Expat life in Tokyo, Japan festival lanterns

11 Things to Know About Expat Life in Tokyo, Japan

Happy New Year! I hope you’re getting an awesome start to 2018. This year, you can expect more food, more travel, and more luxury. In addition, I will also be sharing about expat life in Tokyo, Japan! I’ve lived in Tokyo for my whole adult life, so I’m excited to share my thoughts and feelings about this place I call home, as well as what it’s like to live abroad.

To kick things off, I am sharing 11 things to know about expat life in Tokyo!

1. Life in Japan is Safe

Moving abroad is a huge decision, and one of the biggest factors in that decision is safety. If you’re considering moving to Tokyo, then you can relax. Japan is one of the safest places in the world. Kids walk to school alone from their elementary years, and iPhones are left on tables while adults order their venti mochas. Crime is extremely low. And gun laws are very strict. On another note, earthquakes aren’t a big issue, either. That’s because all buildings must meet earthquake-proof standards set by the Japanese government.

2. The Whole Country is Clean (And Expects You to Be, Too)

You may or may not have heard, but Japan sets the standard for cleanliness in public spaces. Trains are clean, streets are clean, public bathrooms are clean. You will find no other country as clean as Japan. And why? Because, in Japanese culture, people are expected to respect public spaces. From an early age, children are taught to clean and take care of their environment. Everything is a lot more enjoyable when you don’t have to hold your breath because of the smell or worry about where you’re walking. So when you’re out, take your trash with you and dispose of it properly.

3. Cash is Still King

Despite being a very modern country, credit card use has become more widespread only recently. When I moved here in 2011, some large chain stores didn’t accept them. Now, while many of the larger stores accept credit, many smaller shops and restaurants still do not take them. And the further out of the city you go, the less it is accepted. If you’re coming from one of the many credit card-dependent countries in the West, you might have to get used to cash-based transactions here.

4. Be Patient, Queue Culture is Real

Step right up, step right up! And wait in line. Lines are a thing in Japan. Going to the ward office? Get in line. Want sushi for dinner? Get in line. Interested in the New Years sale at 109? Get in line. Waiting for a table at Shake Shack? Get in line. Riding any of the larger attractions in Tokyo Disney or Universal Japan? Get in a three-hour line. Lines are long and lines are respected in Japan. And cutting in line is a huge no-no. So make sure to bring a book or keep your phone charged. And if the place sells some sort of fast pass, pay the extra money and save yourself some time in the line.

5. Reservations are Required Well in Advance

Just as real as queues, reservations are needed in many instances. The best restaurants and ryokan are often booked months in advance. The top spots to see cherry blossoms in spring are reserved with tarps early in the morning. Even tickets to amusement parks are bought in advance. Plan ahead. Here are tips on planning a day trip to Mt. Fuji.

6. Everyone’s a Foodie

At least on TV. Turn on any variety show, and you will see at least one segment based on food. The Japanese love food, and the food industry loves the Japanese. Tokyo alone has countless restaurants and izakayas. And among them are more Michelin stars than any other city in the world. Want Spanish food? Check. In the mood for French? Check. In Tokyo, you can find nearly anything you want. It just may come at an extra cost.

7. Public Transportation is Great… And Expensive

What will cost you is transportation. Japan is known for its public transportation, and Tokyo is at the center of it. Tokyo is a web of trains, subways, and buses that run on-time, every time (mostly). Because of this, many people in and around the city do not have a driving license, let alone a car. Convenience comes at a cost, though; train fare in Tokyo tends to be more expensive than in other global cities. Shinkansen are a even more spectacular. In fact, you can get from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south solely by public transportation if you wanted. But, keep in mind, a plane flight would take less time and less money depending where you’re going.

8. How You Look Matters

We all think it, studies have agreed — how you look matters. A lot. And this sentiment is especially true in Japan. You won’t find people walking around in sweatpants at school, wearing flip-flops to go shopping, or schlepping it in pajamas anywhere outside of their home. Tracksuits, leggings, and other athletic wear are restricted to actual athletic use. In Japan, you are expected to be presentable when you step out of the house.

9. Japanese Bugs are Next-Level Scary

Bugs are everywhere, but the bugs in Tokyo are especially huge and, for a lack of better words, gross. If you love insects, Japan might be the perfect place for you to move abroad; several insect museums are located around the country.  But, if you’re like me and hate creepy crawly things, you might have a few unpleasant experiences while living as an expat in Japan. Cockroaches are to Japan what rats are to other places: oversized, mutants from hell. Oh, and these ones fly.

10. English is Fine for Expat Life in Tokyo, Japan

I’ve met quite a few expats who have lived in Tokyo with little more Japanese ability than ‘ありがとうございます’ (arigatou gozaimasu) and ‘すみません’ (sumimasen). Thanks to the upcoming 2020 Olympics, many shops and restaurants in Tokyo have at least one multilingual staff member and/or translated signs. And, while they are modest about their abilities, many young Japanese people can speak at least a bit of English.

11. …But You’re Better Off Learning A Bit of Japanese

Having said that, expat life in Japan can be extremely difficult at times if you don’t know a bit of the language. Remember, Japan’s national language is Japanese, so many everyday things have no translations available. Taxes, healthcare, insurance, pension, utilities, banking — all of these and more can be next-to-impossible without knowing a bit of Japanese. And the further out you go, the less English assistance you’ll find. No one is asking you to be fluent (I certainly am not), but you really should learn a bit. In addition to life being easier, you’ll grow a deeper connection with the country and have a more enriching experience overall. Here are 5 ways to learn a new language.

Have you considered living in Japan? What would you want to know? Tell me in the comments below!

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Tokyo and Hong Kong. Freelance content creator. Wife to a Parisien. Pomsky mama. Sharing luxury, food, travel, and expat life. Can speak 日本語(ish) and français(beginner)

  • Loved reading this article. We were in Japan a few months ago and I agree with everything you said here! About cleanliness, I could not believe there was not a single garbage can in Tokyo yet it was super clean. 🙂

    January 20, 2018
  • I kept nodding through your entire list as i experienced the same when i was in Tokyo last year. I love the culture, food and the overall vibe of Japan and i cannot wait to visit again. Oh and all i learnt was Konichiwa and Arigatou gozaimashita.

    January 20, 2018
  • I can’t wait for the day I finally visit Japan, and it’s definitely somewhere I’d consider living – I’m a Brit; I love a country which knows how to queue properly! I’ll have to brush up on my Japanese!

    January 20, 2018
  • I’m an American living in Germany and interestingly enough some of the things to know are similar! Like cash being king and feeling safe. I haven’t been to Japan, but I would love to go even though the bugs are mutants haha!

    January 20, 2018
  • I recently made my first visit to Japan and totally loved it. We went to central Japan but I’d love to see more. So beautiful, lovely people and a fascinating culture. I do hope I get the chance to return one day.

    January 20, 2018
  • Japan has always been at the top of my list!

    January 21, 2018
  • Alexandra Lomo Melian

    Loved this article, thank you! 🙂 We may soon have to choose between Tokyo & a couple of other Asian cities in an upcoming work move. I’ve surprised myself by leaning towards Tokyo & this article has really helped. I’m very civic minded & things like littering, being inconsiderate of strangers, etc can really bother me over time, so I am encouraged by your perspective on Japanese culture. I was born & mostly raised in Australia, my mother is Spanish Filipino, I went to primary school in Indonesia & have lived in Amsterdam for 8 years. I can move around & integrate & my partner is also extremely adaptable. But I’m curious, how easy is it to really feel at home in Tokyo? Unless we speak fluent Japanese, I suppose we will end up with 99% expat friends which I find a little sad. Is that an accurate assumption? How is it for expat kids? We will have at least one very new human joining us if we go. Lastly, I’m a huge nature lover & I know that Japan on the whole has some stunning landscapes on offer. How much of a nature hit can you get living in the city though? Thanks!!!

    August 21, 2018
  • Adina Martinez

    Glad I found this article, Delilah! My husband & 2 young kids & I may be moving to Tokyo early next year for his work. I’m excited and terrified, really just concerned about learning the language and figuring things out by myself. The school piece is a high priority for me and I know super little about it so far. Will definitely be looking for connections if we do indeed come 😊

    December 24, 2018

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