Within Japan, the Tokyo region generally offers the widest array of jobs for foreigners, including positions for lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals. Teaching positions, on the other hand, are more likely to be found outside of the Tokyo region.
Visas and residence permits
To work in Japan, a foreigner who is not already a permanent resident must receive a job offer from a guarantor in Japan, and then apply for a working visa at an immigration office (if already in Japan) or an embassy or consulate (if abroad). It is illegal for foreigners to work in Japan on a tourist visa. Working visas are valid for a period of one to three years, and may be used to secure employment at any employer within the scope of activities designated on the visa (including employers other than the guarantor). Alternatively, if you have substantial funds, you may apply for an investor visa. This requires you to either invest a large sum of money in a local business, or start your own business in Japan by contributing a large amount of start-up capital, and allows you to work for that particular company in a management capacity. Expect strict penalties if you overstay on any visa. Spouses of Japanese nationals can obtain spouse visas, which carry no restrictions on employment.
The Working Holiday program is open to young citizens (between 18 and 30) from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK. Those eligible may apply for working holiday visas without having a prior job offer.
Foreigners who have lived in Japan for 10 years continuously are eligible to apply for permanent residency. You need to prove that you are financially independent and have no criminal record. If granted, then you can live and work in Japan indefinitely.
A popular form of employment among foreigners from English speaking countries is teaching English, especially in after-hours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa (英会話). Pay is fairly good for young adults, but rather poor compared to a qualified educator already at work in most Western countries. Working conditions can also be quite strict compared to Western standards, and some companies have very bad reputations.
An undergraduate degree or ESL accreditation is essential for most desirable positions. Interviews for English schools belonging to one of the larger chains would usually be held in the applicant’s home country.
Learning English is no longer quite as fashionable as it once was and the boom years are long since over. Greater emphasis is being placed on children’s education. North American accents are preferred, as well as an unspoken preference for teachers with a white appearance.
The JET Programme (Japan Exchange and Teaching) offers young university graduates a chance to teach in Japan. The program is run by the Japanese government but your employer would typically be a local Board of Education who assigns you to one or more public schools, often deep in the countryside. No Japanese skills or formal teaching qualifications are required and your airfare is provided. Pay is slightly better than the language schools and, unlike at such a school, if you have a serious problem with your employer you can appeal to the JET program people for help. The JET program also has a small number of positions for international relations or sports coordinators, although these require some Japanese ability.
Foreigners with postgraduate education may be able to find jobs teaching English (or even other subjects) at Japanese universities, which offer better pay and working conditions than the eikaiwa industry.
Quite a few young women choose to work in the hostess industry, where they entertain Japanese men over drinks in tiny bars known as sunakku (スナック) and are paid for their time. While pay can be good, visas for this line of work are difficult if not impossible to obtain and most work illegally. The nature of the work also carries its own risks, notably poor career prospects, alcoholism, smoking, potential problems from clients such as groping and lewd questions, and even harassment or worse, exemplified by the abduction and murder of hostess Lucie Blackman in 2000.
While there are host bars where young men entertain women, very few foreigners work at host clubs.
There are hundreds of thousands of foreigners studying in Japan in language schools (to learn Japanese), universities, Japanese martial arts academies and institutions of fine arts and crafts.
Japan provides a general exemption from visa requirements for up to 90 days for citizens of over 50 countries who come to Japan for language study. These countries include Australia, Canada, most of Europe, Hong Kong, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, and a dozen Caribbean/Latin American countries. This compete list is available here.
If you qualify for the exemption, you need only a valid passport to study at a Japanese language school generally for up to 90 days. All other foreign students in Japan must get a student visa. A visa application must be sponsored by an educational institution.
In order to obtain a student visa, you will be required to either have ¥1 million, or the equivalent in financial aid awards, to cover your living expenses. With a student visa, you may obtain an additional permission form from Immigration to legally work up to 20 hours per week. Contact your local Japanese embassy or home university’s exchange program department for information on how to proceed.
There is a wide range of Japanese language schools in many cities that teach at various levels of proficiency including courses that prepare students to study at Japanese universities.
The Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU) is a standard examination that covers the Japanese language, science, and mathematics. It is held biannually in Japan and in some foreign cities. Aside from the section on Japanese language, the examination can be written in English or Japanese. Most universities use the EJU as admission criteria for international students, while some use their own entrance exams.
A few universities offer degree programs from the undergraduate to the doctoral level that are taught in English, but to be able to apply for the wide range of programs offered, proficiency in Japanese is required. The largest university offering programs in English is Temple University’s multi-faculty campus in Tokyo.
International students can apply for scholarships provided by the Japanese government, local governments, the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) and private organizations, foundations and companies. These bodies also offer exchange programs at the post-secondary level.
The cheapest way to stay in Japan for a longer period of time is to study at a local school or university with a generous Monbusho (Ministry of Education) grant to pay for it all. A number of Japanese universities offer courses taught in English; some foreign universities also operate independent programs in Japan,
Japan’s top universities are also very well regarded worldwide, though degree programmes are almost always conducted exclusively in Japanese. Nevertheless, many of them have exchange agreements with other foreign universities, and you can apply to go on exchange for a semester or a year. Japan’s most prestigious university is the University of Tokyo (東京大学), which is also considered to be one of the most prestigious universities in Asia, with Kyoto University (京都大学) in second place. Admission to these universities is extremely competitive for Japanese students, with notoriously tough entrance examinations, though admission may be somewhat easier for foreigners as long as your Japanese-language ability is good enough. Besides these two, the other members of the elite “National Seven Universities” in Japan are
Osaka University (大阪大学)
Nagoya University (名古屋大学)
Tohoku University (東北大学)
Hokkaido University (北海道大学)
Kyushu University (九州大学).
Judo (柔道 jūdō, literally “the gentle way”) focuses on grappling and throws, and was the first martial art to become a modern Olympic sport. There are many schools all over the country in which you can study it. If you are a member of a judo federation in any country, you can take part in a randori training at the Kodokan, the headquarters of the worldwide judo community.
Karate (空手, literally “empty hand”) is a striking martial art — using punches, kicks, and open-hand techniques — that is popular all over the world, and also has an influence on Western pop culture as can be seen in the Hollywood movie The Karate Kid (1984). There are schools all over the country in which you can study various styles. It will be featured at the Olympics for the first time in 2020.
Kendo (剣道 kendō) is competitive swordfighting using bamboo or wooden swords, akin to fencing. While judo and karate are better known in much of the Western world, in Japan itself, kendo remains an integral part of modern Japanese culture, and is taught to students in all Japanese schools.
Other Japanese martial arts include aikidō, another grappling form, and kyūdō, Japanese archery.
Japanese arts and crafts
Traditional Japanese arts and crafts include tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō), origami (折り紙 “paper folding”), flower arrangement (生け花 ikebana), calligraphy (書道 shodō), and bonsai (盆栽).
Banking in Japan is a notoriously cumbersome process, especially for foreigners. You will need an alien resident card (ARC) and proof of a Japanese address. This means that while foreigners in Japan on an extended period (i.e. those on student, dependent or work visas) may open an account, this option is not available to those on short trips for tourism or business. Many banks also require you to have a Japanese seal (印鑑 inkan) to stamp your documents with and signatures are often not accepted as a substitute. Bank staff often do not speak English or any other foreign languages.
In the event that you need a locally-issued credit card (for an online merchant that performs region checks, for instance), there are a multitude of online-only virtual Visa cards available, and some stores’ point cards carry a prepaid Visa or JCB card function also.
If you have a Japanese phone, be aware that initializing the prepaid card on a rental SIM will incur data charges which can be avoided by using Wi-Fi. Only feature phones require a Japanese SIM to initiate the service; Japan-market smartphones, once unlocked, can be initialized using any data service, be it Wi-Fi, your own SIM, or a rental. This means it is possible to set it up before arrival. Mobile Suica and Edy, the two major prepaid card apps included on Japanese smartphones, can be tied to credit cards for payment instead of a phone bill (and while Mobile Suica requires a ¥1000 annual fee, it is the only way to load a Suica with a credit card not issued by JR). However, the only foreign-issued cards these apps take are JCB and American Express. For large purchases paid for with a Suica or Edy linked in this way, AmEx benefits (purchase protection, extended warranty, etc.) do not apply.
Prepaid electronic cards are quite popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train fares, convenience store purchases, and other general purposes, though they aren’t interchangeable. If you plan on returning frequently and/or need to be able to add funds to your prepaid cards with a credit card, it may be worth it to buy a cheaper, used Japanese smartphone (~¥5000) and use the included prepaid card apps over WiFi. Mobile Suica (usable nationwide) and Mobile Edy accept foreign JCB/American Express credit cards for funding, although Mobile Suica carries an annual fee of ¥1000 while Mobile Edy requires a two-day wait from submission of credit card details before it will allow loading.
If you’re staying for a longer period, say a month and longer, you might be able to drastically reduce your living costs by staying in a “gaijin house”. These establishments cater specifically towards foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared apartments at reasonable prices, and without the hefty deposits and commissions of apartments (often up to 8 months rent) paid before moving in. It will almost certainly be cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month, and for those coming to Japan for the first time they are also great for networking and getting to know a few locals. The downside is that facilities are often shared and the transient population can mean poor maintenance and dodgy neighbors.
Gaijin houses are concentrated in Tokyo, but any other big city will have a few. They can be anything from ugly cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week, to nice family run businesses in private houses, so try to get a look at the place before you decide to move in. Two of the biggest letting agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo are Sakura House and Oak House, while Gaijin House Japan has listings and classified ads covering the entire country.
Traditionally, renting an apartment in Japan is a ridiculously complex and expensive process, involving getting a Japanese resident to act as your guarantor (literally—trash up the place and run away, and they will get stuck with the bill) and paying months of rent in advance. It is thus essentially impossible for anyone who is not both familiar with the culture and there to live and work for a few years at least.
Weekly mansions (short-term apartments) have become popular for residents (typically businessmen on long-term assignment or young singles) and are accessible even to visitors. Most are 1 or 2 person rooms, although larger ones for 3 or 4 are sometimes available. Apartment fees are around ¥5000 for a single, around ¥6000-7000 for a two person room per day. Most of these apartment rental agencies will offer all apartments with shower, toilet and bath. They usually have air conditioning, microwave and cooking amenities. Reservations can be made on an English language website, and they have various promotional offers on their website. WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama, together with Osaka. Sometimes a deposit is required for some of the apartments. This deposit can usually be waived if you have stayed with them a few times without any trouble. The apartments are always kept clean and often have much more space and flexibility than a hotel and are priced in the youth hostel range.
Japanese work culture is more hierarchical and formal that what Westerners may be used to. Suits are standard business attire, and coworkers call each other by their family names or by job titles. Workplace harmony is crucial, emphasizing group effort rather than praising individual accomplishments. Workers must often get their superiors’ approval for any decisions they make, and are expected to obey their superiors’ instructions without question. It’s rude to not be present when your boss is, which means arriving early (tardiness is never accepted), staying late, and sometimes working on Saturdays (twice at month at many companies, and every week at some). On top of that, workers are expected to go out after work for food and drinks multiple times a week, and this is often where the real discussions take place.
Business cards (名刺 meishi) are treated very respectfully and formally. How you treat someone’s business card is seen as representing how you will treat the person. Make sure to pack more than you’ll need, as not having a business card to present is a serious faux pas. There’s a lot of nuanced etiquette, but here are some basics:
When presenting a business card, orient it so it’s readable by the person you’re giving it to, and use both hands holding it by the corners so everything is visible.
When accepting a business card, use both hands to pick it up by the corners, and take the time to read the card and confirm how to pronounce the person’s name (more of an issue in Japanese, where the characters for someone’s name can be pronounced several ways).
It’s disrespectful to write on a card, fold it, or place it in your back pocket (where you’ll sit on it!).
At a meeting, you should arrange cards on the table (in order of seniority) to help you remember who’s who.
When it’s time to leave, pack the cards in a nice case to keep them pristine; if you don’t have one, hold on to them until you’re out of sight before pocketing them.