Living in Japan – A Guide for PhD Students
Written by Mike Davies
Japan is a truly unique destination for adventurous PhD students, combining tradition and technology like few other countries. Also boasting the world’s third-largest economy, Japan makes for an exciting place in which to pursue a career in research.
This page will give you an introduction to student life in Japan, covering everything from culture and living costs to transport and accommodation.
PhD students in Japan will have plenty of opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of this fascinating country. Hosting over 200,000 international students, it’s one of the most popular study abroad destinations in the world – and with good reason.
Culture and tourism
Visitors to Japan are spoilt for choice when it comes to cultural attractions. In Tokyo– one of the world’s great megacities – you have such contrasting sights as the futuristic, neon-drenched neighbourhood of Shibuya, the ancient Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji and Tokyo Disneyland.
Elsewhere in Japan, the former capital of Kyoto is a major higher education centre and is home to many sacred shrines and temples and the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The gritty port city of Osaka is nationally famous for its cuisine and also the presence of a Universal Studios theme park.
Sport and leisure
There are many opportunities for nature-loving and sporty research students in Japan. The country’s mountainous terrain makes it a haven for winter sports enthusiasts, particularly in the northern region of Hokkaido. Down south, the tropical Okinawa Islands are perfect for scuba diving and snorkelling.
Food and drink
Getting to experience authentic Japanese cuisine will likely be one of the highlights of your time in Japan. The supermarket sushi that you may have sampled back home will pale in comparison to the ultra-fresh sushi you’ll be able to try all over Japan. Other staples include ramen, tempura and unagi river eel.
In terms of drink, the rice-based liquor sake is popular across the country, as well as beer produced by one of Japan’s main breweries. Tea-drinkers are well catered for in Japan, with green and matcha varieties widely available.
When looking for student accommodation in Japan, the main choice you’ll make is between university accommodation and the private sector.
Most universities in Japan will have a stock of rooms and flats reserved for international students. Rents are lower but availability can be limited. PhD students will often have access to accommodation which is reserved for international graduate students and (visiting) researchers, which can be great for networking. You may also find yourself in residences where Japanese and international students live side-by-side, a good way to find out more about Japanese culture. Whatever your university, make sure that you apply as soon as possible (and before the deadline).
Monthly rent is an average of ¥38,000 (USD $255), but will vary depending on the type of room (the lowest being for dormitory-type accommodation) and your university.
En-suite or shared facilities are available. Accommodation for couples can be found in some of the largest universities such as Tokyo but university accommodation for families is rare.
There will be additional costs to take into account such as a monthly maintenance fees, internet access and utilities.
Residency is generally limited to one year so you will have to look at other options for the remainder of your PhD.
Private sector accommodation
Private accommodation means private student accommodation, guesthouses, shared flats or renting on your own. Each type of accommodation will offer different packages to suit your own preferences. When renting through an estate agent, you will be required to have a guarantor, a person who takes financial and moral responsibility for you and the payment of your rent.
If you do not know anyone in Japan, then your international office may provide a guarantor system (generally the Head of the international office). In turn, they may require that you have a renters insurance policy such as the Comprehensive Renters Insurance for Foreign Students Studying in Japan provided by the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) to cover risks such as fires and other damages. A deposit of up to five times your monthly rent may also be required by estate agents.
- Private student accommodation – Rental costs are often higher than for university-owned accommodation but they can include everything (even meals) so aren't always a bad option. Some student accommodation companies also offer a housemate service to help you find other people to live with in shared apartments owned by those companies.
- Guesthouses – These are an inexpensive option for long-term stays. Most guesthouses are managed by individual owners, although there are companies operating in this area (with some having a foreigner-only policy). Guesthouses are fully furnished and generally ready to move into, although they may not be the most modern and well-equipped. The traditional guesthouses come as shared accommodation (where kitchen and bathroom are shared) but more and more are available as private flats. They are a good way to experience Japanese everyday life.
- Renting on your own – This is the most variable option and also one that will require a guarantor. Private rented apartments can cost an average of anything between ¥24,000 (USD $161) and ¥50,000 (USD $335) per month depending on the area.
Japan can be an expensive place in which to live and study – especially in central areas of Tokyo – but if you budget carefully and learn the best places to find a bargain you should be able to live comfortably during your time there. Tokyo is indeed one of the most expensive cities in the world, but places outside the capital can be relatively affordable.The Japanese government estimates that the average monthly living cost of an international student in Japan is ¥93,000 (USD $624).
Prices in Japan
This table should give you an idea of some typical student expenses in Japan.
Student Cost of Living in Japan - 2023
||¥1000 (USD $6.71)
||¥1,800 (USD $12)
|Monthly Travel Pass
||¥5,450 (USD $36.5)
||¥22,132 (USD $148)
|Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.
The ‘Student’ status of residence is granted for the sole purpose of studying and as such does not permit work. If you would like to work part-time you must apply for a ‘Permission to Engage in Activities other than that Permitted under the Status of Residence Previously Granted’ through your Regional Immigration Bureau (exceptions apply if you are working as a research assistant or teaching assistant at your university, which are activities regarded as part of your studies).
International students are allowed to undertake a maximum of 28 hours a week. Realistically, it would be difficult to do more than a few hours of part-time work a week without compromising your doctoral research. If it is a financial imperative, make sure you speak to your supervisor or international office, who may be able to suggest on-campus alternatives.
Foreigners in Japan can open an account in most Japanese banks. All you need is your passport and your residency card. You may also be asked to show evidence that you are enrolled at a Japanese institution. The main things to know about banking in Japan are as follows:
- On opening an account you will receive an account booklet where all your banking transactions will be recorded. Japanese banks do not send statements. You can check your balance online or by updating your booklet at automatic bank tellers (where you can also do bank transfers).
- After opening an account you will receive a bank card which may only allow withdrawals at your bank’s ATMs.
- Banks are normally open from 9.00am-3.00pm and closed at the weekend. Cash dispensers may be accessible only at set times (not necessarily 24 hours) so make sure you know the opening times. In large cities, it should be relatively easy to find a cash dispenser.
Getting around Japan is convenient and fast, thanks to the country’s well-developed network of high-speed trains. Japanese metro systems are famously efficient, while bikes are a popular method of travel for people from all walks of life.
Japan is well-known for its shinkansen bullet trains that reach up to 320 km/h and connect most major cities. There are also many slower private train companies linking smaller towns and cities across the country. Please note that the famous Japan Rail Pass is only available to foreigners who are in Japan on a tourist visa, so international PhD students won’t be eligible for one.
There are several airlines offering domestic flights between Japan’s islands and cities, and these are sometimes cheaper – not to mention faster – than the equivalent train service.
Large cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto have very efficient and relatively cheap metro systems, the use of which is no more complicated than in Paris or London. Ticket machines can display the information in English. The ticket you get is only available on that day from that station and will remain valid as long you don’t leave the metro system (which means you can change metro lines until your final destination). The only difficulty in Tokyo is that there are two metro networks which run in parallel but for which basic tickets are not interchangeable – make sure you get the right ticket (or separate tickets for each network). Monthly passes are also available and worth it if you travel a lot around the city.
In cities with a metro system, buses can be useful but are secondary means of transportation, while in smaller cities they are the main transport system.
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