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Living Abroad in Japan

Making the Move

© Ruthy Kanagy, from Living Abroad in Japan. Used by permission of Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.

"What if you want to go all the way and become a citizen of Japan? Just so you know, in most cases this means giving up your present citizenship. Children born with dual citizenship don’t legally have to give up one or the other, although the Japanese government would like them to do so. At the Immigration Bureau, there are posters of people standing on a globe, cheerfully saying, “Let’s all choose just one citizenship.” If I didn’t have to give up my U.S. citizenship and could just add Japanese to the list, I’d do it in a heartbeat."

Visas and Immigration

A sasho (visa) is one of those necessary evils required for going international. Hopefully, in the future it will be possible to simply live as a world citizen and only need a visa for interplanetary travel. In the meantime, if you are headed to Japan and want to stay longer than 90 days, you will need some type of a visa obtained through a Japanese consulate in the United States. Your actual zairyu kikan (period of stay) in Japan and your zairyu shikaku (status of residence) will be recorded in your passport by an immigration officer at the airport where you land. A landing permit will be stamped in your passport, and your date of entry and the duration of valid stay in Japan will be written in as well. Make sure not to overstay your welcome!

One more critical point: Check that your passport is valid for at least three months if you’re arriving in Japan as a temporary visitor (90 days or less), and at least as long as the visa status and length of stay for which you’re applying. You could be denied entry when you land if your passport expires sooner than your allowable period of stay.

Temporary Visitors

If you are an American entering Japan as a temporary visitor (tourist), you don’t need a visa for a stay of up to 90 days. However, you must show a valid passport and a return ticket dated within 90 days. Authorized activities for temporary visitors to Japan include sightseeing, vacationing, playing sports, visiting family, going on site inspection tours, participating in lectures, and meeting business contacts.

What if you decide you want to stay longer? You will need to leave Japan, apply for a longer-term visa (such as a student visa, work visa, or cultural visa) at a Japanese consulate outside Japan, and then reenter the country.

Visa Applications

If you are not a temporary visitor, but instead plan to stay for longer than 90 days and/or intend to work in Japan, you will need an appropriate visa to remain in the country. Before arriving in Japan, you must apply for a visa at a Japanese embassy or consulate in the United States. The Embassy of Japan is located in Washington, D.C. gives detailed instructions on application procedures. Visit the same site for locations and contact information for all consulate-generals of Japan in the U.S.

When you apply for a visa, you will need to submit the following documents in person (or possibly by mail—check with the individual consulate):

  1. A valid passport
  2. A Visa Application Form to Enter Japan (Form 1-C)
  3. One two-inch-by-two-inch photo
  4. An original zairyu shikaku nintei shomeisho (certificate of eligibility) from the Immigration Bureau of Japan, and one photocopy. You should obtain this certificate through your sponsor in Japan. Getting a visa will go most smoothly this way, but if you have no certificate of eligibility, you will need the first three items above, plus the following documents:
  5. A copy of the acceptance letter from the Japanese institution you will attend. In addition, if you are attending a vocational school, you must present evidence of your Japanese language skills (such as showing you passed Level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test).
  6. Documents certifying that you can defray all expenses incurred during your stay in Japan (such as a bank statement or official proof of receipt of scholarships or grants).
  7. A photocopy of all the above documents.

The exact documents required vary depending on the particular status of residence. See the next section for more information.

Types Of Visas

Student Visa

A student visa is for those entering a college or junior college in Japan for longer than 90 days. If you are going to Japan on an exchange program with your university, or have been admitted directly to a Japanese university or junior college, you need this type of visa to enter the country. Housing is often included for participants, and the host university may assist you in obtaining a student visa.

If you are already in Japan, you may be able to get a student visa if you enroll full-time in a Japanese language school or senmon gakko (technical school). In this case, your school may be able to act as your sponsor or guarantor. With a student visa, you are allowed to work legally up to 20 hours per week (teaching English, working in a fast-food restaurant, etc.), but first you must apply to the immigration bureau for permission.

Cultural Activities Visa

Cultural activities include academic or artistic activities that provide no income, or activities for the purpose of pursuing specific studies on Japanese culture or arts, or activities for the purpose of learning about Japanese culture or arts under the guidance of experts (excluding activities allowed by a student visa). The period of stay is usually six months to a year.

Work Visas

There are 14 categories of work visas. Each type has specific parameters: professor, artist, religious activity, journalist, investor/business manager, legal/accounting service, medical service, researcher, instructor, engineer, humanities service/international services, intracompany transferee, entertainer, and skilled labor. In addition to the brief descriptions below, you’ll find detailed information on the website of the Embassy of Japan.

At a minimum, you should have a college degree in any field, or prove that you have significant experience (ten years is a good length—in Japan, it takes ten years to become a sushi chef or to master any art) in a certain field. Then you will need to seek out a school or business to give you a job and be your guarantor to obtain a working visa. Work visas are generally good for six months, one year, or three years. The longer you stay in Japan, the better your chance of obtaining a longer visa.

  • Instructor
    This visa is for providers of language instruction and other education at elementary schools, junior high schools, senior high schools, schools for the blind, schools for disabled children, kakushu gakko and senshu gakko (miscellaneous schools), or equivalent institutions.
  • Artist
    An artist visa is for producers of artwork that provides income, such as composers, songwriters, artists, sculptors, craftspeople, and photographers.
  • Humanities/International Services
    This type of visa is for those who engage in service requiring knowledge pertinent to jurisprudence, economics, sociology, or other human science fields. These services must require specific ways of thought or sensitivity based on experience with foreign culture, such as interpreting, translation, copywriting, fashion design, interior design, sales, overseas business, information processing, international finance, design, or public relations and advertising based on a contract with a public or private organization in Japan.
  • Investor/Business Manager
    An investor/business manager visa covers those involved in the operation of international trade or other businesses, investors in international trade or other businesses, and those who operate or manage international trade or other businesses on behalf of foreign nationals (including corporations) who have begun such an operation or invested in such a business. The business in question must meet certain conditions of scale. Applicants who wish to engage in business management must fulfill specific conditions concerning work status and personal history.
  • Professor
    This visa is granted to those who perform research, research guidance, or teaching services for institutions specializing in education, such as professors and assistant professors at universities, college, or koto senmon gakko (technical colleges).
  • Researcher
    The Researcher visa is for research activities performed under contract with public or private institutes in Japan, excluding activities described under “Professor,” above. I had this visa while I was a foreign researcher at the National Institute for Japanese Language in Tokyo. At first, my research visa was valid for one year. Then I renewed for another one-year period. The next time I went to renew my visa, they gave me a three-year research visa without my asking. Luckily, I had the proper certificate of eligibility form from my institute, and my immediate supervisor kindly agreed to act as my guarantor. (That’s a big favor to ask, because if I got in trouble with the law or skipped the country with unpaid rent, my guarantor would be personally liable. Treat guarantors with care.)

Required Municipal Office Procedures

Alien Registration

Once settled in Japan, you must complete more official paperwork—this time at your local municipal office. Everyone who is staying in Japan more than 90 days must go through gaikokujin toroku (alien registration) within the first 90 days of entry to Japan. Here’s the official description: All foreigners residing in Japan (except those who have received permission to enter Japan temporarily or for transit purposes, diplomats, consular officials, their families, and persons staying in Japan under the Japan-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement) are obliged to register as foreign residents when they enter Japan, obtain foreign citizenship while in Japan, or are born in Japan. Foreigners should complete Alien Registration (also called Foreign Resident Registration) at their local ward or municipal (city, town, or village) office (at the Foreign Resident Registration Desk) and receive a foreign resident registration card.

Here’s what you need to take when applying for initial registration:

  1. Two photographs (taken within the last six months; not required for applicants under 16 years of age) 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) in length and up to 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches) in width, showing a full frontal view of the face without a hat.
  2. A signature is required.

When applying for initial registration, you will be informed when your foreign resident registration card will be issued. You must pick up your card within this period. However, foreigners under 16 years of age will be issued a card immediately upon application.

Foreign resident registration cards give the person’s name, date of birth, sex, nationality, address, status of residence, occupation, place of work, and other details. The card for permanent residents and special permanent residents include all these items of information except occupation and place of work. Foreigners 16 years of age or over must carry this card with them at all times. Please keep in mind that police and other officials may ask to see your card whenever necessary.

Why do foreigners have to register? By registering, your identity and residence are verified, and you will have a card to keep with you at all times. This is “necessary for the administration of public programs such as education, welfare, medical fees, and immigration control,” according to the Immigration Bureau. Thankfully, gone are the days when you were forcibly fingerprinted into a little brown notebook you had to carry around.

Your Alien Registration Card must be carried with you at all times, and should be turned in when you leave Japan without a reentry permit in your passport.

Immigration Bureau Residency Procedures

You will need to apply at your regional immigration bureau in Japan when temporarily leaving Japan, extending your period of stay, and for any procedure related to your status of residence (such as changing your visa category or requesting permission for any activities other than those authorized). When making such applications, you must present your passport and Alien Registration Certificate.

Temporarily Leaving Japan

If you are leaving Japan temporarily (for a home visit, to tour another country, etc.), you must apply for a sainyukoku kyoka (reentry permit) in order to come back into Japan. You can do this at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau and other branch offices. Apply for either a single reentry permit (for ¥3,000/$27) or a multiple reentry permit (for ¥6,000/$54). The latter is good for the duration of your visa (six months, one year, or three years) and handy if you expect to travel out and back several times. These procedures must be strictly followed, or you run the risk of not being allowed to enter Japan again. I learned this the hard way when, ignorant of the rule, I went on a one-week vacation to Korea from Hokkaido, where I was teaching at a university. When I landed in Sapporo at New Chitose Airport, I was detained and questioned for several hours as to why I did not have a reentry permit. Without a permit, I had forfeited my teaching visa. I was only released after I had written a letter of apology (in Japanese) stating that I would not make the same mistake again and promised to go to the immigration bureau to sort things out. I was lucky!

Extending Your Period of Stay

Your zairyu kikan no koshin (period of stay) is determined together with your status of residence at the time you land in Japan. Foreigners are only allowed to stay in Japan within a set period of time. If you would like to remain in Japan under the same status of residence beyond your authorized period of stay, you must apply for and obtain an extension. To do so, apply at your local immigration office no later than the expiration date of your authorized period of stay (applications are usually accepted up to two months in advance). Anyone who stays in Japan beyond the authorized period of stay is subject to punishment and/or deportation by law.

Changing Your Status of Residence

Foreigners who would like to stop their present activity and concentrate on an activity that is different from what is authorized under their current status of residence must apply for—and obtain—a change of zairyu shikaku no henko (status of residence). The submission of such an application does not necessarily guarantee its approval. Anyone receiving income from an activity other that what is authorized under his or her status of residence, or anyone who conducts unauthorized activities with remuneration without first obtaining this permission, is subject to punishment and/or deportation by law.

Unauthorized Activities

Foreigners who would like to engage in an activity involving the management of a business or any remuneration other than what is authorized under the assigned status of residence must apply for—and obtain—permission to do so in advance. Foreigners engaging in an activity other than those authorized are subject to punishment by law.

Permanent Residency

The main benefit of this status is not having to apply for visas every time you want to live in Japan—but keep in mind that half the “registered foreigners” in Japan are second- or third-generation permanent residents (usually Korean or Chinese). It’s not impossible to obtain eijuken (permanent residency), but it takes connections, money, a good guarantor, and up to about ten years. If you marry a Japanese person, the time can be as short as five years. I also know a number of internationals in Japan who got permanent residency after living in the country for five years—without being married to a Japanese. So, it’s possible, albeit difficult, to move the process along more quickly.


What if you want to go all the way and become a citizen of Japan? Just so you know, in most cases this means giving up your present citizenship. Children born with dual citizenship don’t legally have to give up one or the other, although the Japanese government would like them to do so. At the Immigration Bureau, there are posters of people standing on a globe, cheerfully saying, “Let’s all choose just one citizenship.” If I didn’t have to give up my U.S. citizenship and could just add Japanese to the list, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

If you want to pursue Japanese citizenship, naturalization is the primary way for foreigners to do so. Application for naturalization must be made at the Ministry of Justice, Nationality Division, Tokyo Legal Affairs Bureau, Kudan Building No. 2, 1-1-15 Kudan Minami, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-8225, tel. 03/5213-1234.

Moving with Children

Dependent Visa

If you are coming to Japan with a student or work visa and have family members accompanying you, they will need to apply for a Dependent Visa at a Japanese consulate office outside Japan in order to enter the country. A spouse or children of someone residing in Japan with the visa status of Professor, Researcher, or Cultural Activities are eligible for dependent residence status. Normally, the period of stay for dependents is three months, six months, one year, or three years. If your dependent plans to stay in Japan for more than 90 days, he or she must also apply for alien registration.

Making the Adjustment

Children face their own challenges when moving to a new country. Make sure to provide plenty of support—familiar books, toys, music, photographs of extended family and close friends, and some favorite foods. Allow them time to get adjusted to their new surroundings, and try not to push them to play with children they don’t know. If your children are old enough, help them write a postcard or email to a friend back home. Above all, as a parent, give them your time and emotional support, although you may be busy with the many tasks of setting up house in a new culture. When your children are ready, plan ways to learn Japanese together, go shopping, or take outings. But I recommend starting slowly—riding a subway may be a big enough activity by itself. Don’t fill up the schedule too much.

I was four years old the first time I went to a new country. My parents were going back to Indiana for a year of furlough from their missionary work, and I found myself in a strange place filled with new tastes (like Froot Loops), a new language, and relatives I’d heard about but had never met. I was too young to go to school, so I stayed home and played with buttons from my grandmother’s sewing basket. The second time we moved back to the States, I was eleven and attended an English school for the first time. I could speak English, but heard a lot of words that weren’t in my vocabulary, and sometimes got laughed at for not knowing common slang words. Your child may face similar challenges living in Japan or going to a Japanese school. Finding him or her a buddy to help ease the transition will make a big difference.

But despite some adjustments, the pluses of growing up in two cultures far outweigh the challenges. Learning two or more languages from infancy has been shown to stimulate and develop brain cells, since brain capacity increases through mapping multiple sets of vocabularies and grammars. On a social level, knowing more than one language and culture gives children (and adults) a broader worldview and empathy for people from other places. Home is no longer just one country—“one nation indivisible” extends to “one earth indivisible.” There are practical advantages as well—being bilingual and bicultural will be an advantage when your child establishes a career. You as a parent can give your family that opportunity.

Moving with Pets

You may want to bring your favorite cat, dog, or other pet to Japan. It can be done, but there are many requirements involved. First of all, upon arrival (with the proper documents), your pet will be quarantined for two weeks or longer at the airport. During this period, you are responsible for feeding and caring for your pet, who will be housed in a kennel. (If you’re landing at Narita Airport, note that Narita is located in the neighboring Chiba prefecture, not in metropolitan Tokyo. Depending on where you are staying, it could take two or three hours to get to the airport from Tokyo.) Also keep in mind that most apartments in Japan do not allow pets. A few do, but you will have to hunt for them; and there may be extra fees for keeping a pet, such as a deposit.

In my case, I decided not to bring my dog to Japan and left her with several trustworthy friends at home. I didn’t want to subject her to the trauma of air travel, quarantine, and adjustment to an unfamiliar place. Moreover, there was no grass or dirt near my apartment, only concrete and asphalt—not much space to run around, and not much fun.

However, if you do decide to bring your pet—and you may have compelling reasons—here’s how. The agency that regulates the transport of animals into Japan is the Animal Quarantine Service of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. Their policy on dogs reads as follows:

If you bring a pet dog with you from abroad, it will be detained for a quarantine inspection for a fixed period of time after arrival in Japan in order to examine it for the presence of rabies and leptospirosis. Detention inspections are normally conducted at Animal Quarantine Stations and require that animals be isolated from people and other animals in order to check for the presence of illness or disease. Detention will continue for a period of 14 to 180 days, depending on the existence and the content of rabies vaccination and health certificates issued by the relevant authorities in the country of departure. However, if you bring a dog with you from one of the designated rabies-free areas (only Hawaii in the U.S.), the detention period may be as short as 12 hours.

In addition, if your dog has not had a rabies vaccination, she will be kept in detention for a period of 30 days—if you have a certificate issued by a government agency in your country of departure containing a statement to the effect that the animal was raised in isolation and that certain conditions have been satisfied. Please be aware that you will not be able to bring your dog into Japan if you do not have a health certificate issued by a government agency. There are 17 ports and airports in Japan through which you may bring your dog (visit the URL provided above for contact information).

There is no cost for the rabies and leptospirosis examination while your dog is held in detention. However, the dog’s owner is responsible for the care of his or her dog during that time.

There is a requirement that you register a dog (91 days old or older) at the local municipal office and receive a dog license. In addition, the dog must have a rabies vaccination once a year at some point between April and June, and receive a Completion of Rabies Vaccination Tag. The license and tag must be attached to the dog’s collar at all times.

All dogs must be leashed or caged when outdoors, except in designated dog parks (see for park descriptions). Some restaurants and hotels accept pets. For further information, contact your local municipal office.

See the Ministry of Agriculture website for requirements for cats and other pets. For additional information, contact your local ward or municipal office, local public health center, or the Veterinary Sanitation Section, Living Environment Division, Bureau of Public Health, Tokyo Metropolitan Government (tel. 03/5320-4412).

What to Take

Almost everything you need to set up house in Japan can be purchased after you arrive—linens, kitchenware, furniture, television, DVD players, and so on. Many household items can be found for a reasonable price at “recycle shops” and ¥100 stores (the equivalent of a dollar store, but with many more items). In a nutshell: Take only what you can’t live without.

However, do bring as much money as you can for startup costs. Getting the key to an apartment can set you back as much as $5,000. Costs are lower in smaller cities and towns away from urban centers. Any amount up to ¥1 million ($9,090) in any currency is not subject to customs declaration when you enter Japan.

Electronics and Media

As far as voltage goes, your laptop computer will operate with no problem in Japan (which uses 100V versus our 120V). You can also buy a computer in Japan—the English classifieds might be a good place to find one—although the Japanese keyboard has a slightly different configuration. Software sold in stores is, naturally, all in Japanese.

Your American cell phone, however, will not work in Japan. But the good news is that cell phones are abundant and you can buy prepaid phone cards to go with them.

To protect market share, DVD software and players are regulated through region-specific codes. If the DVD and player are not from the same region, they are incompatible. For example, region 2 software (manufactured for Japan) can only be played on region 2 DVD players. The regions are designated as follows:

  • Region 1—United States, Canada
  • Region 2—Japan, Europe, Middle East, South Africa, Egypt
  • Region 3—East Asia, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong
  • Region 4—Australia, Central America, Caribbean, South America
  • Region 5—Former Soviet Union, North Korea, Mongolia, South Asia, Africa (other than South Africa)
  • Region 6—China

So, if you bring your DVD player from the U.S. to Japan, it most likely will not be able to read Japanese software. However, some software and players are region-free. So, if you purchase a region-free (or code-free) player, it will play most any DVD from any part of the world. Make sure to note whether the warranty is international or limited to the country of purchase.

Standard TV frequencies and FM radio (from 76 to 90 MHz) are different than in North America. You can get English news and other bilingual broadcasts in Tokyo and other large cities.

Comfort Food

Most large department stores in Japan have an international foods section where you can find such exotic items as Skippy’s peanut butter, taco shells, and pretzels. But if you have any favorite seasoning mixes, spices, herbal teas, microwave popcorn, macaroni and cheese, or tortilla chips, you may want to bring along a supply. Also, don’t forget that decaffeinated coffee doesn’t exist in Japan!

Clothing and Shoes

If you are a tall woman (over 5’7”) or wear shoes larger than a size eight, it’s a good idea to bring most of the clothing and shoes you will need in Japan from home. Larger sizes are available, but only in major department stores and specialty shops, and prices are quite steep. Japanese clothing and shoes tend to be well-tailored and high in quality, but shoes may cost $200 or more, and a two-piece suit for women $300 or more. Women’s clothing sizes are 9, 11, 13, 15, 17 (L), 19 (2L), 3L, and 4L. However, if you’re smaller in stature, you’ll have no problem finding clothing to fit.

Men’s shirts come in the following neck sizes, in centimeters: 36 (14 in), 37 (14.5 in), 38 (15 in), 39 (15.5 in), 40 (16 in), 41 (16.5 in), 42 (17 in), and so on. Shoe sizes for both genders are also measured in centimeters. The following sizes are approximate: 23 (women’s 6.5), 24 (women’s 7), 25 (women’s 8.5, men’s 7), 26 (women’s 9.5, men’s 8.5), 27 (men’s 9.5), 27.5 (men’s 10.5). Again, if you wear a larger size, bring your own shoes to Japan.

Shipping Companies

The cost of shipping to Japan may seem reasonable, but the cost of shipping goods home again is quite high. This applies to books as well. U.S. post offices have large canvas bags that hold up to 40 pounds of books, but shipping them back from Japan is the hard part. I paid about $100 for each small box of general goods, and only a little less to mail books to the U.S.—and the books had to be in small parcels of 10 pounds or less to qualify for book rate. My total cost was about $1,000 for postage.

To get an idea of shipping costs to or from Japan, contact Nippon Express or OPAS Ship to Japan (an affiliate of DHL) for free estimates.

Other means of transporting items, such as via container ship, are available if you plan to bring a large quantity of household goods. However, packing light and buying or borrowing once you reach your destination helps to establish solidarity with your new home, and shopping for items is an excellent way to interact with your new neighborhood and introduce yourself to local shopkeepers.

Related Topics
Key Resources and Links for Living in Japan
More from Living Abroad in Japan
 True Expatriate Stories
 Prime Locations
 Moving to Japan
 Visas and Immigration
 Moving with Children
 Moving with Pets
 What to Take
Living Abroad in Japan
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