Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
Do Secure a Job and Housing Before Moving to Japan
Some expats advocate coming to Japan on a tourist visa to job-hunt. While this is technically possible, if you enter Japan on a tourist visa, you may not be able to switch to a work visa without leaving the country and going to a Japanese consulate. (The Japanese government technically prohibits entering the country on a tourist visa with the intention of gaining work, and some immigration officials take a very strict interpretation of this rule.)
Additionally, securing an apartment can take time, and the last thing you want is to be hopping around hostels or friends' couches while attempting to start a new job. The burden on yourself, your wallet, and possibly your new employer isn't worth it. You don't need to track down your dream job right away—go with an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) placement company, eikaiwa English school, or other common employer to get into Japan and secure some kind of income, then start looking for something better after you arrive. Most companies that recruit overseas have some capacity to help you secure your first apartment and visa, while smaller employers may not.
Do Study Japanese
You don't need to be even halfway fluent at Japanese to move to Japan, but you at least need the basics. Make sure you can read katakana, hiragana, and a few basic kanji, such as the kanji for "station" and the days of the week. You won't inspire much confidence from your neighbors or your new employer if you can't even read or write your own name.
While Google Translate is great in a pinch, it can cause major misunderstandings, especially if its speech translation feature gets something wrong. Your sempais or other more skilled speakers will also start to lose patience with you if you're constantly relying on them for translation instead of making an effort to learn yourself. Make sure you have enough basic survival phrases in your pocket that you can handle grocery shopping, riding the bus or train, and emergencies.
Since Japanese culture places a heavy emphasis on respect and politeness, you'll get brownie points if you can use polite phrases. Even basic ones like "yoroshiku onegaishimasu" will help you make a good impression on your new neighbors. When you make a mistake, an earnest "sumimasen" in apology can help as well.
Don't Slack Off on Immigration Procedures
Are you coming in on a student visa, instructor visa, humanities visa, or something else? What are your work restrictions? What paperwork do you have to show to get your visa renewed? What are the procedures to follow if you want to leave and re-enter the country?
While the Japanese Immigration Bureau has an English-language website, there may be special rules that apply to your circumstances, and you should always double-check with your employer or university when in doubt. The major rule of thumb is to always keep your residence information updated, pay your taxes, and inform your local immigration office whenever you change jobs.
Working under-the-table in Japan can cause major problems with your work visa, and simply informing Immigration that you've started a new job may not be enough. In some cases, foreigners have been deported for waiting too long to inform Immigration that they started a new part-time job that was otherwise perfectly legal. Be extremely careful to follow all appropriate timelines, especially if you have to change visa types in order to start a new job.
Do Brush Up on Basic Manners
Before you even step off the plane, make sure you're ready to put your best foot forward and not annoy your new neighbors! Read through basic guides to Japanese etiquette, even if you've been to the country before. If you speak Japanese, make sure you remember how to properly use all that fancy polite language you learned before you try charming any airport immigration officers.
Remember: the stakes are even higher for you than they are for tourists. While Japan can be a very forgiving country when it comes to foreigners' odd manners, they'll slowly lose patience with repeated mistakes, especially if you're a sensei or a manager of a company.
Don't Get in Trouble
While Japan is fairly forgiving when it comes to minor etiquette infractions, it is far less forgiving when it comes to crime. Committing a crime doesn't get you a free ticket home—it almost always comes with jail time, and your home country's embassy won't be able to get you out.
Japan is strict about bringing in medication, including prescription medications, so make sure to check all applicable rules before entering the country. Even some over-the-counter cough medicines can land you in major trouble with Customs officials. Drugs that are illegal in other countries are almost always illegal in Japan as well, and it's not unheard of for Japanese police to arrest a foreigner because someone back home decided to send a "care package" with illegal goodies.
Drinking and driving is also a serious offense here—and unlike many countries, Japan takes issue with people riding their bicycles after drinking. In Japan, consuming as little as one beer can cause you to be charged with a crime, and the penalties usually involve jail time in addition to a fine. A DUI in Japan is the quickest way to lose your job, savings, and freedom all in one go, so don't risk it.
Remember: as a foreigner, you will likely stand out, and may even be subject to some profiling by police. As unfair as it is, you may not get away with the same things your Japanese neighbors do, so don't take the risk!
Do Have a Plan - and a Plan B
Japan is a country that is vulnerable to natural disasters, shifting population centers, and economic changes. If enough young families move away to urban centers, your dream job teaching English to nursery school kids in the middle of a rice field might cease to exist a few months after you arrive. Worse, you could find your area devastated by a natural disaster—with temporary and long-term ramifications for the community.
While you may think you're set for life and will never need to make more than an entry-level English teacher salary, always have a Plan B for when life gets weird. Maybe Plan B simply means having enough money in savings or a high enough credit card limit to get a plane ticket home. Maybe Plan B means moving to another city in Japan or getting your TEFL certification so you can get a better job.
It's worth noting that there aren't many advancement options for Assistant Language Teachers and other entry-level teaching jobs, so if you want to work your way up, start researching your options right away. Some areas of the country might hire you as a supervisor or low-level manager after as few as three or four years, if you have a drivers' license and some Japanese ability.
Networking with eikaiwa owners, teachers, and other foreigners is always a good idea, too. Sometimes they'll know about an opportunity that isn't on the English job sites, or that you simply never thought to look for.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Ria Fritz
Ria Fritz (author) on October 27, 2018:
Hi @Poppy, thanks for reaching out. I was originally referring to tourist visas, not working holiday or student visas, but it appears that even the Japanese government itself has some conflicting information on that matter. At the very least, since it's technically illegal to enter Japan on a tourist visa with the intention of looking for work, some immigration officials allegedly will reject applications for work visas from folks on tourist visas. I also had a British friend who had to leave and re-enter the country just last year in order to get his visa processed after coming in on a tourist visa.
That said, I will re-phrase the article to reflect the ambiguities of this, since it doesn't seem to be impossible even for tourist visas like I thought.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on October 25, 2018:
"You cannot switch to a work visa without leaving the country and going to a Japanese consulate." This depends on the person's country of origin. British people, for example, can switch to a work visa without having to leave the country.
Liz Westwood from UK on October 22, 2018:
Useful advice for anyone planning a move to Japan.