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A Student's Guide to Living in Japan

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Key facts about Japan

  • The Head of state is Emperor Akihito, although his role is mainly ceremonial and the country is led by its Prime Minister, currently Shinzo Abe, who was elected at the end of 2012 after a landslide election win.
  • Japan has the world's third-largest economy and a population of over 126 million who lives mainly in cities on the coast of Japans 4 main islands.
  • Japan has a very varied landscape from large cities to snow-covered mountainous regions in the North and beaches in the South.
  • Japan remains a traditional society with strong social and employment hierarchies but this is changing as the younger generation becomes accustomed to Western culture. American and European companies can easily be seen in Japanese cities.
  • The official currency of Japan is the Yen (¥).
  • Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world but cities have been built with that in mind. For more information about earthquakes, see below.


Being such an enigmatic country, Japan merits some pretty extensive research as a country to live in before you board on the plane (preferably well before you start your PhD in Japan). It is advisable to gather as much information as you can so that you are well prepared, at least in theory. There are books you can buy, such as the British Chamber of Commerce’s Living in Japan but there are also countless resources online such as Japan-Guide or InterNations which has an “expat” guide to Japan. Luckily, we’ve already done quite a bit of the work for you!

You may think you know a lot about Japan, especially as Japanese art, cuisine and cinema is becoming much more accessible around the world but something that you will have to learn is Japanese etiquette. There is nothing that a little common sense and respect for other cultures wont sort out but it is advisable to familiarise yourself with the basics such as taking your shoes off when entering a house (and which slippers to wear to go to the bathroom), how to eat, sitting techniques, greetings... More information is available here.

Cost of living and accommodation

Japan is often considered an expensive country to live in and it can be true if you want to continue to live and eat as you do back home. Your monthly budget will depend on your lifestyle and also on where you decide to study. Tokyo is the most expensive but Kyushu and Tohoku can as much as 30% cheaper. When it comes to living expenses, accommodation and bills are likely to make up the bulk of your expenses, although here again there is wide variation.

Food and everyday life

Japanese food is a delight for those who love fresh ingredients; although in some cases it requires you to be a bit adventurous with your taste buds. Supermarkets are an experience in themselves but there is nothing like trial and error to find out what is on offer.

Food is much more affordable if you get used to the basic Japanese menu (noodles, rice, miso soup, cabbage). Fruit and dairy products can be expensive. The University of Tokyo has a list of indicative prices for food and other everyday items. University cafeteria and vending machines are a good option if you are on a budget or in a hurry.

Eating out does not have to be an expensive affair and there are plenty of affordable options such as ramen noddle or tempura fast food shops. In traditional restaurants, you will have to kneel or sit cross-legged at the table (and remove your shoes). Cheaper restaurants may have what seems like complicated ways of paying for the bill, for example by having to buy meal tickets at a vending machine. Just check when you enter and follow what the other customers are doing. Discovering a new culture, especially in Japan, will help you to sharpen those observation skills! Tipping is not customary, except in expensive Western-style restaurants.

One note of caution: Sushi restaurants can be very expensive. They are a gastronomic speciality which requires chefs to train for years (although you should try it once if you can afford it). Sushi is not a quick meal to grab on the go as you may have done at home, especially if you are from the UK or Australia.

Accommodation and utilities

Your accommodation options are not so different from other Asian countries. The main choice is between university accommodation and the private sector.

University accommodation

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. However, you may find yourself in residences where Japanese and international students live side-by-side, a great 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 between ¥25,000- ¥50,000 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 cleaning charges ( ¥9,000 one-off fee), internet access and utilities (around ¥10,000/month).
  • 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 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. Rent is between ¥30,000-¥90,000/month (depending on whether this is on a full-board basis or not). 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. The average monthly rent is between ¥20,000-¥100,000, sometimes inclusive of utilities. 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. Rents will be between ¥15,000-¥100,000 (exclusive of other charges and utilities) but flats are often unfurnished.


Foreigners in Japan can open an account in most Japanese banks. All you need is your passport and your residency card (see below in the immigration section). 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 cash dispensers (ATM machines) of your bank.
  • 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.

Visas and immigration

Once you have accepted an offer of admission, your university (as your proxy) can apply on your behalf for a Certificate of Eligibility for a Status of Residence, issued by Regional Immigration Bureaux in Japan. The University will send you this document which you can present to the Japanese embassy or consulate in your country of residence when you apply for your visa.

When you arrive in Japan, you will be granted “College Student” status by the immigration authorities (and this process is easier at the large Japanese airports). There are several periods of stay for full PhDs (depending on what information your university provides in the Certificate of Eligibility for a Status of Residence) from four years + three months, four years, three years + three months or three years, with shorter periods granted if you are a visiting doctoral researcher.

There is also the option to apply for your visa personally (without a Certificate of Eligibility for a Status of Residence) at the Japanese Embassy or Consulate in your home country. However, there is a longer processing time because documents have to be sent back and forth between your home country and Japan.

From 2012, holders of a “College Student” visa granted for more than 3 months no longer have to go through the “alien registration system”. You will be given a Resident Card, by your Regional Immigration Bureau, which you must carry at all times. If your details change, such as a change of course, institution or withdrawal from studies, you must inform a Regional Immigration Bureau. Another new thing from 2012, you are no longer required to apply for re-entry permit if you leave Japan temporarily (for example, to go on holiday or for conferences) as long as you indicate that you intend to come back when you are at the airport.

Students with families

With your College Student visa, you are allowed to bring your spouse and children who will be given Dependent status for a duration corresponding to the main visa holders period stay. It is, however, recommended that you think of settling in first before your family joins you in Japan.


The College 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 (the exception being if you are working as a research assistant or teaching assistant at your university, 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 and/or international office who may be able to suggest on-campus alternatives.

Health insurance

As an international student you will be asked to subscribe to a student health insurance scheme at enrolment in your university. The National Insurance Card you then get should be presented when receiving treatment in hospital or other healthcare providers, and you need only pay 30% of the total cost of treatment imposed by the Health Insurance Act. This is the same for prescription medication at pharmacies.

Seismic activity and alerts

The meteorological agency (JMA) provides alerts in case of predicted earthquakes. As soon as seismic activity is detected, alerts are issued along with safety advice. You can access these through the Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) or ?????? (Kinkyu Jishin Sokuho) in Japanese on the radio or the television. You can also register for mobile phone alerts.

Driving and transport

In cities

Large cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto have very efficient and relatively cheap metro/underground systems, the use of which is no more complicated than in Paris or London (actually thinking about it London which operates a zone system is probably more complex!). 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 dont 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 so 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. Using buses in Japan can be intimidating because displays or announcements are in Japanese. However, the most likely situation youll encounter is as follows:

  • Enter the bus through the back door (except in Tokyo where you enter via the front door!).
  • Take a ticket and locate the number on your ticket which is used to determine the fare you pay at your final destination (in some cities a flat fare applies regardless of the distance).
  • The numbers and fares appear on a digital board towards the front of the bus.
  • To request a stop, use the buttons on the wall and check your fare.
  • Show your ticket to the driver and pay (exact fare required) when you leave by the front door. Change machines are available if you dont have any.

Around Japan

Japan has one of the best and most efficient train systems in the world. For long distances, the bullet trains (Shinkansen in Japanese) are fantastic, although they can be pricey. Ferries are available between the islands but flying is the most efficient way to island-hop.

Travelling from and to airports is very easy using public transports. Taxis are very expensive and you could end up paying thousands of yens to go from Narita Airport to Tokyo centre since the airport is 70kms from the city.

Driving in Japan

If you intend to drive in Japan, you will have to have your driving licence translated (at a cost) by the embassy of the country where your licence was issued (i.e. at the Australian embassy for an Australian licence). You then have to go to a driving centre to have your licence converted to a Japanese one. The cost is on average ¥5,000 and you will have to take an eye test. For a motorbike licence, you will have to do a practical test.

Discovering Japan

Japan has a wealth of sites to visit, from temples and castles to museums and aquariums. Not so well known is that Japan is a great place to ski (two hours from Tokyo and you are on the slopes). Other attractions are wineries (where sake is made) and hot springs. Parks are plentiful and you will be able to indulge in most sports outdoors and indoors. Something NOT to be missed is the cherry blossom festival, across the country between April and May. For more information, click here.

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