Moving to Tokyo
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What to know if you're moving to Tokyo
Moving to Tokyo will take you to a huge, vibrant metropolis, where 21st-century Japan meets the traditional side of the country. InterNations GO! has put together a short guide on Tokyo’s districts, house hunting, and other essential information to prepare you for your move to Tokyo.
All about Japan
Relocating to Tokyo
After arriving in the Japanese capital, you won’t be surprised that its official Japanese name is Tōkyō-to (the metropolis of Tokyo). Nobody would guess that Japan’s largest metropolitan region has its origins in a sleepy village near the mouth of the Sumida River.
Edo (‘bay entrance’ or ‘estuary’), as it was called, did not have any political or cultural importance until a 15th-century nobleman built Edo Castle. Today this is part of the country’s Imperial Palace grounds, a sight that attracts countless visitors and expatriates.
Around 1600, this castle became the seat of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s first military dictator. Suddenly, the country’s political power players and the upper classes started moving to Tokyo. Due to the influx of Tokugawa retainers Tokyo — still known as Edo —became the world’s largest city, with a million inhabitants by the mid-1700s.
The Great East Japan Earthquake
Occasionally, earthquakes take place in the Greater Tokyo Area and all over Japan. Most of them are quite harmless. Unfortunately, in March 2011 a major earthquake of nearly 9.0 on the Richter scale shook the ground of Japan’s east coast, causing a devastating flood wave. The tsunami destroyed many towns along the east coast and resulted in up to 19,000 lives being lost.
Furthermore, a nuclear power plant near Fukushima was heavily damaged. A considerable amount of radiation was set free. The government eventually declared an area with a radius of 20 km around Fukushima a no-go zone. Former residents have still not been able to return to this area.
The long-term results of this disaster on both the environment and the economy of northeast Japan are yet to be determined. However, foreigners moving to Tokyo from abroad will be relieved to hear that life in the capital has long been back to normal. If you are worried about the potential long-term effects of radiation, please contact your diplomatic mission in Tokyo for further health and safety information or have a look at the current radiation levels in various prefectures on a map provided by the Institute for Information Design Japan.
Tokyo in the 21st Century
By the population of its administrative area, contemporary Tokyo sits well outside the top 10 most populated cities in global rankings. However, the Greater Tokyo Area — with commuters moving to the city and back to the suburbs on a daily basis — ranks first on many worldwide comparison lists. Moving to Tokyo can thus be a confusing and overwhelming experience!
Tokyo is one of 47 Japanese prefectures (regional authorities) and is furthermore divided into 23 special wards (ku). The ward system evolved in order to meet the special needs of such a big metropolis as Tokyo; each ward forms a town of its own. But moving to Tokyo on an expatriate assignment can also mean settling even beyond the prefectural boundaries and the “bed towns of Western Tokyo”. It reaches far into adjacent prefectures, including the cities of Chiba, Saitama, Kawasaki, and Yokohama.
However, moving to Tokyo certainly means not only moving to a world of commuters and suburbia, as depicted in William Gibson’s cult novel Neuromancer. Your relocation will introduce you to expatriate life in a global hot media capital — one of the world’s largest urban economies.
This ultra-dynamic city offers plenty of tourist attractions foreigners moving to Tokyo should not miss. After moving to Tokyo, you never know when, in between hypermodern architecture, you will stumble upon a sight reminiscent of old Edo.
Among the circa 485,000 foreign residents who completed moving to Tokyo Prefecture, there are many British, Chinese, Filipino, French, Indian, South Korean, and US American gaijin (‘foreigners’). Some nationalities are living in foreign-dominated neighborhoods, such as the Korean quarter near Shin-Ōkubo station, but most expats moving to Tokyo choose their home according to practical considerations.
These very considerations — proximity to work, international schools, public transportation, shopping facilities, etc. — do make some wards and districts more popular than others. While it’s, of course, impossible to introduce all 23 ku, we can highlight some areas where expatriates moving to Tokyo choose to live.
Everything within the circumference of the Yamanote Line is centrally located, attractive for foreign residents, and normally even more expensive than is usual for Tokyo. Nonetheless, quite a few expatriates settle within the eight most central wards, for example in Meguro (about 8,000 in January 2017), Minato (19,000), Shinjuku (41,000), and Shibuya (10,000).
Tokyo’s Most Popular Districts
Minato and Meguro
Minato-ku is the ward where many foreign embassies in Tokyo are situated. For example, you’ll find the missions of Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, and the US there. But this is not the only reason for its popularity among the expatriate population.
Nearly 19,000 foreigners are registered in Minato-ku (as of January 2017). Minato is also home to big employers, for example Japanese global players, such as Sony, Fujitsu, and Fujifilm, or multinationals like Air France and Google Japan. Japanese media such as TV Tokyo are located there as well.
Among Minato’s 32 districts, much of Shinbashi, centered round a major railway hub, is dedicated to business and commerce. Roppongi, on the other hand, is its very antithesis. Featuring the shopping/entertainment complex of Roppongi Hills, a vibrant nightlife and upscale shopping facility. Roppongi appeals to the foreign residents of Tokyo. If Roppongi should prove too busy and exciting for you, as an inhabitant of Minato-ku, you can always retire to Akasaka. The local Nogi Shrine offers you an oasis of peace and quiet.
Some more foreign embassies can be found in Meguro-ku — that of Nepal, for example. After all, Nepalese expatriates make up 5% of Tokyo’s foreign-born population. Many of Meguro’s 27 neighborhoods are fairly calm residential areas. The posh shopping district of Jiyūgaoka is one of the few exceptions, though it’s still fairly cozy by Tokyo standards.
Shibuya-ku, is a large ward subdivided into more than three dozen neighborhoods. Its landmark railway station on the Yamanote Line has been a favorite meeting point for generations of Japanese teenagers. The busy street crossing is the center of a district dedicated to youth culture and fashion.
Among its numerous foreign residents, the more affluent expatriates might be interested in moving to the upmarket residential neighborhood of Hirō. However, other parts of Shibuya have more of a business character, for example those housing the HQ of Coca Cola Japan or GAP Japan. The Sendagaya district is home to fashion warehouses and art schools, with its proximity to the highly fashion-conscious neighborhood of Harajuku making it a design hotspot.
Last but certainly not least, Shinjuku-ku attracts lots of foreigners moving to Tokyo. With a foreign population of over 41,000 people (around 10% of the expats living in the 23 special wards and 8% of all foreign-born residents in Tokyo), it has the highest rate of foreign residents in the prefecture. Since Shinjuku consists of a large number of individual neighborhoods, its atmosphere varies from district to district.
The Ichigaya neighborhood and the skyscrapers of Nishi-Shinjuku represent commerce and administration. One of the towering edifices is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the city hall for the entire metropolis.
Shinjuku-ni-chōme, on the other hand, is famous for being the center of Japan’s gay subculture. Kabukichō, the “sleepless town”, is a nightlife and amusement district. However, it is also notorious for its hostess bars, massage parlors, and brothels, as well as the local influence of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
If Shinjuku-ni-chōme and Kabukichō should be too noisy for you, you could take refuge in Kagurazaka, a more traditional area. There, you can find both the last of Tokyo’s okiya (geisha houses) and a large concentration of French expatriates. What Kagurazaka is to the French, Ōkubo is to the Koreans.
Beyond the City Center
Once you go beyond the Yamanote Line, you may find that living expenses are slightly lower in the eight or nine wards of Shitamachi. This part of the city used to be Edo-era downtown, peopled by merchants, artisans, and the lower classes rather than feudal Japan’s warrior aristocracy.
Moreover, in the 10 suburban wards beyond central Tokyo, there are also more residential areas. Setagaya-ku, for instance, a large ward to the southwest of Tokyo’s center, has a foreign population of over 18,000 people.
Other expats do not even live in Tokyo itself, but rather in the Greater Tokyo Area. Yokohama in particular is a popular place for foreigners. The booming port city with more than 3.7 million inhabitants is an important location for shipping businesses, biotechnology, and the semi-conductor industry.
Its almost 88,000 foreign residents come, for instance, from China, South Korea, the Philippines, Brazil, the US, Vietnam, India, Thailand, Peru, Taiwan, Indonesia, the UK, and Germany. The latter is probably due to the only German International School in Metropolitan Tokyo being situated in Yokohama.
Accommodation in Tokyo
Looking for an Apartment
Once you have chosen the city, ward, and even neighborhood where you’d like to live, it’s time to go house hunting. Although there is no restriction on foreigners buying property in Tokyo, most expatriates rent rather than buy, often with a rental agreement of two years’ duration.
In order to find a rental, you can make use of a realtor or real estate agent. Do keep in mind, though, that there are no multiple-listings services in Japan. Therefore, you need to get in touch with several commercial agencies, such as realestate.co.jp or Tokyo Apartments, to have a better overview of the local market. A relocation services provider may help you with your apartment search too.
Finding a Place on Your Own
If you’d like to save money or prefer an individualistic approach, word-of-mouth recommendations in expat circles are a good way to start. Ask your company’s HR department, your international colleagues, the PTA representatives at your kid’s school, or new friends from expat events for advice on accommodation.
In case finding the flat of your dreams should take some time, it’s good to know that temporary accommodations or “monthly mansions”, while rare in Japan, are indeed available in the Tokyo area. This is, for example, the case in wards like Minato-ku or Shinjuku-ku. However, for standard flats, it is common to rent an unfurnished dwelling.
Older and cheaper housing in Tokyo may lack some amenities you will be used to from home. Apartments do not necessarily have central heating, but living rooms and bedrooms come furnished with a kotatsu, a low table with an electric heater attached to its underside.
Some apartments do not feature a complete kitchen, and a few might not even have a bathtub or shower. The number of Japanese communal bathhouses (sentō) has been on a steady decline since the 1970s as more and more homes are coming equipped with their own private bathroom. However, the public bathhouses have reinvented themselves in recent years and still attract many visitors, acting more like a spa or hot spring in modern-day Tokyo.
Of course, there are plenty of modern, comfortable, and Western-style rentals available in Tokyo, although these are more coveted and thus more expensive than older housing. However, even in these apartments, you should take note that rooms are smallish, usually anything but soundproof, and often inadequately insulated.
Therefore, do as your Japanese neighbors do: buy an electric heater for the winter months and an electric fan for summer, and try to behave according to the unwritten rules of otagaisama. Literally, this Japanese expression means “we are all of equal status in this respect”. Colloquially, it could be translated as “we’re all in this together”, describing an attitude of good neighborliness and mutual consideration.
Once you have moved to Tokyo, you should finalize your resident registration. All foreign residents older than 16 years of age are required by law to carry a Resident Cardif they are staying in Japan for more than 90 days. If you enter Japan through one of the big international airports, you’ll be handed the Resident Card at the immigration counter. Within 14 days of your arrival in Tokyo, go to the nearest local government office to complete the rest of your registration. Also, don’t forget to inform the authorities whenever you change your visa status or registration details.
Link lists for all official ward websites for Tokyo and Yokohama can be found online. Most of them have an English-language version (often automatically translated) which features the address of the local government office (sometimes also called city hall) and its local branch offices in various neighborhoods.