Skip to main content

Living in Japan

An essential guide to living in Japan

If you’re weighing up a move to Japan, you’ll want to know the ins and outs of life in the land of the rising sun. Much is eye-catching about the culture – from picturesque lakes and mountains to high-tech restaurants staffed by robots – but just as important are the everyday practicalities of transport, taxes and social etiquette. Read on for the key info to help you decide whether expat life in Japan is the best fit for you.

The cost of living in Japan

Japan sits at number 12 on the Numbeo Cost of Living Index, placing it in similar territory to Singapore and Hong Kong for expensiveness. However, it’s worth noting that the cost of living in Japan varies between cities. Tokyo and Nagoya come in at 33 and 49 on Numbeo’s city ranking, while Osaka, Japan’s third most populous city, is down at 93.

But there’s nuance to these rankings: a high overall score doesn’t mean everything is expensive. For Japan, the notable exception is rent – it’s far cheaper than most similarly ranked countries. Rent is, on average, 17% lower in Japan than in the UK and 35% lower than in Singapore. Similarly, restaurant meals work out cheaper than for Japan’s neighbours in the rankings. On the other hand, groceries in Japan are on the costly side, particularly compared to European destinations.

Next, let’s break down what all this means in terms of real money.

Rent

The national average cost of rent in Japanese cities ranges from ¥83,408 per month ($735/£545) for a one-bedroom apartment to ¥190,120 ($1,675/£1,242) for three-bedroom accommodation. Outside of the city, rent is considerably cheaper at ¥57,351 per month ($505/£375) for a one-bedroom apartment and ¥120,404 ($1,061/£787) for a three-bedroom apartment.

Groceries

The national average household spend on food and drink is ¥76,440 ($661/£488) per month for a household of two or more people. You’ll find better value at supermarkets like Ito Yokado and AEON than you would at convenience stores – especially if you opt for traditional, local goods rather than brightly packaged processed foods.

Taxes

Here’s a breakdown of what tax bands look like in Japan. For context, the average annual national salary is around ¥4.4 million (around $38,540).

Annual salary  Tax rate 
Below ¥1.95 million 5%
¥1.95 million - ¥3.3 million 10%
¥3.3 million - ¥6.95 million 20%
¥6.95 million - ¥9 million 23%
¥9 million - ¥18 million 33%
¥18 million - ¥40 million 40%
Over ¥40 million 45%

In addition, Japan applies a local income tax that usually amounts to 10% of your income in the previous year. Contributions to the national pension scheme are set at 9.15%, while state health insurance comes out at a standard premium of 4.92%. However, residents only become eligible for state health cover after 90 days in the country (beyond a year registration is compulsory), so international Private Medical Insurance is still recommended. 

There’s a 10% consumption tax for food and drink, and you may also be subject to gift and property taxes.

Transportation

Japan’s reputation for punctuality and efficiency extends to its transport system. You have plenty of options for travel by air, road, rail or water – but be prepared for rush-hour crowding.

Trains

Japan’s train network is clean, safe and very reliable. No surprise, then, that it’s one of the most popular ways of getting around. The iconic Shinkansen (or bullet train) runs like clockwork between Tokyo and Japan’s regional centres, reaching speeds of 300kmph. There are nine lines in total, all of which vary in length and max speed. That includes two ‘mini-shinkansens’, covering Morioka-Akita and Fukushima-Shinjo lines, which run on converted lines and cap out at a considerably slower 130kmph.

The umbrella company that runs the Shinkansen is called Japan Railways. Through them, you’ll be able to access rail card schemes to improve the affordability of the service. When you’re travelling, you’ll notice that most stations are helpfully bilingual, with signs in both Japanese and English. You’ll also find counters where you can easily book hotel reservations.

Metro

If you want to travel around a Japanese city, the metro is a good option. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Yokohama, Hiroshima and Nagoya all have advanced metro networks, helping you travel efficiently and safely around urban destinations.

Trams

In smaller cities like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Kagoshima and Kumamoto, trams remain a viable way of getting around. They’re particularly popular among tourists, and they usually offer an unlimited travel pass for the day.

Driving

While trains are hard to beat for intercity travel, journeying by car is your best bet for accessing rural areas. Expats from most countries are allowed to drive with an International Driving Permit. You can get one of these from your national automobile association, provided you have a driving licence.

Cars drive on the left in Japan, so if you’re from a country where right-sided driving is the norm, you’ll likely have a short adjustment period before it becomes second nature. Starting out, you might find it helpful to drive a little slower than usual and pay close attention when approaching roundabouts.

Speed limits tend to be 30-50kmph in urban areas, 80kmph in rural areas and 100kmph on highways. You’ll occasionally encounter toll roads, but mainly around large cities. Tolls are calculated based around how far you’ve travelled, so you’ll collect a ticket when entering a highway, which is then referenced when you pay.

Bus

Taking the bus is a cost-effective means of transport in Japan. However, long-haul buses and those that use the highways are significantly slower than trains. Many buses offer overnight services, allowing passengers to sleep through the long hours of an overland journey. The Japan Bus Pass will make your travel even cheaper.

Culture

Japanese culture varies from that of the West in a lot of interesting ways. While that’s a big part of the nation’s appeal, it can also contribute to the fear factor when moving. Fortunately, if you prep well enough beforehand there’s lots you can do to offset any potential culture shock. Here are the main things to know.

Etiquette

Manners are very important in Japan. Few traits are valued more highly than politeness, so adhering to the local customs will take you a long way.

In public (outdoors)

When out and about, be mindful of where you’re standing and avoid blocking people and traffic with your person and belongings. If you stop to take a photo, be sure you are not in anyone’s way. Do not take pictures of strangers without their permission, and if you do, do not post them online if their faces can be seen.

If you’re an expat in Japan, you may wonder why there are so few rubbish bins. The historical reasons relate to counterterrorism measures in the 90s: bins can be used to stow harmful devices, so the government took steps to remove most of them. Given this scarcity, it’s important to plan accordingly and hold onto any garbage until you return to your home or office.

In Japan, people generally don’t smoke or eat while walking. When you’re seated, it’s expected that you be mindful of other people’s space: never place your feet on a bench, bus seat or anywhere else that someone might sit.

In private (indoors)

When you’re entering someone’s home, always remove your outdoor footwear in the genkan (entrance) and leave them with the toes facing the door. The same rule can apply in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), temples and fortresses – although not always enforced, it is common courtesy to wear socks unless you are at home. Hosts will provide slippers for you to wear once you’re inside.

You should carry your luggage once inside a private home, rather than dragging or wheeling it across the floor.

Eating

When entering a restaurant, wait to be greeted with Irasshaimase (which means welcome, please come in) rather than seating yourself. You should also wait until everyone is seated before you have a drink. 

Avoid blowing your nose at the table, burping, or chewing loudly. Try to finish all of what you were served, as it’s considered polite to empty your plate. 

After the meal, restore the dishes to how they were at the beginning, replacing lids where necessary.

Work

In the workplace, bow to greet people instead of shaking their hands. If you are handing out or receiving a business card, ensure you hold it with both hands. You should also display newly received cards on your desk for a while before putting them away. Be especially courteous when entering rooms: in Japan it’s considered polite to knock three times.

Japan has a reputation for long working hours and employees taking very few days off even when they are entitled to do so. On average, workers take 52.4% of their entitled annual leave. National holidays (of which Japan has 16) are more widely observed, although many workers feel pressured to unofficially ‘catch up’ by working an additional day at the weekend.

Find out more about business etiquette in Japan to help you prepare for your future role.

National holidays

Ganjitsu (New Year’s Day) 1st January
Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) Second Monday of January
Kenkoku Kinen no Hi (National Foundation Day) 11th February
Tennō Tanōobi (The Emperor’s Birthday) 23rd February
Shunbun no Hi (Vernal Equinox Day) Usually 20th or 21st March
Shōwa no Hi (Shōwa Day) 29th April
Kenpō Kinebi (Constitution Memorial Day) 3rd May
Midori no Hi (Greenery Day) 4th May
Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day) 5th May
Umi no Hi (Marine Day) Third Monday of July
Yama no Hi (Mountain Day) 11th August
Keirō no Hi (Respect for the Aged Day) Third Monday of September
Shūbun no Hi (Autumnal Equinox Day) Usually 22nd or 23rd September
Taiiku no Hi (Health and Sports Day) Second Monday of October
Bunka no Hi (Culture Day) 3rd November
Kinrō Kansha no Hi (Labour Thanksgiving Day) 23rd November

Cuisine

Japan has a rich and diverse culinary culture. Traditional dishes include:

  • Sushi – This globally famed dish typically features Japanese rice flavoured with rice vinegar rolled in seaweed and stuffed with egg, raw seafood or vegetables.
  • Tempura – A range of vegetables, meat or fish covered in tempura batter and fried to create a crispy coating.
  • Miso soup – Soup made using miso paste and dashi broth, plus added toppings.
  • Udon noodles – Thick, chewy noodles typically made from wheat flour and brine.
  • Soba noodles – Noodles made from buckwheat flour and noted for their nutty flavour.
  • Ramen – A warming soup with ramen noodles, a thin noodle made from wheat, kansui, salt and water.
  • Yakitori – Skewered chicken typically seasoned with salt and tare (teriyaki) sauce.
  • Sashimi – Raw fish or meat served with daikon radish, pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce.
  • Donburi – A rice bowl usually made with gyudon (sliced beef, onion, soy sauce), tendon (tempura, tsuyu) and katsudon (breaded, deep-fried pork, onion, egg) or oyakodon (chicken, egg, green onion).
  • Natto – Fermented soybeans.
  • Oden – A type of Nabemono (a one-pot dish) featuring boiled eggs, fish cakes, daikon and konjac stewed in a dashi broth.
  • Tamagoyaki – A Japanese-style omelette.