Moving to and Working in Japan


In late December of 2012 moved to Tokyo, Japan to work. Here I recount the sequence of administrative hoops and hurdles that I had to jump through and over, and some of the problems involved, because I found much of the information online out-of-date, and/or incorrect, and/or too difficult to find. I am hoping that my description of the process will help others in their moves to Japan. Although many readers will only be interested in certain aspects of the process (e.g., because their company handles some things for them or they are not coming for work), and my experience may not be representative of how things go for others, I still wish that I had a description like this when I moved here because it would have saved me a lot of time, money, and frustration.

Some things to note: I've lived in Japan before, and speak the language fairly well, but my reading ability is limited to daily living situations. It also means that I have friends here who helped me out at some points. I am moving from the US to Tokyo; different departure and arrival locations will likely affect how things are done.

Plane Ticket
Japan is an island, so probably you'll be flying there from wherever you're coming from. It's a good idea to check a few different travel websites (like Travelocity and Expedia) as well as the airlines themselves (especially Delta because they often have the best deals and best flights going to Japan). Then once you have a good idea of when you want to go, what the fights are like, and how much you should expect to pay, then call a Japanese Travel Agency (I typically use Amnet which is based in the US). Typically the websites suck, so you have to call. Usually I get a better deal from the travel agency than any other source, and it's easier for them to explore variations in the flights, but each of the options I listed has been the best deal or most convenient flight at least once.

Japanese Work Visa
The first step, of course, is to apply for your work visa. Your company or school will (or should) supply you with a Certificate of Eligibility. You need to take this certificate, two passport photos, your passport, your two-page visa application, and a ton of patience to your local consulate or embassy. As it happened, I did this part in Barcelona (not my home country) and had no problems. Contrary to what the official information says, they did not ask for my flight details (no return trip ticket, which officially they require) and it did not cost me anything (though the website says there is a $30+ fee).

Finding an Apartment
Before you move to Japan, you have to find a place to move to. In Tokyo there are different options depending on how long you will be staying; the primary ones being 1) weekly/monthly mansions and 2) regular apartments. Regular apartments require one- or two-year contracts, which can usually be terminated with a penalty fee equaling one month's rent. They also often require a broker's fee of one month, a deposit of one month, and the first month's rent. Some even add "key money" and other fees on top of all that. Although needing 3-months or more money to move it is normal world-wide, in Japan about half of that you will never see again. There are no-fee or reduced-fee apartments as well. The site is a great place to start your search, and you can find many other options online. There are huge pains in the ass in Japan regarding guarantors, and bank transfers, and setting up gas & electric & water utilities, and all kinds of things which make it actually impossible to rent an apartment in Japan without the help of your company there or a good Japanese friend (with some extra cash laying around).

Another option is the weekly mansions or monthly mansions ("mansion" is used to mean "apartment building" in Japan). These are (often poorly) furnished apartments which sometimes come with basics such as a towel and cleaning supplies etc. They can be rented short-term without agent fees and deposits, but you pay a lot more for the same apartment. Regardless of the name, you can typically rent these for any period of time greater than 1 week, and they are prorated for the time you are actually there. A MAJOR caveat about choosing this option for working in Japan is that you will usually not be able to register your address with the Ward office if you live in a weekly/monthly mansion, which means you can't open a bank account, which means you can't get paid. Sometimes you just have to lie to the Ward office and tell them you'll be there for a year (that's what they told me to do), but other times you'll just be screwed and you'll have to move and lose a ton of time an money. However, staying in a weekly mansion when you first arrive, so you can check out a few apartments, is cheaper and better than a hotel for various reasons. They can usually be paid by any standard credit card. and are my favorite sources to search, but never rent anything from a company called Union Monthly because they have shitty places, are incompetent, and offer horrible service.

Shipping Boxes to Japan
Usually when I come to Japan I just have two suitcases worth of stuff and I'm fine. Tokyo, at least, is fairly developed, and you can purchase most things you need (though at much higher prices than in the US). However, the longer you are going to be in Japan, the more stuff you'll need to bring (both because stuff runs out, wears out, and there are changing seasons requiring different gear). If you are going to ship some things over, I recommend using the US Post Office Priority Mail or Yamato Kuro Neko.

The post office is the best price for the least amount of hassle. I mostly used U-Haul's small moving boxes (which I don't recommend because they took a lot of damage from the trip). Each one was approximately 30 lbs and it cost me about $115 + $15 in insurance for each box. I also shipped a 27" Dell computer monitor in the box it originally came in and it cast the same. The boxes can weight more with little extra charge, and given the dimensions they stated it should also be possible to ship a bicycle with this service for the same price. However, considering the obviously rough treatment that my boxes got, I wouldn't trust my bike to the Post Office (see more below on shipping a bike). There are only four lines on the customs form, and the instructions say to go into gory detail about the items...if you need more room because you are shipping than four different items, you are supposed to get more forms. But when I asked for 100 forms in order to follow those instructions, the people at the post office said to do exactly what the instructions say not to do: write "toiletries", "men's shirts", etc. The itemized list is for duty purposes, but because you're marking them as personal goods, you won't be paying duty anyway.

You can also use a special package services like Yamato Kuro Neko's Takkyubin or Besso (moving) Takkyubin services. The difference is that you have to pay duty and taxes on the normal Takkyubin, but with the Besso Takkyubin you pay an extra $200 to ship, but it's tax free (up to $2000 worth of personal goods). So the better deal depends on the contents and number of boxes. You can drop the boxes off at major airports with a Yamato counter, or they will pick them up for an extra $25. They will give you a bunch of (not-so-clear) instructions on what to do, but basically you just need to fill in their invoice forms for the packages and email them (one for each box). Then at the airport in Japan (after immigration) or on the airplane you will fill out two identical copies of the Customs Declaration Form informing them that you have # boxes arriving separately...both copies get stamped and approved. Customs keeps one, and you take the other one to a special counter at the airport in Japan. Strangely, it's NOT the Yamato counter (and I was misinformed about this by Yamato in Detroit), rather it's a nearby counter marked in green with "GPA" or similar. These other people receive and clear your boxes, and then take the boxes back to Yamato for final delivery. It will normally take 1-2 weeks for your boxes to arrive (sometimes 3 if the planes are busy). The actual cost will vary based on many factors I'm sure, but just to help you ballpark the amount, I sent 4 small U-Haul boxes of personal effects via Besso Takkyubin and it totaled $708. That was last year. This year I used the post office and the boxes arrived faster and cheaper, with less hassle, though they were roughed up a bit more. My packing and padding ensured nothing got broken.

Shipping a Bike to Japan
This is a bit more specific, but for those of you who like cycling to get around or for fun/sport, you will be severely disappointed by what Japan has to offer. Just to be clear, in Tokyo having a super-sexy tricked-out single-speed bike is very fashionable right now and you can pick one up for around $1200. If you are serious about cycling then you can buy a Specialized or Cannondale or whatever you want in Tokyo, but expect to pay 30-40% more than the going US price. You can take a bike with you as extra baggage, but the charges for this have become ridiculous (over $350) and you have to lug it (and your suitcases) around with you from the airport in addition to accepting the high risk of damage. There are services that have worked special deals with carriers like FedEx to get special prices for bikes (I used one called BikeFlights, but I don't recommend them). For under $300 you can drop your bike off at any FedEx shop and have it delivered to your hotel or other business (residential delivery costs $100 extra, though they won't tell you that until it's too late) in about 5 days. The people at are laid back to the point of incompetence and I almost wasn't able to ship my bikes because they pointlessly waited a week before sending me my documents and only finally did so because I hammered them with emails. And one of my bikes required a $65 import tax...but not the other four. No explanation there.

Resident Card (aka Gaijin Card)
The current system for getting your resident card is much easier than before, you fill out a form at the airport, and hand this with your passport (including your work visa) and your certificate of eligibility, and they produce your card right there on the spot. Because of this, you will need to ask for help to get the form and go to a special immigration inspector. So don't waste time waiting in the normal line at immigration only to find out that you need to leave the line to get the form and go to a completely different officer.

Japanese Cell Phone
Japan is one of the most restrictive countries regarding cell phones; and specifically you cannot get a cell phone (or sim card) unless you have the Resident Card. If you are there without a Resident Card then there are short-term phone and internet rental options at the airport that are not terrible (they seem expensive, but not so much compared to other options in Japan). Otherwise you can get a normal Japanese cell phone. All services are extremely expensive by US standards (approximately triple the cost for similar service in the US), and the handsets are about the same (you can get a free or subsidized one with a 2-year contract just like elsewhere). All companies except Softbank only offer 1-2 year contracts, and so unless you want to commit long-term you are stuck with Softbank's prepaid service. I went to eight different Softbank stores at multiple times throughout the Ebisu, Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku areas and was told each time that it is impossible to get the prepaid sim (which works fine in my unlocked AT&T-compatible Nexus One phone) without also buying a piece-of-shit prepaid handset for $100...AND that they were sold out of handsets so I couldn't get anything. But then I went to one little store out in the suburbs and scored the prepaid sim card by itself with no hassle. I don't know if the people at the other stores were lying or just incompetent (almost certainly they were lying because they don't WANT to provide cell phone service to foreigners -- for more information on why this is, see my post on Japanese racism). But in any case it IS POSSIBLE to just get the sim card, and it WILL WORK in most 3G phones from the US, but you may have to hunt a bit to get anything at all.

If you are going to be staying in Japan for a year or two, and you have the Gaijin Card to prove it, then I do recommend getting the plan. I went to Docomo because they have better coverage, at a lower price, and nicer staff. The phone offerings are about the same (and I'd say abyssal compared to several years ago). I got a super sexy new model with all the bells and whistles for "free" with the 2-year contract. Well, I won't get into the horribly and purposefully confusing bullshit they do with the cell phone charges, but the bottom line is that I paid about $80 at the start, and I pay $87 per month for the maxed out plan + phone insurance. That includes free calls to other Docomo customers and 7GB of data bandwidth on LTE. Calls and texts to other people costs a ridiculous amount, especially for those of us from the US who have come to expect unlimited calls/texts/data for $50 a month.

Internet Access in Tokyo
Internet is the complete opposite experience from the phone. There are many options, but since most cafes and shops in Japan do not offer wifi (this is quickly changing now, but they still require a some stupid registration), you will probably want a mobile internet solution. Again, for visits less than a few months, probably you'll want to get a rental from the airport companies, because the other options have setup and cancellation fees. However for at least 3 months, getting a WiMax modem is a cinch; just go to some electronics store (like Labi = Yamada), go to the computer section, look for the WiMax counter, and set it up with the person there using your credit card. You get a modem that connects to the internet wirelessly, and you connect to it wirelessly with as many devises as you like. Within 30 minutes you'll have super-fast internet access everywhere you go. Setup is around 3,000 yen, I pay around 4,000 per month for unlimited data usage. There is a disconnect fee (early termination of the 1-year contract) of 10,000 yen. Another option is to get the "step plan" that charges something like four dollars ($4) per month + usage up to a max of $47 per month. So you get it, use it at $47 for you time there and instead of cancelling you just run down the contract paying $4 per month. For one of my 3-month trips I used this WiMax modem and the mobile version of Skype on my US phone for all my telephony needs. Note that this only works in big cities, and you won't get a signal in elevators or subways or deep inside some buildings. I typically get around 10-15 Mbs: enough to stream movies on three computers at once.

Register with Ward Office
In order to officially live in Japan you have to register your residence card at your local Municipal Office (which are the Ward Offices and their Regional versions in Tokyo). If you live in a normal apartment, then this is typically fairly easy because your lease agreement contains all the info the Ward Office needs. If you are staying in a weekly/monthly mansion then you need to get a form from the Ward Office (that is not available or mentioned online), take it personally to the apartment management office, they may or may not fill it out for you (or give you some other form that is actually useless), then take whatever you can get back to the Ward office. Then you have to hope that they will tell you how you can lie and get it approved because you can't officially register that kind of address. You also can't officially rent a normal apartment for less than 1 year. So if you are offered a job that is less than 1 year in Japan, that is officially illegal (under the new law for registering addresses) because it is impossible to get paid (because that requires a Japanese bank account which requires a registered address). If and when you succeed, they will write your address on the back of your Resident "Gaijin" Card. You are supposed to complete registration within two weeks after getting any new address, so if you decide to get temporary housing while hunting for a real apartment that won't count against you, but you can't get paid until have a real address and you take care of this step.

Get a Japanese Bank Account
With all that finally done, you can take your registered Resident Card to a local bank and open an account. Many companies have a deal with a certain bank and that will decide which bank to go to. If not, then it doesn't matter because all banks in Japan are shitty. They close at 3p, the ATMs are rarely open past 6p (though that's changing), they still use paper for everything, and the workers are typically unhelpful and unpleasant. A case in point: I opened an account at the Citibank in Aoyama (which closes at 3p, but then opens again from 5-7p for your mysterious convenience) and it took 80 minutes for them just to file the paperwork for a basic account. Clearly the people (yes, it took two people) managing my account setup were not capable of doing this job; and they were unhelpful, unfriendly, slow, stupid, humorless, and obviously unfamiliar with what should be a completely normal situation (this is the major bank for foreigners in Tokyo...and I did the whole thing in Japanese anyway). But don't expect it to be better anywhere else; banks in Japan just suck -- they always have -- and you probably can't lower your expectations enough. Once you set up the bank account, though, you will probably never have another reason to step inside the bank and deal with those morons until you leave the country.

And that's it. Well, not really. There are many other crappy little things you'll have to take care of, especially if you need to buy furniture or appliances. And there are many stupid, inefficient Japanese cultural practices that you'll have to endure. For example, try not to ever be 1 yen short at a cash register, because they will not let it slide like in any reasonable country. And don't ever expect people to walk quickly or consistently down the sidewalk or through stores. But it's safe to carry lots of cash with you, you can ask anybody for help and they will usually be friendly (though often not actually helpful), the train system is amazing and well-marked, the food is amazing, and there is no shortage of things to do and see (at least in central Tokyo). Now that I'm living here long term I'll be writing more about these topics and other oddities. Bon voyage!

What moron puts perfume in public restroom soap


I know there are lots of screwed up things going on in the world, but here's one small thing we can easily fix by simply not doing something. Perfume is bad for the environment in many, many ways and will soon become illegal to manufacture. But until that day people should still use some common sense on where to but these artificial scents. Public restrooms CERTAINLY shouldn't be one of them.

I'm at a conference at ASU and in the restrooms here they use some raspberry flavored soap. So after I use the restroom and wash my hands, instead of having hands that smell clean (i.e. smell like nothing) I have hands that smell like I've been kneading raspberry sherbet or something like that. Just plain stupid.

The first problem is that I, like many people, am very sensitive to artificial scents. So the stench of that crap is actually a deterrent for using soap. That's not good. And it's directly in conflict with their sign "It's flu season so wash your hands in warm water for 10 seconds". I couldn't take the smell that long.

The second problem is that most people don't want to smell like raspberries (or whatever else). People who want to smell like something besides themselves already added that smell to themselves. People who wash their hands probably want their hands to seem clean afterwards and smelling like some fruit is not smelling clean.

There are other problems with this practice, many others, but that's enough for now. If you have a bathroom that lots of people use (e.g. a cafe or restaurant) or you manage some place with a public restroom then please do the world a favor and just use fragrance free soap and cleaning products. They are readily available, cost less, are better for the environment, better for people, and nobody is going to complain about not smelling some weird way.

Lenovo Laptop quality Worse than Expected


After years of near-flawless use I finally had to replace my HP TC1100 tablet PC with a new one that had more power, memory, and video processing ability. I am rather uncomfortable using trackpads so there was a limited selection of Tablet PCs that I could get with the "joystick" in the keyboard. It was down to a Fujitsu and a Lenovo x200 tablet and I decided on the Lenovo after finding a great deal on it.

After about 10 days of working on it I can mention lots of benefits and features that I like and lots that I don't like. But right now I have a specific complaint and comparison. I used the same TC1100 very intensely for over three years and I never had any issues...I could still use it now except that I wouldn't be able to run these Mathematica analyses on it in real time. I've had this Lenovo for 10 days and I've already got a dead pixel. As I already mentioned I've got plenty of design flaws and bad usage decisions that I could comment on, but this is just plain indisputable suckage. Dead pixel in ten days...that's the reputation that they've now got with me and what everybody I know will hear. My next tablet will certainly not be a Lenovo and I'll get it as soon as somebody makes something real close to the TC1100...or sooner.

Abode falls behind itself


I've currently got two complaints for Adobe, both related to them falling behind themselves in producing useful tools which would directly benefit Adobe. The first (and most aggregious) is the lack of a x64 Flash player. WTF. x64 computers are hardly new anymore, and neither are x64 web browsers anymore. So I've got three computers that all run x64 bit and all run x64 Firefox (Shiretoko) and I can't see any Flash content ever. I used to use the x32 Firefox, but the most updated version crashes too often and the x64 doesn't so that's that. What the hell are they waiting for.

The second complaint has to do Adobe Acrobat. I use it to do presentations and I use a tablet PC. It would be great to be able to draw directly on the screen during the presentation. But they don't allow this easily. Without a hotkey for the pen tool I can't access it while in full screen. There doesn't seem to be a way for me to assign my own hotkey either. And though I can use ctrl+D to cycle through the comment tools and get to the pen, that's hardly convenient and the pen marks don't show up on the screen until you stop can't see the line as it's being drawn. Lame.

Adobe really needs to fix these obvious missing features. The x64 issue came up 3 years ago, and the lack of pen tool usage in full screen mode has been a problem for 5 or 6 years. What are they waiting for? Just do it already. You're only helping yourselves by resolving these issues as soon as possible.

Radio MC Stupidity


I don't like listening to the radio, so I never do it myself, but I am occasionally subjected to it in public places. There are lots of reasons to dislike radio listening: stations reply songs too often, stations play many bad songs, stations play annoying commercials, stations have sketchy reception thus producing static or cracks (even in cafes); but the reason I can't stand the radio is the abject stupidity and annoyance of the MCs and announcers. And in particular I am thinking about NPR because that is what is playing in the cafe where I am.

I like almost all the music I hear on NPR, and I get exposed to new and interesting music, but that does not compensate for having to put up with the moronic and lamely stylized announcers. Just now there was some ridiculously unimportant and uninteresting news blip purportedly reported from Berlin. To signal that this was a foreign correspondent they pushed the voice through some filters to make it sound softer, scratchier, echoier, and all together harder to hear and make out. Look you NPR dumb asses, this is the 21st century and I can Skype to a friend in the middle of the Brazilian rain forest via satellite and it's clear enough to hear birds chirping in the background. Am I to believe that you only have access to sub-Skype levels of technology to get your bullshit report from Germany? I don't...I'm not an idiot. And if I actually wanted to hear your crappy news reports I'd much rather it be intelligible rather than simulated to sound like it's coming through two cans connected by twine.

And that's just the most immediate example. It seems like every speaking role on the radio is stereotyped to a completely inane and annoying way of talking that both makes me cringe and turn it off. Like my intelligence and/or integrity is being insulted because they think I can only follow along if they dumb it down to massive head injury levels. Just talk. When a song is done (and not before it's done) just say in ordinary ways of talking what it is. If you sound canned and stilted and overly stylized then you sound fake and that is not an endearing feature. Quit the bullshit and just say it straight and keep it real.

Why Isn't Screen Resolution a Spec?


I look occasionally at laptops (that is, tablet PCs), cell phones, and computer monitors and I am always frustrated that the screen resolution is USUALLY not listed ANYWHERE. Specifically I was looking to get a HP TouchSmart computer. You can go to the manufacturer's website and look under specs and you'd expect that the resolution of the screen would be there...but isn't. It almost never is and that's just plain stupid. I mean the company is trying to sell me a piece of equipment and one of the most salient parts of my experience with that equipment is the screen resolution, so not telling me what that is is a deterrent to my purchasing it...and that's obviously a stupid sales approach.

Sometimes a site (or info tag in a store) will say the screen is something like 12.4". The problem with the physical size data is that it doesn't tell me how many pixels (i.e. how much information) I can display on the screen. The 10.4" monitor on my HP TC1100 tablet has the same resolution as a 30" 720p LCD TV. My 24" desktop monitor has better resolution (more pixels) than a 52" 1080p HD TV. So saying the number of inches does not tell you what you need to know. Of course you might want to know BOTH the physical size of the screen and the pixel dimensions. And perhaps the pixels per physical inch (which is a measure of image sharpness) would be something that more people would use to judge things if the data were readily available. I want all three, and I typically will calculate the pixel density from the other figures. Who could possibly be making, selling, or buying a computer and think that the physical screen size is sufficient to judge the value of the monitor...only complete idiots is who.

And sometimes a site or store will report that the screen is VGA or XGA or WXGA+ or something. These are specific screen pixel dimensions and so that series of numbers contains the information I want, but it's encoded in this mysterious arbitrary letter code. Some of those I remember because I look frequently enough, but most people don't know any. And there are so many different sizes for different devices that things like WXGA+ may be specific to two products in the whole world. That's not a standard!!! Those companies are helping anybody by putting that number instead of the actual screen pixel dimensions.

Every screen that is being listed anywhere needs to listed as "10.4" at 1024x786 px" or whatever the screen happens to be. And that's not even enough anymore because there are no more accepted standards on the relative sizes of the sides (i.e. aspect ratio). So the diagonal inches no longer provides sufficient information (it used to in the old CRT days). So really it has to be:

7.5" x 5.7" at 1024 x 786 px

And anything less is JUST WORTHLESS CRAP!!! Every listing on every site, store, info pamphlet, eBay listing, product catalog, anything needs to have the physical and pixel dimensions to minimally communicate the necessary size information.

p.s. to those who think that this level of information would just confuse consumers: you're friggin' STUPID!!! Compare that to the other details listed on standard spec sheet. This information is much more comprehensive, in fact it should be on the description shouldn't have to go to the spec sheet to get such basic and easily digestible information.

Ice Chewing is Horribly Annoying, Stop It!!!


This post is a response to a blog post I found on another blog A Random Web Page from April 2004. In that blog post a person was complaining about a noisy office worker and used a Dilbert cartoon on the same subject to demonstrate the point. I found this blog because I was searching for a different Dilbert comic where that same guy decides to try chewing crushed ice to annoy people and Google found this first. On this blog I complain about everything I hate (which is most things), but I also reserve a special place in my (black, rotten) heart for ice chewing and other slurp/crunch combinations.

I had the following advice, conceived of when I thought the post was current. It's probably still good advice. Personally, in his situation, I would be up front about it. Just tell her that her eating noises are very loud and disruptive. Tell your manager that sharing an office with the sow is destroying your productivity and your happiness. Managers care about your productivity, so you or she may very will get reassigned an office. If it's not that kind of situation then use earplugs and headphones and be curt with her so she gets the point. She may be too dense to get the point; after all, she is too dense to realize for herself that her behavior is intolerably annoying.

But anyway, there is a guy who hangs out in some of the same cafes that I do that gets iced tea and the first thing he does is use a spoon to slurp up the ice and chew it. Now, to start, this guy is already a mouth-breather (although I've never seen him drag his knuckles, conversations I've overheard indicate that such behavior is probable) and so naturally he chews the ice with his mouth open. I thought it was common knowledge that chewing ice is super-annoying to everybody around the chewer and that people did it only as a compulsion, a bad habit. I saw this guy get a cup of iced tea and and then commence the ice chewing while he simultaneously began flirting with the girl sitting next to him. Clearly this poor loser does not know that ice chewing is super-annoying. I was hoping to use the Dilbert cartoon to indirectly give him the message (by talking about it with somebody else in his vicinity). I'll keep hunting.

Maybe we need to do something to publicize these problems nationally. In the past we could just have a Seinfeld episode about it, but now? Maybe on the Daily Show.

About me

  • I'm Aaron Bramson
  • At the University of Michigan

  • This blog is an extension of my normal website ( where I used to post various articles in my critic's corner section. Using this blog provides easier maintenance, greater functionality, and a wider readership of my thoughts, opinions, and complaints about life and living it.

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