I lived in Tokyo continuously from the spring of 2006 through the end of 2010. It was a mind-blowing experience. Hopefully these pointers will help others considering (or living) the same.
choosing a name in Japan
Choosing a Japanese version of your name is trickier and more important than it sounds. Obviously, Japanese people can have trouble with unfamiliar names when they contain sounds that don't exist in the Japanese language (and the language is missing a lot that Western languages take for granted). But worse still is the inability of Japanese computer systems to deal with foreign words. This can't be understated. See, for instance, the story I submitted to Loneleeplanet, the blog of a friend who collects stories about Japan.
It's important that foreigners pay attention to the day-to-day problems that their name might engender. I strongly recommend that all foreigner:
- Avoid the lengthy vowel sounds (e.g. 「アー」) and simply adopt single-vowel sounds.
- Avoid any combination that involves a subscripted vowel sound like 「ヴェ」('ve') or 「ジェ」('je').
- Drop your middle name(s), they have no place in Japanese officialdom.
- If you come from a country without family names, you'll have to choose one. I recommend adopting a Japanese name. Some common ones include Satou, Suzuki, and Takahashi.
adopt an alias
I'm currently exploring the use of a legal alias. This is a name that can be used on credit cards and bank accounts to simplify things while your legally registered name remains whatever katakana concoction you've come up with. This concept is neatly explained here.
finding a bank
Shinsei Bank and Citibank are two that offer services in English. I've dealt with both. I find Shinsei Bank more accommodating and certainly more convenient.
finding a home
Get a real estate agent to do the legwork for you. In Tokyo in particular finding an apartment is a very difficult process. And when you start your search, calculate your budget not only on what you want to pay every month but also on the renewal fees (typically this comes to your monthly rent, and is paid every two months when you renew your lease) and key-money fees (called reikin).
Key money fees are illegal, but still collected by many landlords. And it's a lot of money, often two or even three months rent! Be assured that this is Welcome to Japan.
getting a mortgage
Be careful when arranging a mortgage. I know three foreigners who had a mortgage arranged, then lost their mortgage lease due to the bank changing their minds. Naturally, in each case this only happened after they had spent the money on a home, assuming that their mortgage contract was for real.
I have heard of Australians securing a mortgage from Australian banks. I'm not sure how viable this would be in most cases, but it shows how hard it can be in Japan.
I hope to soon add to this guide an account from someone who's done it.
Presented in no particular order:
- GaijinPot a dog's breakfast of advice, comments, and news.
- Japan With Kids for foreign families living in Japan. A bit dated.
- JapanSoc a guide to current affairs and interesting things in Japan.
If you're packing up and getting out, do it before December 31. If you don't, you'll automatically owe city or prefectural taxes on the income from your last year in residence, and you'll have to pay that tax mid-year even if you left Jan 1.
When you're at the airport for that final flight out, be sure to have your re-entry visa canceled and hand in your alien registration card (or registration card). Otherwise, you'll still be deemed a resident and will be subject to tax.
I lived in Japan for four months in 2005, then from March of 2006–December 2010. This experience is, as I review these notes in mid 2012, already aging. I'd appreciate any updates if something appears out of date!