What it’s like to live and work in Japan

With its high standard of living and popular culture, Japan attracts a lot of overseas visitors. But what do you need to know before deciding whether to move there longer term?
Living Working Illo 1200 X 675 Copy 10 Tokyo

Living and working in Tokyo, the world’s most populous city, can be a real adventure. But to get the most out of the experience, you should do your research first. Here are a few tips to let you know what it’s like to live in Japan.

What to know before you move to Japan

Visas and paperwork

The visa process will differ depending on how you get a job in Japan. If you’re transferred to your company’s Tokyo branch, they’ll sort your intra-company transferee visa. If you’re starting your own business, you’ll need to arrange a startup visa. And if you’re a freelancer, the easiest route is getting one of your regular Japanese clients to sponsor your application.

Erin, (who asked that we not use her last name) worked in Japan for 16 years in various sectors. She feels that the ex-pat life, where you’re already working for a company and they then send you over to Japan, is easier. “The company helps you navigate administrative processes – renewing your visa, finding an apartment, things like that.”

Whether you work for an international conglomerate or a small Japanese company, though, you’ll have access to one of the benefits she appreciated most. “If you have a full-time job in Japan, you automatically get health insurance. As an American I found it so easy to deal with, so affordable. Everything is covered, even dental.”

Unless you intend to stay forever, you should plan for the administration and costs of leaving. You will have to pay a year’s worth of residence tax, which is based on the previous year’s earnings.

You may be able to offset some of the costs, though. As Erin explains: “You have to pay into the Japanese pensions system while you’re working there. Depending on where you’re from, you may be able to get a lump sum payment of what you’ve paid in or transfer it to your home country – so fill out the right forms.”

Workplace culture

One of the defining features of Japanese workplaces is their sense of collectivism, which often manifests as collaboration and mutual support. This spills out of the office too, with drinking parties (nomikai), dinners, and events like the bonenkai (end-of-year party), giving you opportunities to build relationships with your colleagues.

Satoko Miura works in digital marketing and CRM in the ecommerce department of Francfranc, a large Japanese interior goods company. Its team-focused culture has continued through the pandemic’s remote and hybrid working.

“We’re only in the office one day a week at the moment,” Miura says, “so we make the most of it by going somewhere together after work.”

Though your colleagues may let loose at the nomikai, in the office you’ll find people generally defer to authority and share their opinions only when it’s useful or specifically asked for. This extends to management style, too – don’t expect a lot of praise or accolades for just doing your job correctly.

Given Japan’s advanced technology, one aspect of the work culture which often shocks foreign employees is its reluctance to digitise. Many companies still rely on fax machines and physical copies of documents, rather than email. But this doesn’t apply across the board and is slowly shifting, spurred on partly by the increased need for remote work during the pandemic.

Mika White, co-founder of Tourism Exchange Japan, notes that starting a business in Japan is now mostly digital. “The paperwork to start up a business is not that hard, if you speak the language or can get someone to help with that. Online systems help you prepare the paperwork you need to register your company. For as little as one cent, almost, you can start a company immediately.”

Overtime and time off

The existence of terms like “death from overwork” (karoshi) and “black companies” (burakku kigyou) is held up as a sign that Japan’s work-life balance is off. And while that’s an oversimplification, there is a lot of truth to it.

Overtime remains the norm. It’s also not uncommon for companies to exceed the legal overtime limits: 37% of companies (which were already suspected of bad practice) surveyed by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare did so.

Overtime is handled in one of two ways. In some cases, it isn’t covered by your salary; you’re paid extra for any extra work. This is the case for Miura, who averages 40-43 hours’ overtime per month – almost the legal limit of 45. How long you work, she explains, “depends so much not only on your industry, but your company, your department, your boss… Design and creative teams work some of the longest hours in my company, while HR and finance don’t need to stay as late.”

The financial company where her husband works has minashi zangyo, or “assumed overtime”, meaning the salary is higher to cover the expectation of extra hours. He averages 10 hours’ of overtime each month, but it isn’t always that reasonable. As one employee of a Tokyo creative agency puts it, “There’s a lot of social pressure to work long hours. I’ve never worked overnight, but it happens. It’s illegal, but it doesn’t get reported. Managers point to minashi zangyo to say we’ve already been paid extra, so we should stay late.”

As for annual leave, the statutory minimum for full-time workers is 10 days, and in 2019 a law was passed stating that employees must use at least five of them. Francfranc increases the annual leave allowance over time, so Miura is now entitled to 20 days. “I’ve never used them all, though, and I think that’s the same for almost everyone. I tend to use 10 to 15.”

Fitting in as a foreigner

Even in a cosmopolitan city like Tokyo, most people will have never worked with someone from overseas. The country is much more homogenous than most places in Europe or America, so it can feel difficult to fit in.

Both Miura and White say that one key skill to develop is your ability to “read the air” (kuuki wo yomu). This means learning to understand the subtext of what’s going on. For instance, it’s bad form to directly say no to someone, especially in front of other people.

“Just accept what they say, then try to talk it out behind the scenes,” suggests White. “Saying ‘no’ in front of other people embarrasses them, and embarrassment plays a big role in Japanese culture.”

White was born and raised in Japan but went to the US for high school and university. When she started work in Japan, she found this difference frustrating.

“I was freshly graduated from a US university, where you had to speak your mind and advocate for your rights, and all of a sudden I was in a Japanese context where that wasn’t necessarily accepted. Over time I learnt that you can speak your mind, but you have to find the best way to approach it.”

And of course, bringing an outside perspective can often be more useful than just fitting in. You may well have been hired for your ability to look at things differently and shake up the office culture.

What is it like living in Japan?

What to expect of work life in Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the biggest, most exciting cities in the world, and living there gives you the time to get under its skin in a way you can’t on a holiday.

Where exactly you live and work will affect your experience. Miura loves working in Tokyo but, more specifically, she loves the fact that her company’s head office is in Omotesando.

“It’s my favourite district and has so many good places to go after work, so that motivates me. Shinbashi or Shinagawa feel like business areas, while Omotesando, Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinjuku… they’re more fashionable, casual and cultural. Tokyo can be overwhelming at first, but there’s so much to enjoy here.”

Tokyo is easy to explore, with its extensive and efficient public transport and clean, safe streets. And if you need a break from it, you’ll find it’s surprisingly simple to either find a green space in the city or head out to the coast or the mountains.

What to expect of work life outside Tokyo

Of course, your job might be located outside the capital. If you work for a Japanese company they may transfer you to a branch office, and if you are teaching English on the JET programme you’re unlikely to be assigned to a school in Tokyo. Olivia Lee did just that and was sent to Kyushu. For her, JET was a great way to explore a side of Japan most tourists don’t see.

“It’s very much a ‘short-term’ job,” she notes, “as the maximum you can do is five years. But some people do segue, usually into an advisory or coordination role between the local prefecture and the English teachers. Those roles require a high level of Japanese, so most people doing that then move into other work in Japan – sometimes Tokyo – once their contract is finished.”

Working in one of Japan’s other big cities like Yokohama or Osaka will be more similar to working in Tokyo than it is different. But basing yourself in a smaller regional city will give you a different experience, one with fewer Michelin-starred restaurants but also more room to breathe on your commute.

As more companies move to a remote or hybrid-working model, the possibility of working from other parts of Japan is opening up. White loved working in Tokyo but after 10 years she wanted a change of pace and moved to Hiroshima. Then in 2020 she went a step further and moved to a house right by the beach in the subtropical Goto Islands.

“I came to think, maybe I don’t need to be in Tokyo,” she says. “Maybe what I do is more important than where I live, in my line of work. And honestly, if you want to work in Japan to experience the country, I don’t think you should focus too much on Tokyo!”

What is the cost of living in Japan?

Japan is much more affordable than many people expect, especially outside the capital. But even living in Tokyo is cheaper than London, New York or Paris.

Erin found that “rent is quite reasonable, though probably for a smaller place than in many other cities. As a person who had a very average salary, I was able to live in central Tokyo. And the food is excellent and affordable – eating out costs about the same as buying groceries and cooking.”

The Japanese language

Japanese is a notoriously difficult language, from its three scripts to its multiple levels of politeness. Showing willing will be appreciated, and your daily life will be much easier if you learn the basics, but you may not need polished business-level Japanese for your job.

“There are so many computer programmers in Japan, and people in finance,” Erin explains. “They have a highly valued skill and don’t really need to use Japanese at all at work. If it’s a global company, a lot of the people who work there can speak English.”

In cities you’ll also see that many signs include both English and Japanese. But as soon as you head somewhere rural, you’ll need to rely on a translation app and local hospitality to understand.

Japanese social customs

The impression most people have of Japan is that its social customs are convoluted and elaborate – but, in general, as a foreigner you’ll be forgiven for honest faux pas. Still, it’s only polite to learn the basics. A few simple points which are bound to come up are:

  • Never use chopsticks to eat directly from communal dishes, don’t pass food from one pair to another, and never stick them upright in your food.
  • Visibly enjoy your food when eating with others, ideally letting them know repeatedly that it’s delicious (oishii). Slurp your noodles, too, though try not to flick anyone with the broth.
  • Take off your shoes when entering anyone’s home, and many other buildings. Take your cue from people around you, and generally avoid anything with elaborate laces.
  • Business cards are common. Hand yours over with both hands and a slight bow. Receive cards the same way and be sure to look at them before putting them away.
  • Get used to bowing. This doesn’t have to be a full 90-degree bow – in fact, often it’s closer to a head bob.
  • Be on time. Better yet, be a few minutes early – especially for trains, which are rarely even a few seconds behind schedule.

You can read more from our Working Around the World series here.