keep a blog. It’s an excellent way for people back home to keep track of your day to day (without having to repeat the same stories over and over), it makes an excellent archive of your time abroad, and if you’re lucky, you might pick up some readers who’ll benefit from your experience.