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Moving to Japan

A comprehensive guide to moving to Japan

Are you curious about the Land of the Rising Sun and its population? Moving to Japan will let you experience a country which combines traditional Asian culture with Western influences. InterNations GO! features an overview of Japan’s main regions and the visa requirements for expats.

Need to move abroad? Organizing an international relocation is not something you should do on your own. As expats ourselves, we understand what you need, and offer the essential services to help you move and live abroad easily. Contact us to jump start your move abroad!



Relocating to Japan

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 for foreigners from non-Asian countries, moving to Japan can be a cause of anxiety.

Japan is the eleventh most populous countries worldwide. With a population of around 127 million people it produces over 4% of the world’s GDP.

Continued Impact of the 2011 Fukushima Disaster

In 2011 a massive earthquake and 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”. The disaster killed nearly 16,000 residents and another 2,500 were officially declared missing. After a massive de-contamination process the area has mostly returned to normal, although points close to the reactor are still prohibited to the public. Products are safe to consume, and it was declared that edibles in Japan did not contain dangerous levels of radiation.

Although many of the ecological effects of the disaster are no longer a threat to the region, the tragedy has led to economical shifts which are still affecting Japan today. Following the disaster, the nuclear industry was particularly affected as public distrust and opposition to the energy source spiked. Prior to the disaster, Japan had 50 functioning nuclear plants, but in the years immediately following the Fukushima Disaster all 50 were shut down. 2015 saw two plants reopen, potentially marking a return to nuclear power, but the industry remains a shadow of its former self and oil has become Japan’s main energy source.

What You Need to Move to Japan

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,  and qualified staff from other fields, such as green tech or med tech, have a better chance on the Japanese job market. With Tokyo hosting the Olympic Games in 2020, the construction industry is also enjoying a resurgence, and would be a promising area when looking for work. 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.

Being an Expat in Japan

Japan continues to be a popular destination for expats worldwide. However, the country’s reputation as a homogenous society is not entirely unfounded. Over 98% of the population are ethnically Japanese, with just over two million foreign residents making up the expat population. The majority of foreign nationals living in Japan are from China, with the second biggest group coming from South Korea.

Foreigners in Japan are sometimes called Gaijin, a term which has some negative connotations. Gaikoku is the more formal and politically correct term. It refers to all foreigners, whereas Gaijin tends to be used only in regards to westerners or white people.

A Land of Increasing Opportunity

Japan’s immigration policy has had to change considerably in recent years. Nearly 30% of the Japanese population are now over 65, and it’s becoming apparent that more young people are needed to fuel the economy and look after the increasing number of elderly people. Japan has begun to encourage low-skilled guest workers to come to the country for a limited amount of time and fill these gaps. They have also promoted the intake of so-called “Highly Skilled Professionals” by introducing a points-based immigration system. Despite these measures, Japan’s immigration figures are still considerably lower than other G7 member countries, and it’s predicted that the Japanese population will shrink by 19 million over the next 20 years.

As a rule, greater immigration is an unpopular policy in Japan. Conservatives object to it threatening the homogeneity of Japan and protectionists fear losing jobs to new arrivals. Still, it seems that Japan is slowly accepting that immigration may be a viable solution for their ageing population, and so we may see an increase in opportunities in the country for foreign nationals in the upcoming years.

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Japan’s Main Regions

Where to Go

Most expats hardly ever end up in rural Japan. Instead of your living under blossoming cherry trees, relocating to Japan will rather lead you into a heavily urbanized and densely populated environment.

Japan’s coastal cities have undergone a rapid process of urbanization, commercialization, and industrialization. This is mostly due to the lack of habitable space in the mountainous areas and the demand for arable land.

When you move to Japan, your own career or your partner’s job probably means settling in the Tokyo / Yokohama conglomeration, the Kansai region (Ōsaka – Kobe – Kyōto – Nara), or the Nagoya area. Among Japan’s 47 prefectures, these places on the main island are major destinations for expatriates.

The Greater Tokyo Area

As the country’s official capital city since 1868, Tokyo is, of course, the location for diplomats and journalists. With over 13 million inhabitants, the city of Tokyo, is not only Japan’s largest urban area but also the world’s largest metropolitan economy and one of the globe’s three leading economies with regards to GDP. It is home to the Tokyo Stock Exchange and to 38 of all Fortune 500 companies, as well as countless investment banks and  insurance providers.

Moving to Tokyo also means moving to one of the most expensive cities in the world. According to the Mercer Cost of Living report 2016 Tokyo is now the 5th most expensive global city for expatriates, rising six places compared to 2015. However, Tokyo is also considered a livable megalopolis by many foreign residents. If you have the salary to afford your creature comforts, life in Tokyo can be quite enjoyable.


Yokohama, located south of Tokyo on the Tokyo Bay, has more or less merged with its slightly bigger neighbor into one giant metropolitan area. Just like its big sister Tokyo, Yokohama belies its humble origins as a small fishing village.

Yokohama is the major commercial hub of the Greater Tokyo Area and a prominent port city. While shipping is still an important business, the city has also become a center for the bio-tech, pharmaceutical, IT, electronics, and semiconductor industries. Although it is rather expensive on a global scale, it’s significantly cheaper than nearby Tokyo. No wonder that it houses a foreign population of around 87,000 residents.

The Kansai Region

Tokyo has been the financial and political brain of Japan ever since it became the seat of power under the Tokugawa shogunate. The Kansai region (also called Keihanshin), on the other hand, considers itself both Japan’s commercial “stomach” and its cultural “heart”.

The Kansai area is of great interest to expatriates for economic, academic, and cultural reasons. It includes the former merchant town of Ôsaka, which is now Japan’s third-largest city and home to leading enterprises, the cosmopolitan port of Kōbe, and the heritage of Kyōto and Nara. The Kansai area is home to over 10% of Japan’s population, and it generates about 18% of the country’s GDP which is almost equivalent to that of the Netherlands.

As an expatriate in the Kansai region, you might be working in the medical, chemical, or pharmaceutical industries, the electronics industry, robotics, IT, or the energy sector. Kyōto figures prominently with its tourism industry, as well as its media productions. Kyōto and Ōsaka are home to research institutes and universities too.

Nagoya and Chūkyō

Compared with Greater Tokyo or Keihanshin (Kansai region), the Nagoya region might seem small and almost cozy. However, Nagoya itself is still Japan’s fourth-largest city and the center of the Chūkyō Metropolitan Area.

Originally a planned town constructed around the first Tokugawa shogun’s beautiful 17th-century castle, it is now a bustling port city and a hub for Japan’s manufacturing sector. Aerospace engineering and automotive business are represented among Nagoya’s various manufacturing industries.

Visa Requirements for Japan

Most of the foreigners coming to Japan only need a valid passport and are eligible to enter Japan without a visa.  Nearly 70 countries have visa-waiver arrangements with Japan for foreigners on short-term trips, for example for traveling, visiting friends, conducting business negotiations, etc. After 90 days the visa can be renewed for another 90 days for most of the countries.

Short-Term Visas

Everyone whose country of origin is not listed among the nations with visa-waiver arrangements has to apply for a visa before coming to Japan. There are general visas for short-term visits and special visas for medical stays of up to six months. Have a look at this “Guide to Japanese visas” in order to learn more about the respective requirements.

Long-Term Visas

Since 2012, Japan has used a points-based immigration system to give highly skilled foreign professionals priority when moving to Japan. Expats working in academic research, business management or specialized and technical fields can apply under this system. If they are successful, they will be granted advantages such as prioritized processing of their application, a relaxation of any permanent residency applications, or permission for a spouse to work, even if the spouse does not qualify as a highly skilled professional themselves.

To qualify for this kind of visa, an applicant must have a total of 70 points or more, which are awarded based on academic qualification, years of experience and other skill-related factors. The criteria for point allocation have been published by the Immigration Bureau of Japan.

Expats who do not meet these criteria will still need to apply for another kind of long-term visa. Diplomatic and official visas are available specifically for the staff of foreign embassies and consulates. General long-term visas, on the other hand, cover the categories of cultural activities, pre-college and college education, professional training, and dependent family members of long-term foreign residents.

Most expats will probably be interested in the possibility of acquiring a work or long-term stay visa for taking up gainful employment in Japan. Such a visa can be issued to foreign employees and self-employed expats according to the following classifications:

  • professor
  • artist
  • religious activities
  • journalist
  • investment / management
  • legal / accounting
  • research
  • instructor
  • engineer
  • humanities / international services
  • entertainer
  • skilled labor
  • intra-company transfer
  • highly skilled professionals with preferred immigration treatment

Certificate of Eligibility

Every applicant for a long-term visa and/or work permit needs a so-called Certificate of Eligibility (zairyūshikaku nintei shomeisho) from a regional immigration office in Japan. Of course, you do not have to travel to Japan all by yourself in order to get this certificate. You can have a proxy handle the application process for you — for example your future employer, a non-profit organization, or an immigration lawyer.

The requirements for obtaining a Certificate of Eligibility and the documents necessary for your application vary from category to category. They are all listed in detail in the appropriate application form, which you can download from the Immigration Department of the Japanese Ministry of Justice.

For instance, expats on an intra-company transfer need to complete a slightly different form to apply for a zairyūshikakuthan their dependent family members. Without a Certificate of Eligibility, you will definitely not get a work permit or long-stay visa for Japan.

For more information on visas, work permits, and the Certificate of Eligibility, please contact your nearest Japanese Embassy or Consulate.

Also have a look at our article on Living in Japan where you can find valuable information on registration, accommodation, healthcare and much more.

Updated on: March 26, 2019

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