Japan at a Glance
Moving to JapaniStockphoto
Japan features big on the map of popular expat destinations.
Moving to Japan may be a dream for some expats who have always been interested in Japanese culture. Otherwise, it might be a dramatic upheaval for those who are sent there on a sudden intra-company transfer. Particularly to foreigners from non-Asian countries, moving to Japan can be a cause of anxiety.
After moving there, you will soon realize that this country might look familiar in many ways (considering the resemblance to life in European or US American mega-cities). However, things often work according to different unwritten rules.
The East Japan Earthquake of 2011
In March 2011, a massive earthquake (8.9 on the Richter scale) and a tsunami hit Japan’s east coast. Several nuclear power plants in the region were damaged, especially Fukushima Dai-ichi. For the first time since Chernobyl, the International Atomic Energy Agency classified a nuclear accident as “stage 7”.
In the months that followed, workers tried to repair the damage and keep the consequences at a minimum. Due to high radiation, the area within 20-30 km around Fukushima was declared a prohibited zone for all residents.
However, this evacuation zone fell short of the no-go area recommended, for instance, by the US Embassy, which advised all American citizens to avoid a zone of 80 km around Fukushima. Even two years after the incident, expatriates should not enter the 20km perimeter, as well as the towns of Iitate, Katsurao, Minamisoma, and Kawamata.
People from the eastern prefectures lost their homes – or their lives. 16,000 residents were declared dead. In autumn 2012, 2,700 were officially considered missing. Many had to move to shelters when their home was destroyed. Others lost family and friends. Outside the affected prefectures, however, the situation for locals and expats moving to Japan seems to be largely back to normal.
The Impact of the 2011 Disaster
The impact of the earthquake and the nuclear meltdown on the country’s economy is still up to some speculation. In some respects, the effects were fairly small or limited to certain sectors, such as those dealing with export of agricultural produce, fish, and other goods.
However, one year after the catastrophe, over 600 companies had been forced into bankruptcy, laying off nearly 12,000 employees. In autumn 2012, towns in the affected prefectures still described their residents as struggling with the aftermath. Also, the huge repair costs and the rising energy prices have definitely had a negative effect on the overall economy.
Anyone traveling or moving to Japan is strongly advised to avoid Fukushima’s prohibited zone. If you are unsure whether it is presently safe to move to Japan or have any other questions, contact a Japanese Embassy or Consulate near you – or your own embassy in Tokyo.
People moving to Japan from abroad may be glad to hear that Japan has introduced very strict radiation controls for food. All available products are safe to consume. You can have a look at current radiation levels in various prefectures on the official MEXT homepage.
The Japanese Expat Experience
Moving to Japan will still bring out that initial feeling of fascination with a largely unknown country in many expatriates. Some foreign nationals try to minimize the changes that their move to Japan entails.
But there are also those who adopt the culture over-enthusiastically. They snack with chopsticks from bentō lunch boxes, wear a yukata (traditional dressing gown) at home, or furnish their place with tatami floor-mats. Indeed, the Japanese, as well as local expat circles, have invented a special nickname for this kind of foreigners. Those who indulge in the “authentic” local way of life are called the “tatami-fied”, half ironically and half affectionately.
Of course, moving to Japan involves more than a newly-discovered interest in zen gardens. The right qualifications and hard skills are most important for expatriates in Japan.
Regardless of whether you are relocating for a foreign assignment or to go job hunting, a grasp of the Japanese language makes moving a lot easier. However, fluent language skills will not help you if you lack experience, specialized skills, or at least a background in business administration. You should also be aware that even young Japanese graduates are nowadays struggling to find employment. It’s not that easy to break into the local labor market.
On the other hand, various kinds of engineers, industrial chemists, IT specialists, and qualified staff from other fields, such as green tech or med tech, have a better chance on the Japanese job market. Unless you are a traveling spouse or a younger expat moving to Japan as an exchange student, language teacher, or casual worker, a successful move depends on your skills and work experience.